Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Battle of Portland From Inside: Coming Soon To A Downtown Near You?


by Amie Zimmerman 

“What am I driving at? At this idea: that no one colonizes innocently, that no one colonizes with impunity either; that a nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization – and therefore force – is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another, calls for its Hitler, I mean its punishment.” ~ Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism

I consider myself an optimist. A skeptical, or perhaps reluctant, one but an optimist nonetheless. I want to believe that when we speak out, when we resist, it makes a difference.

Briefly, it is important to understand some basic points about Portland, Oregon, where I have lived for twenty-five years. We are a vastly majority white city. Sundown laws, redlining, and white utopian exclusionary practices have maintained a culture of violence toward Black, Indigenous, and Brown people in Oregon since before the state was established. In accordance, our police have been notoriously brutal with vulnerable populations.

[One recent example of police culture here: In 2009, James Chasse, houseless and mentally ill, was suspected of urinating in public downtown. The police, including officer Chris Humphreys, began to arrest him, beating him so badly in the process that he died of broken ribs and blunt force chest trauma in the police vehicle on the way to the hospital. Chris Humphreys was put on paid leave pending investigation. The Portland police union called for a demonstration and thousands of PPB and supporters marched with matching t-shirts in a show of solidarity against the Humphreys investigation into Chasse’s death. He eventually was cleared and three years later shot a 12-year-old girl with bean bag rounds at a public transit station during a scuffle between her and a transit officer. Humphreys left the PPB amid controversy and moved back to his home county in eastern Oregon where he was elected sheriff and ultimately became – get this – the mental health crisis liaison for law enforcementThis is just one officer’s story. There are, of course, many.]

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Nonunanimous Juries Under Hard Scrutiny in Louisiana


The framers of the U.S. Constitution adopted the

Sixth Amendment with a unanimous vote of twelve in mind.

John Addams (1797):

"It is the unanimity of the jury that preserves the rights of mankind."

Yet, for 122 years, in Louisiana, the prosecutor needed to persuade only 10 out of 12 jurors for a felony conviction that does not involve the death penalty.

All other states (except Oregon) always required unanimous jury decisions in felony cases – as did the federal system, including federal courts in Louisiana and Oregon.

Louisiana required unanimous verdicts when it became a territory in 1803, but non-unanimous verdicts were formally adopted as law during Louisiana's 1898 constitutional convention, when lawmakers declared that their “mission was…to establish the supremacy of the white race.”

Non-unanimous juries:

  • paved the way for quick convictions
  • facilitated the use of free prisoner labor to cover the loss of free slave labor
  • ensured that Black jurors could not block convictions of other African Americans
  • made it easier to manipulate poor people – whether guilty or innocent – into accepting “plea deals” rather than face the possibility of conviction by a jury

Non-unanimous jury laws:

  • were opposed by the American Bar Association
  • ignored research proving that unanimous verdicts are more reliable and thorough
  • ignored research proving that nonunanimous verdicts contribute to mass incarceration and wrongful convictions
  • circumvented measures to protect the voices of minority jurors
  • reduced the value of votes by any dissenting jury member, no matter who they are

In November of 2018, Louisiana voters amended the State constitution to do away with the practice of convicting – and locking up – men and women without establishing their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The Amendment was challenged, but on April 20, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that non-unanimous jury convictions are unconstitutional.

Two weeks later, the SCOTUS agreed to hear arguments on a case that could well make the State of Louisiana apply the earlier ruling retroactively (based on racial discrimination) because the U.S. Constitution’s intent was always clear on this matter. And they have now set a date, announcing that they will hear oral arguments in Edwards v. Vannoy on November 30th. If the Court rules in favor of Edwards, anyone now incarcerated in Louisiana who was convicted by a nonunanimous jury might qualify to request a new trial. This will involve thousands of incarcerated citizens, some of whom have already served decades waiting for the justice they deserve.

The Louisiana State Supreme Court also has a case before it that might decide the matter even before the U.S. Supreme Court does. If the LA SSC decides to re-hear Gipson v. Louisiana and decides in Gipson's favor, they will avoid having the U.S. Supreme Court force Louisiana to do the right thing. Needless to say, loved ones and supporters all over the state are following this story with bated breath.

