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In Rio with Teatro na Prisaõ, or Romeo and Juliet Live to See Another Day

9 Jul

Knowing that we wouldn’t be able to take anything but our passports into the prison with us today, we weren’t able to take our cameras to get pictures of our latest adventures.  This photo was taken a few days ago when Liz Raynes was

100_1707standing in front of the Shakespeare mural which adorns the side of UniRio’s theatre building.  This image is apropos for this post because our morning was spent watching the Bard’s work get reinterpreted by incarcerated women.

We rose early today in order to eat breakfast and get to UniRio’s campus by 7:45 AM to meet Professor Natália Fiche and her students.  Fiche and the Teatro na Prisaõ program have been doing theatre work in prisons for the last fifteen years.  Every Tuesday the program goes into two prisons on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro–one women’s facility and one men’s.  We visited the women’s prison this week and will go to the men’s next week.

When we arrived at the prison, we got off the bus while those who were headed to the men’s prison continued on to another location.  Fiche and five of her students led us to a large metal gate where a guard slid open a small panel just large enough for him to look through.  Then he opened up a door in the gate and admitted us two at a time, searching the large bags of costumes that the UniRio students carried with them as he admitted them.  Andy, Flores, and I were near the back of the group, and as those in front of us were being admitted through the door, the guard decided that Andy and Hector would not be allowed to enter because they were wearing shorts–albeit long ones.  Someone dug through the costumes and found two pairs of stretch pants that they could wear.  Both pairs of pants were bright pink, but the guys were very good sports about wearing them for our visit to the prison.  The guards confiscated the offending shorts and held them at the front gate until the end of our visit.

Professor Fiche told us that they had never given her a problem about people wearing shorts before.  Apparently, prisons all over the world have this in common; the dress code seems to shift often and arbitrarily so that visitors cannot possibly keep up with the rules.  We face this all the time in the United States.  In fact, during the last year when my family members have visited my father in a Texas prison, the dress code for female visitors has become much more highly regulated than ever before.  Now when the guards decide that a woman’s clothes are too tight or low cut, have too much writing on them, or are deemed unfit for any other reason, they force women to wear blue hospital gowns over their clothes.  Visitors to prisons, particularly wives and girlfriends visiting their loved ones, tend to want to look their best and have often been very careful in dressing themselves for the precious few hours they can spend with the people they love.  My mother and I have witnessed at least two women forced to wear the hospital gowns burst into tears when the men they loved arrived in the visiting room; the women’s shame and grief becomes palpable to all visiting families around them.  If Andy or Hector were ashamed of their makeshift outfits today, they did not show it.  They laughed good-naturedly about the incident and moved right along with their day.  In this case, the shaming force that prisons often inflict upon their inhabitants and visitors did not spoil our trip.

Once we got inside the prison gate, a guard took our passports, asked us to sign the visitor’s log book, and had us walk through a metal detector.  We then followed another guard across a courtyard and into a cement building.  The room in which Teatro na Prisaõ meets is concrete on all surfaces, like the rest of the building, and has a small raised stage at one end.  The dozen or so incarcerated women in the group welcomed the UniRio students, Professor Fiche, and even us visitors with smiles and hugs.  Those of us who have done work in U.S. prisons were surprised to see that even with a guard in the room, male volunteers and female prisoners were allowed to hug without repercussions.  All of the guards we saw beyond the front gate were women, and at least one of them stayed in the back of the room the whole time we were there to watch what was going on.  We gathered from the UniRio students that this is not usually the case; during their regular workshops, the guards don’t bother to watch.  Because we were there visiting from abroad, the workshop was not only watched by a guard but also visited by the warden.  Professor Fiche had previously received approval over email to video record  today’s workshop, and she had set up a tripod with a camera on it at the start of the workshop.  The warden came into the workshop shortly after we got started to tell Fiche that she was denied permission to film after all.

Teatro na Prisaõ uses both improvisatory games based on theatre of the oppressed and traditional theatrical scripts as starting points for its work.  In the past they have not held performances for audiences but have done theatre exercises strictly for themselves within the space of the workshop.  Now Professor Fiche is working to try to gain permission from the prison authorities to allow the women to perform twice: once for their families and once for the other women in the prison.  Whether or not they will be able to do this, they are currently in rehearsals for an original devised performance based on Romeo and Juliet.

The UniRio students and incarcerated women set up chairs to make an audience for us visitors, and they put a small partition upstage right.  This served as an area for costume changes and also became Juliet’s balcony when she would poke her head over the top of the partition to talk to Romeo.  The women had a great time with the costumes that the UniRio folks had brought, and I have to say that the costumes themselves were very diverse and rather impressive–well worth the women’s enthusiasm.  They even had makeshift swords made out of paper machê for the fight scenes.

While the women were trying on costumes and the debate over filming the workshop was happening, we had some time to talk to the workshop participants before they began their rehearsal.  One woman told me about her five children, two of whom have died.  Of the remaining three, two live with her mother.  In my limited Portuguese, I didn’t understand what she was telling me about the whereabouts of the third child, but it seemed important to this woman that we know that she had a life and family beyond the walls of the prison.

This workshop is using the story of Romeo and Juliet but not Shakespeare’s text–even in Portuguese translation.  The UniRio folks have given the women a basic outline of the plot, and the women improvise scenes using Shakespeare’s characters and plot–or at least as much of the plot as they liked.

This particular adaptation of Romeo and Juliet begins on the streets of Verona where the Montagues and Capulets are sizing each other up for a fight.  This opening scene was very funny because one actor in particular (I believe she was a Capulet) was doing such a good job of goading her opponents with gestures and facial expressions.  As in Shakespeare’s original, Prince Escalus (the lead government official in Verona) appears and stops the fight with a speech about keeping the peace.  The rival families dispersed with another round of intimidating looks and hand motions.

Then the whole cast attends the masquerade ball at the Capulet residence.  Everyone appeared in sequined mardi gras masks and danced to baile funk music as though they were at a modern day nightclub.  The cast was obviously having a great time and seemed surprised and excited by this choice of music.  The UniRio students had brought a small boom box and played a number of selections of background music at different points in the play.  Apparently in prior rehearsals, they’d been playing more classical dance music, and the women in the workshop found it boring and wouldn’t do much dancing.  With baile funk as their inspiration, the dance party became a whole lot of fun for the cast and audience alike.

Romeo and Juliet fall in love at the dance, and when Romeo leaves the party, he is so overjoyed that his happiness is positively contagious.  He runs to his friends to sing Juliet’s praises and then collapses in a lovelorn heap downstage center to contemplate the many virtues of his love.  Juliet’s head pops up over the partition in the back of the stage, and she begins a soliloquy about Romeo’s virtues.  He quickly leaps to his feet and runs to stand beneath her balcony.  They have an enthusiastic exchange and run off shortly thereafter to be wed by the friar.  The two women playing Romeo and Juliet were allowed to share what appeared to be a pretty decent kiss, albeit with Juliet’s wedding veil between them–a level of physical contact that I would not expect to be allowed in prison theatre in the U.S.

At this point in the story, we encounter a most excellent bit of comedy along with a casting change.  In order to give more women the opportunity to have significant roles, a new actor takes over for Juliet just after the marriage scene.  An UniRio student named Paolo had been telling me about the double casting before we arrived at the prison.  He referred to the first actor as “the long haired Juliet” and the second as “the short haired Juliet.”  The long haired Juliet played the character as demure and a bit shy, while the short haired Juliet was far more outgoing and demonstrative in her love of Romeo.  The first time we see the short haired Juliet, she is helping Romeo to sneak into her bedroom so that they can consummate their wedding night.  She darts out from behind the upstage right partition, grabs Romeo by the arm, and drags him into her bedroom.  A number of actors were hidden behind the partition, and they enacted Romeo and Juliet’s love making by throwing articles of clothing into the air along with whoops and shouts.  We, the audience, loved it.

Romeo emerges from the wedding night all aglow with his love for Juliet and stumbles into the street fight that kills both Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin) and Mercutio (Romeo’s dear friend).  Then Juliet distraught by this news takes a sleeping potion to fake her death.  Romeo finds her, believes her to be dead, and then proceeds to get falling down drunk.  (The women unanimously disliked Shakespeare’s ending to the tragedy and decided to change it.)  Romeo passes out, and Juliet is first worried that Romeo is dead, then very irritated at Romeo for having gotten drunk.  She shakes him awake and forces him to his feet where he stumbles around still drunk and trying to explain himself, yet overjoyed by Juliet’s unexpected recovery.  The families reconcile.  Another baile funk dance party ensues.  Curtain call.

After the applause died down, the women and UniRio facilitators cleared away our chairs and formed a circle.  Not only did they include all of us in their circle, they deliberately spaced themselves between us so that each visitor held hands on both sides with an incarcerated woman.  The music began again, and one of the UniRio students jumped into the circle and started dancing.  We all cheered.  He pulled one of the incarcerated women into the middle of the circle and then exited to rejoin the group so that the woman in the middle could have the spotlight.  We danced this way for quite a while, each person in the middle bringing a new person into the center of the circle before exiting to rejoin the group.  Then we held hands again, and Prof. Fiche talked to the members of the group about how important their weekly attendance at the workshop is.  A short discussion ensued, and then we broke the circle.  Out of what felt like nowhere, a table appeared with food and drinks that the UniRio students had brought with them to the prison, and we were all encouraged to eat and drink as we mingled and talked about the performance.  When the food and drink were gone, we all hugged and thanked one another before we left–the women heading off into a different area of the prison as we made our way back to the front gate to reclaim Hector and Andy’s confiscated shorts.

