Sunday, September 25, 2011

Funeral Fund for Troy Davis

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Although the State of Georgia has yet to release his body, Troy Davis's family is solely bearing the burden of funeral expenses following his execution last Wednesday. If you are so inclined, you can make a donation via PayPal to help them cover these costs.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Troy Davis, Joe Hill, and the Politics of Mourning/Organizing

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As readers of this blog will undoubtedly know, the state of Georgia executed Troy Anthony Davis at 11:08 pm EST last night. His death is the tragic culmination of a massive grassroots campaign, led largely by Troy's family, committed to halting his execution. I won't belabor the details, but his case for innocence is positively overwhelming--so much so that as unlikely a figure as a former FBI director called for clemency.

Earlier in the evening yesterday, I attended a remarkable and inspiring event at the Reuther Library on Wayne State's campus. The Reuther is home to the nation's largest and most comprehensive archives on labor and urban studies. On this particular evening, Bill Adler led a discussion surrounding his new biography of IWW icon Joe Hill. Executed in 1915, Hill faced a Utah firing squad in spite of a virtually non-existent prosecutorial case against him. Adler dedicates a signifcant portion of his book to deconstructing the state's dubious claims, adding credence to the claim that Hill's was a political execution designed to silence his union activism with the IWW.

There are obvious differences between the Davis and Hill cases. Davis and his family only became politically active when his life was literally on the line, though they quickly came to recognize how their story was fundamentally linked to all the tragedies that unfold in the prison-industrial complex. Hill, on the other hand, remains the IWW's most important songwriter and, by most measures, patron saint. Both, however, are martyrs to a fundamentally broken criminal justice apparatus.

Troy Davis's case received unprecedented levels of international attention. If there is a silver lining in this dark cloud of state killing (or lynching), it lies in the possibility that death penalty abolitionists will orient their outrage and disappointment toward ending capital punishment. Such a hope is beautifully embodied in Joe Hill's "Last Will," written shortly before his execution:

My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don't need to fuss and moan--
"Moss does not cling to a rolling stone."
My body? Ah, if I could choose,
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final will,
Good luck to all of you.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Schools and Prisons

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My kids went back to school last week and this sparked some reflections on how lucky they are. The schools they attend are fairly well-funded, diverse, warm learning environments. Most of the children who attend these schools will go on to college, and they are treated from the start as creative, independent, valuable human beings by the staff and teachers.

This is not the case for a vast number of students across the country. Many schools, particularly those in urban or poverty-stricken areas, are run like prison training facilities, with rigid “zero-tolerance” policies, panopticon-like supervision, harsh “security” policies, and rote instruction meant only to prepare students for standardized tests or low-level service careers.

My kids are privileged. They are privileged by race and class, and one of them is privileged by virtue of gender. In their schools they are offered opportunities to explore their identities, and to become creative, thinking, agents. I feel so fortunate that my children will have these opportunities and that their schooling will be a positive, nurturing experience. But I also can’t help thinking about the millions of children who are trapped in the school to prison pipeline that Erica Meiners writes eloquently about in her book, The Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies (Routledge, 2007).

I urge every parent/citizen to read Meiners’ expose. Whether your kids are lucky, like mine, or trapped in the type of oppressive environments that Meiners analyzes, her revelations will enrage you, and, just possibly, spur you to take action to transform the way we are “educating” millions of students.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Arizona DOC's New Fundraising Gambit

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We must always be attentive to the financial aspects of incarceration, on both the institutional and personal registers. Over the next few months, I am going to be sharing a series of posts about prison and political economies, on topics including the trend to privatization, prisoners’ labor, and the rhetorical pitfalls and possibilities of using economic rationales to advocate for prison and legal reforms.

Miles, guards, and cell doors aren’t the only barriers separating people who are incarcerated from their families and friends. The cost of visiting—whether wages lost by taking off work, or the price of travel—can be prohibitive for many.

