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CI: The Promise/The Peril of This Moment

March 12, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights, What People are Doing to Change the World

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. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

The Promise/The Peril of This Moment
by nancy a heitzeg

” Well, I think we have to act as if there is hope. “ Angela Davis, March 2014

In a recent interview with Democracy Now! , the miracle that is Angela Davis reminds us again that there is power in struggle, there is opportunity in the moment, but warns us too of the potential pitfalls of  “criminal justice reform”.

Well, yes. I think that this is a pivotal moment. There are openings. And I think it’s very important to point out that people have been struggling over these issues for years and for decades. This is also a problematic moment. And those of us who identify as prison abolitionists, as opposed to prison reformers, make the point that oftentimes reforms create situations where mass incarceration becomes even more entrenched; and so, therefore, we have to think about what in the long run will produce decarceration, fewer people behind bars, and hopefully, eventually, in the future, the possibility of imagining a landscape without prisons, where other means are used to address issues of harm, where social problems, such as illiteracy and poverty, do not lead vast numbers of people along a trajectory that leads to prison.

CI has expressed similar concerns here ( See Smoke and Mirrors?, Confidence Men and Prison Reform, Con Artists, Profits, and Community Corrections ) . There are many questions to be asked about the ostensible movement away from mass incarceration   embraced by the right, most notably by Right on Crime. As Kay Whitlock notes, ‘the right reinvented as prison reformers”. If this makes you nervous, it should.  Expanded privatization schemes, profits and deregulation are, per usual, the ultimate end game.

It is easy to be suspicious of the right-wing agendas. But well-meaning Scandinavian model liberals can do their own sort of damage. I was reminded of this again at a  panel hosted by the League of Voters last week, Interrupting the Prison Pipeline: Partnerships, Prevention, Advocacy, Intervention. The panel included a host of well-connected Minneapolis political, non-profit and faith-based “leaders”.  And despite the claims of “interrupting” in the title, the primary focus was in providing services to those already incarcerated or to ex-offenders in the form of increased employment opportunities via Ban the Box legislation, expanded voting rights for probationers, and more Second Chances.

And of course we are for that. But where was discussion about prevention, alternatives to criminal justice, dismantling the school to prison pipeline, the impetus for the first chances?

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Angela Davis on Prison Abolition, the War on Drugs and Why Social Movements Shouldn’t Wait on Obama (Full Transcript)

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CI: Stand Against Solitary

February 26, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Civil Rights, Corrupt Judiciary, Corrupt Legislature, Criminal Injustice Series, Military Industrial Complex, Prison Industrial Complex

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. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Stand Against Solitary
by nancy a heitzeg

For Roses in Concrete

prison-hungerstrike-poster

“Prison policy is usually shaped out of public view, but the duration and visibility of the hunger strike has helped make the subject politically urgent. Last week, New York State agreed to extensive new restrictions on whom it could confine to its SHU. This week, in Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing titled “Reassessing Solitary Confinement.” Other states have also curtailed the use of isolation recently—Indiana, where change was compelled by a federal judge’s ruling, and Maine, Mississippi, and Colorado, which had faced pressure from prisoners’-rights groups. These changes are too few to constitute a total rejection of the practice. But for the first time, it has begun to seem plausible that the American attachment to this special kind of imprisonment is not a national peculiarity so much as a generational one, and that a 25-year experiment may be ending.”  ~ “The Plot from Solitary”, by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine

The struggle to end the tortuous use of solitary confinement is a grim one. Like the movement to abolish the death penalty, it forces us to grapple with horrifying details of life in box, buried alive, slow motion death – the gradual, state-sponsored decay of both body and mind. Worse still even,  victory in the abolition of these practices will never be enough. They are mere symptoms of the pathology of mass incarceration, mere branches never the root, that end up afflicting a numerical minority of those 2.3 million persons who languish, one way or another, in the context of the prison industrial complex. Yet resist we must.

