CI: Look

March 21, 2012 at 2:50 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, International Law, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

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Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.

by nancy a. heitzeg

Prisons are ubiquitous, yet ironically invisible in our Incarceration Nation. They permeate our literal and figurative landscapes — both physical and psychic. The prison industrial complex represents a source of jobs and corporate profit, an economic growth sector, the “law and order” back-bone of political careers and the subject of reality shows and news accounts and True Crime stories.

We love to look.

But the prison industrial complex also represents 2.5 million interrupted lives — those of real human beings with families and stories and histories. And in addition to the pains associated with loss of liberty, the conditions of confinement for many, are increasingly tantamount to torture.

And where there are prisons, there is torture: brutal beatings, grave humiliations, perverse censorship – and even murders – all under a legal system that is as blind as that statue of a woman holding aloft a scale, her eyes covered by a frigid fold of cloth

And then, we turn away.

Drawing: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, held in solitary confinement in Virginia for the past 18 years, created this visual essay for National Occupy Day in Support of Prisoners and was especially eager for the Bay View to publish it. Since he drew what became the icon of the California hunger strikes (see below) nearly a year ago, retaliation has been brutal, and last week, with no warning or explanation, he was driven across the country to a prison in Oregon. Mail is critical not only to encourage Rashid as he adjusts to his new “home” but to notify the Oregon prison authorities that his many supporters demand he be treated with respect. Write to Kevin Johnson, 70384537, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, 24499 SW Grahams Ferry Rd, Wilsonville OR 97070

Never is this paradox more apparent than when i visit a place noted for beautiful scenery or touristy “fun” and the excesses of mass incarceration are hidden in plain sight. Louisiana, for example, noted for Creole and cuisine, for New Orleans, jazz and Mardis Gras. The fact that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world — the City of New Orleans, even higher still with small town of more than 6000 prisoners in the Orleans Parish Prison, hidden right near the center of a major metropolitan area – certainly does not appear on vacation brochures.

Nor does the fact that sunny California — the land of Hollywood, Disneyland, breath-taking scenery, of San Francisco, flowers in your hair, the Haight and the Castro — imprisons in sheers numbers more than any state. More prisoners here than Florida, more than Texas even — nearly a quarter million locked away in what is the epicenter of the contemporary PIC. Numbers so excessive they made the SCOTUS blink and declare that the extreme over-crowding must be reduced by as many as 46,000 inmates. And conditions of solitary confinement so egregious that inmates have staged as series of hunger strikes, and most recently appealed to the United Nations for relief:

The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law believes that the treatment of California prisoners placed in Administrative Segregation Units and Security Housing Units should be brought before the United Nations. Placing thousands of prisoners in segregation for long periods of time is one of the most serious mass human rights violations taking place in the United States today.

The men being held in the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU Short Corridor agreed, and the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law has prepared a petition to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Human Rights Council, United Nations General Assembly, with 22 main plaintiffs of different races at different California prisons, ranging from one year in segregation up to 39 years in complete isolation based solely on a process of prison gang “validation” by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

But wherever there are cages –there are those seeking to open them. Just as California is the home of the modern PIC, so too is it the home of the Prison Abolition Movement.

Critical Resistance. Prison Radio. Prison Abolitionist. Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity. California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. So many more..

And more on all this later, for now, wherever you are — Look..

[We] must turn the wheel of the so-called “criminal justice system” in America, which is, in fact, a destructive, counter-productive, annual $69 billion boondoggle of repression, better known by activists as the Prison Industrial Complex…

That means more than a one-day event, no matter how massive or impressive. It means building a mass movement that demands and fights for real change, and eventually the abolition of structures that do far more social damage than good.

It means the abolition of solitary confinement, for it is no more than modern-day torture chambers for the poor.

It means the repeal of repressive laws that support such structures.

It means social change – or it means nothing.

So, let us begin: Down with the Prison Industrial Complex!

Drawing by Kevin " Rashid" Johnson. This drawing by Rashid Johnson for his comrades in California was immediately adopted as the icon of the hunger strikes that drew over 12,000 participants. Rashid, who excels not only as an artist but as a writer as well, is commonly compared to the legendary George Jackson.


Thank you for this important diary, Nancy. I am in such a rage over what happened to Trayvon Martin in Florida and the fact that that murderous bigot that shot him is walking around free that I can hardly read. 


So sad to me that that awful prison is in the most beautiful land of my roots. Tragic and awful.


Early or late, CI rules!!! Thanks again.


We look.  And then we turn away.  In between, we occasionally deplore and say "they" should do something about it.


But there is no "they."  WE must be the ones.  Even if they were so inclined, the politicians couldn't do it by themselves.  Huge cultural change - and this would be huge – must be rooted in grassroots community support sufficient to withstand the howls and screams of profit-producers who traffic in confined bodies - especially bodies of people of color.


Nancy, this is prophetic.  Thank you.


as usual, thanks for the insightful article.


have a great time with hans!

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

sorry CI is up early today .


I am in San Fran -- headed across the Bay Bridge in search of Hans Bennet/Prison Radio.




Comment as you can or will and i will check in later.


we will be back to our regular posting time next week -- 6 pm Central


 @rubyr hey, rubyr, great to see you!  Yes, the vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin is horrific.  Shot to death by a Neighborhood Watch captain.  "Get tough" saturates the very air we breathe.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @KayWhitlock Yes -- We Are The Ones W HAve Been Waiting For..


June Jordan had it right


thanks for being here -- always kay


 @ScottieThomaston Hey, scottie!  Racing today, but I owe you an email.  Can I catch up with you tomorrow?  Sending love.


 @KayWhitlock Sure! That's fine, I understand. I'm really slacking off too (especially as far as being over here more often, or at all...) but hope to be more free soon.


  1. […] protracted isolation in the California system  have been addressed consistently at CI — see here, here and here for a start. See also Amnesty International’s report — The Edge of […]