Archive | November, 2011

Help us provide Christmas gifts for incarcerated women and their children, by Gloria Killian

30 Nov

 Each year, the Action Committee for Women in Prison provides Christmas gift bags for all the women who are incarcerated in the state prison system in southern California and gifts for all the children who visit their mothers during the holiday season. These women and especially their children are often forgotten and neglected by most people and organizations. Please help us to ensure that every one of them is not forgotten this year. Bring a special smile to the faces of every mother and child in the visiting room this holiday season. For more information go to our website.

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.

Not at Home for the Holidays: Prisoners, Families, and the Toughest Season of the Year, a post by Ashley Lucas

26 Nov

My father went to prison just a few days before Thanksgiving in 1994, so for our family this holiday marks a particularly difficult anniversary.  No matter what time of year someone enters the prison system, the incarcerated and their loved ones face the holidays with a marked loneliness and longing.

While I filled my Thanksgiving week this year with friends and days of baking and basting, I do not know precisely how my father filled his.  I imagine that he has done quite a bit of reading and perhaps he has written a few letters.  Other than the absence of mail delivery, Thanksgiving day likely passed much like any other day in prison.  What sets holidays apart from ordinary days inside the walls is likely a greater sense of wanting to be somewhere other than in prison, an even stronger desire to sit down beside the people you love without the watchful eyes of guards upon you, more specific memories of what this day of the year used to look like when you were not held captive.  Many prisons provide some sort of a special meal on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but even this can be surprisingly treacherous.  Several Thanksgivings ago my father’s prison served spoiled turkey and gave hundreds of prisoners food poisoning.

Many of us with loved ones in prison feel guilty for celebrating in the absence of our loved ones.  Why should we be able to eat pie, to watch the parade in our pajamas, to sink into the comforts of home when our family members cannot?  As a teenager, I had been reticent to wholeheartedly live because I wanted to be in solidarity with as many of the limitations placed on his life as I could.  If he could not have access to so many of the simple pleasures in life, why did I deserve them?  The holidays only brought this sense of loss into starker relief.  All I wanted to do at each holiday was get to the prison and visit my father.  Nothing else seemed fitting or justifiable.  However, communicating honestly with my father while I was in this mindset quickly became difficult.  I didn’t want to make him suffer more than he already does by telling him about my devastation, indeed my solemn vow to remain devastated so that he would not be alone.  This left us with not much to talk about, and I knew that if something didn’t change, he would one day cease to really know me.

I realized a few years into my father’s incarceration that he very much wants me to be joyful and to make the most of my life rather than waiting quietly for his release.  I swung to the other extreme, trying to be as productive and as grateful for each breath as I could.  I work at being happy and sharing my joy with him in letters, phone conversations, and visits.  I make sure he knows what my life looks and feels like, and I try to draw him into my days with stories and photos of my life, with open channels of communication.  This strategy has proven far more fulfilling and sustainable for both my father and me.  He seems bolstered by my successes and my happiness, and he draws even closer to me in my sorrows and my failures. He is, and has always been, a very good father, and he takes every opportunity to offer me advice, to help me make difficult decisions, and to remind me of his love.

My schedule and my budget only enable me to visit him about three times a year, and the Texas prison where he resides now has a rule that because of the higher numbers of visitors who come on holidays, no family will be allowed to visit for more than two hours a weekend during the weeks closest to Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, or Father’s Day.  An ordinary visit for us includes eight hours of visiting time, so this new limitation on holiday visiting hours strips us of six hours of time together.  I now avoid visiting at the holidays to make sure that when I do see him, we can have a full visit.  These kinds of restrictive visiting policies undoubtedly make the holidays more difficult for all of the families and prisoners who wish to be together.