Excessive and extensive use of long term solitary confinement is amongst the most egregious of the many human rights violations in US prisons and jails. The practice is now so pervasive that, according to Solitary Watch: “Based on available data, there are at least 80,000 prisoners in isolated confinement on any given day in America’s prisons and jails, including some 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons.” These stints are no longer the “proverbial “30 days in the hole” but regular conditions of confinement that last for decades, sometimes, as in the cases of Hugo Pinell and Albert Woodfox  ranging up to 40 years. There is widespread agreement that this is tantamount to torture.

The routinization and expansion of long term solitary confinement in the late 20th century is intended to control – not just individual inmates, but the general population as well. Indefinite and ambiguously administered solitary confinement looms as a threat to all. It is no accident that the proliferation of control units and SuperMax prisons emerges in the aftermath of successful inmate organizing and a growing connection between “imprisoned intellectuals “ and the community outside. ( See Strategizing to Defeat Control Unit Prisons and Solitary Confinement –An interview with author/activist Nancy Kurshan ) Control units serve decidedly political functions – they are meant to quell dissent and stymy inmate organizing.

Despite some particular and short-lived successes, even here the Carceral State has failed. The legal victories noted below all emanate from inmates themselves who have managed to be heard, to reach out, to organize and mobilize, even from 6 feet under. Roses that grew in concrete. More power to them.

Melanie Cervantes and Dignidad Rebelde

Melanie Cervantes and Dignidad Rebelde

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CI: Feds Finally Take Action to End School to Prison Pipeline

January 15, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Education, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, What People are Doing to Change the World

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. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Feds Finally Take Action to End School to Prison Pipeline
by nancy a heitzeg

Last week, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division responded to more than a decade of data-driven critique of zero tolerance policies, the criminalization of education, and the creation of a school to prison pipeline. The Departments jointly issued extensive new guidelines urging schools to abandon zero tolerance policies, reduce a “policing” approach, and rely instead on restorative justice .

Persistent and consistent disparities in rate of suspensions and expulsions are the heart of the official critique. As the New York Times notes in “The Civil Rights of Children“:
rjpeducation_01

“The guidance documents included striking data on racial inequities. For example, African-American students represent only 15 percent of public school students, but they make of 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and 36 percent of those expelled. Statistical information does not in itself prove discrimination. But research has shown that black students do not engage in more serious or more frequent misbehavior than other students.

The treatment of disabled students should be a source of national shame: They represent 12 percent of students in the country, but they make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.”

This is consistent with a growing national concern over the school to prison pipeline.  The U.S. Department of Education and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice committed in 2012 to addressing disparities in the school suspensions and expulsions as a civil rights matter, including filing suit against the State of Mississippi for operating a school to prison pipeline in Meridian. In December of 2012 the first ever Congressional hearings on the school to prison pipeline were held and featured expert testimony that detailed both the scope of the problem and solutions including calls for decreased funding incentives for police, increased funding for counseling, support staff  and educational resources, mandatory nation-wide data collection on suspension, expulsion and arrests at school, and support for evidenced-based solutions to end the persistent racial disparities that shape the contours of the pipeline.

The guidelines leave some questions – especially around the police presence at schools-but they are a much welcome step forward that reminds us too of the importance of federal framing and leadership. The complete set of resources is included below.

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CI: More Than 1000 Words…

December 11, 2013 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Corrupt Judiciary, Corrupt Legislature, Criminal Defense, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

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. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

More than 1000 Words…
by nancy a heitzeg

How many tens of trillions of words have been written here and elsewhere about the state of Criminal InJustice? How ever many, it has not been enough. Despite claims of and calls for reform, the USA remains Incarceration Nation, with a brutal system of harsh sentences, extreme conditions, with a racial dynamic that persists, perhaps because it is precisely the point.

The scope and scale are stunning. So tonight, let’s just look. The following graphics are from a new fact sheet from The Sentencing Project: Trends in US Corrections. The numbers and images speak  for themselves.