If you want to support this effort to bring Louisiana into the 21st Century, the Louisiana Network for Criminal Justice Transformation (LA-NCJT) is selling a limited number of t-shirts for $20. They've already sold them to law professors, organizers, loved ones, and formerly incarcerated citizens. For more information, email

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Life and Death in Angola

I remember when I got the call that my son – a White shotcaller for a Black gang in Ft. Lauderdale – was dead. I hit the floor like a falling tree, the phone still to my ear and my brain reeling. His body was at the morgue and, because he had already been identified, they would only let me see a photo of his face, already deformed by rigor mortis. The young female doctor about to do the autopsy told me he was a handsome man. It was February 27, 2000 – the kind of day no mother ever wants to see. I know because I have a tattoo on my shoulder with his name and the date and it was two weeks before his 23rd birthday. When I was invited to write a statement on life and death as folks inside Angola try to deal with the most recent brutal and senseless death among them, my thoughts went straight to my son.

He’s not the only one I’ve known personally to die a violent death. I was 18 when a schoolmate was stabbed to death by her mother’s boyfriend and stuffed behind a couch. My father and one of my husbands committed suicide. The first ex-prisoner I ever met (back in 1971) was stabbed to death a couple of years after I met him. And I heard many years after we broke up that my first ex-prisoner lover was stabbed to death with his girlfriend by somebody in Oklahoma never identified. But to carry a child in your body and feed him at your breast and watch him grow to 6’4” and face the world with his shoulders back and his eyes steady and then have him reduced to a tattoo on your shoulder is not something you get over.

Monday, July 27, 2020


This op-ed essay was first published in The Advocate on Friday, July 24th.

Time to Restore Justice for Louisianans Convicted by Split Juries
by Mercedes Montagnes and Jamila Johnson

As the nation moves to remove the monuments to racism throughout the South, consider the largest monument of all: hundreds of people locked inside prisons throughout Louisiana without the unanimous consent of a jury.

One of Louisiana’s Jim Crow laws allowed nonunanimous juries to disenfranchise black jurors. The practice was codified at an 1898 constitutional convention with the explicit purpose “to establish the supremacy of the white race in the state.”

Wednesday, July 08, 2020



A couple of months ago, David Sumera (#37063-034), who is from Louisiana, but serving in the federal system, had a Gran Mal seizure which left him paralyzed from the waist down. He shouldn't even be here! They don't have the facilities in place nor the staff to offer him adequate medical care. Recently, staff have not been giving him the opportunity to shower and clean himself so he is left sitting and laying in his urine and excrement.

On July 4th, David requested to be placed in the shower. His cellmate, Jason Lee, who is also from Louisiana, helped him get in the shower. On or about 5 p.m., David had a seizure. During and after the seizure, numerous officers and prisoners were eye witnesses to a Lieutenant Rene (White, male) saying to David (and I quote): "I hope he fuckin' dies." And he kicked him in the ribs.

I will write a grievance tonight, but please -- as soon as possible -- organize a Phone Zap to call Warden Chris McConnell at 318-765-3119 demanding that David Sumera be moved immediately to an appropriate facility where he can and will be given the medical attention and on-going care he needs.

As we know, federal and state prison systems have suspended visiting "privileges" using the COVID-19 pandemic as the excuse. This makes it even more important for us to act quickly and powerfully to hold administrations and staff accountable for the safety and care of those in their custody. Please act now.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Kush-I: "Rastafari Prisoners Persecuted at Angola"

Comrade Malik (Keith Washington) and Kush-I (Robert T. Smith) at USP Pollock

NOTE: This article was originally published in the San Francisco Bay View and has been re-published here with permission of the publisher and the author.

Rastafari Prisoners Persecuted at Angola
by Robert T. Smith (aka Kush-I) – San Francisco Bay View 7/5/20

In the Old Testament Scriptures, the God in the prophet Daniel’s vision had wooly hair: “And the hair of his head was like pure wool.” (Daniel 7:9) In the book of Revelation in the New Testament, the God in John’s vision also had wooly hair. “His head and hair were … like wool.” (Revelation 1:14)

The evil trick perpetrated and perpetuated by white supremacist forces historically has been to instill a feeling of inferiority in people of other races by denigrating their physical traits while exalting whiteness. This process and practice continue to permeate and corrupt the social systems of the United States and, in truth, the entire globe. 

The crusade to suppress Rastafari religious exercise stems from the fact that the root of this religion sprang from rich and potent Black soil that spiritually nurtures all nations. ONE LOVE.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Love the SF Bay View? Let 'em know before it's too late.

Okay, y'all. Listen up. A lot of people inside and outside the walls have been reading and respecting the San Francisco Bay View national Black newspaper for decades. Mary and Willie Ratcliff have been holdin' down the community for 44 years, providing a platform for news, political education, inspiration, and sharing information. Now Mary has cancer and Willie has health challenges, as well, and both of them are in their 80s. But they're not walking away.