That prison visiting room is my home because it is the one place in the world where I can bring my family together.  Prisoners and their families make homes where they can, and during the best of visits, we can forget for a few hours where we are because our love and animated conversation make the world around that small table where we sit disappear.  I am blessed with another, more traditional kind of home–one I’ve created with my husband in the year and a half that we’ve been married–and we had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday with about a dozen friends who came through our doors with armloads of food and love.  I was happy all day long but at the same time never ceased to carry my father with me in my heart, hoping that he had found some joy this day, too, and knowing that he lacks the comforts and freedoms that I do.  I will go home to him in December, early enough to have a long visit, and until then, our letters and phone calls will have to sustain us.  The letters, the phone calls, even the visits are never enough, but they are what we have.  We make the most of them, and we wait with hope for a time when no one will have to make a home in prison.

One Step at a Time… The Journey Begins, by Je’Anna Redwood

24 Nov

There comes a time, in everyone’s life, when we come to the “knot” at the end of our rope.  Some call it “hitting bottom,” ” a wake up call,” or “spiritual awakening.”  Whatever the term, I reached it in early 1995.  My life was a mess and I needed help!

After multiple rule infractions, and the consequences of them, I sought the help I needed through the rooms of twelve steps, group and individual therapy.  What I learned shocked and amazed me, bringing me to this point in my life. now 15 years strong.  Here is what I’ve learned, incorporated into my daily life, and passed onto others.

I have a voice and I desire to be heard.  Yes, I’ve made mistakes; one pivotal point was taking a life.  Today, after serving 27 years, I am struggling to catch up and become a respectful member of society/  This is the problem, and I desperately need a solution.

It would seem I have become the barely visible space between a rock and a hard place, feeling trapped in my past, grave decisions.  I felt I was being looked upon as an “outcast,” which is a most disturbing feeling.  While I came from an abusive and dysfunctional family, I still heard the same old message here: “You’ll never amount to anything.  You are worthless.”  So I was determined to change that through taking the steps that recovery requires, to change my thinking, which will change my behavior.  Daily, I strive to make use of this process by NOT REPEATING the same old behavior.

Yet, still the haunting grief, shame, and guilt of my crime rose up to dash away all hope of restoration.  While I believe I can never serve a sentence that would ensure the return of my victim, and all the amiable accomplishments I may acquire, will always be eclipsed by my crime of murder.  I do feel my life’s experience can be of use to society.  By not repeating old behavior, it becomes the ultimate life-long amends, and never allow or put myself in a position that would give way to violent outbursts, crimes, and creating more victims.

Where do I turn for this help?  The solution is REHABILITATION.  Along with that comes other factors that will be expounded upon later.  Awareness, and willingness to stop a behavior, while going to any length to find the reasons for it, is the only way to successfully rehabilitate.

Recognition and relapse prevention are major avenues to ensure that the cycle of entrapment is broken, so I can continue to lead a healthy and satisfying life.  Through years of recovery, I became determined to help break this seemingly unending cycle of self sabotage, and turn it into self-awareness and regain hope.  I needed to face my past, give my voice volume, and allow it to be heard.

In the words so aptly penned by Pearl S. Buck: “None who have always been free can understand the terrible, fascinating power of hope of freedom to those who are not free.”  I now know that if I remain so rapped up in the shame and guilt of my past, I will fail to make progress.

To start the process of recovery, I first had to acknowledge I had a problem and these are the steps I took to ensure my goals are reached through recovery.

AWARENESS.  Being aware of the possibilities I could achieve because I now have the means in which to succeed, is half the battle.  Awareness also includes knowing that I do have a choice to live a healthy life in and out of prison, without the stereotypes that are tethered to being an ex felon.  It gives me voice to talk about my problems openly, as well as to be shown other options.  Awareness brought me to the bottom line of my past decisions, and it got me to ask, “What will I need to make better decisions?”  THis brought me to my next goal.

EMPOWERMENT.  Empowerment is the fundamental ingredient to change, and that is what I ultimately wanted to accomplish.  IIf I remain stuck in the mental/emotional jails of not being able to do something worthwhile, then I won’t do something worthwhile. However, if I am given a choice to do the right thing, and the tools with which to accomplish it, then I will do it.