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Fair Sentencing Act Ruled Not Retroactive for Inmates Sentenced under 100 to 1 Ratios

December 03, 2013 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Corrupt Judiciary, Corrupt Legislature, Criminal Defense, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Divided Federal Court Rules Crack Cocaine Sentencing Reforms Do Not Apply To Those Already in Prison

Today, a sharply divided Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the unfair, unjustified, and racially discriminatory crack cocaine/powder cocaine sentencing ratio from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1, does not apply to thousands of individuals who are currently incarcerated pursuant to sentences imposed under the discredited 100-to-1 regime.  Seven judges concluded that the FSA should apply to those serving sentences under the 100-to-1 federal sentencing structure, and ten judges declared that it should not.NA-BL741A_CRACK_NS_20110601213903

“We are deeply disappointed in the outcome of this case. Thousands of people, the majority of whom are African-American, are still serving time under an unfair drug sentencing regime that has destroyed individuals, families and communities. Today’s decision demonstrates that those who are working to eliminate the impermissible role of race in criminal prosecutions and sentences still have much more work to do. We will continue to press this issue in the court,” said Sherrilyn A. Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., a leading civil rights law firm and a separate entity from the NAACP…

In 2010, Congress passed the FSA to reduce the irrationality and unfairness occasioned by a federal sentencing structure under which 100 grams of powder cocaine triggered the same sentence as a single gram of crack cocaine. Congress made this change in recognition of the fact that powder cocaine and crack are indistinguishable from one another and the fact that the law was imposed in starkly racially disproportionate ways.  Indeed, Judge Karen Nelson Moore, who joined the majority and concluded that the law does not apply to those who are already serving 100-to-1 prison sentences, acknowledged that the 100-to-1 ratio “led to the mass incarceration of African-American men and has bred distrust of law enforcement in the larger African-American community.” Nationwide, nearly 9,000 individuals—90% of whom are African American–are serving out sentences imposed on them under the 100-to-1 ratio.

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CI: Remembering Trayvon Martin, Special Edition of ProudFlesh

November 27, 2013 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Education, Gun Culture, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, What People are Doing to Change the World, White Privilege

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. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Remembering Trayvon Martin, Special Edition of ProudFlesh
by nancy a heitzeg

 CI is thankful for the publication of a Special Travyon Martin Issue of ProudFlesh: New Afrikan Journal of Culture, Politics, and Consciousness. Although this journal usually requires a subscription, the editors have made this issue free and available in perpetuity, and are encouraging its’ use in classroom and community education. If you are interested in accessing the entire issue , just go to the link above and create an account for free access.

proud fleshA special issue on Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African-American teenager killed by George Zimmerman, while walking home. May your soul rest in peace (February 5, 1995 – February 26, 2012). The issue is guest-edited by Azuka Nzegwu, Ph.D.

The issue chronicles the case from the initial petition for prosecution from Tracy Martin and Sabrina Fulton through the trial and aftermath with the work of artists, musician, scholars, poets, activists. An editorial by Azuka Nzegwu, PhD  opens the journal and is reprinted below. Appropriately, the issue closes with the recent report issued by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Operation Ghetto Storm: 2012 Annual Report on the extrajudicial killing of 313 Black people by police, security guards and vigilantes and Let Your Motto Be Resistance (covered here in The War on Black ~ “Color-blindness” and Criminalization, Part 1 and Part 2)

Readers may recognize several pieces that have been published at CI: Am I Next? by Rodney Coates, After Trayvon Martin Revisited by Kay Whitlock with Nancy A. Heitzeg, Of the Verdict, “Whiteness” and Abolition by Nancy A. Heitzeg, and What Would Real Justice for Trayvon Martin Look Like? by Kay Whitlock.

We are so honored to be included here.