Mary has been grooming Comrade Keith "Malik" Washington (who'll be leaving the federal system in September) to take her place. But if the SF Bay View is going to survive, it needs some cash. Many folks have little to no money these days, but some can afford to break off a lil sumpin'-sumpin' to keep this community institution afloat. If you're one of those folks or you know someone who is (no matter which side of the wall they're on), hit this fundraising site or contact Mary at to send them some help in a different way.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

"I'm Counting Down The Hours Now..."

Nearly fifty years ago, a priest I had come across somehow in my work as a prison abolitionist invited me to lunch. I was puzzled by the invitation because I was still in my twenties and thought of being invited to lunch as a "date." I didn't think priests went out on "dates," but here we were, over sandwiches and sodas in a small-town diner, chatting about this and that after he assured me that, "No, indeed, priests don't date," prompting me to ask, "Then why are we here?"

He laughed, responding with a question of his own: "You're trying to close the prisons so the prisoners can all go home...right?"

"Yes," I nodded without a smile, having no idea where he was headed with this.

"Well...when they all go home," he went on, now looking earnestly into my face with real concern in his eyes, "where will you go?"

I don't remember if I tried to answer him or, if so, what the answer was, but as I recall, we parted company shortly after that and I don't remember ever seeing him again. Perhaps he saw asking that question as his priestly duty for some reason (as some version of an attempt to save a woman from herself) or perhaps he was just curious, wondering why I chose this sacrifice instead of marrying God.

I've recalled this question through the years, no closer to an answer than I was back then -- until last week, when I received a JPay email from a prisoner in Angola.

"I have been granted parole," it read. "I entered Angola at 16 and I am now 46. I will call you when I get out."

Monday, June 15, 2020

Get In Where You Fit In When You Stand Up For Your Rights

“Most people think that Great God will come from the sky
and take away everything and make everybody feel high.
But if you know what your life is worth,
you would look for yours on Earth.
Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.” ~ Bob Marley

When all else fails, YouTube comes to the rescue for me. I don’t know what I did without it before some saint or entrepreneur or whatever devised it for the rest of us. But this morning, I was struggling my way through my 14th week of hardcore self-quarantine alone, alternately depressed and agitated, when I went to YouTube to find a few meditation videos before I punched somebody in the throat or killed myself.

I found a couple of beautiful videos, posted one to Facebook, and then, as I got ready to post the one above on there, as well, I realized that I miss blogging. Blogging takes more time, more crafting, more thought, more reflection, more passion, more commitment, more of myself. So slowly but surely, as I worked what amounted to two full-time jobs for the past fifteen months, I blogged less and less, throwing up someone else’s work or an occasional video and once in a blue moon, I actually wrote something.

But I’m going to change that. Beginning today.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Podcast: "IDOC Watch Panel: Four Voices for Liberation"

I wouldn't normally blog when I'm at a loss for words, but I just listened to a podcast posted on the internet by The Final Straw Radio (a weekly anarchist radio show). The podcast features four strong voices: Kwame Shakur of the Stolen Lives Movement, Sheila, who is a mother, grandmother, and advocate of incarcerated people, Lorenzo Stone-Bey of IDOC Watch, and Zolo Agona Azania who is formerly of the Black Liberation Army, and is a three-time survivor of death row.

The IDOC Watch website says:
“The Indiana Department of Correction Watch (IDOC Watch) exists to be in solidarity with prisoners. This means we correspond with and and foster camaraderie with people who are incarcerated in Indiana, expose abusive conditions and treatment, and fight policies and initiatives that further isolate, marginalize, and harm prisoners. We seek to uplift prisoners’ voices and struggles and educate the masses about prisons, generally, as well as specific issues we are fighting.”
No matter how you found my blog in the first place or why you keep returning, if you do, I urge you to listen to this podcast -- carefully and more than once. Its message is powerful. Its truth runs deep. And its pertinence to the struggle for liberation on any front is unmistakably relevant to all of us, no matter where we live our lives.
NOTE: The graphic above is a photo of a work of art by Keith Perelli of New Orleans. Its title is "Broken" but it clearly captures the undeniable resilience of Black people who have and do resist and outlast the onslaught of social brutality that has been brought against Black men, women, and children for the past five hundred years.Audio Pla

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Eric Brown / TRU.ENation: On the Coronavirus, Angola, and C-Murder

This interview was conducted by Shawn Grant and published at The Source on April 16, 2020. It is being re-posted with the permission of Eric Brown.

Eric Brown, aka TRU.ENation, grew up in a prison. Sentenced to life without parole, Brown began his sentence at age 16, before studying law and working toward his release at age 41. During his 25-year prison stint, Brown experienced inhumane conditions. 