Teaching people life skills. coping skills and giving them the chance to succeed is important, and they MAY do it.  However, like for me, if you throw in empowerment, dignity, honor, lots of self-worth and truth, you have an empire of determined people!  I obtained all of this through education and awareness.  This is accomplished through allowing myself to be a part of my own change in lifestyle. not the outcome of forced change through coercion and oppressive rules.  I had to give myself permission to take on the pivotal role in changing my behavior by changing my thinking.  I needed to learn that it was in my best interest to invest serious time and energy in my recovery.

I accomplished this by being shown another, healthier way of life.  No one dreams of growing up to be a criminal, drug user or alcoholic when they are a child.  Yet, unfortunately, because it may have been the only way of life we knew, it became a lifestyle.  Now that I know I have a choice to live differently, I have become a productive member here, and will continue to be so in society.

EDUCATION.  I needed to be led in the right direction, and through myriad self help groups, therapy, and working the 12 steps, I desired to change destructive thinking patters and behavior.

REHABILITATION.  Through classes on self esteem/awareness, body language, social skills, battered women syndrome and breaking the cycle of violence, substance abuse, and codependency, I have been able to change my thinking and behavior.

SELF-IMAGING.  By having a spiritual awakening, I chose to give my life over to God, a third step principle: “We made a decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.”  In him, I have become a new creation, and with that came the ability to have my mind renewed.  I learned to allow God to lead me, and He gave me tools with which to male solid boundaries, concrete plans for my future, and hope for a healthy lifestyle.

COPING/LIFE SKILLS.  This is learned with practice and patience.  I have learned to RESPOND rather than REACT to life, which in turn creates a positive outlook for my decision-making process.

SHARING MY EXPERIENCE.  This is the final step and it is a continuum of walking the steps of recovery.  The 12th step principle is, “Having a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other (addicts, alcoholics, codependents), and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”  Because I have internalized the 12 step principles into my life, my experience is unique when shared in this light.  There are countless women who have suffered as I have, and I would not be able to keep the immeasurable knowledge, wisdom, and truths I have if I don’t give it away freely without reservation.

My journey is not over, yet this passage through this prison is at its end.  My life is an open book, with its flaws, nuances, and likable character.


Structure Matters: Understanding Crime and Incarceration, by Jodie Lawston

22 Nov

On November 17, 2011 Ashley and I did a book reading and talk on Razor Wire Women at the Regulator Bookstore in Durham, North Carolina.  People in the audience asked some poignant questions about the nature of crime, incarceration, and justice.  One of the questions in particular got me thinking about structure and agency, and why it is particularly important to analyze the role of our social structure in the mass incarceration of historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups of people.

As a sociologist, I am very familiar with the debate between structure and agency. Agency is the capacity of individuals to exercise their free will, to make choices for themselves, or to act independently.  Structure, in contrast, refers to the fixed and enduring part of the social landscape that, as one of the “fathers of sociology” Emile Durkheim pointed out, shapes and helps to determine the ways in which individuals and groups act, think, and feel.  For example, laws against interracial marriage—miscegenation laws—existed for hundreds of years and influenced how many people thought and felt about such unions: they were wrong, and legally prohibited.  The sociological concept of structure also accounts for the role of social institutions—such as the government, religion, education, family, and the media—in creating, reproducing, enforcing, and sometimes contesting societal norms and the social order.  As an example, institutions prohibited women from voting until 1920, when after much struggle the 19th amendment was passed.  Similarly, in contemporary U.S. society most people would find miscegenation laws racist and ludicrous, exemplifying that as structure changes, people’s minds can also be changed, and vise versa.