So as we approach a day of thanks giving, CI would like to thank ProudFlesh for creating this issue and making it available for all. Thank you to Azuka Nzegwu, PhD  for allowing us to reprint the introductory editorial. Thank you to everyone, everywhere who helped create awareness around the Martin case and the too many that resemble it. And special thanks to @princss6 and a Twitter storm that keeps on bringing the news, even now.  Thanks to so many others, too many to name.

No Justice/No Peace.

Never Forget.

Trayvon – Jasiri X

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CI: No to Mandatory Minimums ~ Yes To Another Way

November 20, 2013 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Education, Gun Culture, Intersectionality, Military Industrial Complex, Prison Industrial Complex, What People are Doing to Change the World

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. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

No to Mandatory Minimums ~ Yes To Another Way*
by nancy a heitzeg

Evidence of the high costs – economic and sociological – of mandatory minimums mount. ( See the new ACLU Report on life without parole for non-violent offenders, A Living Death: Sentenced to Die Behind Bars for What? ). Still, so-called “liberal” politicians continue to push for the expansion of such laws. Like his California counter-part, Jerry Brown, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s response to the complex issues of violence in the city is a simplistic call for increased mandatory minimums for guns via HB 2265/SB 1342.

Defeated for the moment, this bill has the support of the NRA now, so if you are in Illinois, please continue to contact your representatives. Opponents agree that this bill will compound the incarceration crisis, escalate racialized policing, and  fail to address the under-lying issues. From Decarcerate Illinois:

image (1)1. Mandatory minimums do not deter crime

There is no credible evidence that imposing mandatory minimum sentences leads to crime reduction.  States that have implemented mandatory minimums have found them to be ineffective.  For example, a study of Florida’s 3 year mandatory minimum for weapons offenses found that it “did not have a measurable deterrent effect on violent crime.”  Mandatory minimum sentences simply sweep more people into the prison system for longer periods of time without a measurable benefit to public safety.

2. Mandatory minimums destroy lives.

Mandatory minimums take the law out of the hands of judges, requiring them to impose draconian sentences when they are not warranted.  Young people slapped with mandatory minimum sentences under SB1342 would face drastically reduced prospects in life, benefiting no one. Judges should be able to weigh the circumstances before them and exercise discretion, not be forced into a lazy “one size fits all” approach.

3. Mandatory minimums are too costly.

In its original form, SB1342 was calculated to add 4,000 individuals to Illinois’ swollen prison population at a cost of approximately $965,000,000 over ten years.  The bill has been amended (see “SB1342 Fact Sheet” for details) and a new cost estimate is being produced, but it will certainly involve hundreds of millions of dollars, money that would be much better spent on efforts that are proven to reduce violence, such as generating jobs, investing in schools, and providing physical and mental health care. Given how ineffective mandatory minimums have proven to be, the costs of implementing a new mandatory minimum in Illinois cannot be justified.

Bu there is a different way; there is a bolder vision.

For Chicago. For Everywhere.

Let us forge a new path.

If You Want Peace, Fight for Justice
September 7, 2013

Keynote Speaker: Angela Davis
Special Guest and Commentator: Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle
Moderator: Cheryl Corley
Panelists: Ryan Hollon (YMCA Youth Safety and Violence Prevention Initiative), Mariame Kaba (Project Nia), Ameena Matthews (Violence Interrupter), Henry Cervantes (Marquette University Peace Works Program)

The focus of the first annual Bending the Arc Symposium will be gun violence as a social, racial and economic justice issue. The discussion will be framed around the ways that young people, their families and their communities have been harmed by the actual violence as well as the ways that policy makers, law enforcement officials, social service providers, the media and, in some cases community leaders have responded to the problem. At best, common intervention strategies focus on overly simplified notions of “perpetrators” and “innocent victims” that result in uncoordinated and short-term responses to crisis situations. Worse, the problem of gun violence has promoted a way of speaking in racially coded language about young people of color (mostly men) that normalizes them as legitimate targets of harsh law enforcement from the criminal legal system.