We gathered at a little store across the street from the prison, shared more refreshments, and petted a very friendly stray cat while we waited for the UniRio bus to return from the men’s prison to collect us.  On the hour-long bus ride back, the UniRio students and Prof. Fiche shared snacks with us and much conversation about the theatre work that each of us do, both inside and outside prisons.  Someone produced a tambourine from a backpack and played it expertly as all the UniRio students sang loudly in Portuguese.  We arrived back at the university full of good spirits.  We had planned to meet up with this group again on campus two days from now for their weekly Thursday class in which they plan their activities for the coming week’s workshop at the prison, but as part of the nationwide demonstrations and protests in which many Brazilians are currently engaged, all teachers and students at public schools, including those at UniRio, will be on strike this Thursday.  Fortunately we’ll be here another week and can attend a Thursday class after our trip to the men’s prison next Tuesday.

For now, we’re left to ponder this Romeo and Juliet who chose to live rather than die.  When Jodie and I traveled to Cuba shortly after the release of our book in 2011, we saw the Ballet Nacional de Cuba perform a version of Swan Lake in which the swan Odette not only survives but marries Sigfried and has a big dance in which the chorus of swans become ladies in waiting.  After seeing both this take on Romeo and Juliet inside a Brazilian prison and the Cuban Swan Lake, I cannot keep from wondering if unexpected happy endings are signs of resistance.  When one cannot secure one’s own freedom from incarceration or an oppressive government, then perhaps imagining worlds in which Romeo, Juliet, and Odette can overcome their previously inevitable tragedies gives performers and audiences alike a sense of hope.  We cannot always escape the devastating situations in which we find ourselves, but, like another great character from classical drama–Segismundo in Calderon de la Barca’s La vida es sueño–at least we can dream, especially when we’re in the theatre.

Addendum to Day Two in Rio Post–Thoughts from Sarah Thompson

7 Jul

100_1676Here’s another photo from the start of our journey to the favela yesterday in the UniRio van.  From left to right, you’ll see Liz Raynes, Jodie Lawston, Sarah Thompson, and me.  After I posted my reflections on yesterday’s adventures, I received a very thoughtful email from Sarah, adding her impressions of what we saw in Maré (and teaching me how to add accents to words in my blog posts!).  Sarah has been a real gift to us on this trip because as a recently graduated Latin American Studies major from the University of Michigan (Way to go, faculty at LACS and the Brazil Initiative for doing such an excellent job of training students!), she speaks excellent Portuguese and is on her third trip to Brazil.  She has been serving as translator for those of us with limited language skills, and she knows a great deal about local customs and culture, including practical things like how and where to catch the bus.  As you will shortly see from her comments on our time in Maré, she is an excellent critical thinker with much compassion and insight.

Sarah’s response to my blog post from yesterday begins with a reference to an art exhibit that Isabella Porto described to us.  The Crossing Rio exhibition took place at the Centro de Artes de Maré and used art to try to bridge the gaps between various communities in Rio.  Here’s what Sarah wrote:

Anything I’d add would be about the idea of Crossing Rio and combining the two cities, the South Zone (where we are) and the North Zone (where Maré is). As a student of urban development, I found it fascinating to learn that that was the focus of the previous art exhibition, as well as the proposed theme of the play at the end of the year [devised by the children in the second workshop we saw, the one at the Centro de Artes de Maré]. Particularly poignant was how this linking of geography through the barriers of socioeconomic class, quality of life, and so many things also came through the lens of using history, linking past and present. I think I already commented to you about this a little but but I found it so great how they were using the past, like the case of the Revolta da Vacina [one of the historical events featured in the second workshop's play], to make the children reflect on, and think critically about, the protests today. There were tons of moments like the girl saying that she just submitted herself to the power at the expense of her friends without thinking. I saw it in that group but even in the children’s group [at the third workshop in the hospital]– part of the protests have been against Rede Globo, the media monopoly, and by using the newspaper clippings and ending with a discussion encouraging the kids to take liberty with their scenes and use the facts to build a story, pointing out this is what the media does anyway, is a really subtle way to get them thinking politically. And about their own role in the story. It seemed to all be about making sure the residents of Maré, who like all favela residents have been told by the government for generations that they are off the grid, a blemish on the city of Rio, making sure that they understand how much they are a legitimate part of this world, significant in quantity and perspective. So cool.

Thank you, Sarah, for these reflections!

More on our time in Rio soon!  A group of us are going tonight to see a production of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard in Portuguese!

Corrections Corporation of America exploits tax loophole

22 Apr

The front page of this morning’s New York Times describes the latest move in the Corrections Corporation of America’s unceasing efforts to find new ways to make money on the backs of prisoners.  They have found a giant loophole in U.S. tax law that enables them to avoid all federal taxes by declaring themselves a real estate trust.  In practice this means that the folks who engage in the utterly unethical practice of financially investing in keeping a certain segment of our population in captivity now do not have to pay any federal taxes which would fund many of the social programs that help combat mass incarceration.

Jodie Lawston and I have both previously written on this blog about the inextricable links between economics and mass incarceration, and it always boils down to the simple fact that as long as major corporate interests and the government itself have strong financial incentives to lock up lots of people and keep them there for extended periods of time, we cannot reasonably believe that our criminal justice system actually functions to punish or prevent crime.  Instead it works to make sure that people who do not have the resources to defend themselves will continue to be disproportionately incarcerated and used as a cheap–or in the case of Texas prisoners, free–labor source.

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is not a real estate trust, and our government should not enable  it to escape taxation.  In actual fact the CCA has been entrusted with the lives of human beings who live under conditions that no outside party can effectively regulate.  This means that the health and well being of thousands of people are subordinated to the corporation’s main objective, which is, of course, to make money.

Good Friday, Medical Care in Prison, & the Anniversary of Pepper Ramirez’s Death

29 Mar

The following post was originally delivered as a reflection on Good Friday as part of a service at St. Titus Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina, in 2011.  My husband and I had been asked to write reflections based on Bible verses connected to Good Friday, and this was mine.  A dear friend of my father’s died in prison shortly before Good Friday the year that I wrote this, and I post this here today to honor his memory and to remark upon the sad state of medical care in Texas prisons, which only appears to have gotten worse since I wrote this. –Ashley Lucas

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Luke 23:34

                  We tend to think of forgiveness as something personal—a thing we ask of those whom we have wronged directly: the person whose car we rear-ended, the loved one to whom we spoke in anger, the acquaintance about whom we thought unkind things.  This sort of forgiveness gets us through each day by helping to mend our relationships with those around us, repairing and strengthening our ties to those with whom we interact each day.  Without it we would be in shambles, but God’s forgiveness is much larger than we can imagine.

When Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.  He was not addressing his executioners, who had just nailed him to the cross.  He was speaking to God, his Father, asking a parent to forgive not just those who were there that terrible day at Calvary.  Jesus asked God to forgive each of us throughout the millennia that would follow his death because he knew we would continue to harm one another and that we would need to be forgiven for an enormity of offenses.

As the child of a prisoner and a scholar who studies incarceration, I think often about the fact that Jesus was a prisoner executed by a government with the approval—indeed the zealous insistence—of the populous.  We in North Carolina are subject to both state and federal governments which execute those around us, and the majority of our fellow citizens are in favor of this practice, though few of us know much about life on death row or the individuals who are being killed.  However we personally feel about the death penalty, the fact that it is part of our culture and our system of government is well-known and at times hotly debated.  We know that this is a thing we do, even if we don’t fully understand it.

I awoke this morning wanting to speak about offenses that we almost never realize we have committed.  Just before last night’s Maundy Thursday service, I learned that my father’s best friend had died.  My father has been held captive in Texas prisons since 1994, and over the years he has grown close to a fellow prisoner named Pepper Ramirez.  I never got to meet Pepper, and all I know of him is what my father has told me in letters and in visits.  From what I understand, Pepper ended up in prison because he killed a man who was harming his sister.  Though I do not know the length of his sentence, I am sure he served well over a decade, perhaps two.  Pepper was a good friend to my father, told funny stories, and made big plans for what he would do when he got out of prison.  He had a large and loving family who desperately wanted him home and who remained steadfast throughout the many years of his incarceration.

In the last few years, my father’s news about Pepper always had to do with his health.  Pepper suffered from severe glaucoma which required medical treatment.  Medical care in Texas prisons is a terrifying thing.  In order for a prisoner who is held in a rural area to receive treatment, he or she must be handcuffed, shackled, and chained around the waist to another prisoner.  These patients are then loaded onto a bus and driven to another prison where they may spend a week waiting to be transported to the medical prison.  For men on my father’s unit, the Robertson Unit where the men wait before they are taken to the medical unit is one of the most violent prisons in the state.  Several years ago when my father’s friend Pepper was on his way back from the medical unit where he had been treated for his glaucoma, he was held at Robertson for several days.  The violence surrounding him at Robertson was so stressful that he had a heart attack and was taken back to the medical unit for open heart surgery.  Pepper never received even one doctor’s visit for follow up treatment after his open heart surgery.  He would not risk enduring the trip back to the medical prison.  My father tells me that many men would rather die from their ailments than have to take that trip.  It is widely believed by both prisoners and staff that the process of receiving medical care in Texas prisons is deliberately constructed to discourage the ill from seeking treatment.  It costs the state less to let the elderly and infirm die of their own accord.

Earlier this week my father’s prison was undergoing a shake down.  Pepper has been very frail in the years since his heart surgery, and he collapsed after carrying his possessions either to or from the gym.  I do not know if an emergency response team could have saved his life, but there was not one on hand.  The only doctor on staff is the elderly country doctor who delivered most of the guards who work in that prison, and even he is not on duty every day.  Pepper Ramirez died this week on a cement floor far from his family, and I feel responsible for his passing.