“I’ve seen overflowed sinks that have flooded whole cell blocks; bobcats, alligators and other rodents walking around units and the prison telling the inmates to remove it,” Brown shared. “The showers have holes in the tile where rodents come through, holes in the floor of the shower tiles. Cells only sanitized at the inmates' financial expense.”

Those conditions have only intensified during the coronavirus outbreak as those inside do not have proper protection for their own health and the lack of care paid to the scene is alarming.

In addition, Mr. Brown pointed out the wrongful conviction of many inmates due to corrupt officials, which he has experienced along with his close friend C-Murder.

“We need a major overhaul with the criminal justice system in the United States. We need to free the innocent. The criminal justice system was not designed to protect African Americans,” Mr. Brown says. “It was designed to enslave us. If you are black and get caught up in a system, you are not guilty until proven innocent. You will most likely be found guilty because of corrupt cops, DAs, and judges. They will do everything in their power to convict you, too.”

In a conversation with The Source, Mr. Brown details the conditions and reports coming from Angola, along with other facilities, how the justice system wrongfully convicted him and C-Murder and more.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Otto Rene Castillo: "Apolitical Intellectuals"

As a writer, I've had an office at home for years. It started out as an electric typewriter on a desk in my thirties, became a computer in my fifties, and a separate room in my apartment in my sixties. Now, I'm in the process of organizing that room to take on the appearance, efficiency, and feel of the hub I want to see Louisiana Network for Criminal Justice Transformation become.

For those of you who don't already know, I'm stepping down from my full-time position at the university on August 1st to dedicate the rest of my life to prison abolition. So I'm transforming the office that has been until now a center of creative womanist energy – fighting oppression as I have always done – to reflect the more honed focus I have developed in the past year.

Initially, I removed things: books, personal items, and random clutter unrelated to criminal justice transformation, collected over time and in the way of progress and practicality. I added a printer/scanner/copier and a shredder. And I will soon remove some of the art on the walls, replacing it with LA-NCJT documents and such.

Yesterday, as I continued the process while wading my way through six weeks of largely unanswered LA-NCJT mail, I came across a copy of the following poem by Otto Rene Castillo. Castillo was the Chief of Propaganda and Education for the Rebel Armed Forces in the mountains of Guatemala when he was captured in 1967 by representatives of the right-wing government installed by the U.S./CIA in his country thirteen years before. He was thirty-three years old when he was captured, interrogated, tortured, and burned alive.

When I organized a conference in Havana, Cuba, in 2017 for 300 radical sociologists from fifteen countries, I carried this poem in my heart. It seems appropos to re-post and re-center it again in this dark time with one additional note.

It won't be just the apolitical intellectuals who will be interrogated after this. It will be the anti-stay-at-home folks that have been encouraged by those at the top to pick up their weapons and create drama in public, calling it "freedom." It will be the die-hard ministers gathering their "flocks" to die and go to Heaven. It will be the ones who had the money to order Waitr and the health insurance to buy three months of their prescriptions at once.  It will be the birthday party revellers, the beach goers, yes, even the Netflix binge-watchers, who have hooked themselves up to the simultaneous intravenous drips of mind-numbing drugs and mind-numbing programming, which in fact has already been programming them for years. It will be everyone who let themselves be distracted from the suffering by the circus, who rode Instagram and Reddit while riding the lemmings off the cliff, who thought nothing could be done and so did nothing.

The COVID-19 pandemic is going to change human existence from this point forward. But in the struggle to survive, many are ignoring to one extent or another the creeping onslaught and entrenchment of right wing fascism in this country, dragging White Supremacy, misogyny, and religious fanaticism with it, like the four horseman of a long-awaited apocalypse. The amused smirks of so many when that word is used suggest that much of the population of the United States is still just comfortable enough to ignore the fact that (Netflix be damned) life is not a movie. It will not play to the credits in two hours with snacks. And the revolution will – this time – be televised.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Update From Angola: "Today Was Stranger Than Most"

Received early this morning from inside the walls:

"Today was stranger than most. There's something weird going on and no one is talking directly to us about it. The daily briefings we were having with the officials here have ceased and dorms are being placed on quarantine one after the other. Today, it was the dorm next door. Tomorrow, it will probably extend to our dorm as well. No one from any unit is allowed to come in contact with anyone from another unit; we have to do everything separately -- eat, shop at the canteen, have yard, etc.

"We are basically being kept in the dark about the scope of the outbreak here, but some information about new cases inside Angola is slowly reaching us from outside sources. I did find out today that the reason the dorm next door went on quarantine is because a guy tested positive for the virus after displaying flu-like symptoms. Here's the really weird part: another guy who was living in that dorm was moved into our dorm a few days ago. Then, when the guy from his former dorm tested positive, security suddenly came got the guy who had moved into our dorm and locked him up. So we are left wondering whether or not he was exposed to the virus before being moved into our dorm. The incompetence of some of the people in charge of our safety is astounding to say the least, which leads me to believe that things are far worse than we realize at the moment.