Event Co-Sponsors

Black Youth Project
Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts & Media at Columbia College
Crossroads Fund
The Institute For Research On Race and Public Policy at UIC
Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
First Defense Legal Aid
National Lawyers Guild of Chicago
Public Square
Project Nia
Saint James Cathedral
Woods Fund of Chicago

* Special thanks to Mariame Kaba of Project Nia and Suey Park, for the graphic.

CI: Black Life, Perceived Threat, and “Stand Your Ground”

November 13, 2013 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Defense, Criminal Injustice Series, Gun Culture, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, What People are Doing to Change the World

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. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Black Life, Perceived Threat, and “Stand Your Ground”
by nancy a heitzeg

Almost one year ago, CI published Standing Up to Stand Your Ground in response to the murder of Jordan Davis. In the ensuing months, we have witnessed an intensifying climate of toxic Anti-Blackness, where fear and explict/implict bias turn deadly and white killers walk.

The acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin . The death of Jordan Davis. The death of at least 6 Black men, women or children at the hands of someone employed or protected by the US government. Jonathan Ferrell, who survived a car crash only to be shot 10 times by the police while seeking help. And now Renisha McBride, another help-seeking crash survivor shot in the head with a 12 gauge shotgun by a Stand Your Ground Michigan homeowner. Brittany Cooper in Asking for Help While Black: How it Became a Capital Offense:

Screen-shot-2013-11-08-at-2.27.20-PMWhite supremacy is no country for black people. Gender be damned. And it remains abundantly clear that black life is still considered a reasonable price to pay for the protection of white property and white life. White supremacy works to reassert and maintain dominance by striking fear in the hearts of black and brown people, by restricting our free movement through the world, by reminding us at every turn, that we might end up the indiscriminate victims of white rage. We are made to believe that white rage is ephemeral, though, such that we look up in its aftermath, devastated by its inhabitation, but remain unable to track, trail or trap it. With a kind of profound certitude, though, we can generally trust its trail of black destruction.

Video by dream hampton

Drip, drip, drip.

So too the calls for “justice” – one by one by one – from a system designed to devalue  it. Ultimately, we must challenge both the cultural constructs and structural processes which collude/collide/conspire to devalue Black Life. As Kay Whitlock notes in What Would Real Justice for Trayvon Martin Look Like?:

blPNGWhile the NRA may solidify its ethically bankrupt power by encouraging an ethos of enmity and expendability, great leaders for social change—King, Gandhi, Chavez, Huerta, Malcolm X, Archbishop Oscar Romero—have always rightly noted the importance of simultaneous forms of transformation at both individual and structural levels.

Where are the civic and faith-based leaders calling for such transformation today?   Where are today’s risk-takers who are willing to step out into the great storms of fear—those who are willing to call not for more policing, punishment , and retribution, but for justice that not only names and confronts, but works to transform and heal the terrible wounds of structural racism in this purportedly “colorblind” society?

Even as we mourn the loss of Trayvon Martin and so many other young people of color, let us reflect on the collective duty before us: valuing their lives by dismantling all the neutral-sounding ways in which racism manifests—anti-immigrant laws, gutting of the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression efforts, Stop and Frisk police practices, race-based mass incarceration and more. If we’re serious about racial justice, we have to embrace measures equal to the challenge.

The challenge is a daunting. Legal challenges to Stand Your Ground laws remain a starting place. Since CI originally published its’ critique, a growing body of research indicates that these laws have contributed to the racially fueled climate of guns and violence, with white shooters being wide latitude to kill Blacks. For example, a recent study of homicide conviction rates in the 22 states with such laws, found that 17% of the homicides of black victims by white defendants were ruled justifiable, while only 1% of the homicides of white victims by black defendants were deemed legally justifiable.

Resistance has mounted as well. But repealing these laws will  largely be a state by state struggle. And so, as a reminder of the scope and legal pitfalls of expanding “gun rights” legislation, CI revisits an updated Standing Up to “Stand Your Ground” below..

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