Arizona has just added to the financial toll by instituting a $25 “background check fee” for anyone over 18 who wants to visit someone incarcerated in the state. (The New York Times article is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/05/us/05prison.html?_r=1&ref=us)

To summarize, the state passed legislation allowing the Department of Corrections to issue this charge (and to charge a 1% fee on money deposited into prisoners’ spending accounts). The DOC requires visitors to pay the $25 via Western Union or to send a money order, and when payment is made the applications for visitation will be processed. The DOC is authorized to charge the fee one time per visitor.

These “background check fees” aren’t for background checks. All visitors already had to provide personal identification information, and Arizona’s Department of Public Safety already offers free background checks for people who submit their fingerprints. The fees are a ‘creative’ way to raise funds for prison maintenance and repairs. The state of Arizona has a $1.6 billion budget deficit this year, and according to Wendy Baldo, chief of staff for the state Senate, the DOC “needs about $150 million” that the state can’t provide.

The Times reports that an Arizona prison advocacy group called Middle Ground Prison Reform (www.middlegroundprisonreform.org) has filed suit against the DOC on the grounds that this fee is tantamount to a discriminatory tax on a single group, because it’s intended generate revenue “for general public purposes” but only takes money from people who are directly impacted by incarceration.

Barrett Marson, an AZDOC spokesman, claims that “no complaints [about the fees] have been reported from inmates.” Marson also claims that the fee “helps to ensure our prisons remain safe environments for staff, inmates, and visitors.” There are two important rhetorical themes that frequently recurr in discourse about prisons evident in Marson’s comments: silence and safety.

Construing the absence of complaints as an indicator of acceptance, or even endorsement, is a false and misleading supposition. It glosses over the ways in which prisons actively silence the people who are held within—the implicit threat of retribution for complaints is real, and the lack of access to communication channels is real. (Bryan recently posted about Facebook’s decision to shut down inmates’ pages, and this Times article about the Arizona fees does not feature any prisoners’ voices.) “They aren’t complaining” is not an acceptable justification for imposing yet another hardship upon incarcerated people and their families and friends.

And the operational definition of “safety” that Marson uses entails containment, separation, and control. This is a rhetorical attempt to obscure the harm done to incarcerated individuals, their loved ones, the communities they are part of, and the nation as a whole by the American prison industrial complex. Marson’s remark exemplifies the idea that the condition of safety will be derived from an updated, enlarged building of cells.

A more moral and inclusive definition of safety recognizes that the condition could result from a more merciful and flexible code of drug laws, action to quell institutionalized racism in policing and sentencing, and more community integration and support for people who break the law. As David C. Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, remarks in this Times article, “We know that one of the best things you can do if you want people to go straight and lead a law-abiding life when they get out of prison is to continue family contact while they’re in prison.” Making visitation harder by imposing fees like the one in Arizona is not a viable strategy for pursuing “safety.”

Middle Ground reports that this fee appears to be the first of its kind anywhere in the U.S., but given the number of states suffering from budget shortfalls and the high financial cost of incarceration, I don’t think it will be the last. As a community of activists and educators, we cannot afford be silent about such issues.

Please consider writing to the Arizona DOC and making a complaint about the fee. The Media Relations office for the AZDOC can be reached at media@azcorrections.gov and the director’s name is Charles L. Ryan.

Please consider supporting Middle Ground Prison Reform in their lawsuit against the DOC. You can join the organization or make a contribution by visiting this page: http://www.middlegroundprisonreform.org/join/index.html
Director Donna Leone Hamm can be reached here: middlegroundprisonreform@msn.com

Saturday, September 3, 2011

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The new issue of Peace Review (volume 23, issue 3) is dedicated to prison issues and social justice. It includes articles by Helen Codd, Laura Magnani, Bonnie Kerness of the American Friends Service Committee, and, um, me. My article, "The Alternatives to Violence Project's Work for Peace Behind Bars," talks about the AVP organization's work in transforming conflict and my own experiences with it. It can be found here.