Archive | October, 2011

Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice Undergoing Review–Raise Your Voice

30 Oct

The following is a press release from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s monthly newsletter.  It’s very important that those of us with loved ones in the Texas Department of Corrections respond to this call for information and tell our stories.  Please speak up!

TDCJ’s Sunset Review is Beginning – We Want Your Input!

If you care about criminal justice reform, now is the time for you to speak up and voice your concerns.

TCJC is very excited to tell you about a unique opportunity to offer input and suggestions that will help improve Texas’ criminal justice system. Presently, the Sunset Advisory Commission has begun its review of TDCJ and other criminal justice-related agencies, including the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Windham School District, and the Correctional Managed Health Care Committee.  Based on its evaluation, the Commission will make recommendations on how each agency can be improved or whether the agency should be abolished.

You can take part in this opportunity for improvement by letting us know what should be done to improve Texas’ criminal justice agencies.  TCJC has created a comprehensive guide to the Sunset process to help individuals understand the process, how they can get involved, and what resources are available.  Please click the link below to download a PDF version of our guide to Sunset:

To download a 1-page flyer on how to participate in the Sunset process, please click below:

Again, the Sunset process is in its beginning stages, and most agencies under review have already submitted Self-Evaluation Reports (SERs), which are available on the Sunset Advisory Commission’s website.  To view each agency’s SER, visit the Sunset SER webpage here!

To view individual agency SERs, please click on the links below:

  • Note: The Correctional Managed Health Care Committee’s SER is not yet published.

An agency’s Sunset review typically only occurs every 12 years, so we must seize upon this rare opportunity to improve the criminal justice system.  Through the Sunset process, and with your help, we can achieve the necessary reforms that can make Texas’ criminal justice system a model for others.

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Punishing Protestors with Violence and Jailing, a post by Jodie Lawston

29 Oct

Yesterday morning, at around 2:30 am, police in riot gear arrested 51 peaceful protestors at Occupy San Diego.  The arrests took place at the Civic Center Plaza and Children’s Park.  Earlier this week, Scott Olsen, a former marine, had his skull fractured by Oakland police as the police arrested protestors.  Arrests have also taken place in other cities around the country, including Nashville, Atlanta, and of course New York.

I am an avid supporter of the Occupy movement.  I attended marches in San Diego when it first began, and have joined the protests regularly since then.  I have friends in New York who are a part of Occupy Wall Street, and send updates about their experiences regularly.  I encourage my students to attend.  When we talk about this movement, the question that constantly arises is how police clad in riot gear—who have more in common with the 99%–feel about attacking, hurting, arresting, and jailing peaceful protestors who are fighting for interests that include the interests of the police.  We wonder how they feel working for the interests of the 1% when their interests are with the 99%.  Indeed, even the Oakland mayor said that she and the police have more in common with the 99% then with the 1%.

In a time when society is growing more and more punitive—imprisoning younger people, undocumented people, the poor, women, people of color, and trans people—it is clear that any resistance will be met with punishment.  This is very clear with the Occupy movements; police are used by the state to maintain the status quo.  Corporations and big banks take advantage of those of us who are part of the 99% with impunity, and our resistance to this is met with ridicule—as exemplified in the mainstream media’s accounts of the movement—dismissal, and outright violence.  Jails and prisons, already filled to capacity, and used to try to convince us that resistance is futile.

But resistance is not futile.  The Occupy movement has already unmasked the greed of the 1% and the injustice of the laws that protect it.  It is time for society to march toward justice and equality, and to listen to what “we the people” have to say, without using violence, aggression, and imprisonment to silence us.

What Can We Do? The Difficulties of Prison Activism, a post by Ashley Lucas

28 Oct

In a comment made on one of my recent posts, a former student of mine expressed her dismay at the conditions prisoners face.  She asked what we can do to protest or change the fact that many Texas prisoners are not being served lunch on the weekends.  I stare this question in the face every day and seldom have a satisfactory answer.

I have spoken with my father since I wrote the aforementioned blog post and now know that he still gets to eat lunch on the weekends.  He believes that most of the folks being denied weekend lunch in Texas are in the county jail system, and I suspect that he is correct.  Like those of us on the outside, prisoners hear a lot of rumors, partial truths, and outright lies about what is happening in the criminal justice system, so it’s often difficult for me to make assertions with certainty about policies and procedures that effect my family’s daily life.  One seldom knows whether what we experience is due to actual policy and what occurs because of the arbitrary will of wardens, guards, or other prison administrators.  When we ask for explanations of the rules, often we receive no satisfactory answers.