"Tempers are beginning to flare and the tension is getting so thick you could almost cut it with knife. The TV stays on CNN nearly all day everyday now and as more and more people succumb to the virus, the more anxious and nervous everyone in here seems to get. I'm curious to see what new revelations tomorrow will bring. I tend to think that I am prepared for anything, but these are uncertain times and I don't know if anyone is truly prepared for what comes next."

NOTE: A different source reported that five men were taken out of Ash-1 yesterday. No names are available at this time, but one of the men was reported to have left the institution. What that means has been left to conjecture. But if you have a friend or loved one in Ash-1, you should call Angola and ask for a wellness check.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

CJ LeBlanc: Angola Prisoners Say: "This is a war -- and we're in it."

This article was written by CJ LeBlanc and published at Hard Crackers on April 13, 2020.

The United States, with 4.4% of the world’s population, incarcerates no less than 22% of the world’s prisoners, far more per capita than any other country. It’s been widely acknowledged that this has a lot to do with the “War on Drugs” initiated by Richard Nixon in 1971 (a man, we should remember, who was himself a criminal, but never served a day behind bars). Indeed, when the “War on Drugs” was launched, the prison and jail population in the U.S. stood at 171 per 100,000. Today, it’s 655 per 100,000 nationally. And in Louisiana, it’s an astonishing 1,052 per 100,000.

Some might suggest that Louisiana’s high incarceration rate is driven by the state’s poor record in the areas of education, economy, and quality of life in general. After all, nobody’s born a criminal. But whatever the root causes, the sudden descending of COVID-19 into the prison population has presented the state with a dilemma so crucial it is likely to find itself shortly under very intense federal scrutiny.

Prisoners’ rights advocates and organizations concerned with criminal justice are weighing in assertively to push for strict adherence to protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the American Disabilities Act. Even the Louisiana Department of Health has issued a detailed memo to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections outlining its very clear recommendations. And the DPSC is responding that they are doing everything in their power to live up to the exigencies of the situation.

Reports from incarcerated citizens inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, however, beg to differ. The following quotes are from letters, emails, and phone calls to people on the outside of the walls from various prisoners inside Angola.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Angola Prisoners Await Their Fate

by CJ LeBlanc

In the past ninety days, the human race has found itself in the strangle-hold of a pandemic. United States citizens watched the first two months as if it was an apocalyptic movie. Now scrambling for face masks and toilet paper, though, Americans are riveted to social media while being ordered to shelter in place. And, since identifying the first case within U.S. borders on January 20th, the horrifying tally has risen to more than 400,000 cases and 10,000 deaths (as this is being written).

Still, there are nearly two and a half million men, women, and children who are particularly concerned as this nightmare closes in around us. They are incarcerated citizens. They are, by and large, unable to protect themselves in the myriad ways the rest of us are being urged to do. And they are trying not to despair as they fear they are being forgotten or dismissed.

In Louisiana alone, for example, fifty thousand prisoners (and that doesn’t count the roughly 8,000 immigrant detainees that are even further under the radar than the others) rise in hope every morning that they might be released, not because they think it’s necessarily likely but because if they are not, the chances they may die soon and far from their families cannot be denied.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Louisiana's Coronavirus Plan For Prisons Could Create Death Camps

This hearse was built by prisoners at Angola to carry men to the burial ground on the property. With the current onslaught of COVID-19, it is unlikely there will be time for pomp and circumstance.

This article was written by Alice Speri and Akela Lacy and originally published by The Intercept.

As the Coronavirus rips through jails and prisons across the country and pressure mounts on corrections departments to stave off disaster, federal, state, and local officials have begun to release some incarcerated people in an effort to reduce prison density and slow the spread of the virus. But in Louisiana, which has both the highest incarceration rate in the country and one of the worst virus outbreaks, officials are bucking the trend. Rather than release people, they plan to isolate those who test positive for the virus in two maximum-security state facilities — a plan that critics said amounts to creating death camps.

“The DOC plan to transfer people from across the state to Camp J — where there is no medical care, no hospitals, no access to lawyers — will be the moral stain on our country,” said Ben Cohen, of counsel at the Promise of Justice Initiative. He’s been doing capital defense and civil rights work in New Orleans for 23 years, including several cases following Hurricane Katrina. “It is like the Japanese internment camps, but with body bags. We are literally watching the S.S. St. Louis being sent back to Germany.”

