† 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.
CI: PRISONERS IN THE EYE OF THE STORMS
by Kay Whitlock
Two storms are making their way through wide swaths of this country.
The devastation being wrought by Hurricane Sandy staggers the imagination. It is almost incomprehensible in its scope, and it resurrects nightmares of Katrina.
The second storm, instigated by the Republican/corporate Right – and its current head cheerleaders, Romney/Ryan – has been building for a long time. It also wreaks havoc and devastates with its frenzies of racism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ venom, xenophobia, and economic savagery fueled by blatant lies.
Its impacts stagger the moral and spiritual imagination.
It is axiomatic that those who suffered the worst economically before the disaster are sure to bear the heaviest brunt of the devastation in its wake.
Here are a couple of snapshots of the impacts of these storms on one of this country’s designated “most expendable” population: prisoners and former prisoners, who are disproportionately people of color and poor.
Rikers Island: New York City
About 12,000 prisoners are incarcerated at Rikers Island, between Queens and the Bronx, close to the mouth of Long Island Sound. Just over a year ago, in 2011, when Hurricane Irene was making its way along the Atlantic Coast, NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced that the prisoners would not be evacuated. In fact, even had anyone wanted to try to evacuate them – even theoretically – no Rikers Island evacuation plan existed. At the time, only a few advocacy organizations, including the intrepid Solitary Watch, locked-up-and-left-behind-new-yorks-prisoners-and-hurricane-irene/ were paying attention, but they managed to create something of a stir.
Hurricane Irene was chump change compared to Hurricane Sandy. So that should’ve been a wake-up call, right?
But as Sandy came roaring up the coast a few days ago, Mayor Bloomberg had an almost identical response to offer when asked about prisoners at Rikers Island. Apparently unable to comprehend that anyone might care about the safety and well being of incarcerated people, he seemed annoyed, and simply told reporters that no prisoners would escape because of the storm. On Monday, 30 October, the Department of Corrections (DOC) assured everyone that Rikers Island was secure, no power outages had occurred, and that most of the island was in a No Flood Zone. The Deputy DOC assured people that the “short answer” is that an evacuation plan exists – even though it doesn’t seem to appear on the city’s evacuation maps.
Despite such assurances, Lisa Ortega remains skeptical about the existence of a viable evacuation plan. She points out that the only exit from Rikers is via a single bridge to Queens, inadequate to serve as a secure escape route for 12,000 or more prisoners and staff. “The city needs to be able to share with us the specifics of their so-called evacuation procedure.”
She listed a number of questions she would like to see answered: ”How and where would inmates be relocated to if need be? How long would their food and water supply last? If the bridge was not available for use, are there boat and life jackets enough for all inmates? What staff are designated to staff and are they trained for such emergencies?”
Ortega, a member of the New York City Jails Action Coalition (JAC) is also concerned by stories she says were told to her by her son and other prisoners on Rikers following Hurricane Irene. “Last year my son said inmates we all put on lockdown, and given sandwiches in their cells instead of being let out to eat,” she says. “The guards told them it was so there would be no ‘panic or possible takeover’ by inmates.” According to her son, the guards also told inmates, “‘If shit goes down, we are out of here.’
Rikers Island isn’t marked as an evacuation zone, as are surrounding areas.
There’s every reason to side with Lisa Ortega. Many people still remember the horror stories of what happened to prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison when Katrina broke the levees.
In the meantime, Solitary Watch would appreciate “hearing from families whose loved ones (prisoners or staff) weathered the storm on Rikers and can provide accounts of their experiences.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prisons & Voter Disenfranchisement: The United States
Here are three quick illustrations of how prisoners are used by the Right to deconstruct any remaining shreds of democracy.
Romney Style Disenfranchisement
A patchwork of laws prohibiting voting by people with felony convictions exists that, according to The Sentencing Project, temporarily or permanently disenfranchise almost 6 million citizens. Because people of color are disproportionately incarcerated in the United States, this translates into pure racism. 1 out of every 13 African Americans, for example, is denied the right to vote.
Though almost all states deny the vote to people who are incarcerated, a number of states have, over time, taken some action to restore that right to prisoners who have completed their sentences or are no longer locked up. Wisconsin is one of those states. Once a Wisconsin voter who has been convicted of a felony completes a sentence, including probation and fines, eligibility to vote is restored.
Not according to documents ThinkProgress obtained from a recent Romney poll watcher training – documents apparently used in about 25 Wisconsin trainings. The training packet tells poll watchers that any “person [who] has been convicted of treason, a felony, or bribery” cannot vote.
Nice touch, eh, lumping a felony conviction in with “treason.”
Not surprisingly, these Romney/Ryan poll watcher trainings also encourage volunteers to not identify themselves with the campaign, but only to say they are “concerned citizens.”
It’s all part of a much broader, systemic Republican/Right effort to criminalize the vote.
But Prison-Based Gerrymandering is Fine
But as long as our society can make use of prisoners to increase our voting power, why not?
It is a very longstanding practice of the U.S. Census Bureau, says the Prison Policy Initiative’s Prisoners of the Census project, to count incarcerated people as residents of the town where they are confined – even though those prisoners cannot vote in those towns. And that’s so even though many state constitutions and statutes state clearly that incarceration does not alter a person’s residence.
Now imagine the impact this has for distorting population demographics and representation at local and state levels. And remember: the Census is only taken once every 10 years.
YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO IN THE FACE OF INHUMANITY & INJUSTICE
Elections don’t solve all our problems. Not nearly. But they can give us breathing room.
Room to move. They can help us staunch some of the worst of the suffering.
And this election is vitally important. Let’s send Romney/Ryan packing. Otherwise, master teller of terror tales Joss Whedon is right: prepare for the Romney Zombie Apocalypse.
Vote early if you can, and on 6 November if you can’t.
Here’s your Election Day Voter Tool Kit.
And here’s your link to help GOTV.
See you on the far side of the election, beautiful people, where we’ll pick up and continue our long-term work, together.