We live in a country where we think we know what justice is, where we are told that get-tough-on-crime legislation makes us safer, where we are encouraged not to think of prisoners as people but as beings not like us who have forfeited their civil and human rights by being irredeemably bad.  The jury that convicted Pepper Ramirez likely did not know that he would not be given adequate health care.  They may not have considered what his family would endure year after year as they watched him deteriorate.  Even if they had thought about these things, they may have felt that he, and perhaps also his family, deserved what they were getting.  I am not a witness to Pepper’s crime, but I am a secondary witness to his character and his suffering.  He was a good friend to my father, and for this I will be forever grateful.  Please pray today for Pepper’s family.  Pray for my father and the other men who lost a friend and who saw too well the fate that might await each of them.  Pray for all of us that we might not forget the lives and struggles of those who are deliberately hidden from us.  Pray that we find ways to end violence, addiction, and suffering through compassion, treatment, and forgiveness.  Pray for guidance to stop cycles of institutional violence.  Pray that we may learn not to be passive bystanders to the suffering of others.

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

Solitary Confinement for Children in Prison

27 Mar

Rock Center with Brian Williams recently aired a story about the terrible things that minors–some as young as nine years old–endure in solitary confinement in United States prisons.  Watch a clip of this story aired on the Today Show here.

If criminal justice administrators routinely agree that minors are so much at risk in adult prisons that they must be kept in solitary confinement to protect them, shouldn’t we rethink our decisions to send children to prison?

All About My Mother: A Mother’s Day Tribute to the Woman Who Raised Me in a Prison Visiting Room; a post by Ashley Lucas

13 Apr

Children with an incarcerated family member have little choice about whether or not they will be able to maintain meaningful and regular contact with an imprisoned loved one.  The adult(s) who raise that child in the absence of incarcerated family members get to make all of the decisions and bear the many burdens of enabling a child to build relationships with his/her incarcerated relative or of choosing to keep that child from the person behind bars.  Either way, these adults inevitably struggle emotionally and intellectually (and almost always financially) with the many convoluted difficulties of parenting a child whose life is shaped by incarceration.  This Mother’s Day I pay tribute to all moms and grandmothers (biological, foster, adopted, or otherwise) raising children of incarcerated parents.

My mother never dreamed that she would one day be a prisoner’s wife.  My father’s incarceration came as a shock to our entire family–one that we are in some ways still reeling from seventeen and a half years later.  Our family was economically devastated by the legal battles we waged for years before my father’s conviction, and my mother had given up her teaching career when I was born so that she could stay home to raise me.  With my father gone from our home, she had to return to work and became the sole breadwinner for our family.  I was fifteen years old and very frightened and disoriented by the radical changes in my life.  My mother was certainly overwhelmed, confused, and bereft, but she dedicated herself to raising me and to enabling my father to continue to raise me from inside prison.

For my remaining years of high school, she drove me once a month eight hours in each direction to and from the prison.  She bought me stamps and stationary at every gift-giving holiday and helped me to scour craft stores for rubber stamps and ink pads to decorate my daily letters to my father.  She photographed practically every moment of my senior year of high school so that my father could see all that I was doing.  When I was accepted to Yale University and considered declining their offer, she convinced me that I had to take this opportunity, though it meant leaving her alone and not being able to visit either of my parents more than twice during the school year.   She helped me send back my financial aid package three times until they finally gave me enough scholarships and loans to make my tuition affordable, and she went further into debt herself to make sure I would be able to complete my undergraduate education.  She made me see that living each of my days to the fullest would ultimately be a greater gift to both her and my father than my staying home to be near them.

In the beginning, we understood nothing about how prisons operate, what my father’s days looked like, which of our fears were overblown, and which things we had not yet learned to fear.  My mother faced the challenge of not just figuring these things out for herself but also of finding ways to explain them to me.  She bears my suffering along with her own and never complains about the burdens I have given her to carry.  Together we learned this world of visits and lawyers and collect phone calls and the nightmares we do not name.   She taught me to pay attention to what the people around us also endure, to talk to the other families in the visiting room and listen to their stories.  She made me realize that we are not alone in this experience and that in many respects we are much more privileged than most.

One day when we were driving away from the prison, my mother stopped on the side of the road to pick up a woman who was walking down the dirt road into town.  She had obviously just had a visit at the prison, too.  She had no coat on that cold day, but she wasn’t hitchhiking, just walking home.  My mother drove her ten miles to the shabby house where she rented a room, and in the course of that car ride the woman told us that she had moved to this dusty little spot in the middle of nowhere Texas just to be near her husband in the prison.  Her whole family was in Oklahoma, and she couldn’t keep more than a part time job because of her disabilities.  She volunteered at a nursing home and walked the ten miles to the prison and back once a week.  She didn’t own a car, and the soles of her shoes were worn thin.  For months after that, every time we went to the prison, my mother scanned the road for that woman and always asked my father for any news he had of her and her husband.  My father contacted a prison ministry group who visit the prison and asked them if they would help find a coat and rides to and from the prison for this lady, but we never knew if any of the prison ministry folks ever caught up to her.  My mother watches all the families we see in the visiting room and is so grateful when she finds a way to help one of them, mostly in the form of information or advice about the prison system.  She works as an administrator for a public school district, and often teachers will send kids to talk to my mother about what is happening to their incarcerated siblings, parents, or uncles.  She joined a prison ministry team at her church and helps folks coming home from prison navigate their new lives.

My mother always encouraged me to speak my mind and to have no shame about my father’s incarceration.  Her faith in me and her support of my scholarship and performance work enabled me to write my play Doin’ Time.  When I performed at the women’s prison in Dublin, Ireland, my mother came with me.  During the post-performance discussion, the women in the prison seemed even more moved by my mother than they had been by my play.  They were in awe of her support of my work, and many of them felt that their own families would not have wanted them to speak publicly about incarceration because of how its stigma reflects on them.  My mother’s pride in my work moved them to tears, and many of them wanted to shake her hand or hug her after the show.

I hesitated to get engaged to my now husband, long after I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, because I couldn’t bear the thought of my father not being present for my wedding.  When the time came, my mother walked me down the aisle, gave me away, and sat next to a beautiful sign she had made, which stated that that seat was reserved for my father and the many other incarcerated people we love who could not attend the wedding.  She has never tried to replace or ignore my father’s presence in my life, and she always finds a way to honor him and the love we share.

My mother gave me my relationship with my father after he went to prison.  If she had not accepted his phone calls, taken me to visit, encouraged my letter writing, I would not have continued to know him as well as I do now.  The prison has taken much from each of us, but it cannot take our family; my mother wouldn’t let that happen.

Matt Puckett, May You Rest in Peace; a post by Ashley Lucas

21 Mar

At 6:18 PM yesterday the state of Mississippi took the life of Larry Matthew Puckett.  His death was premeditated, and surely both Matt and his family were tortured daily by the knowledge of his impending death.  Since Matt was given a death sentence on August 5, 1996, he and his loved ones lived through sixteen years overshadowed by the terrorizing fact that his execution loomed before them.  Matt Puckett will never again suffer the agonies of this life, but his family surely will not ever be fully at peace again, just as the family of Rhonda Griffis, whom Matt was convicted of murdering, cannot ever be at peace.  We have added one murder to another.  Matt was killed in the name of a very misplaced notion of justice.  He was killed in the name of all Mississippi citizens, and in a sense all of us who live in the U.S. bear some guilt in his death because we are constituents of a federal government that condones state sanctioned murder.  We, the People, have done this to Matt, his mother, and the rest of his family and friends, and I, for one, am deeply sorrowful and ashamed of what has been done in my name, what will certainly be done again many times over until we demand a new kind of justice–one that seeks to make us more humane and less vengeful.

Many of Matt’s supporters believe that he did not commit the murder of Rhonda Griffis, but whether he did or not, his death will not bring her back to life.  Last night those who loved Matt have been cast into a shared category of grief with those who loved Rhonda.  All of these people now must mourn a person whose life was cut short by another person’s hand.

When I attended the Prisoner’s Family Conference a few weeks ago, I met an extraordinary woman named Charity Lee whose very existence is the best argument against the death penalty that I have ever heard.  Charity was six years old in 1980 when her father was murdered.  Her mother was tried and acquitted of murder-for-hire.  In 2007 Charity’s thirteen year-old son Paris stabbed his four year-old sister Ella to death. Charity, like most mothers, loves both of her children immeasurably, and she has, in different ways, lost them both.  Paris is incarcerated in a youth facility and will soon be transferred into an adult prison population where he will likely serve another twenty years before his release.  Charity works tirelessly to help both the families of murder victims and the families of people accused or convicted of murder.  As a member of both groups, she believes that healing and reconciliation among these families is not only possible but necessary.  She started the ELLA Foundation, named for her daughter, with a mission “to prevent violence and to advocate for human rights through education, criminal justice reform, and victim advocacy.”  Charity’s work and that of groups like Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation will one day bring about the end of the death penalty in the United States.  When those who have lost what is most precious to them because of violence demand an end to the state’s ability to kill its own citizens, we should listen to them.

Rest in peace, Matthew Puckett, Rhonda Griffis, and Ella Lee.  Those of us who remain must prevent future murders and seek ways to protect the safety of all people without further violence.

Help Prevent the Execution of Larry Matthew Puckett in Mississippi; a post by Ashley Lucas

12 Mar

Matt Erickson, a longtime member of the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), recently sent out a very moving email entitled “A friend of mine is about to be put to death,” the majority of which I’ve copied below:

Hi everyone,

I’ve been corresponding with a Mississippi death row inmate named Matthew Puckett since 2006.  He wrote to PCAP requesting any sort of support he could get in terms of helping his fiction writing.  I told him to send me some stuff to critique and we’ve gone back and forth every so often since then.  Of the course of 5-6 years we’ve become relatively good friends, keeping each other updated on our lives – despite the stagnant nature of his situation, he was a good enough writer to make it plenty vivid, and he was always respectful, not asking intrusive questions about my private life, but rather just showing genuine interest in knowing someone.

He’s the only one like this I’ve been writing to; you won’t get an e-mail like this from me ever again.

He always wrote more than I did and it seems I could delay responding for infinite reasons: doing the dishes, getting an oil change, going to the movies, etc.  A couple weeks ago I received a letter from him and left it unopened, because I was “busy” – and now I remember that instead of reading and responding to his letter, I spent most of last weekend organizing my iTunes music.

