The Myth of Prison Slave Labor Camps in the U.S.


Prison dorm, Leavenworth, Kansas

Prison dorm, Leavenworth, Kansas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Displaced and Discarded Labor Force, originally appearing in Counterpunch,



As Adam Gopkin reminds us, “mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.” The racialization of this process, popularized by author Michelle Alexander as The New Jim Crow, has meant that African Americans in the U.S. now have more than triple the incarceration rate of Blacks in South Africa at the peak of apartheid.

In the haste to impart some rationality to all this, many activists and analysts have been quick to point to corporations as the sole culprits behind the prison-industrial- complex (PIC).  An important component of this perspective is the notion of prisons as “slave labor camps”.  In this scenario a sea of multinational corporations super-exploit hundreds of thousands of contract prison laborers to heartlessly augment their bottom lines. Late last year researchers Steven Fraser and Joshua Freeman took up this point in a study which they presented in a CounterPunch article,  arguing that “penitentiaries have become a niche market for such work.  The privatization of prisons in recent years has meant the creation of a small army of workers too coerced and right-less to complain.”

Their perspective has resonated with a number of news services, anti-mass incarceration blogsters and activists.  For example, a recent report from Russian news service RT claimed that prisons are “becoming America’s own Chinese style manufacturing line”. Huffington Post picked up the story, quoting Fraser and Freeman:

“All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.”

The HuffPost went on to name Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, Starbucks and Walmart as major participants  in what they called a “competitive spiral” to capture prison labor at the lowest possible wage levels.  Vicky Pelaez, writing for Global Research earlier this year called prison industry a “new form of slavery” identifying more than twenty corporations involved in contract arrangements.  Her list included IBM, Pierre Cardin, Target and Hewlett Packard. She concluded that, “thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets.”

As appealing as these scenarios are to our sense of moral outrage and the role of multinational corporations as the villains of our era, such assertions about prison labor are off the mark.  I spent six and a half years in Federal and state prisons at high, medium and low security levels.  In all these institutions, very few people, if any, were under contract to private corporations. My memories of prison yards feature hundreds and hundreds of men trying to pump some meaning into their life with exercise routines, academic study, compulsive sports betting, religious devotion, and a number of creative and entrepreneurial “hustles.”  But being under the thumb of Bill Gates or entering a Nike sweatshop was just about the farthest thing from our warehoused reality.

Statistics bear my memories out. Virtually all private sector prison labor is regulated under the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP).  Any prison wanting to publicly markets goods worth more than $10,000 must register with PIECP.  The PIECP statistical report for the first quarter of 2012 showed 4,675 incarcerated people employed in prison or jail PIECP programs, a miniscule portion of the nation’s more than two million behind bars.

Likely the largest single user of contract prison labor is Federal Prison Industries, which handles such arrangements for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Of the nearly 220,000 people housed in BOP facilities, just 13,369, representing approximately 8% of the work eligible “inmates” were employed as of September 30, 2012. However, the overwhelming majority of this production  was for government departments like Defense and Homeland Security, rather than private corporations.

There is an economic rationality to why prison labor is so infrequently used.  While incarcerated people may constitute a captive workforce, in the era of mass incarceration security trumps all other institutional needs, including production deadlines.  A fight on the yard, a surprise cell search, even a missing tool can occasion a lockdown where all activities, including work assignments come to a halt for hour, days, or, in some cases even weeks or months. Multinational corporations accustomed to just in time production systems and flexible working hours don’t respond well to this type of rigidity.

Portraying our prisons as slave labor camps satisfies a certain emotional appeal, but hunting down multinationals that are extracting superprofits from the incarcerated diverts us from the crucial labor issues at the heart of mass incarceration.  Those behind bars constitute a displaced and discarded labor force, marginalized from mainstream employment on the streets by deindustrialization in their communities and the gutting of urban education in poor communities of color.  More than half of all Black men without a high-school diploma will go to prison at some time in their lives.  The school to prison pipeline is far more of a reality than slave labor camps.

Plus, the shift of the prison system’s emphasis from rehabilitation to punishment in the last three decades has blocked opportunities for people to upgrade skills and education while incarcerated.  As the nuns used to tell me in grade school: “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop and idle hands are the devil’s tools.”  The brains behind our prison system clearly had the devil’s welfare in mind when they reoriented our institutions away from rehabilitation into warehousing millions of people while stripping away their opportunities for personal and collective development. As a result purposelessness and excruciating boredom, not overwork, are the dominant features of most prison yards.