When I learned that my father and the other men on his unit still receive lunch on the weekends, I immediately felt relief and then concern for those less fortunate prisoners who are now missing two meals each week.  The problem has not changed.  It just doesn’t happen to directly affect my father, yet.

My student’s question remains: what can we do?  As with all forms of activism, there are no direct answers for those of us who seek a more humane way to respond to crime and make our society safer.  The biggest stumbling block, especially for those of us who have loved ones in prison, is the fact that prisoners live hidden from view in a completely controlled space.  Humanitarian and watchdog groups can only gain access to as much of the prison as those who run it allow them to see.  Even if prisoners have a means by which to communicate truthfully with the outside world (and this is often not the case), whatever they say has the potential to incur retaliation from those who hold them captive. Our actions in the outside world can also cause retaliation against prisoners.  If activists or family members agitate too much or in the wrong way, prisoners–not those of us on the outside–will suffer the consequences.

Prisoners have so little personal property and such limited control over their daily lives that it is very easy for a malicious, or even a careless, person working in the prison to severely diminish a prisoner’s quality of life.  For instance, prisoners are subjected to periodic searches of their bodies, living spaces, and personal property.  In most prison systems prisoners must endure a full strip search before and after each visit with a person from the outside world.  For women, this frequently involves having to pull apart one’s labia and display one’s vagina for inspection.  As we can imagine, it would be very easy for a guard to make this process even more humiliating or physically painful with little effort, by conducting the strip search slowly, commenting on the physical appearance of the prisoner, or engaging in touching not necessary for the search.  These are all difficult offenses to document, and a prisoner’s complaint about inappropriate treatment during a search would likely result in the weighing of a prisoner’s testimony against a guard’s. A prisoner registering such a complaint through official channels would again expose her/himself to the possibility of retaliation.  The cycle is difficult to break.  Most prisoners who have told me such stories felt compelled to remain silent and pray that the abuse did not continue.

Another difficulty involved in prison activism has to do with how cut off prisoners remain from free world advocates.  Prisoners know much better than those of us outside what needs to be done to improve the quality of their lives, but activists often take it upon themselves to decide what prisoners need and how we should go about getting it.  Any activist work done on behalf of prisoners should involve the incarcerated to the greatest extent possible.  That said, communication barriers and questions of access remain.

Though prison activism is exceedingly difficult, it is not impossible.  Organizations like Critical Resistance and web forums like the Prison Activist Resource Center have helped many people to get involved in various particular struggles related to injustice in the prison industrial complex.  Many much smaller grassroots organizations do excellent work in one small sector, like helping bus children to prisons to visit their parents.  These people do extraordinary work that immeasurably improves the quality of life for prisoners and their families.  This work is vital, and we need it to spread and grow.

After joining in many campaigns to change unjust laws or protest specific injustices, I see the necessity of this work but feel that the majority of what I personally can do to respond to this international crisis of mass incarceration must take place in a cultural realm.  Though we need protests and specific political actions, I am fundamentally convinced that we have to have a cultural revolution if this madness is ever going to stop.  We need to be talking about the humanity of prisoners and the conditions of their lives as much and as publicly as possible.  We need to counteract the falsehoods perpetuated by politicians running on get-tough-on-crime platforms and the inflated terror that media outlets use to get us to consume their products.  We need not only good research on what’s actually happening inside prisons but people who can help translate academic studies into forms that more people will hear, read, see, and understand.  We need to engage the public and find ways to have honest dialogue that do not frighten people away.  We need more art, literature, poetry, theatre, blogs, and music that provide a realistic picture of what prisons do to all of us.  We need to step away from depictions of prisoners as either inhuman monsters to be perpetually feared or glorified gangsters admired for their ruthlessness and materialism.  We must begin to break down the entrenched righteousness that a great many people feel about how just a people we are, how we are suited to judge others without even knowing the circumstances of their charges or incarceration.

The simplest thing we can do is to question the representations of prisoners we see every day and to interrogate our assumptions about who we think those people are.  Talk to the people around you about casual remarks they make about prisoners.  Do not laugh at jokes about prisoners being sexually assaulted; notice how common these are.  Speak up when you hear falsehoods.  Read; be well informed about prisoners’ struggles and the things that happen to their families.  Serve on juries when you have the chance; do not assume that people are guilty just because they have been charged.  Do not be complacent about the injustices around you; do not shut them out of your thoughts just because your life would be easier if you did not face the suffering of others.  Take opportunities to help when they present themselves; create them when you can.  Never stop asking, “What can we do?”