I finally read the letter this morning and learned that Matt is scheduled to be executed on March 20th, the day we are celebrating the opening of the [17th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners].  I had no idea the date was so soon – I thought he had described it as years off – and I’m guessing he didn’t know it was so soon either.  His best friend was executed February 8th – after a last minute reversal, then re-reversal – and says the state is really on the rampage now.

Anyway, he told me about this page his mom created: http://www.change.org/petitions/save-matt-puckett-stop-an-innocent-man-from-being-executed

If you could all go there, it takes like 5 seconds.  Maybe he could get 5,000 signatures.  Maybe it doesn’t matter in terms of stopping this from happening, but it’s what he asked me to do and now I’m asking you to do it if you think he shouldn’t be killed on March 20th.  The page says he’s innocent.  Matt and I haven’t talked about his crime or case in correspondence, and I haven’t pried.  But I don’t believe in killing people or throwing people in the garbage.  And he has described his situation as like a speeding car heading toward a cliff, and he’s pumping his brakes however he can.

Even if you don’t do it, I wanted you all to know about this man.  If you want to know more, please read the letter I’ve attached (Please let me know if you can’t open or read it and I’ll try re-sending).

If anyone would like to do more than sign the petition, let me know.  If anyone can THINK of anything we can do, please let me know.  If you want to write to him:

Larry Matthew Puckett
MDOC #65781
Unit 29-Jay
Parchman, MS 38738

Thank you,

Matt Erickson

Despite my strong commitment to activism, I am often tempted to pass over online petitions because they feel so far removed from the cause itself, but I urge you not to ignore the plea that Mary Puckett’s petition is making for her son Matt’s life.  Please sign the petition, and if you have a moment, write a letter to Matt Puckett.  People in prison need to know that folks in the outside world, even those who do not know them personally, recognize their humanity and think that their lives have value.

Matt Puckett, you and your family are in my thoughts today.  You are not forgotten.

Kerry Max Cook: An Innocent Man Still Seeking Exoneration; a post by Ashley Lucas

4 Mar

Kerry Max Cook with a copy of his autobiography Chasing Justice

In 1978 in Tyler, Texas, Kerry Max Cook was convicted of a murder he did not commit.  He remained in prison until 1999 a court finally released him after he pleaded “no contest” at the conclusion of his fourth trial for this crime.  Cook agreed to plead “no contest,” after maintaining his innocence for more than two decades of legal battles, because he believed at the time that he would likely be wrongfully convicted yet again and sent back to prison if he did not.  The District Attorney all of a sudden offered him a deal: a plea of “no contest” would enable Cook’s release for time served.  Cook took the deal and later found out that the District Attorney in question had recently acquired the results of new DNA tests of the crime scene evidence which definitively proved that Cook did not rape and murder Linda Jo Edwards.  Cook and his legal team only learned of this exculpatory evidence after the plea of “no contest” had been entered, and because of this, Cook has never been legally exonerated.  The murder conviction remains on his record, and at long last Cook is fighting a new legal battle to clear his name.  An excellent blog posting on the Grits for Breakfast site provides further details.

Cook’s autobiography, Chasing Justice, published in 2007, describes in detail the junk science, prosecutorial misconduct, and shoddy police work which contributed to his wrongful conviction.  Cook is also featured in the documentary play (and subsequent Court TV film) The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, despite the popular misconception in Cook’s case that DNA proof of actual innocence would lead automatically to legal exoneration.

When I was an undergraduate at Yale in 2001, I took a seminar about the death penalty, taught by two men who were at the time Yale Law School students.  Our final assignment for the class was to research a death penalty case and write a twenty-page paper on it.  I wrote about Kerry Cook, and in the course of my research, I made contact with him, and with the help of Stanton Wheeler–a law school professor and then Master of my residential college–I brought Cook and one of his lawyers to campus to speak.  Kerry and I have since lost touch, but I remain deeply moved not only by his story but by his willingness to continue telling it despite how much it obviously hurts him to expose himself, his wife, and his son to continuing public scrutiny and judgment.

May you finally receive some relief from the courts, my friend.  I watch your struggle with admiration and hope.  Your continuing work against the death penalty and wrongful conviction serves a cause much larger than your own case, and I am among a great many people who are grateful for your life and your efforts.

The Pendulum Foundation, Seth Ford, and the New Age of Community Organizing; a post by Ashley Lucas

28 Feb

On the morning of the first day of the 2012 Prisoner’s Family Conference in Albuquerque I had the good fortune to sit down next to really smart and very kind man named Seth Ford.  He’s a social media consultant who spent five years as a political lobbyist.  A series of events in his personal life led him to become concerned about the toll that violence and incarceration take on so many communities in the United States.  He now lives in Denver and works for an amazing organization called the Pendulum Foundation, which works to end juvenile life without parole in Colorado.  He also blogs about this and other juvenile justice issues on his website PolitiVisor.com.

From 1992 to 2005, kids could be given a sentence of life without parole in the state of Colorado.  The legislature came to its senses in 2006 and ended this barbaric sentencing practice, but because the change in law was not retroactive, the fifty children who had already been sentenced to life without parole remain in the system.  Now all of them are adults who have never lived independently outside a prison.  What kind of nation believes that people who are too young to be trusted to vote, drink, or serve in the military should be judged unfit to live among us for the rest of their lives?  As I wrote in an earlier post about the sentencing of Laurence Lovette, giving life sentences to young people is a poor investment in the future of our children, our country, and our public safety.  The Pendulum Foundation’s battle against juvenile life without parole is vital.

At the Prisoner’s Family Conference Seth Ford led a workshop entitled “Community Organizing.”  I’ve always prided myself on knowing a thing or two about community organizing.  I’ve marched, demonstrated, leafleted, petitioned, been to sit-ins, and done my share of street theatre.  I can sing “We Shall Overcome” with the best of them, but I had no idea how to do the kind of community organizing that Ford was teaching at this conference.  He showed an enraptured (and Luddite) audience how to use Twitter to reach an audience as broad as a local news outlet, which is precisely what he’s done for the Pendulum Foundation.  His Twitter handle is @PolitiComm, and thanks to him I’m now @razorwirewoman.  I have a deep mistrust of the sound byte levelof information that can be conveyed in 140 characters, but I have learned that tweets can lead folks to sources of information that provide more context, like blogs and other websites.

I’m still a deep believer in the power of live interaction, in sitting in and demonstrating for justice, but I’m learning the power of electronic media to connect us to those whom we cannot reach directly.  Thanks, Seth.  The next time you need a friend to march beside you I’ll repay the favor.

Judith Clark: A Study in Long Sentences, Rehabilitation, and Prisoners’ Children; a post by Ashley Lucas

21 Jan

The cover story of the January 15, 2012, New York Times Magazine describes the life of former Weather Underground member Judith Clark, who has been incarcerated by the New York Department of Corrections since 1983.  Clark is serving a seventy-five year sentence, and according to writer Tom Robbins’ account in the Times as well as many prison officials who know Clark personally, she has changed dramatically during the decades of her incarceration.  In fact, in every statement I have ever read from someone who actually knows or has spent time with Clark in recent years, she is not only a model prisoner but a peacekeeper and a caretaker within Bedford Hills (the prison where she has lived for most of her incarceration).  She has a long record of teaching other prisoners and of volunteering in service programs at Bedford Hills–including the infant care program, the HIV/AIDS program, and the program which trains service dogs which are eventually given to disabled people outside the prison–which drastically improve the quality of other people’s lives.  Judith Clark has managed far more effectively than most people, in or out of prisons, to give back to those around her and to be a positive and sustaining force in the lives of others.

The passing of time changes people, often drastically, and the youth we lock up today will not be the same people in twenty or thirty years.  This is a critique that anti-death penalty activists often make; the person being executed is more often than not a very different human being than the one who committed the crime or sat before a judge at sentencing.  Is it just to continue to punish someone who is not only repentant but who has a great deal to contribute to the world outside prisons?  Is this the most useful way to spend New York taxpayers’ money or a deterrent to crime?  Decidedly not.

The bigger question here is one about the purpose that prisons serve and whether or not they adequately fulfill their function in our society.  As criminologist Stephen Richards declared, “A successful corrections system doesn’t grow.  If they were correcting anybody, they’d shrink.”  Yet incarceration rates continue to soar.  We are warehousing 2.3 million people in the U.S. and making no feasible plans to reintegrate this huge population safely back into our homes and neighborhoods, though the vast majority of them will be released from prison someday.  We supposedly believe that prisoners pay a debt to society by serving time and by thoughtfully contemplating their wrongdoings, which was the expressed purpose of the Quaker penitentiaries–our nation’s first prisons.  No amount of time served can undo past crimes, so the best use of our penal system would be to help shape those who committed prior offenses into law-abiding citizens who understand their past transgressions and commit themselves to living peacefully and productively in the future.  Judith Clark exemplifies the sort of transformation that can occur when a prisoner understands in meaningful ways how the actions that landed her behind bars had a negative impact on the lives of others.  We are no safer because she continues to live behind bars today.