In U.S. society, and especially in the mainstream media, we are inundated with discourses, a national ideology, and sound bytes that stress individualism, free will, and personal choice at the expense of more nuanced portraits of the ways in which our social structure differentially affects groups of people according to race, class, gender, sexualities, abilities, and age.  Crime and justice are therefore conceptualized in individualistic terms.  People who are policed, arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated are seen to be in their situations because of something they did or did not do: they broke the law or failed to follow the rules; they “chose” to steal or become addicted to drugs.  Our society rationalizes that African Americans, Latinos/as, and the poor are disproportionately incarcerated because they “commit more crimes.”  As a result of looking at agency far more than we look at structure, the institutionalized discrimination and structural inequality that channels people into prisons, jails, and detention centers goes unanalyzed, and we remain in a predicament where we have the highest incarceration rates in the world, of the most vulnerable populations of people in the country.

Our social structure is important to analyze because it enhances and/or constrains our life chances.  If a person is born into a wealthy family with extensive cultural and social capital, that person’s life chances are enhanced: s/he has more resources at her/his fingertips, has access to healthy foods, is more likely to attend prestigious schools and to attend a prestigious university, and has the money to hire a competent attorney if s/he ever gets into trouble.  If a person is born into a poor family, that person has fewer resources at her/his disposal, and is less likely to have access to healthy foods or attend prestigious schools or a prestigious university.  And if the person who is poor gets into trouble, s/he is less likely to have resources to pay a private attorney (whose caseload may be far lighter than an overworked public defender) to receive a reduced sentence (or even no sentence).

Racism and socioeconomic status play a huge part in who is criminally prosecuted; communities of color and poor communities are far likelier than white and affluent communities to be policed.  And laws have created a social structure in which communities of color tend to be at a disadvantage, economically, in comparison to white communities.  As just one example in a long list of racist laws and policies that were enacted in the U.S., FHA housing laws in the 1950s gave federally backed home loans to whites, but not to Blacks and Latinos/as, so wealth was easier to build in white communities.  The wealth built from home ownership, of course, can be used in a variety of ways, including putting children through college, so that some children are at an advantage, economically, in comparison to other children.  Structure determines, to a large extent, our opportunities and constraints.

As a society we also fail to recognize that our choices are made within our particular social structure.  When the mass media suggests that people “choose” to commit crime, it often fails to take into consideration the circumstances of people’s lives.  If a person is engaged in prostitution, for example, often it is the best option s/he has, to make the most money to support herself/himself.  In this sense, as Julia Sudbury points out in Global Lockdown, mere survival is criminalized.

In addition, it is important to recognize that how we measure and assess a threat to society is often predicated on who holds political and economic leverage.  While the poor are criminally prosecuted and spend time in prison for their crimes, most white-collar and corporate crimes are not met with prison time but instead, if caught—and even when death or physical injury is involved—white collar offenders typically pay a fine.  This is particularly ironic for our capitalist society given that the direct economic costs of white-collar crime are significantly higher than the direct economic costs of street crime.  Conservative estimates put the annual cost of white-collar crime at $509 to $566 billion a year, or roughly 38 to 57 times the cost of street crime (see Gary Potter and Karen Miller’s introductory essay in Controversies in White Collar Crime, 2001, pp. 1 – 31).  The indirect economic costs of white-collar crime add to the direct economic costs, and include higher taxes, increased costs of goods and services, higher insurance rates, and potentially, slower job growth (for more on this, see David Friedrichs’ book Trusted Criminals, 2007).  And, there are significant physical costs to white-collar crime.  Whereas the physical costs of conventional violent crimes in the U.S. add up to about 18,000 deaths and 1 million serious injuries per year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that more than 30,000 Americans die each year from work related diseases and accidents, and about 3 million workers suffer from physical harm in the workplace (see Jeffrey Reiman’s The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison (2004), and David Friedrichs’ Trusted Criminals (2007)); this data does not even take into account how many undocumented workers are injured or killed each year as a result of the work they do for us.  Yet, with all of the costs of white collar and corporate crime, we fail to prosecute such crimes to the extent that we prosecute street crimes, and we do not pathologize white collar and corporate offenders in the same way that people who commit street crimes are pathologized.

