A Prison Lifer Comes Home
The Atlantic by Maura Ewing and Samantha Melamed
Haywood “Red Dog” Fennell was finishing up work for the day, headed back to his cell at Pennsylvania’s largest-capacity prison, when a friend called him over, eager to share the news that had lit up the men’s tiny TV screens and sent shouts and whistles echoing down the long, cavernous cell block. It was June 25, 2012, and the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional for juveniles. Pennsylvania had imposed that sentence on more kids than any other state—some 500 of them, many now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.
Men who still had their mothers called home to share the news. The jailhouse lawyers got creative with petitions to speed their release. The religious men said prayers. Fennell didn’t see much cause to celebrate. Forty-eight years of incarceration for a role in a fatal mugging when he was 17, and 11 denied commutation applications, had hardened him against fantasies of freedom. Besides, Fennell was 20 years old by the time he was convicted and sentenced. He figured the Supreme Court decision didn’t even apply to him.
Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind
The New York Times by Rachel Kushner
April 17, 2019
There’s an anecdote that Ruth Wilson Gilmore likes to share about being at an environmental-justice conference in Fresno in 2003. People from all over California’s Central Valley had gathered to talk about the serious environmental hazards their communities faced, mostly as a result of decades of industrial farming, conditions that still have not changed. (The air quality in the Central Valley is the worst in the nation, and one million of its residents drink tap water more poisoned than the water in Flint, Mich.) There was a “youth track” at the conference, in which children were meant to talk about their worries and then decide as a group what was most important to be done in the name of environmental justice. Gilmore, a renowned geography professor (then at University of California, Berkeley, now at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan) and an influential figure in the prison-abolition movement, was a keynote speaker.
She was preparing her talk when someone told her that the kids wanted to speak with her. She went into the room where they were gathered. The children were primarily Latino, many of them the sons and daughters of farmworkers or other people in the agriculture industry. They ranged in age, but most were middle schoolers: old enough to have strong opinions and to distrust adults. They were frowning at her with their shoulders up and their arms crossed. She didn’t know these kids, but she understood that they were against her.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“We hear you’re a prison abolitionist,” one said. “You want to closeprisons?”
Gilmore said that was right; she did want to close prisons.
But why, they asked. And before she could answer, one said, “But what about the people who do something seriously wrong?” Others chimed in. “What about people who hurt other people?” “What about if someone kills someone?”
Whether from tiny farm towns or from public housing around Fresno and Bakersfield, these children, it was obvious to Gilmore, understood innately the harshness of the world and were not going to be easily persuaded.
“I get where you’re coming from,” she said. “But how about this: Instead of asking whether anyone should be locked up or go free, why don’t we think about why we solve problems by repeating the kind of behavior that brought us the problem in the first place?” She was asking them to consider why, as a society, we would choose to model cruelty and vengeance.
The Atlantic by Frank Tannenbaum
Remember as you read this is almost 100 years old and still too relevant today:
To the uninitiated, prison cruelty seems to be a rare and isolated phenomenon. When on occasion instances of it become known and the community has its sense of decency outraged, there is generally a demand for investigation and removal of the guilty warden and keeper. With that achieved, the average citizen settles back comfortably into the old habits of life, without asking too many questions, and with the general assumption that, after all, it cannot be expected that prisons should be turned into palaces.
To him who goes into the matter more deeply, there is the added comfort, not only that the given warden has been punished for cruelty, but that there are legal and constitutional provisions against its reappearance. Our laws provide against cruel and unusual punishments, and to the average mind, with its faith in the law, this is sufficient assurance against their repetition. These facts, added to the infrequency of the publicity, strengthen the general feeling that prison brutality is a personal matter for which particular individuals are responsible.
This is the general view. But to those who are acquainted with prison organization, brutality is a constant factor—constant as the prison itself; and the publicity which upon occasion makes it known to the public has only an accidental relation to the thing itself. It is some fortunate approach on the part of an inmate to the publicity forces in the community, or some accidental trial, such as brought before the public the current charges against Bedford, which makes it evident that brutality exists in a particular institution. It is obvious, of course, that, had it not been for the trial at which the charges of brutality at Bedford were brought in as a part of the court procedure, brutality might have existed for a long period of time without general public knowledge. I am stressing this point because it helps to carry the important fact that cruelty in prison and publicity out it are not closely related.
Test your knowledge of American Incarceration
The New York Times by Sahil Chinoy and Ask Ngu
December 21, 2018
The criminal justice reform bill known as the First Step Act, which President Trump signed into law on Friday, has been lauded as a sorely needed instance of bipartisan lawmaking. The law will reduce sentences for federal prisoners while seeking to balance public safety needs.
