Sunday, January 20, 2019
For very nearly fifty years now (fifty years of writing letters/emails/articles/posts, accepting calls, visiting, sneaking in, going in by court order, demonstrating (alone and with others), sitting and testifying in courtrooms, writing judges letters, going to judge's offices, carrying messages/secrets/stuff and babies) incarcerated citizens -- Black, White, Latino, and indigenous -- have asked me with puzzled faces: "Why are you doing this?" I tell them anybody can be locked up. I'm only doing what I would want someone to do for me if it was me behind the walls. Maybe I was locked up in a past life. Maybe I often feel as if I'm locked up in this one.
In any case, all this has given me an education in all things "criminal" (more or less). Some things I learned just by paying attention. Some I've learned by accident. Some I learned by reading books and articles or watching films. And some of it has come through personal experience of one kind or another. But the bulk of it has entered my consciousness through endless conversations with prisoners and former prisoners.
I'll never forget one conversation I had standing four inches from hundred-year-old bars eyeball to eyeball with a man who had just spent five years in a building basement facing the dark side of a hill without another living soul on the tier. Another conversation involved a long night with a bottle of mezcal, a salt shaker and some limes, interrupted at one point by a quick trip to a park nearby for a romantic liaison and a marriage proposal never mentioned by either of us again. And then there was a series of discussions about bank robberies and how they're best accomplished followed by the unanticipated suggestion that we should pull one off -- across the street from where we lived. My response was a rapid-fire: "Are you out of your rabbit-ass mind?!? That could mean 25 federal!" Needless to say, that was the end of that exchange (though not immediately the end of the relationship), but I did learn a good bit about bank robbery in the process.
If I've learned anything about "criminals," however, it's that the vast majority of the real criminals in this country are not in prisons or jails. They don't eat bad food or wear numbers stenciled on their clothes. And none have tattoos on their faces. They're in board rooms and high-end offices and government suites or maybe the Pentagon. The majority of the worst of them are older White men with money. And they don't care if you know it because they're as cold as ice. Don't believe me? Watch Park Avenue: Power, Money, and the American Dream," a documentary you can view for free on PBS until November.
Tuesday, January 01, 2019
Another year has come and gone; another year of writing and teaching and blogging and talking and thinking and learning about the socially-constructed, political notion of "race." One new idea that was put on my radar this year is the idea that White Supremacy is "toxic" in nature and that everything emanating from White Supremacy is, ipso facto, "toxic" as well.
It's a no-brainer, I suppose. You can't rub poison on something and not poison it, along with everything else it touches. And certainly, the word "toxic" has been used in recent years to describe all manner of physical, psychological, and social aspects of our daily lives. Yet when I heard the term applied to the so-called "correctional system," a topic I have been deeply concerned with for nearly fifty years, I found it something of a surprise. I shouldn't have. I know full well by now that oppression breeds creative responses to it. And the prison system in this country -- federal, state, and local -- takes oppression to a level more nightmarish than most of us would ever be able to imagine.
As far as I know, the folks that first connected the term "toxic" to prisons in America can be found working as a part of the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons. So I jumped at the chance to help bring one of their spokespeople, Jordan Mazurek , to our campus the end of October and managed in the planning process to get to know him and their work a bit. We talked about how to organize a Louisiana Network for Criminal Justice Transformation. One of FTP's organizers Skyped into my Social Movements and Social Action course one class period. Jordan met with and inspired the members of the new Justice4All student group my department birthed last semester. And I have maintained the connection since then to the point that he dragged a group of young organizers into the small town where I live yesterday morning just so we could all have breakfast together and brainstorm social change issues face to face before they headed back to the highway on their way to their next stop eight hours away. These folks are the real deal.
In any case, as part of Jordan's presentation in October, he included tape recordings of incarcerated individuals talking about the subject they know better than anyone. One of those featured was Clinton "Nkechi" Walker* and I was so impressed with what he had to say on surviving toxic prisons that I asked about it later and Jordan told me that Nkechi's statement had been published on the Fight Toxic Prisons' website, where I could find it to re-post it here. I am delighted to do so, although I must warn you that it is a painful read. Be prepared to reach a new level of conscious awareness on the toxicity of prison life in the United States and the brilliance of some of those who make up the community of humans who must -- and do -- endure it.