For those trying to put an end to mass incarceration, framing the labor issues of the prison industrial complex in this way takes us down a very different road than upgrading the conditions of the minute numbers behind bars who are under corporate contracts (or as some unions are want to do-portraying prison laborers as scabs who undermine hard won working class gains). The chief labor concerns about mass incarceration are linked to broader inequalities in the economy as a whole, particularly the lack of employment for poor youth of color and the proliferation of low wage jobs with no benefits. Employment creation and the restoration of much needed state provided social services like substance abuse or mental health treatment are the measures that will keep people on the streets. Forget about minimum wages for the mythical millions working for Microsoft in Leavenworth and Attica.

But the labor aspect of mass incarceration doesn’t end there. People with a felony conviction carry a stigma, a brand often accompanied by exclusion from the labor market.  Michelle Alexander calls “felon” the new “N” word.  Indeed in the job world, those of us with felony convictions face a number of unique barriers.  The most well-known is “the box”-that question on employment applications which asks about criminal background. Eleven states and more than 40 cities and counties have outlawed the box on employment applications. Supporters of “ban the box” argue that questions about previous convictions amount to a form of racial discrimination since such a disproportionate number of those with felony convictions are African-American and Latino. Advancing these Ban the Box campaigns will have a far more important impact on incarcerated people as workers than pressing for higher wages for those under contract to big companies inside.

However, even without the box, the rights of the formerly incarcerated in the labor market remain heavily restricted.  Many professions, trades and service occupations which require certification, bar or limit the accreditation of people with felony convictions. For example, a study by the Mayor of Chicago’s office found that of 98 Illinois state statutes regarding professional licensing, 57 contained restrictions for applicants with a criminal history, impacting over 65 professions and occupations.  In some instances, even people applying for licenses to become barbers or cosmetologists face legal impediments.

Those with felony convictions face further hurdles when trying to access state assistance to tide them over during times of unemployment.  In most states, those with drug convictions are banned from access to SNAP (food stamps) for life.  Many local public housing authorities bar people with felony convictions even if their parents or partners already reside there.

Lastly, the very conditions of parole often create obstacles to employment. Many states require that an employer of a person on parole agree that the workplace premises can be searched at any time without prior warning-hardly an attractive proposition for any business.  In addition, tens of thousands of people on parole are subject to house arrest with electronic monitors.  All movement outside the house must be pre-approved by their parole agent. This makes changes in work schedule or jobs that involve travel an enormous challenge.  Some basic changes to the conditions of parole could constitute an important step to easing the labor market conditions for people coming home from prison trying to secure and keep a job.

All of this is not to deny that many corporations have made huge amounts of money from mass incarceration.  Firms like Arizona’s Kitchell Construction, which has built more than 40 state prisons and 30 adult jails have made millions.  The Tennessee-based Bob Barker Enterprises is a “household” name among the incarcerated.  With a corporate vision of  “transforming criminal justice by honoring God in all we do,“ Barker has reaped massive profits from producing the poorest quality consumer goods, including two inch toothbrushes,  for people behind bars. Then, of course, we have private prison operators like CCA and the GEO Group. Although the privates control only 8% of prison beds nationally these two firms managed to bring in over 3 billion in revenue last year.

While such profiteering continues, the prison-industrial complex remains driven by an agenda that is more about politics than profits. State-owned prisons and political agendas continue to lie at the center of mass incarceration.  The combined revenue of CCA and the GEO Group for 2012 was less than half of the California state corrections budget. Politicians, with important influence from pro-corporate organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have made the PIC possible by passing harsh sentencing laws, funding the War on Drugs, tightening immigration legislation, and creating isolation units like Pelican Bay, Corcoran, Tamms and Angola.  They have built a base of popular support for the “colorblind” approach of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” So while we need to curb the opportunities for corporate profit from putting people in cages, the main target of any campaign against the PIC must be to counter the racist ideology of “punitive populism” and reverse the political processes which perpetuate mass incarceration and the criminalization of the poor.