Judith Clark is one of a great many U.S. prisoners who have served multiple decades behind bars.  We are locking up so many elderly prisoners that nursing home and hospice care programs, like the one in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, are becoming necessary.  Angola actually has a prisoner-run organization for a group they call “longtermers”–men who have served twenty-five or more years.  Since Louisiana has some of the harshest sentencing laws in the U.S. and a natural life without parole sentence, the longtermer population has grown to over 500 men.  The Human Rights Club–another prisoner organization at Angola–helps indigent prisoners, the elderly, and longtermers.  As you can imagine, these club members stay very busy trying to tend to the needs of such a large population with so many urgent needs.  The Human Rights Club aims to bring dignity and a measure of comfort and recognition to men who have survived for so long in such an inhospitable environment.  Every other year the Human Rights Club sponsors a celebration called Longtermers Day where the men enduring these interminable sentences can gather together.  Many of them, even old friends and family members living in the same prison, have no opportunity to see one another during the rest of the year because of the ways in which the prison segregates groups of men based on where they are housed.  Volunteers from the free world and prisoners’ family members are invited to spend the day inside the prison, mingling with the longtermers and enjoying the food and performances that brighten the occasion.  I was twenty-five years old the first time that my mother and I attended Longtermers Day.  Several members of the Angolite prison news magazine staff had invited us, and we found ourselves in a chow hall densely filled with men who had been in prison longer than I had been alive.  Few family members attended the event, and many men told us how the years in prison had eroded their relationships with their families entirely.  We saw quite a few very frail, elderly men, several of them in wheelchairs.  One man explained to my mother that he had a life sentence for stealing a toaster–the result of a harsh mandatory sentencing law for repeat offenders.  Many of these longtermers were too ill or weak to have harmed anyone even if they wanted to.  Many were children when they entered prison and had never had the opportunity to live as responsible adults.  Others had stories more like Judith Clark’s; they had entered prison angry and over the long years had come to understand their crimes and their lives very differently.  I see no utility in such prolonged detention.  If any of these longtermers remain unfit to return to free society, it is because we have not adequately helped them to prepare.  Locking up so many people for multiple decades makes no sense financially, morally, or practically, and in doing so we irreparably damage many lives  beyond the thousands of people serving these long sentences.  In a different way, their families serve this time with them.

Judith Clark has a daughter.  Harriet Clark was so young at the time that her mother went to prison that she likely cannot remember a time when her mother was free.  As Nell Bernstein has argued in her book All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, prisons punish children who have not been convicted of any offense alongside their imprisoned parents.  Much legal and popular rhetoric condemns the incarcerated as having lost their rights to spend time with their loved ones because of the behavior that sent them to prison.  The law fails, as Bernstein so rightly asserts, to examine the rights of prisoners’ children and to even engage the question of whether or not having access to their parents should be protected.  Prisons focus solely on punishing those deemed unfit to live among us, and we rarely examine the impact that mass incarceration has on those who are not convicted of any crime, those who do not live in prisons but whose family lives, economic and emotional stability, and self-preservation are tied to prisons, courts, and police.  Harriet Clark and I have both fared far better–in terms of economic stability, access to education, and the avoidance of our own incarceration–than the average prisoner’s child, undoubtedly because we were each left in the capable hands of other responsible adults who were able to provide and care for us.  I do not know Harriet Clark and cannot speak for her, but if the Times article accurately represents her, she loves her mother dearly and remains very connected to her.  Though she is now an adult, I believe that she deserves–indeed she is owed by the state which sentenced Judith Clark with the outrageous and impractical sentence of seventy-five years–time with her mother in the free world.

A number of progressive organizations throughout the U.S. are working to implement programs to help maintain the bonds between incarcerated parents and their children.  The most ambitious of these initiatives enable mothers and young children to live together in a facility which provides parenting classes, substance abuse treatment, and early childhood education all under the same roof.  The Texas Observer‘s January 2012 cover story profiles the Baby and Mother Bonding Initiative (also known as BAMBI).  Opening this facility in April 2010 is perhaps the only sensible thing that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has done in decades.  Thus far, not a single graduate of the BAMBI program has been sent back to prison since her release–a significant victory considering that the last Bureau of Justice National Recidivism Study (published in 1994 and rather out of date now) showed that around 67% of those release from prison ended up behind bars again within three years.  BAMBI and other programs like it are very likely to help prevent the future incarceration of prisoners’ children as well.

It’s time for Judith Clark and many, many others who have served decades in prison to be allowed to live a better life, to actively give back to the world outside prisons, to spend time with the children and families who have waited these many years for the simple pleasure of a conversation held without guard supervision.  If we believe that our corrections system is in any way functional, we must grant longtermers the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities to live better than they did before their time in prison.

The New Miss America Advocates for Prisoners’ Children; a post by Ashley Lucas

16 Jan

Though I never thought I would become interested in the politics or pet cause of a winner of the Miss America Pageant, the newest beauty queen to take that prize has won my admiration.  Laura Kaeppeler, the former Miss Wisconsin, has decided to spend her year as Miss America helping the children of the incarcerated.  Her father served eighteen months in prison, and Kaeppeler speaks movingly about wanting to prove to kids throughout the U.S. that you can still have a positive and strong relationship with your incarcerated parent.  She also focuses her comments on her father’s incarceration on her admiration for him and on the strength of their family’s bonds with one another rather than on his crime.  She speaks of building a future for the children of prisoners and of wanting to be a role model for kids who might not realize that they can break the cycles of incarceration seen in so many families.

In a nation where we currently incarcerate over 2.3 million people, the children of prisoners must necessarily become a visible population.  We are cropping up in unexpected places, and Laura Kaeppeler and her family are being very brave to make themselves vulnerable to the types of criticism that are likely to be leveled at them because of Kaeppeler’s new level of fame and her openness about being a prisoner’s daughter.  Kaeppeler has an opportunity this year to start difficult conversations and to raise awareness–and perhaps funds–to help prisoners’ children.  Perhaps the most powerful contribution she could make would be that of helping to diminish the stigma of criminality surrounding these children who are often funneled away from educational and professional resources because of expectations that they will follow in their parents’ footsteps.  Kaeppeler is a new symbol of what it means to be American, and far more of us are prisoners’ children than beauty queens.

Reflections on No Child. . . (a play by Nilaja Sun) and the Education to Incarceration Pipeline; a post by Ashley Lucas

14 Jan

Last night I went to see a performance of Nilaja Sun’s one-woman play No Child. . . at PlayMakers Repertory Theatre on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus.  The play, which Sun has been touring since 2005 and which she has now performed over 700 times, comes out of her experiences working as a teaching artist in New York City’s public schools.  Transitioning deftly among the sixteen characters in the show, Sun embodies a dysfunctional community of teachers and students in a sixty-five minute performance, narrated not by the character of Sun herself but by the school’s custodian who observes the struggles unfolding around him with the empathy and omniscience of the Stage Manager from Our Town.  The janitor sees not only the children who are raising themselves while their single mothers work three jobs and the teachers who fear their own pupils but also the failing infrastructure that surrounds them: holes in the ceilings, bathrooms that have not been functional for years, the steady stream of faculty, staff, and students who leave the school abruptly and do not return.  Security guards and NYPD officers flank the entrances to Malcolm X High School (the play’s setting), screening all who enter with metal detectors and X-ray machines.  This security equipment appears to be the most expensive and new technology in a school where little else seems new or technologically advanced.  The fictional Malcolm X High where No Child. . . takes place and the real schools where Sun continues to work as a teaching artist have failed their young charges for so many years that hardly anyone in the system can imagine an effective formula for change.

In the play, Sun enters a class deemed one of the toughest in the school with a plan to stage a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good in six weeks.  Though the students have no theatrical or performing arts background, Sun manages to get them interested in this play by helping them to articulate the ways in which the prisoners in Our Country’s Good are constrained by social forces not dissimilar from those the students face every day.  As the students in the classroom begin to relate to the script, they list the many ways in which they feel like they are treated like prisoners in their daily lives.  The litany of reasons includes the screenings of their bodies and belongings as they enter school each day, the orders shouted to them from parents and teachers, and the fear that they inspire in the adults on New York’s buses and subways.  In a mirroring of the plot of the Wertenbaker play, Sun’s students find new levels of self-confidence, discipline, and hope in performing a play for the first time; they can begin to imagine what their own versions of success might look like because they have been made to feel important, accomplished, and recognized, and they know that they have earned this sense of achievement because the road to opening night was not at all easy.

As much as all of us arts teachers in the world would love to believe the pretty fiction that creative expression can somehow save us all, it’s never that simple, in real life or in Sun’s play.  Not all of Sun’s characters survive to the end of No Child. . . and those who do don’t waltz off into the sunset, though at least one of them gets a degree from an Ivy League college.  What arts programming, like that described in this play and enacted by Sun through her work in the public schools, can do very effectively is to open a window of possibility.  Not all students will be able to completely transform their lives, but as Sun said in the discussion after last night’s performance, arts teachers can help students recognize their own humanity and become more whole, while curriculum designed to prepare students for standardized tests has the opposite effect.

Every one of the student characters in No Child. . . reminded me of kids I have met in juvenile detention centers during the years that I have done theatre work in youth detention facilities.  For well over a decade now scholars have been pointing to the “education to incarceration pipeline” as being one of the strong causes of our skyrocketing rates of imprisonment among minors.  When young people do not learn in school that they have viable prospects for a fulfilling and economically sustainable life, they often turn to crime as a way to make easy money or attain their goals of self-sufficiency and luxury.  Teaching to meet the standards of the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind policy in fact has caused a great many children to be lifted out of the system entirely and placed in locked facilities where their test scores will never be measured.  In moments of educational malaise or more active crises (as we saw in the New Orleans public schools after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) we authorize police to enter schools to maintain the peace, and as a result disciplinary measures which are ordinarily handled by school administrators, such as truancy and minor fights among students, become prosecutable crimes.  Brian Bilsky and Meda Chesney Lind’s chapter in Razor Wire Women does an excellent job of explaining how we hold children as prisoners for crimes that adults cannot commit, such as running away.  No Child. . . is a frightening wake up call for those who have not seen first hand how little hope so many young people in failing schools now have, and at the same time it is an excellent reminder that performance can help struggling students and Sun’s audiences alike to imagine a better future for us all.

Another Attempt to Thwart NC’s Racial Justice Act and Reflections on Conquergood’s “Lethal Theatre,” a post by Ashley Lucas

5 Jan

Republican legislators in North Carolina kept the House in session after midnight last night in an unsuccessful attempt to override Gov. Purdue’s veto of the Racial Justice Act.  The Republican dominated Senate voted to overturn Purdue’s veto, but the conservatives in the House lacked the support they needed from Democrats to cripple the Racial Justice Act.