Here, you can check your knowledge of the American criminal justice system and how the First Step Act fits in.
Read More & take the test
The Love Story that Upended the Texas Prison System
Texas Monthly by Ethan Watters
October 11, 2018
In 1967, a 56-year-old lawyer met a young inmate with a brilliant mind and horrifying stories about life inside. Their complicated alliance—and even more complicated romance—would shed light on a nationwide scandal, disrupt a system of abuse and virtual slavery across the state, and change incarceration in Texas forever.
On November 9, 1967, Fred Cruz was in his sixth year of a fifteen-year robbery sentence and starting yet another stint in the hole. Of the many punishments the Texas prison system doled out to inmates, solitary confinement was one of the most brutal on the body and the soul. It wasn’t Cruz’s first time there, but it wasn’t something one got used to. The Ellis Unit, about fourteen miles north of Huntsville in a boggy lowland area of East Texas, was known as the toughest prison in the system, and there was no worse place to be in Ellis than solitary.
The cell’s darkness was so complete it made the eyes ache. On some occasions, Cruz was given a thin blanket and nothing else—no clothes and no mattress for the steel bunk. His toilet was a hole in the floor. He’d receive only three slices of bread a day with a full meal twice a week, and had shed multiple pounds from his already thin frame. After two weeks, an outer door to the cell would be opened, allowing in light from the hallway. This would be considered a “release” from solitary. Then the warden or an officer would come by and assess the sincerity of Cruz’s contrition. If he failed that yes-sir-no-sir encounter, the solid steel door would be shut again and the days of darkness would recommence.
The Other Side of "Broken Windows"
The New Yorker by Eric Klinenberg
August 23, 2018
In the nineteenth century, British researchers began studying the variation in crime rates between and within cities. Some of these studies offered relatively simple accounts of the variance, in which concentrated poverty led to higher crime. Others went further, asking what explained the disparities in crime rates among poor neighborhoods. Most of this work “offered theories,” the University of Pennsylvania criminologist John MacDonald wrote in a recent paper, “but did not attempt to provide guidance on how to curb crime.”
Three Strikes Didn't Work. It's Time to Pay Reparations
The Marshall Project by Juleyka Lantigua Williams
August 26, 2018
I WAS RAISED IN THE SOUTH BRONX in the late 1980s and ’90s. I came of age and into my consciousness while a generation of men of color were herded into the criminal justice system under the rigid, unyielding habitual offender laws — three-strikes laws — for nonviolent drug-related offenses.
As shown in decades of analyses, the legacy of that policy that swept neighborhoods and entire cities clean of young men has been families broken apart, household incomes systematically gutted and swaths of urban spaces left vulnerable and bereft.
Article: Think prison abolition in America is impossible? It once felt inevitable : Guardian by Dubler and Lloyd
Think prison abolition in America is impossible? It once felt inevitable
The Guardian May 19, 2018 by Dubler and Lloyd
In the 1960s and 1970s, attorneys general and Republican congressmen were among the many arguing that prison was immoral. Can those days return?
With amazing speed, ending mass incarceration has become a priority not only for leftists but also for centrists and even for some on the right. Jared Kushner recently classed prisoners with other “forgotten men and women” championed by Donald Trump. But none of the reforms on the table will actually end mass incarceration. Even if tomorrow we release every non-violent drug offender, every ageing prisoner and everyone who is in jail solely because they can’t make their bail – and we should do those things – the United States would still have an incarceration rate an order of magnitude higher than its peer nations.
Video/Book : Locking up our own and a path to criminal justice reform - Trevor Noah / James Forman Jr.
Locking up our own and a path to criminal justice reform -
The Daily Show interview Trevor Noah / James Forman Jr.
"James Forman Jr. discusses the systemic racism that has led to the mass incarceration of black people in America's criminal justice system.
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By JONAH ENGEL BROMWICH JAN. 18, 2018
In the eight years since its publication, “The New Jim Crow,” a book by Michelle Alexander that explores the phenomenon of mass incarceration, has sold well over a million copies, been compared to the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, been cited in the legal decisions to end stop-and-frisk and sentencing laws, and been quoted passionately on stage at the Academy Awards.
But for the more than 130,000 adults in prison in North Carolina and Florida, the book is strictly off-limits.
And prisoners around the country often have trouble obtaining copies of the book, which points to the vast racial disparities in sentencing policy, and the way that mass incarceration has ravaged the African-American population.
This month, after protests, New Jersey revoked a ban some of its prisons had placed on the book, while New York quickly scrapped a program that would have limited its inmates’ ability to receive books at all.
What this is about
Learning asks us to change – so that the world might be a place for all are free to thrive