Ms. Magazine Blog Reprinted a Post from RWW!

25 Oct

The good folks at the Ms. Magazine Blog are reprinting this blog’s review of Inside This Place, Not of It–a new book of testimonials from women in prison, compiled and edited by Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman.

Read it at Ms. here.

Read it on this blog here.

We admire the feminist writing that Ms. Magazine and its bloggers bring to the world and are proud to have a small affiliation with this excellent publication.

Let’s Do Away With Lunch! The Newest Way to Cut Budgets in Texas Prisons; a post by Ashley Lucas

23 Oct

So often I feel like starting posts on this blog with the words, “The latest depravity to emerge in U.S. prisons is (drum roll please). . .”  Well, this week that sentence can be finished with the fact that thirty-six prisons in Texas are now saving money by not serving lunch on Saturdays and Sundays.  They are instead serving something they call brunch, which gets served between 5 and 7 AM, and not providing another meal until dinner, which is made available starting at 4 PM.  I received this tidbit of news from the Grits for Breakfast Blog, which along with the Texas Observer and The Angolite, is among my favorite sources for criminal justice-related news.  The New York Times also covered this story.

I have long been deeply disturbed by the quality of food served in Texas prisons and have written a bit about Vita Pro (a food substitute unfit for human consumption that was served in Texas prisons for years) in an earlier post on this blog.  Unfortunately, what’s wrong about how we feed folks in prison could fill several books.  One of the ironies of serving time in most prisons in the South is that prisoners grow an extraordinary amount of food and seldom get to eat what they cultivate.  Many of the largest prisons in the South, including the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and Parchman Prison in Mississippi, stand on the sites of former plantations and have maintained their essential functions since the antebellum period.  All Texas prisons (and many in other southern states) are colloquially called farms, and the prisoners who live inside them cultivate crops and raise livestock.  The food products generated by the labor of prisoners are usually sold to other public institutions, such as schools and hospitals, with the remaindered, unmarketable yet edible products being served in the prison chow halls.  For instance, the tops of broccoli plants, that one might buy in a grocery store, are sold to school districts to serve to children, and the large, tough stems from the bottom of the plant are chopped up and served to prisoners.  In Texas this is one of the only green vegetables prisoners receive.  I think about this every time I eat broccoli.

The prison where my father resides is surrounded by fields of red earth in neatly plowed rows.  The first time my mother and I went to visit my father in prison when I was fifteen, I saw a group of horses grazing in a pen at the prison’s edge and remarked to my mother that it was a relief to see that the men got to ride horses sometimes.  I knew that having a connection with animals would be  a comfort to my father and many other incarcerated men.  My mother had to tell me that the horses were only for the guards to ride as they patrol the prisoners working in the fields in “hoe squads”–the worst and most grueling labor assignment in the prison.  The arrangement evokes slavery, indentured servitude, and sharecropping all at once.  The sweat of the laborers feeds those of us who can afford not to toil.  Even the horses are among the master’s tools; no petting allowed.

Prisoners with money in their inmate accounts can buy food from the prison commissary–the company store, if you will–but everything there is processed and prepackaged.  They cannot buy fresh foods of any kind, certainly not those grown on the prison grounds.  Junk food abounds in prison, as do diabetes and other diet-related health problems.  The food in the chow halls in Texas involves a lot of pinto beans and white sandwich bread, from what I am told, and not much flavor.  Breakfast is usually served before dawn, and many prisoners refuse to rise at 3 AM to get to the chow hall for that first meal.  This ungodly hour for a meal time seems to me to be a strategy for keeping the number of diners at that first meal of the day to a minimum (another cost-saving strategy) or yet another way to punish people further, to throw off the natural rhythms of the day, to keep prisoners unsettled and disrupted as much as possible.

Another anecdote on the subject of food in prisons.  One year at Christmas a guard gave my father a banana.  Guards are not allowed to give anything from the outside world to prisoners, ever, and this one could certainly have lost his job for this act of kindness.  I do not know what compelled the guard to give up the banana from the lunch he’d brought from home, but it was the first fruit that my father had eaten in many years.  My mother and I both wept in the visiting room when my father recounted this simple yet monumental act of kindness, and though I do not know the guard in question, I am ever grateful for his generosity.  This incident helps me to remember not to disregard the humanity of those who work in prisons.