James Kilgore is a research scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). He writes on issues of mass incarceration with a focus on electronic monitoring and labor. He is also the author of three novels, all of which he drafted during his six and a half years in prison, 2002-09.  He can be contacted

Posted in Commentary, Employment, prison economics, Private Prison | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Still Marching: 50 Years Later

Crowds surrounding the Reflecting Pool, during...

I like to believe that more Americans believe in the concept of equal justice today than in 1963.  The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington will evoke different thoughts from different people, some with nostalgia, others with disdain.  My point isn’t to take a historical narrative, as others can provide that quite well.  What is important for America to realize today is that the struggle for equal civil and human rights continues in 2013.

A new video, “Our Turn to Dream,”  expertly explains the current situation of low-income people, particularly Black and Latino Americans, facing what can only be considered a police state.  Pastor Kenny Glasgow, founder of The Ordinary People Society (T.O.P.S.), started working towards rebuilding his own community in Dothan, Alabama; but then realized that this issue looks the same nationwide.

Here are a few myths that need to be debunked:

  1. The American system of mass incarceration, which addresses the effects of poverty, unemployment, mental illness, and addiction by using prison cells.  We cage those of us who fall by the wayside or get caught up with a youthful indiscretion or a moment of uncontrolled emotion.  It is a myth that over-incarceration is some sort of mistake.  The flaws and results are not a mistake.  Anything of this magnitude is not a mistake.  Thus, we can’t just educate American politicians and believe that the mistake will be corrected.
  2. Racism is over.  Oh, that’s the myth.  Most people will acknowledge that racism is a cultural phenomenon dating back hundreds, even thousands, of years.  They will acknowledge that slavery could not have worked without the skin color; that Manifest Destiny (i.e. seizing all the land from sea to sea) would not have worked without designating the residents as “savages.” Yet we don’t want to believe racism is still at play in 2013.  It was all the way up to 1963, but it disappeared as soon as President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

People ask me “how can you say the criminal justice system is racist, that’s just hyperbole.”  I don’t want that person to catch a sound-byte and move on, believing or disbelieving.  I want them to ask for an explanation.  There are dots to connect regarding power and economics.  So check this out:

images-9Prison as System to Control ALL Americans

Wars have always been fought for multiple reasons.  There is generally some resources to seize, or strategic position to gain, but they also unite citizens against a common “other” enemy.  Wars also create profits for those who build the war machinery, and employ soldiers at low wages based on the ideology of “defending their country.”

Wars, and their residual effects, don’t always go so smoothly.  Black soldiers returned from WWII with a sense of entitlement and opportunity.  The G.I. Bill and the Civil Rights Movement vastly expanded a middle-class, right in the face of those who freely used the N-word.  Twenty years later, the Vietnam War took a very bad turn.  The war militarized young Black men, some of whom had a similar sense of entitlement and opportunity.  Meanwhile, President Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover infamously waged a covert domestic war against people struggling for equality here in America.

The “War on Drugs” was launched in 1972.  It was direct replacement of the Vietnam War.  This time the enemy wasn’t fascism or communism and we didn’t need to draft anyone or violate a sovereign nation to fight it.  The enemy lived in low-income urban communities, the same places these Black and Latino young men returned to after service in Vietnam.  Many had the physical, mental, and spiritual challenges of surviving war- and were now looking for jobs.

police-militarizationCity police forces began bulking up as federal dollars started to roll.  The cultural campaign of describing drugs as an evil scourge started to bloom.  And who would say our leaders are wrong?  The Civil Rights Movement had been appeased, infiltrated, arrested, and assassinated.  Peaceful assembly, free speech, and petitioning the government became scary.  Some of the survivors blinked, or looked the other way, or (most likely) never really saw it coming.  The master-stroke of the drug war was in full swing before long.

The drug war is genius.  It is bipartisan.  Industrial magnate Jay Gould once bragged that he could “pay half the working class to kill the other half.”  In the drug war, half the working class is paid to incarcerate the other half.  There are White prisoners and Black guards, yes.  But those exceptions do not stunt the fact that skin color is an essential element of the cultural messaging of the drug war.

louisiana-prisonMass Incarceration Evaporates Without Racism

It is understandable, if one believes drug users and drug sellers to be such an evil scourge, that we send police into the most concentrated areas of drug use.  Particularly if these perpetrators are young people; the younger we get them the longer we can punish them without paying for their geriatric care in prison.  And the earlier we can get these people off the streets.  Now imagine this group of concentrated drug users…

What did you imagine?  If you are seeing young Black men hanging out on a basketball court you are wrong.  The most concentrated area of drug use is in college dorms, frat houses, and similar apartments in such neighborhoods.

shutterstock_71425363Oh, but young White people are just going through an “experimental” phase.  I’ve never heard such a description of drug use by young Black and Latino people.  As someone who has been among drug users and sellers of both communities, I can tell you there are experimenters, steady users, and people who need help everywhere.  But you knew that.  The gut reaction is due to 40 years of cultural messaging by those in power.  Thank the 11 o’clock news, while you’re at it.