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

19 Lines: A Poem From Inside Angola

19 Lines
by Melvin Hassan Thornton

I inhale and I exhale
deep breaths of life,
each one refreshing the lungs.
Much work to be done; much life to live.
Still so much more to give. This is not the end.

Step on the scene, face to face with COVID-19;
staring in its heartless eyes, I stand firm.
Unflinching, unyielding, unafraid but angry.
I breathe deep, fighting on the ropes –
a bit overwhelmed but resilient. I don't fold.

Cowardly, Officious, Vicious, Insidious and Deadly 19,
you shall be defeated. We don't retreat.
We step up to the challenge.
Kill if you will but you have more to fight.
Those who survive will shine their lights.

I inhale then I exhale.
I take in the good and exhale the bad.
And therefore, Mr. Virus, I'm doing fine.
Sincerely yours, these 19 lines.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

A Prisoner Writes the Governor of Louisiana

This is the cemetery at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. There has been quiet talk -- inside and outside the walls in America -- of the possibility of mass graves. Will that happen at Angola? The prisoner who wrote this hopes not. 

It appears that America is finally starting to take this virus more seriously. Inside the walls, here at Angola, we are even more concerned. Earlier this week, an officer was sent into our unit with a high temperature. Two of our [jailhouse lawyers] had to be quarantined. But that doesn't help all of the men that went to court that day. Further, those who were quarantined are being held where other non-infected prisoners are quarantined for the ordinary flu.

These types of decisions have caused us to call for the immediate release of all prisoners currently serving time under the re-entry program and prisoners with 10 years or less to serve. We call for a review of the prisoners – violent or otherwise – who have spent 20 plus years in prison. Their records will identify those who can be released and have a place to go. This is a start for reducing the prison population, which was already in motion prior to the virus and is crucial in this crisis. It further serves the interest of the public because many of us have been trained in skills that can aid society in practical ways during this difficult time. But these releases need to begin now, as they have already begun – and are numbering in the thousands – in other states.

An Open Letter to Louisiana

Louisiana has long been recognized for having the most people incarcerated per capita than any other group of people on the planet or even in the history of the world. This is a dubious distinction at best and says far more about Louisiana’s culture than it does about those it incarcerates.

Even before COVID-19 emerged, decarceration as a concept was being discussed in virtually every state in our nation. One principle reason is that incarceration is far more expensive than sending people to college and it accomplishes far, far less toward our society’s best interests. In fact, Louisiana taxpayers spend on average twice as much on keeping a prisoner imprisoned ($25,000 per year) than they do educating a K-12 student ($12,500 per year) – which interestingly enough actually ensures in the long run more people going to prison for want of the skills necessary to access other options.

Books like Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration by Emily Bazelon demonstrate what prosecutors can do – and are doing – to address their own participation in sending too many to prison for too long, often unnecessarily and even when those charged are actually innocent.

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections admits that they hold more than 7000 geriatric prisoners, the vast majority of which pose no realistic threat to public safety, while draining the Department’s coffers. In the last legislative session, many were surprised to hear about the case of one man who is costing the Department more than a million dollars per year in medical bills and was one of the reasons this year’s budget will need to be re-visited.

And now we have COVID-19 challenging every Louisiana citizen to consider new ways to approach our lives, few of which we could even have imagined two months ago. We are being encouraged, begged, even ordered and subsidized to practice new and necessary alternatives to business as usual. Yet we are ignoring the powder keg our prisons, jails, and detention centers have now become – at least partly because of our commitment to locking our citizens up at a rate and for periods at which other Americans can only shake their heads.

We need to take this opportunity (which may last longer than we might have hoped) to make the bold moves that could release funds badly needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic – inside and outside our prisons – by releasing every incarcerated citizen rationally possible and as immediately as can be arranged. Send home the geriatric and most physically vulnerable prisoners, those who were convicted of non-violent crimes, those who have done more than twenty years and demonstrated a commitment to rehabilitation, those who will be getting out within a year anyway. Send them home.

Many of those in Angola – as one example – have prepared themselves for just such an opportunity by taking advantage of training in employable trades and programs that address the issues that brought them to prison in the first place. Releasing them would jump-start a new, more rational and less expensive way to live in community with each other in a world that is demanding our commitment to all Louisiana citizens at this difficult time.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Incarcerated Person Who Knows How Bad It Could Get

This interview by Justine van der Leun first appeared on Medium. Given our attempts to bridge the prison walls in Louisiana at this difficult time, it is being re-printed here. I believe I know who and where this incarcerated person is, but it could be anywhere and should raise demands that incarcerated people must be released, when possible, and cared for with dignity and respect in every case.