This morning I was rereading the late Dwight Conquergood’s seminal article “Lethal Theatre” which appeared in Theatre Journal in 2002.  For those of us who study theatre and performance studies, Conquergood’s powerful treatise on the performative nature of the death penalty was a game changer.  People who do social engagement work in the arts have long known that imagery and public discourse can have enormous impact on political struggles, but Conquergood argues very convincingly that we kill people as a means to prove how just and righteous we are.  The condemned serve as the symbolic antithesis of the good law-abiding citizenry who take it upon themselves as a body politic to smite those who have done wrong.  We build our freedoms on the backs of those who are not free, and we mechanize state-sanctioned murder to remove individual agency from the act of killing.

Critics of the Racial Justice Act, including some very outspoken Republican legislators, have said that this law is a thinly veiled attempt to do away with the death penalty.  In fact, the Racial Justice Act merely strives to make our use of the death penalty less biased against people of color.  It is an important legislative move, but it does not go far enough.  As Conquergood pointed out nearly a decade ago, we have known for a very long time about the staggering inequities in our justice system, especially in the arena of capital punishment, yet we continue to kill people.  This legalizes racism and entrenches popular notions of the criminality of the poor, African Americans, Latina/os, queers, the transgendered, immigrants, and the uneducated.

The battle over the Racial Justice Act rages on, and a House committee has been formed for further investigation.  So, North Carolinians, call and email your senators and representatives and do not yield!  This legislation was hard won by people who believe that even those condemned to death deserve fair, unbiased consideration by the courts.  It’s a significant step in the right direction, and we cannot afford to lose this ground.

On Trial During the Holidays: Laurence Lovette, Eve Carson, and Lost Stories, a post by Ashley Lucas

14 Dec

As someone who teaches at UNC Chapel Hill, I, like the rest of our campus community, was stunned, grief-stricken, and profoundly disturbed by the murder of our student body president Eve Carson who was abducted and shot on March 5, 2008.  I did not know Carson personally, but many of my students and colleagues adored her and have recounted many, many stories about what a remarkable, loving, intelligent person she was.  I wish that the media coverage about Carson told more about these aspects of her life.

In the Fall of 2009, I began teaching a freshman seminar on the subject of Documentary Theatre.  In this class, my students collectively choose a topic to investigate and create a play based on research and interviews they conduct throughout the semester.  In the first two weeks of class, we spent a lot of time mulling over a variety of possible topics which might serve as the subject of our play.  The students narrowed their interests down to two topics fairly quickly: Eve Carson’s murder and health care (which was a big news story at the time because of the Obama Administration’s controversial plans for health care reform).

My students in this course were all freshmen, so none of them had been UNC students during Carson’s tenure as student body president nor at the time of her murder.  However, since most of them were from North Carolina, they had seen a great deal of news about the crime, and the shadow of loss cast across the campus had significantly colored their first days as college students.  Some had misgivings about whether our class might cause greater pain to those who knew and loved Carson by conducting research about her life and death and portraying traumatic events on stage.  We spent much time discussing the ethical questions surrounding the idea of creating such a play and how we might go about it.

One of my students approached me after class one day and said that she had gone to high school with one of the young men accused of Carson’s murder, and she did not feel comfortable working on a play about this subject matter.  She had not been close to the accused but had known him well enough to think he was a regular kid, like so many other boys in high school.  She was bewildered and frightened by Carson’s death and the implication of someone she knew in such a brutal crime.  We discussed the possibility of this student completing an alternate assignment for the course if our class chose to put on a play about the Carson murder.

The class was divided fairly evenly on whether to do a play about the murder or one about health care.  The tide shifted in favor of a play about health care when a particularly impassioned student told a moving story about her family’s struggles with health insurance while her mother was being treated for cancer. We produced a thoughtful and compelling series of monologues about health care that semester, and though we no longer discussed Eve Carson or the circumstances of her death, our earlier discussions stayed with me, as did my student’s concern for and confusion surrounding her high school classmate who was accused of having killed someone.

The investigations in the Carson case quickly led to two prime suspects.  Demario Atwater pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder and is now serving two consecutive life sentences in a federal prison in California.  The other suspect, Laurence Alvin Lovette, now stands trial in Orange County Criminal Superior Court.  Because Atwater took a plea deal, Lovette’s trial offers the general public a great deal of information about the night of Carson’s death which was never before released in such detail.  My local newspaper, The Durham Herald-Sun–and likely all other major news outlets in our area–is providing a blow-by-blow accounting of each day’s courtroom testimony.  In most cases I try not to read this kind of news coverage because those who covered my father’s trial said such misleading things about our case and our family when we endured what Lovette and his loved ones now face.  However, I have been unable to stop myself from following the news of Lovette’s trial because I am so struck by what the testimony recounted in the news reveals about his life at the time of the crime.

Lovette is now twenty-one years old, which means he was only seventeen or eighteen at the time of the murder.  An African American raised in poverty in what sounds like a pretty tough neighborhood in Durham, Lovette lived surrounded by guns and drugs.  He is accused of a terrible crime, and his personality, his hopes for his life, indeed his very humanity have been left out of the news coverage and perhaps the trial itself.  He is very young, and if he is convicted, he will likely never have the chance to discover a better way to live.  If a jury finds him guilty, Lovette will likely never be able to explain to others, perhaps even to himself, that he is more than the worst thing he ever did.  If he is guilty, I do not believe that he should go unpunished or that it is safe for him to live among us in the present moment.  I also am not ready to mark him (or Demario Atwater) as irredeemable, to decide that someone just entering his twenties can never evolve or become a better person.  I am unconvinced that keeping him in prison for life either makes us safer or benefits our society in the long run.

Eve Carson’s humanity has been lost in the news reports, too, and her family also fares poorly in the public descriptions of their current grief.  The trial and the news are about the terrifying and gruesome events of the last night of Carson’s life, overshadowing the complexity and richness of who she was and what her loved ones endure as they continue to live.  A friend of mine who came to a recent reading of Razor Wire Women remarked that he worries that both prisoners’ and victims’ stories are not told frequently enough or well enough.  I concur.  We know  a great deal about how to tell stories about crime, but we know very little about how to understand or talk about what makes crime possible–the living and ever-shifting contexts of people’s lives, the complicated process of decision making, the vulnerabilities of victims and perpetrators.

During this holiday season, my thoughts are with the Carson, Atwater, and Lovette families and those who love them.  In a time of year when we are urged to reflect on peace, good will, and the dawning of a new year of possibilities, the weight of loss, fear, and sadness stand in sharp relief to holiday celebrations.  Perhaps in the days and years ahead of us, we can work together to prevent tragedies like murder and the devastation that follows incarceration.

A Meditation on Compassion and Incarceration, a post by Ashley Lucas

8 Dec

My friend Margarita Mooney, who writes brilliantly about the sociology of religion, recently pointed me toward a post by Bradley Wright on a blog called Black, White and Gray and a response to this post by a woman named Holly.  Wright tells “A Story of Turning the Other Cheek” about a man who offers his coat to the thief who has just stolen his wallet.  The would-be mugger is so surprised that he joins his near-victim at a local restaurant where they dine together.  Crime averted, and potential violence and incarceration halted in their tracks.  It’s a revolutionary response to an assault.  The man being accosted at knife-point sees beyond the attack itself and realizes that the man who has come to rob him is something more than this ugly and dangerous action.  The man who threatens another is so struck by the revelation of his own humanity in his victim’s eyes that he ceases to be a threat in this moment and instead sits down peacefully to dinner.  This may seem like an easy solution, but in fact it’s not at all easy to look beyond what threatens and frightens us to search for the humanity in an aggressor.

In her comment on Wright’s blog post, a woman named Holly describes the day that her fourteen year-old son was attacked by a group of boys.  He was beaten and needed stitches, and a year of legal battles finally sent a young man to prison.  Holly was not only upset about the harm done to her son but also concerned about the fate of the youth who would likely become more hardened by life in prison rather than finding a way to live a different kind of life and cease hurting others.  Holly’s sentiment is one not often expressed publicly.  We are trained not to feel compassion for people who have committed acts of violence, urged not to search for ways to prevent such acts by understanding what motivates them but rather to label some people irredeemable and never again welcome them into society.

When I heard Sister Helen Prejean speak last week, she told a story which she also wrote in her acclaimed book Dead Man Walking about the father of a murder victim expressing his grief over the idea of the death penalty.  His child had been killed by a man whom Sister Helen would later accompany to his execution, and this father–a Catholic–objected to the death penalty but felt pressured by family and friends to call for the death of the man who killed his child.  People told this father that he owed it to his child to demand the killer’s death; they said that anything less would be a sign that this father did not truly love his child.  This brand of retribution  ran counter to the father’s religious beliefs and also did not seem logical to him.  How could another death in any way alleviate the loss of his child?  How could executing someone else’s son be just or righteous?  Nevertheless, the people surrounding this grieving father tried to make him feel like he was wrong to have compassion and concern for the person who killed his child and the mother of the condemned man.

Our popular culture and criminal justice system are so wedded to the notion of punishment that we often lose sight of what will actually make all of us safer and less violent.  Youth who enter the criminal justice system rarely escape it permanently.  Most folks who spend any time in juvenile detention will cycle through jails and prisons for the majority of their adult lives.  This is not because these individuals are inherently criminal or because their first offenses were particularly grave; rather, our system of punishing people in this country tends to mark them with a lasting social stigma.  Prisons, for youth and adults, teach more lessons about how to commit crime than about how to build better lives, avoid breaking laws, and exhibit concern for the well-being of others.  If we really want prisons to protect us, then they should train incarcerated people how to be useful, productive citizens and community members.

