Thursday, February 24, 2011

More at Change.org

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Wendy Jason and the other dedicated reporters at Change.org have done a lot of great coverage recently on prison issues for this website. They cover a variety of topics, including: prison reform, death penalty, police abuse, prison conditions, criminal justice in the media, juvenile justice, alternatives to incarceration, etc.

You can read her article on the Alternatives to Violence Project at the link below. That's a nonviolent conflict transformation organization I've been associated with since 2006. We do weekend workshops in which people learn to deal with others in healthier ways. Most of the programs are held in prisons, but some also take place in schools, companies, or community settings. There are branches all across the country and the world. Here's where to read about more about the program:
http://news.change.org/stories/the-alternatives-to-violence-project-a-path-towards-peace

"Imprisonment of a Race" Conference in NJ

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On March 25, 2011, Princeton University is hosting a free conference titled Imprisonment of a Race. This one-day conference will focus on the prison system in both historical and present day contexts through the lens of race. Imprisonment of a Race will feature two panel discussions and a keynote conversation. Keynote speakers include Princeton Professor Cornel West and Michelle Alexander, Associate Professor of Law at Ohio State University and author of the recent book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." This event is open to the public, but registration is required. To register, go here: http://www.princeton.edu/africanamericanstudies/events/imprisonment/register/

To raise awareness of prison issues in advance of the conference, Princeton is also holding a documentary film series. Unfortunately, the film series is only open to Princeton ID card holders, but here are the titles, which were new to me: "Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment" (2004), "Eastern State: Living Behind the Walls" (2008), and "Concrete Steel & Paint," (2009).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

New Post from Stephen Hartnett

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Dear PCARE friends:


For the past twenty years, an ever-growing network of educators, activists, scholars, and artists has argued that the prison-industrial complex is a monstrous failure. While wasting billions of tax dollars on ill-conceived “Get Tough on Crime” policies, including especially the so-called War on Drugs, the prison system has reproduced the worst racial stereotypes and militarized policing patterns. The readers of this blog are of course familiar with these critiques and can add details and nuances to such arguments. But what we need now are answers: practical solutions for moving the argument forward. And so I want to recommend three recent contributions that help us move away from critical work towards creative work, from dissenting against the flawed system toward assenting to a better world, from lashing out at what is broken to journeying toward what we know works.


First, let me direct our blog readers to Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Administration and Congress, a new report by The Sentencing Project. The report contains common-sense proposals for reforming the worst abuses and excesses of the prison system. Written in clear prose, marshaling irrefutable evidence, and speaking in the tones of Washington D.C. policy reformers, the report offers the kinds of practical answers that we can use when meeting with legislators, the media, and other constituencies.


Second, let me direct readers to Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre, a wonderful new collection of essays edited by PCARE’s own Jonathan Shailor. As in his other works, this book offers a series of gorgeous case studies of how artists and educators have gone into prisons and used theater as a means of exploring, building, and supporting new routes to engaged citizenship.


Third, let me direct readers to Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, and Educational Alternatives, a new anthology of essays, including works by Buzz Alexander, Robin Sohnen, Lori Pompa, Garrett Albert Duncan, Jonathan Shailor, Erica Meiners, Daniel Larson, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, Travis Dixon, and Roze Braz and Myesha Williams. Five of these ten chapters include step-by-step advice for reproducing some of the most successful prison arts and activism projects in the country. The book also includes ten poems by imprisoned writers and ten beautiful color plates of images made by imprisoned artists.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Between Angela Davis and a Hard Place

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Friday morning, January 21st. For only the second time since I have known him, I visited my friend on Oregon's death row. We spoke about his story, his path to prison, the system and how hard it is to hold on to humanity within it. And we spoke about holding on.

Friday evening, January 21st. For only the second time since I have known her work, I heard Angela Davis deliver a presentation. She spoke at a private University, not even a few miles from the State Penitentiary where I had been that morning with Gary. She challenged us to "widen the angle of our vision" when thinking about justice and prisons.

In Are Prison's Obsolete? (a tiny little book that everyone should read -- on the train, on the can, between classes, in whatever small time one might make for big ideas), Davis writes:

“On the whole, people tend to take prisons for granted. It is difficult to imagine life without them. At the same time, there is reluctance to fact the realities hidden within them, a fear of thinking about what happens inside them. Thus, the prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is absent from our lives. To think about this simultaneous presence and absence is to begin to acknowledge the part played by ideology in shaping the way we interact with our social surroundings. We take prisons for granted but are often afraid to face the realities they produce.” (Davis, 2003, p. 15).

Through my relationship with a death row inmate, I have come to experience the realities of my life outside of prison differently as well as perceive the realities hidden within prisons such as the State Penitentiary, where he has lived since he was 19 years old, differently. The result is paradoxical and I am reminded of Davis’s assertion that we can, we must, hold such things in tension with each other and acknowledge the complexity. My life is richer and more joyous for the perspective our relationship has brought yet also much darker and more cynical for it. For he is not one of those innocents exonerated (138 and counting) nor already executed. His crime was horrific and brutal yet I cannot deny the way both society and the state have failed, time and time again, to provide any opportunity for stability, rehabilitation and restorative justice for those who loved his victims. And the latter begs the question of what might have come of this otherwise intelligent, compassionate man (or what might still become of him) were the systems into which he was placed different.

But, instead, as Davis again points out:

“The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs – it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.” (Davis, 2003, p. 16).

Follow the steps of these sisters and brothers on the blog. So many are doing the work in collective, communal ways – teaching classes, publishing poetry, activating communities. If you have not yet taken a first step, reach out. Contact any one of the numerous organizations in your state or region. Follow this blog and check out resources like the Prison Activist Resource Center (www.prisonactivist.org). Begin rethinking prisons, prisoners, and our civic responsibility to create a world that does not produce prisons and prisoners, in order to, as Audre Lorde put it, “sustain a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.”