A couple of months ago about 300 of us got sick. They took everybody 50 years old and over and moved them permanently to their own dorm. Whatever that sickness was—maybe a brutal flu—ripped through the rest of the prison. I had a high fever, hot and cold sweats, dizziness, coughing for hours and hours, nonstop. The treatment was nothing. I said, “I need medicine.” They said, “No medicine for you. Drink some water.” Everything in prison is: “Drink water.” My stomach hurts: “Drink water.” My head hurts: “Drink water.” I’m burning up: “Drink water.”

There were guys worse than me. They put them up on a floor that they previously closed down years ago because it didn’t meet living standards, even in here: peeling paint, no running water, pure filth. Then they locked the prison down with no notice. They didn’t tell us anything—just had everybody locked in their cells. Every three days, we came out for 20 minutes to line up and take a shower. It lasted two weeks. That sickness, whatever it was, cleared. But now we’re on lockdown again. No visits, not from family or lawyers. No planned medical treatments. There’s a new virus, they said.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A Message of Solidarity

A couple of weeks ago, I was approached in the Main Prison visiting room at Angola by a Rastafarian brother. The Louisiana Network for Criminal Justice Transformation and the Rastafarian congregation at Angola have become allies in recent months, so he took that moment to meet me face-to-face. After fifteen or twenty minutes of conversation, the brother, who had sneaked into Building A because he heard I would be there, told me that the Rastafarians and the Islamic fellowship would be celebrating Black History Month together on February 23rd.

"If you write something to the group," he said, "I'll read it."

I had a lot on my plate right then. Responsibilities at the university were demanding my attention and I was about to leave to spend five days in Oakland, California, for a prison abolition national conference. But I couldn't turn down such a golden opportunity to be introduced by this man to yet another segment of the population at Angola in such a lovely way.

With no other "free time" for the purpose, when I got on the plane to go to Oakland, I pulled out a pad and pen and wrote the following. The word is, they liked it. So as February comes to a close, I'll share it with you.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

A Father Writes From Prison: "SHOTS FIRED!"

NOTE: I received the following essay from an incarcerated citizen with whom I have been working. The photo above is not of him or his children, but is intended to illustrate the issue about which he wrote.

I imagine that everyone – at some point in life – faces a personal tragedy that shakes them to the core. Well, for me, this is one of those moments.

A few days before Christmas, my youngest son was gunned down and left for dead in the streets of New Orleans, his dreams of one day running his own real estate business indefinitely suspended for reasons I cannot begin to fathom. And as I sit here – 150 miles away at Angola – my heart bleeds for him.

In the quiet moments between the chaos and mayhem of prison life, somber thoughts of my youngest child lying on the cold pavement in a pool of blood sends chills down my spine and nearly breaks me completely. The gruesome images in my mind are the kind that no parent should have to endure – not me, not anyone. As a father, I am beside myself with grief, not just because my son was almost killed, but because I wasn't there to protect him in the first place. I’ve been incarcerated his whole life – 17 years – not knowing the struggles he had to face on his own while I was locked away. Then, on January 21, my son's birthday, I received the most important letter I would ever read:

Friday, January 24, 2020

Steven Lamont Byrdsong: "Silent Cries"

In the midst of my journey I’ve come to the realization that we as humans are only motivated by the desires of our flesh. Even when that warm tingly feeling we get in our hearts wards against the nature of our wrongs. We surrender, and in life, Justice will never be just as long as humans are the authors that write the script.

We as humans are supposed to be equal in every aspect. We are created and given the same breath of life we all received from the beginning of time. At birth, our hearts and minds are not motivated by the color of our skin or based on the social status that society places on us, but driven by the purity of love and the righteousness of truth that’s within us.

My name is Steven Lamont Byrdsong and I am a convicted murderer. I have been incarcerated since the age of 16 and at the time I write this, I am 41. I have grown up and lived inside the pits of hell. Even when my young mind couldn’t decipher the nature of my actions, my child's heart was crying inside. But by then it was too late to rectify my wrongs and the script of my life was written. Life Without Parole at 16, dead before I even had a chance to live. But continuing to function only from the beat of my heart that was pure and not scarred by the sins of my flesh.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Malik Washington: "Why I Fight So Hard For Our People!"