When I express this sentiment, skeptics are quick to return to the idea of punishment, saying that we need to be focused on making sure that people suffer for the fact that they have broken laws.  As the child of a prisoner and someone who has come to care about many other incarcerated individuals, I can tell you from close observation of incarcerated people that being separated from your loved ones, unable to contribute your time or financial assistance to your family’s well-being, stripped of the ability to make even simple decisions for yourself, and forced to live among people who might harm you takes its toll on a person.  We do not lack for punishment in prisons, but often we do lack compassion and foresight about how our ill treatment of prisoners ultimately makes all of us less safe.  If people come home from prison–and the vast majority of the 2.3 million people we incarcerate will one day return to live among us–without hope, a job, a place to live, or family connections, then they will likely turn to crime as a means to survive and as a way to vent the anger they feel at having been held against their will under dangerous and unsavory conditions.  Is it logical for us to expect anything different?

What if prisons were places where people learned how to be better versions of themselves?  What if the folks who ran prisons taught those who live in prisons what safety can mean in its fullest sense?  That would require that we demand an end to rape and other forms of violence inside prisons.  We would need to accord guards and prisoners alike with respect and human dignity and to encourage an environment in which the logic of violence could be unraveled.  We would have to stop locking up thousands of people for nonviolent offenses and seek appropriate alternatives to incarceration which focus on accountability to victims and the respect that each of should have for those who live and work in our communities.

Thank you, Holly, for being thoughtful enough to care about what happens to the young man who harmed your son and for being brave enough to speak this unpopular thought aloud.  We have a great deal to learn from you.

Women in Prison, The Cost of Fighting Back Talk, by Jodie Lawston

6 Dec

On Tuesday December 6, I led a discussion on women in prison that particularly focused on women who kill their abusers in self defense.  This discussion was organized by Raihana Siddiq of the Women’s Center at CSU San Marcos (Thank you, Raihana!!).   There are an estimated 2,000 – 4,000 women in prison for killing their abusers in self defense, with about 600 of those women incarcerated in California (see Kathleen Ferraro’s Neither Angels Nor Demons and Elizabeth Leonard’s Convicted Survivors for more on this).  California is one of the first states to have enacted laws around intimate partner violence in murder cases: In 1991, California began to permit expert testimony about intimate partner violence in murder cases, and in 2001, parole boards were directed to take into account histories of intimate partner violence during hearings (Silja Talvi has an excellent overview of this from 2002, here).  The group Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA), originally created by Brenda Clubine, was instrumental in increasing awareness about women who kill their abusers.  The film Sin By Silence, directed by Olivia Klaus, is an excellent and highly recommended resource for understanding how women who have experienced violence and abuse are then treated by the criminal justice system.  It importantly features the women of CWAA so viewers begin to get an understanding of their situations and their incredible resiliency.

During the discussion, people asked what they can do to help.  I’ll reiterate here that educating ourselves in the first step, and then engaging in prisoner support work, or becoming involved with organizations that are already doing this work–at whatever level you are able–helps to make a difference (check out the organizations we have listed on this site, as a start).

North Carolinians Organize to End the Death Penalty, a post by Ashley Lucas

3 Dec

An organization called People of Faith Against the Death Penalty has launched a campaign to repeal the death penalty in the state of North Carolina, and they brought renowned anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean to North Carolina to speak at several events this week.  This effort comes on the heels of the Republican-controlled NC State legislature’s repeal of the Racial Justice Act, which provides prisoners the opportunity to appeal their death sentences on the basis of racial discrimination.  Successful appeals on the grounds of the Racial Justice Act do not result in death row prisoners being released from prison or in the overturning of their convictions; rather, the Racial Justice Act enables death sentences to be converted into life sentences.

The Racial Justice Act (see full text here), championed by State Senator Floyd McKissick of Durham, responds to the fact that death sentences are much more likely to be handed down in cases which involve a black defendant and a white victim than any other possible combination of races for defendants and victims.  For an excellent report on the statistical data and a review of several studies which prove the racial bias of sentencing in capital punishment, see this article on the Death Penalty Information Center Website.  This body of evidence on racial inequality in capital cases first drew national attention in 1986 when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case called McClesky v. Kemp.   In this case, lawyers arguing on behalf of a black man convicted of murdering a white police officer in Georgia cited the Baldus study as evidence of racial discrimination in capital sentencing.  The court assumed the validity of Baldus et al.’s study yet ruled that this data was “insufficient to demonstrate unconstitutional discrimination in the Fourteenth Amendment context or to show irrationality, arbitrariness, and capriciousness under Eighth Amendment analysis.”  McClesky was executed in 1991, and despite many follow up studies which confirm and expand the findings of the Baldus study, our nation continues exhibit blatant racial bias in executing its citizens.

Though the North Carolina legislature has voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act, this battle is not yet lost.  Governor Beverly Purdue still has the power to veto this repeal and uphold this ground breaking legislation.  To urge the governor to veto the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, click here.

Last night Sister Helen Prejean addressed an audience of at least a hundred people at Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Durham.  The event was introduced by an advocate from Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR)–a group which brings together the families of both murder victims and executed prisoners to oppose the death penalty.  A woman named Jocelyn spoke about the day that her son was shot to death in Durham and the enduring trauma to her family, including her three granddaughters who are growing up without a father.  Jocelyn still feels hatred for the unknown perpetrator who killed her son, but she would not want that person, if found and convicted, to be executed.  She does not want another mother to lose a child and feels that all violence, including state-sanctioned executions, only leads to more violence.  The next speaker to take the podium was Rose, the sister of a man named Ernest who was executed in Raleigh.  She described her family’s suffering during the nine years that Ernest spent on death row and the time they spent together on the day of his execution.  Since Ernest’s death, Rose, her family, Ernest’s attorneys, and a community of supporters vowed to work to end all executions in North Carolina, and to this end she, Jocelyn, and others like them have continued to tell their stories to all who will listen, even though it obviously pains them greatly to retell the most devastating moments of their lives.

Sister Helen thanked and honored Jocelyn and Rose as she described her personal calling to end the death penalty.  Retelling a story she recounts in her book Dead Man Walking–which has also been adapted into an Academy Award-winning film and an excellent play–Sister Helen spoke of how what began as simple correspondence between her and a Louisiana death row prisoner led to a life’s vocation of anti-death penalty work.  She has now accompanied six men to their deaths, acting as a spiritual adviser to the condemned and witnessing their executions.  She reminds us of the dignity of human life and urges us not to perpetually judge any person for the very worst thing that he or she ever did.  She asks Christians to remember that Jesus always invoked the sanctity of life and never called for anyone’s death, and as she describes in her second book The Death of Innocents, she urged Pope John Paul, II, to firm up the Catholic Church’s stance against the death penalty.  Through her tireless advocacy, she calls on each of us to stop killing people, through caring for our neighbors and working to end the violence in our communities and the violence being done by the government in our names.

A local religious leader said a prayer after Sister Helen finished speaking.  In the periods of silence in between each portion of the prayer, I could hear quiet sobbing from those sitting in the pews all around me.  I was struck by the sheer numbers of people in my own community whose lives are shaped by murder, prisons, and the death penalty.  I thought of Jocelyn and Rose and their willingness to support the same cause, though public rhetoric often casts victims’ families and prisoners’ families as being irrevocably at odds with one another.  Each of us who believes that killing is wrong must stand together now with Jocelyn, Rose, and Sister Helen to demand an end to the death penalty in North Carolina and in the rest of the United States.  To lend your support to this vital cause, please contact your state and federal legislators, speak to your family and friends about why you oppose the death penalty, and get involved with activist organizations who are already doing excellent work on this front:

  • Contact Governor Bev Purdue to urge her to veto the repeal of the Racial Justice Act.
  • Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation: Founded in 1976, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) is a national organization of family members of victims of both homicide and executions who oppose the death penalty in all cases. MVFR includes people of many different perspectives. Because violent crime cuts across a broad spectrum of society, our members are geographically, racially and economically diverse. (descriptions of MVFR and the other organizations that follow in this list are taken from their own websites and promotional materials)
  • Capital Restorative Justice Project: The mission of the Capital Restorative Justice Project is to promote healing and nonviolent responses within North Carolina communities torn apart by capital murder and executions.
  • Durham Congregations in Action (DCIA): DCIA seeks to engage and empower people of faith to create a community of justice and peace through common prayers and acts of compassion; and with prophetic courage we act as advocates for the dignity and well-being of all persons, recognizing that behind every human face is the face of God.
  • People of Faith Against the Death Penalty (PFADP): People of Faith Against the Death Penalty is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, interfaith organization whose mission is to educate and mobilize faith communities to act to abolish the death penalty in the United States. Founded in 1994 in North Carolina, PFADP focuses its programs on organizing among faith communities in the South.
  • National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP): The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) is the nation’s oldest organization dedicated to the abolition of the death penalty. We are comprised of an extensive network representing more than 100 state and national Affiliate organizations and thousands of advocates and volunteers. Our members include families of murder victims, persons from all points on the political and religious spectrums, past and present law enforcement officials and prominent civil and racial justice organizations working to end the death penalty forever.
  • Truth in Justice: Truth in Justice is an educational nonprofit organized to educate the public regarding the vulnerabilities in the U.S. criminal justice system that make the criminal conviction of wholly innocent persons possible.
  • The Innocence Project: The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing.  To date, 280 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row.  These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.
  • Death Penalty Focus (DPF): Founded in 1988, Death Penalty Focus is one of the largest nonprofit advocacy organizations in the nation dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment through public education; grassroots and political organizing; original research; media outreach; local, state, and nationwide coalition building; and the education of religious, legislative, and civic leaders about the death penalty and its alternatives.
  • Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions: Since its founding following the 1998 National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty, the Center has been instrumental in the exonerations of 23 innocent men and women in Illinois. Before the founding of the Center, members of its staff were instrumental in 14 additional exonerations — including that of Gary Dotson, who in 1989 became the first person in the world to be exonerated by DNA.  The Center was the first university-based innocence project to accept non-DNA cases as well as DNA cases. Of the 37 exonerations in which the Center or members of its staff have been involved, just over half —21— were non-DNA cases.