I began this post by describing the relationship between structure and agency.  While structure dictates a great deal of our lives, we are not puppets.  Agency can be exerted to affect and change the structure of society.  We see this throughout history: drawing on U.S. understandings of “liberty,” “justice” and “citizenship,” activists in the civil rights movement, including most famously Martin Luther King, Jr., successfully applied U.S. definitions of “justice” and “equality” to end de jure segregation, and leaders like Ella Baker used their foundational knowledge to inspire others to fight together for an end to Jim Crow laws in the Deep South.  With 1 in every 99.1 men and women—or over 2.3 million adults—incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails (see Pew Center on the States report), it is high time that we look at our social structure to begin to move away from our reliance on imprisonment.  Rather than looking at the flaws of individuals, it’s important to look at the flaws of our structure.  The Occupy movement is doing this, as are organizations like Critical Resistance and Incite!.  If we exert our agency collectively we can change the structure of society so that mass incarceration is not the answer to social problems like poverty and racism.  Rather, resources can be channeled into communities that have been marginalized and disenfranchised, to make them safe, secure, and whole again.  We do not have to settle for anything less.

Meeting with the Long Termers Organization, by Jodie Lawston

21 Nov

On November 4, 2011, I took a group of students to meet with the Long Termers Organization (LTO) at the California Institution for Women in Corona, California.  The long termers organization is exactly what it sounds like: a group comprised of women who are incarcerated for a long time.  It was created and is run by women imprisoned at CIW.  I had met many of these women before, but we also met new women this time around.

While my students and I introduced ourselves and explained a bit about what we’ve been learning during the course of our semester together, we were careful to not talk too much so that the women in the group could speak.  What was particularly interesting was that so many women were willing to share their stories with us.  They told us stories of loss, hope, survival and resistance.  For my students—many who had never been to a prison—the trip both challenged and changed their conceptualizations of those behind bars.  Instead of seeing women in prison as faceless, dangerous monsters, they saw them as multifaceted people with complicated lives and struggles just like the rest of us.  The “us” and “them” divide was challenged, and students spoke about how the women had similar, human concerns that we all have.  Many of the women we met with have been imprisoned for over 20 years, and some for over 30 years.

The LTO is a terrific organization with some great advocates in it for women who have been imprisoned for a very long time.  California has a large number of longtermers, many who are aged 60 to 80 years. We spend on average $70,000 to $80,000 a year to incarcerate elderly people—because of the health care costs that go along with imprisoning someone who is elderly—and in some cases spend far more, for instance when people need dialysis.  What safety risk do these people pose to society?  Who benefits from their imprisonment?

The women of the LTO ask that we on the outside raise awareness about the aging population of prisoners in the United States.  It is through education and advocacy that we can perhaps reverse this trend so that resources are not being used to imprison aged and elderly populations of people.

The Holidays Intersect with Mass Incarceration: Thinking About Those Behind the Razor Wire, by Jodie Lawston

21 Nov

The holidays are approaching, and while many people are getting ready to share meals, company, and time with family and friends, almost 2.5 million people are also locked behind prison walls without regular contact with their loved ones.  During a time in history when the holidays are becoming more and more synonymous with mass consumption, it’s sometimes helpful to think about the ways that we may be able to bring a smile to someone’s face in simple, yet very effective and meaningful, ways.

Prisoners often do not have contact with brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and friends.  While many incarcerated people have strong bonds and come together to celebrate holidays within the confines of prison walls, it still makes people’s day when they get some form of communication with the outside world.  A card, a short note, or even a small donation to programs like the Action Committee for Women in Prison’s Christmas Program  can make all the difference in an imprisoned person’s life.  This holiday season, think about writing to an incarcerated person to let her/him know that people on the outside are thinking about them, and that they are not forgotten.

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