“The hypocrisy of American fascism forces it to conceal its attack on political offenders by the legal fiction of conspiracy laws and highly sophisticated frame-ups. The masses must be taught to understand the true function of prisons. Why do they exist in such numbers? What is the real underlying economic motive of crime and the official definition of types of offenders or victims? The people must learn that when one “offends” the totalitarian state it is patently not an offense against the people of that state, but an assault upon the privilege of the privileged few.” ~ George L. Jackson, from Blood in my Eye, p.107

Revolutionary greetings, comrades!
As I stare out of my window here at the United States Penitentiary in Pollock, Louisiana, I find myself in a pensive and reflective mood. I see razor wire as well as concertina fencing immediately outside my window. I see the prison yard, the grass, the gun tower and far off in the distance I see trees. I see a flag on a pole, it is the “stars and stripes”. This flag does not represent freedom to me, it represents oppression, abuse, social control and it represents the hateful legacy of slavery.
I woke up here in Pollock, Louisiana thinking of Angola 3 member Herman Wallace. I remember the day he died. I was listening to Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, and she played a recording of Comrade Herman describing the garden that he and his comrades were preparing behind the house he was planning to move into.
Once the state of Louisiana finally granted Comrade Herman release, he was on his last leg, the cancer had literally eaten him alive. When I heard the voice of Herman Wallace, with the anticipation of freedom and the hope of seeing a brighter day, I cried. I cried because I was angry, sad, and frustrated.
Louisiana had absolutely no love, compassion, or care for the Angola 3. What they had for them was racial hatred and decades of abuse. Comrade Robert King and Comrade Albert Woodfox made it out alive. Herman wasn’t so lucky.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Rodney Spivey Jones: On Messianic Black Bodies

This post is dedicated to the men fighting for their lives
inside the walls in Mississippi. Ashe'

Americans in general have used the Black body as an object of rhetoric to define their identity. Black people, for example, use the suffering Black body, use Black bodies in a way to force Americans to see the suffering so that you can empathize with their pain. We see this not only with Emmett Till, but we see this with the Black Lives Matter movement, with Mike Brown, with Tamir Rice.

[Scholars have suggested that] we shouldn't see history as linear, as one event following another and then the other events are in the past. [Using the word] "messianic" [is] saying that the past is constantly being resurrected. It's constantly re-emerging.

When we take the Black body as a continuum of all this history of suffering and resistance and we have the body of Mike Brown lying in the middle of the street for 4-1/2 hours, for many of the African American activists who are seeing this body in the middle of the street, they're not just seeing Mike Brown. They're seeing all the previous acts of indignity and injustice, and it's not just their personal experiences, but the entire "race." I think messianic Black bodies allows me to explain why African Americans can look at a Black body and say, "Listen, that is all of this history -- and it's me."

During the course of my research, I developed a hyper-awareness of the many often insidious ways in which society disfigures the personhood of marginalized people. I noticed the attempt of so many to lump disparate elements into the category of Blackness or some other category meant to house the unworthy, categories such as "offender" or "inmate." It is difficult to live, to function in one of these categories. You begin to feel like scurf that one cannot scrub clean from the body.

I am an "irredeemable" trapped in one of the crippling categories of the undeserving. I am reluctant to use the word anger -- in America, anger and Blackness and offender is considered a volatile mixture. But everyone, every single one of us, should see when injustice is rampant and bodies are falling and the nation is divided about whether the losses of Eric Garner, of LaQuan McDonald, of Mike Brown, of Trayvon Martin, (insert here), are worth mourning.

Mourning is not a question of race and bodies. It is a question of humanity. Let me say it plainly: the Black body is a prison of flesh and the truth is unforgiving. African Americans can no more relinquish their signifying Black bodies than they can change the history of  this nation, but they must continue to demand.
NOTE: The above was transcribed from the Kenneth Burns documentary, "College Behind Bars," which is about the Bard Prison Initiative, a college program functioning in the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York. Rodney Spivey Jones was incarcerated in that facility until he graduated from Bard with a Bachelor's Degree in Social Sciences in 2017. He is currently located in Fishkill Correctional Facility and will be eligible for his first hearing before the Parole Board in 2022.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

The Universal and Unending Question

I spent most of yesterday trying to scale a small mountain of mail that had piled up in the month of December while I closed out my next-to-the-last semester I will ever teach full-time and organized the production and mailing of the first newsletter for the Louisiana Network for Criminal Justice Transformation. There were issues inside and outside the walls that had to be addressed during the month, of course, but overall, the mail still sat and then piled up, along with emails, especially after the newsletter went into Angola.

Some of the mail contained submissions for a theater production on solitary confinement we're going to put together to be performed on our campus in the spring. Essays, discussions, and poems were acknowledged and filed for later compilation and development of the project, but occasionally I would just have to read one. Which is how I came across the poem I'm publishing today. It reminds each of us -- no matter where we are, no matter what we have been through or what we may have to face in this coming new year -- that we continually evolve and have the option to consider who we are and who we want to be.