Serving Multiple Masters- Excess Labor

Self-Checkout_tAP110923050923_620x350Its not like America’s best economic minds have a better idea.  In our state-subsidized economic system (call it Capitalist, Socialist, or whatever), the tax-payer is the top customer and top employer, whether directly or indirectly.  Without manufacturing jobs, where do we send the labor?  One super-crane eliminates 100 dockworkers.  Even the checkout girl has been replaced with a machine.

Police, guards, and sheriffs require little training and education to be on the job.  Their existence has also massively expanded the jobs for judges and lawyers.  Furthermore, the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated are not counted amongst the “unemployed.”  They (or “we,” I should say) are written off as non-existent.  More importantly, we are not allowed to come home with a sense of entitlement and opportunity.  Even if some of us did, we are sometimes traumatized by our experience with no outlets through which to heal.

And Yet It Crumbles…

The Law of Diminishing Returns is the principle where something only works to a certain extent.  If you keep doing more of it, the thing starts getting worse.  Put two cooks in the kitchen and make twice the food.  Put four cooks in the kitchen and you start getting half the food.

The American governments can’t literally pay half the working class to lock up the other half.  Just like telecommunications have made it difficult to wage war against the “savage” foreigner, it is difficult to maintain the rhetoric that drugs are evil, a moral curse, or that children who commit crimes expose their inner evil, or that formerly incarcerated people are incapable of raising children and being good neighbors.

Fifty years after the March on Washington and some reports indicate we are more segregated than ever, with a greater class disparity than any country except India.  Yet all the private schools and gated communities cannot keep the tides of change at bay.  Tens of millions of Americans have been put in cages.  Each is part of a family and circle of friends.  With over 65 million Americans having a criminal record, and likely over 100 million people directly impacted by an over-criminalizing, super-sentencing criminal justice system costing billions of dollars every year… it is tough to keep the lie alive.  The lie is that this is all for your own good.

When the cure becomes worse than the disease, you have lost the confidence of your patient.  Americans want to redesign the solutions and reallocate the billions of dollars.  A movement is in place.  We can call it a Civil Rights Movement, a Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement, or anything else.  When the incarcerator begins expanding their industry to probation, parole, electronic monitoring, rehabilitation, and halfway houses: its because the rhetoric of cages has fallen on deaf ears and empty pockets.

Read the essential Unprison, here.

Posted in Actions, Commentary, Movement Building, prison economics, Race | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

3 Reasons to Thank a Public Defender

Clarence Gideon fought his case to the Supreme Court- from a prison cell.

Clarence Gideon fought his case to the Supreme Court- from a prison cell.

This is the 50th Year of Gideon, which possibly means little to the majority of people in America- or so they believe.  Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court decided that American citizens have a right to a lawyer in court.  They felt this was a fundamental piece of a Fair Trial.  In the middle part of the 20th Century, they also recognized other fundamental rights, like not being forced to testify against yourself, having a jury, and cross-examining witnesses.  These can’t be “rights” only when the government feels like giving them to you- and these are rights only a lawyer can be expected to properly protect.  The film Gideon’s Army is an insightful look into this struggle.

America is founded on rights of individuals, and a fair process is required to take away liberty or property.  It’s shameful we took a few centuries to recognize these are “human” rights, applicable to all citizens, not just White male property owners.  But here we are.  And in regards to a fair trial system, one that breaks away from the British King’s inquisitorial system, why is it that one set of lawyers (the non-inquisitors) is underfunded and vilified?

There are many reasons to thank a public defender today.  Here are three.

U.S. Supreme Court building.