Though, as the above list demonstrates, many people in the U.S. are committed to ending the death penalty, executions continue.  Please get involved and help end this long standing practice of state sanctioned violence.

Critical Pedagogy in Prisons? A Brief Reflective Essay, By Jodie Lawston and Gabriel Jones

1 Dec

Education programs in which professors, teachers, and even students enter prisons to teach adult education classes are shoddy, at best, with some institutions having educational programs and others not having them.  With almost 2.5 million people incarcerated across the nation, the educational opportunities to which prisoners have access can significantly shape their social and economic mobility upon release, as well as affect their rates of recidivism.  As critical educator Earl Shorris (1997: 6) told his own class of poor and disenfranchised students:

You’ve been cheated. Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned again you. I think the humanities are one of the ways to become political…. If you want real power, legitimate power, the kind that comes from the people and belongs to the people, you must understand politics.  The humanities will help.

Education, then, offers the means not only for economic mobility but for critical consciousness about power and its effects, as well as about how power can be bent to the will of the people.  Critical pedagogy has been defined by Ira Shor (1992: 129) as

Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse.

Critical pedagogy offers a reflective praxis for understanding power and resisting its effects (Kincheloe 2008).  In Freire’s (2000) terminology, it encourages the development of “conscientization,” “consciousness raising,” which focuses on understanding and resisting social and political oppression.  Within the specific context of prison education, such an approach analyzes and critiques the nature of the American criminal justice system, conceptualizations of criminality, and the reasons for the cycles and patterns of poverty, crime, and incarceration that characterize much of prisoners’ lives.

Educational programs for women prisoners are particularly important at present.  While men are still more likely than women to experience incarceration, for the past three decades the female prison population has increased at a significantly higher rate than that of men.  In a report for the Sentencing Project, Mauer, Potler and Wolf (1999) show that between 1980 and 1997, the women’s prison population increased by 573 percent, while the men’s prison population increased by 294 percent.  More than 200,000 women are now confined in prisons and jails across the country (see Talvi 2007, xv).  As stated before on this site and in Razor Wire Women, incarcerated women are disproportionately of color and poor.  Moreover, nearly forty-five percent of women in local jails and state prisons and twenty-five percent of women in federal prisons have not graduated high school, with between sixty and seventy percent never having attended any college (see Greenfeld and Snell 1999).

Despite the need for educational opportunities that would improve women’s ability to transition back into society upon release from prison, women’s prisons have fewer educational and vocational facilities in comparison to men’s prisons (see Pollock 2002).  When courses are available for women, they continue to be in areas that are underpaid and traditionally relegated to women, such as beautician classes (see Talvi 2007, and Pollock 2002).  While GED classes are sometimes available, books and materials cost money, so even when such opportunities are available women cannot afford to enroll.  Moreover, GED courses, although necessary, do not necessarily teach critical thinking.  Often, the only way to ensure that education courses are offered in women’s prisons–especially those with critical thinking angles–is for outside volunteers to go inside to work with the women.  Simone Weil Davis’ and Eleanor Novek’s chapters in Razor Wire Women discuss their work inside women’s prisons–in the Inside/Outside Prison Exchange Program and through facilitating a journalism class, respectively–and and the importance of such work.

Educational programs within prisons thus often need to fill significant gaps in students’ schooling, providing particular challenges to teachers who also want to offer a critical approach that examines the forces of power, domination, and control that have largely structured prisoners’ lives.  The work of Paulo Freire offers a significant resolution to this challenge by focusing on a pedagogy of reciprocity, one that resists the traditional teacher-student dichotomy and instead provides an educational environment in which everyone is both teacher and learner; by empowering students as teachers with their own base of knowledge and experience, and by giving them the responsibility of communicating this knowledge effectively to others within a participatory learning environment, programs can create classrooms that give students both the tools for literacy and the reasons and desire to use them.

With this in mind, Jodie Lawston created and facilitated a writing workshop with three university students, “Empowerment Through Writing,” for incarcerated women in California, which houses the largest number of female inmates in the country.  The workshops were created in response to women’s requests to have writing workshops in the prison and to an arbitrary parole board mandate to some women that they would not be paroled until they could write a “book report.”  The idea was that the facilitators and the incarcerated women would all be learners and teachers, and was therefore grounded in Freire’s notion of the pedagogy of reciprocity.  Prisoners were seen to have their own base of knowledge that we from the outside could learn from; they were not empty vessels into which we poured our knowledge (a la the banking concept of education).

The focus of the workshop, prompted by incarcerated women’s concerns, was to improve writing and communication skills as well as to expand critical thinking and political consciousness.  This approach created another even larger challenge, however, as the bureaucracy of prisons and the hostility some staff had toward outsiders and toward educational programs for women made the workshops extremely challenging.  Given that one of the basic tenets of critical pedagogy is that social and economic conditions cannot change until oppressed subjects have the tools to understand and resist the forces of their own oppression, this resistance presented a significant obstacle to the overall effectiveness of the program.

However, what we found was that although the institution of prison itself posed significant challenges to implementing a Freirian model of adult education in prisons, the women in the program thrived when we met.  Women wrote eloquently about their past and current life experiences, their hopes and dreams, and in addition, applied the critical consciousness that they already had developed from living in a prison environment to their writing.  Although the women in the workshop reported that they learned from the facilitators, the facilitators perhaps learned much more from the imprisoned women about the interworkings of the carceral system and its effects on individual women.  Indeed, it was the critical consciousness of the women, and our structural analysis of prisons, that we believe ultimately led to the shut down of the workshop; the more vocal and critical women became, the more the institution sought to silence them.  Of course, that silence is always short lived, as women clearly know how to resist and find their voices to critically analyze the institution around them.

References

Freire, Paulo. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.

Greenfeld, Lawrence and Tracy Snell.  1999.  Women Offenders.  Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Retrieved on November 11, 2011, from http://virlib.ncjrs.org/statistics.asp#w.

Kincheloe, Joe. 2008. Critical Pedagogy. 2nd ed. New York: Peter Lang.

Mauer, Marc, Cathy Potler, and Richard Wolf.  1999.  “Gender and Justice: Women, Drugs and Sentencing Policy.”  Washington, DC: The Sentencing

Pollock, Joycelyn. 2002. Women, Prison, and Crime. Wadsworth: Thomas Learning

Shor, Ira. 1992. Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shorris, Earl. September1997. “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As a Weapon in the Hands of the Restless Poor.” Harper’s, pp. 50-60.

 Talvi, Silja.  2007.  Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System.  California: Seal Press.

Occupy Wall Street, the Corporatization of Public Space, and Immigrant Detention, by Ruben Murillo

28 Nov

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has successfully impacted the national conversation on many important issues such as the bank bailouts, the Bush tax cuts, persistently high unemployment and stagnant wages (while at the same time, the wealthiest 1% of Americans are enjoying significant growth in their wealth). For many of us who have been paying attention to the radical socio-economic restructuring that has been taking place over the past three decades—of which massive prison expansion has been an acute iteration—we have already been talking about and attempting to raise awareness about these issues.  But the images of the occupiers in cities, towns, and rural areas all across the nation has indeed caused many to discuss and reconsider the deleterious and sometimes disastrous effects that corporations and big business have had on our society and environment.

The images of occupiers—not just protesting and raising awareness about corporate power and wealth run amuck, but occupying and camping out indefinitely—represents a compelling and important gesture of the demos reclaiming public spaceThe foil to these images have been those of police outfitted in military style riot gear physically hitting and pepper-spraying peaceful ‘occupiers’ in New York, Portland, Oakland, Berkeley, Atlanta, Davis, and San Diego.  Why do mayors, other politicians, and police officers feel compelled to use brutal force, even if they are being photographed and filmed, in order to clear people from public parks and other public spaces?  In his press conference explaining why he ordered the NYPD to clear out Zucotti Park Mayor Bloomberg sardonically proclaimed, “The First Amendment protects speech. It does not protect the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over a public space. Protesters have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.” (New York Times, 11/16/11)  While the arguments the protestors have are quite compelling, Mayor Bloomberg overlooks the massive police and prison apparatus at the practically exclusive disposal of the 1%.  Nor do the occupiers have the $850,000 that a well known Washington DC lobbying firm asked the American Bankers Association to pay it to launch a media campaign to cast the OWS movement in a negative light. (MSNBC 11/19/11)

The protestors have to make their arguments in the streets under police surveillance and intimidation, and under the threat of assault or arrest.  It is clear that the ruling elite does not want people occupying public space, but why does it matter so much that people occupy public space?  Certainly it stems from the fact that public space has increasingly become corporatized space.  In just about any city in the U.S. corporate logos representing the commercialization of every aspect of daily life are ubiquitous.  Perhaps this explains the compulsion to clear protestors from public space.  Corporations have circumscribed and refashioned public space through a variety of strategies and technologies to increase profits.  The sight of people in public space deliberately refusing to conspicuously spend money and to make it less convenient for others to do so threatens the raison d’etre of corporatized public space. And perhaps this corporatization of public space explains, at least partially, why we have more people in prison than any other country in the world.

Democracy Now ran a story about a protester who was arrested for meditating on the streets of Oakland.  The image of dozens of police in riot gear surrounding a man sitting cross-legged in a meditational position dressed in white makes one wonder, is that really necessary?   It is difficult to imagine a more passive/peaceful form of protest than meditation, so why the compelling need to arrest him to clear the sidewalk?  The protestor told Amy Goodman how during the booking process he was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody under the Secure Communities program, which shares arrest information from local jails with federal immigration agents.  He observed that the same evening that the Oakland Police reportedly spent two million dollars for its violent crackdown on the occupiers, the city had closed five schools.  It is a question of priorities where the government spends its money.  Immigration detention has become a lucrative growth industry for such corporations as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which literally makes profit from having people occupy its cells.  Not only have public parks and streets become corporatized, but so have prisons.  Occupiers in tents do not produce profits, but occupiers in jails do.

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