Today–Sunday–I am plagued by not knowing (yet in my heart already knowing) whether my father is being offered lunch today.  Is his prison one of those no longer serving lunch on the weekends?  Almost certainly it is, but I cannot ask him on a day when the mail does not go out.  If he calls me, we can talk about it, but I have no way to initiate that conversation myself today.  Even when I can reach him, I cannot fix this.  Instead I dream of the lunches we will make together when he comes home, though I dare not speculate about the date when this might occur.

Rest in Peace, Piri Thomas; a post by Ashley Lucas

22 Oct

On October 17, 2011, one of the great prison writers died.  Piri Thomas, best known for his memoir Down These Mean Streets (1967), provided readers all over the world with a glimpse of how factors like racism and poverty encourage incarceration, and he articulated a version of Nuyorican identity years before the founding of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe popularized the concept.

In Seven Long Times (1974)–an additional, lesser known volume of memoir–Thomas recounts the years that he spent in prison, and his efforts to bring about social justice continued for many decades after this publication.  One blogger is now crediting Thomas with having the vision to prophecy the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Thomas believed in the human dignity of all people, as is evidenced by his poem “If in the Moment of Passing,” quoted here from his website:

If in the moment of passing an eternity,
I could have the interfaced essence,
The power of looking back at me,
I would say it truly as I would for the world–
Let me be free.

I know that the blood that pounds and pulses its way
through my veins,
Does not alter the course toward the star that not only I,
But all can aim for.
It is a beauty that we all can reach.
It is a beauty that we all can teach.

Given unto each one, what do we truly own, except that
which we truly are,
And what we can choose, be it a rainbow, a star,
Or the agony of a past of present scars.
I am not a poet who makes things unreal,
I am a poet who makes one feel the strength that is
in our people.
Human beings upon the face of this beautiful earth,
Who must know their dignity, their honor, no matter their race,
No matter their creed–from the moment of their birth.
Born of earth and universe. Punto.

Que en paz descanse, maestro.  You shall not be forgotten. Punto.

Recent and Upcoming RWW Events in Fall 2011, a post by Ashley Lucas

20 Oct

Jodie and I just had a wonderful experience doing our first book signing event at our alma mater, UC San Diego, this Monday, and we are so grateful to UCSD’s Departments of Ethnic Studies, Sociology, and Theatre & Dance for training us as graduate students and for welcoming us back with open arms to celebrate the publication of Razor Wire Women.  A crowd of more than thirty of our former professors and colleagues along with current students and community members attended the event, and we were honored to share the limelight with Julietta Hua, who also received her Ph.D. from UCSD’s Ethnic Studies Department and who talked about her new book, Trafficking Women’s Human Rights.  Special thanks to Yen Espiritu (Chair of Ethnic Studies) and to Lexi Killoren from UCSD’s Alumni Affairs for organizing this event.  We are also grateful to the folks at the UCSD Bookstore who came to sell RWW and Trafficking Women’s Human Rights at our talk.  Both books sold out at this event!

Jodie and I are looking forward to November 2011, when we will participate in many events to help promote RWW in Georgia and North Carolina.  Be sure to catch us at the following events:

  • Wednesday, November 2 from 5 to 6:15 PM–I will speak about RWW on a panel with Jules Odendahl-James and Nina Billone Prieur before a performance of the play Self Defense at UNC Greensboro’s Brown Building Theatre
  • Friday, November 11 from 4 to 5 PM–Jodie and I will be signing copies of RWW at the SUNY Press booth in the book exhibition hall at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference at the Sheraton Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia
  • Saturday, November 12 at 8 PM–I will perform my one-woman play, Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass, at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in the Grand Ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia; Jodie will join me onstage for the post-performance discussion and for a book signing thereafter.  Check out the amazing poster (Ashley Lucas ShowNWSA 2011) that graphic designer Adam Ulloa made for this event!
  • Tuesday, November 15 at 2 PM–Jodie and I will speak about RWW and sign copies of the book at UNC Chapel Hill’s Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art.  This event is sponsored by the Department of Dramatic Art.  Adam Ulloa designed another fantastic poster to help advertise our two book events in North Carolina: RWW book events in NC Nov 2011.
  • Thursday, November 17 at 7 PM–Jodie and I will speak about RWW and sign copies of the book at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, North Carolina

We thank everyone who has read the book and/or this blog for your enthusiastic and ongoing support.  We firmly believe that  dialogue, critical thinking, and cultural change are necessary in order to address the myriad injustices that surround the prison industrial complex, and we hope that this book and blog can help bring many new voices to this global conversation.

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