1.  Upholding America’s Whole Point

When we say things like “They hate us for our freedom,” or “We need to protect American values,” I always want to ask if the speaker can define that, and define it with specifics.  American freedom and values include freedom to practice an unpopular religion, criticize our government, having doors that can’t be kicked in, and conducting fair trials.  Take away the public defender, and over 75% of our criminal process will consist of a judge and prosecutor going through the motions.  It’s King George all over again.

“In the Criminal Justice System the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”

Sound familiar?  Well it is wrong.  The People are represented by the District Attorneys and the Public Defenders.  The police are not separate from the prosecutors, who actually have to shoulder the burden of police misconduct.

The defense attorneys are defending people.  Many of them have over 100 people, and their families’ hopes, depending upon them at this very moment.  Indeed there are cases where prosecutors have a heightened sense of vindication for a victim to a terrible crime, cases where they need to be especially certain the defendant is the actual perpetrator, but for the most part there is no such victim.  The prosecutors are representing an allegation, and the bulk of the time in America, the allegation is that the defendant consensually possessed the means to be intoxicated, or consensually sold those intoxicants to a consensual buyer.

As a society we generally heap respect upon those we see as protecting people.  We acknowledge risks they may take in providing protection.  “Freedom ain’t free,” some say.  Among that price is the mental and spiritual toll taken on by public defenders who sometimes get painted with the same brush as the people they defend.  The irony is they’re being “accused” of defending murderers, rapists, and child molesters.  Nobody points out that this is perhaps 2% of the caseload.  And the 1% who are eventually found free to go, were never a murderer, rapist, nor child molester in the first place.  But if not for that lawyer, they might have been.

English: This is a chart illustrating the amou...

English: This is a chart illustrating the amount spent on criminal justice by function from 1982-2006, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

2. They Believe in Helping Others

Unlike prosecutors who can lose a drug case and walk away with little more than a bruised ego, public defenders can lose such a case and carry the weight of the punishment.  Imagine watching a client receive ten years in a cage because he chose to sell a drug rather than wallow in unemployment.  Every single case has a human face.  There are meetings, phone calls, letters; for juvenile public defenders, there are two clients: the child and their parents (who have limited rights in a case)-  just in case you needed more balls to juggle in the air.

I generally wonder why public school teachers take so much flack.  Call me cynical, but I think some powerful forces want to destroy public education so that society can expand the class of undereducated low-wage job seekers and expand prisons.   Like teachers,  Defenders are always wondering if their paycheck will exist next year and if there are funds to pay for the necessary materials.  Like teachers, Defenders have to hold a stronger belief in their mission than all the flack combined.

Those who believe in a fair system based on individual rights should be insulted whenever anyone expects a Defender to just ‘go along.’  A Defender’s docket is a collection of individuals requiring their rights to be asserted and protected.  Any court officer who utters “The judge doesn’t like it when you file motions,” is helping to destroy the Fair Trial concept.  They say this to demoralize the defender, to try and make justice “speedy” and “efficient” for convictions.  Obviously the speediest way to get a case off the calendar is to dismiss the charges.  We should question the American Values of anyone who seeks to, or actually does, undercut the Defender- a requirement for fair and just process.

fair-trial-for-accused-Navy-SEALs-261x3003.  You Could Be Next

Once we start believing in a country where police can conduct warrantless searches, we have lost more than the right to a Fair Trial.  The reason why, for example, drug evidence needs to be thrown out (if illegally seized) is because this is the only way to guide police behavior.  If we cede unlimited power to the police, then how can we say “They hate us for our freedom?”  Similarly, we can’t be thrown in jail based on a “hunch” or a sketchy statement.  But who will be the one to specifically say to the judge how and why that is?  What is the Rule of Evidence?  What is the case precedent?  What is a Daubert hearing?

This is especially glaring where soldiers who served in Iraq/Afghanistan are struggling with classic post-war issues: mental strain, physical disabilities, and unemployment.  Every combat deployment since the beginning of time will create such struggles, and people with “Wounded Heart” or PTSD.  These are often suppressed with drugs.  And when one of those soldiers goes into court trying to explain how things spun out of control, a Defender should be there to protect them.  Vets don’t have “legal services” in their benefits package, but perhaps they should.

Like a scientist who wants to make a doctor’s job easier on the front lines of helping people, we need to find ways to support Defenders.  Slashing their budgets generally leads to more expenses, including hiring private attorneys at a cut rate (although more expensive than Defenders) and likely bulking up prison populations if we expect to fund courtrooms on the cheap while putting more cops in the street.

Nobody plans on going to court.  Nobody asks to be a defendant.  Life gets out of control sometimes, and sadly for some, life starts out like that.  Schools struggle to find the answer to kids acting up, kids who may have been born into foster care, family violence, or neighborhoods of despair.  Some schools choose to call the police, send the kid to court, and let the lawyers sort it out.  With budget challenges, its probably just “efficient” to push discipline issues off onto another state agency.  Ironically, many Defenders are moving towards a “Community Oriented Defense” practice, where they recognize that someone’s behavior can’t be isolated from other factors in their lives.  Some have social workers on staff, or strong relationships with substance abuse counseling centers.  Much of this is limited by their budgets- so Defenders can end up as social workers and guidance counselors all the same.  The person they help tomorrow could be your dad, your cousin, your own kid.

Thank You for your Service

Upon going to certain places, you expect there to be someone at their post.  We often take it for granted.  We expect to have our disputes handled fairly as well, and that can’t happen without public defenders at the courthouse.  I never fully understood the Defenders until seeing my fiancé up late every night preparing motions and trial strategies, calling kids and their parents on a Sunday, and putting off her own relaxation.  Some of her cases fizzle out with dropped charges or deferment to a program, but she never knows which they will be.  If she has your case, she treats it like the prosecutor is going all-in, she has to, regardless of how strong the case.  And tonight, around the country, roughly 15,000 Defenders like her are protecting the rights of millions.

All I can do is write a Thank You letter, and hope that I might be anywhere near as useful.

Posted in Courts, Innocence | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Former Prisoner’s View: “Orange is the New Black”

orange_is_the_new_black_xlg1-940x1317Those of you without Netflix might be wondering what’s all the fuss about with “Orange is the New Black.”  The first 13-episode season of ONB is the second TV show to debut on the website.  It is time to get past the controversy over who created the show and use it for advancing discussion on mass incarceration in ways that only mass media can accomplish.

The setting of ONB is simple: a women’s federal minimum security in upstate New York.  Roughly a dozen main characters provide the drama, humor, and sex.  Yes, sex (go figure).  The storytelling device is that the show’s central viewpoint is through the character Piper Chapman- a White chick.  She is based on a real life character, Piper Kerman, who wrote the book “Orange is the New Black” after serving a year in just such a penitentiary.  Chapman/Kerman both went to a fancy college and were born with privilege, rather than the working class and impoverished neighborhoods destroyed by a war on people, dubbed the “War on Drugs.”

So lets get a few things out of the way: 

1.  This is neither a documentary film nor a news piece.  It is thought-provoking television entertainment.  i.e. the last review I wrote was for the film “Les Miserables.”  My thoughts have been provoked.

2.  The show is racist.  Yes, I said it.  That’s because the entire prison apparatus is racist, thus any show based on it, rooted in it, must also be racist.  For my non-believers in racism, I leave it to endless studies showing that similarly situated White people overwhelmingly receive less-punitive treatment than Black and Latino folks.  This starts with where police patrol to the discretion of police, prosecutors, grand juries, judges, juries, parole boards… and it all compounds at every stage to form a massive ball of racism.

3.  The writer, Jenji Kohan, did not do time in prison.  She wrote the show “Weeds” about a suburban mom who sells weed.  I’m not sure if Kohan has experience with that, but I know several weed dealers who loved the show.  She, her brother and father, have all won Emmy awards for their writing.  Here, Kohan pulls her story out of Kerman’s book, and consults with Kerman on the scripts.  And wherever she is pulling it from: she’s got skills, and not just getting by because she’s Jewish in Hollywood.

Considering the above, some are outraged that it’s “only a story when a White person gets locked up.”  There is some truth to that, but ONB is not just about the White character.  I’m reminded of “ER,” where the storytelling device is to show the insanity of the hospital through the eyes of Dr. Carter, the rookie intern.  It’s a device, to create some tension- and in prison culture, roles can be reversed.  As a guy told me within a few weeks of my incarceration: “You people run shit out there, we run shit in here.”  Yes, I would love to watch Mumia’s TV drama, if he wrote one.  I also know that if it were my show, there would be flack that it’s a White writer, even if the main character were Black.  And finally, it seems to me that people want stories about either total monsters or people who were justified/innocent.  We don’t like to wade in the murky waters of good people who do really bad things. Power of the Female Lens

Women are about 7% of people in prison.  Clearly they are not representative of the norm, however, I believe this is a better lens for society to see through and comprehend what is going on.  We often have little compassion for men and no outrage when they are trampled.  If America were presented with a cellblock full of Black men, people shut down, revert to stereotypes, and innate prejudices drive their view.  Consider all the voyeurs who watch the MSNBC “Lockup” series, or the other one (you know the one).  Such shows are reinforcing the norm that “these people” belong in prison; that these dangerous dudes shouldn’t live on my street.  Some people rush to judgment at the slightest hint of “thug” behavior.  The fact that a significant percentage of America could do this over a skinny unarmed high school kid who was shot and killed… it is almost astonishing, unless you have a pulse of American cultural wavelengths.  Trayvon Martin’s story, in 2013, has many lessons still to be addressed.

I was in a prison group where a counselor showed us part of an Oz episode.  About two guys were shanked, three raped, a few tattoos, massive drug use… all within a few minutes.  “That’s what people think you’re doing in here,” she said.  Imagine hearing, years later, someone in a social justice sphere say (only half joking): “I know what prison is like, I watched Oz.”  I gave her a look and said “ouch.”  She knew what I meant to say.  With ONB, I hope these female characters will succeed in exploring (for the viewer) genuine issues of the human condition.  It just so happens that my favorite book on prison is also written by a woman who served time.

wallpaper-the-street-1600One of my friends once said, “They should give us royalties,” while walking the yard.  He concluded that without us doing crazy, messed up stuff to inspire the writers and suck in the voyeurs, those with criminal fantasies, the fetishists, even the studious- they would have no TV, no movies, because “crime” stories are everywhere.  On the funny side, he’s right.  But on a serious note, this highlights a deeper dilemma where a group of people aren’t allowed to, nor sought out, to write their own stories.  The creators of Oz (Tom Fontana) and The Wire (David Simon) are both White guys with writer backgrounds.  Both have long ‘cop show’ writing credits.

It isn’t fair to writers, in general, that they be lauded only when they write from their direct experience.  But it is more unjust when the subjects are excluded from the storytelling process.  This is not to say anyone who has been in prison can construct a complex web of characters with properly paced plot lines.  Nor to say any “writer” can use their skills for any scenario.  There are writers who have been incarcerated, of all skin tones, and this Kohan/Kerman story is just one of the tales that can be told.  Lets not ever forget that Netflix is in it for the money, not to advance an agenda.

Most agencies that serve incarcerated, and formerly incarcerated, people also have disproportionately White staffs.  The same can be said for those who study us or represent us in court.  Most of them have folks running reentry programs who have never reentered society from prison.  Many People of Color who do such work aren’t from low-income over-policed communities, and perhaps went to colleges like the ONB lead character rather than the state homes like Taystee.  Ultimately, we can draw hard lines in the sand to exclude all but the perfect voices, perfect in both style and substance, or we can embrace it a bit- based on people’s true intentions.  Lease with the option to call you out on some bullshit.

Character-Driven Issues

Chapman, like the book’s author, caught a year for being a money mule- yet never actually getting arrested with drugs or money.  It is true that the biggest drug dealers in the world never get caught while people just getting by, often Black and Latino folks with few (if any) economic alternatives, are fueling an incarceration industry.  Once the dealing goes corporate, those millions of dollars create private bankers, private militaries, and paid-off officials.  My frustration with this character’s legal dilemma is that she didn’t go to trial, not the presumption that, if she were Black, she would be serving 20 years on a mandatory minimum sentence.

pennsatucky-640x366Its tough to pick a favorite character, as the acting is brilliant.  None of the characters are just cartoon cut-outs, they have multi-dimensions, and most manage to remind me of someone I knew in prison.  Pennsatucky is brilliantly portrayed by Taryn Manning (8 Mile); lovable/avoidable ‘Crazy Eyes’ (Uzo Aduba) allows a window into mental illness, and the grim reality of prison medical treatment; Red (Kate Mulgrew) grows on you like a Soprano, and you quickly forget she is not the captain of Starship Voyager.  I’m not feeling Laura Prepon’s character (Alex) who, sadly, is a central character.  I’m not sure if its her skinny eyebrows, hipster sarcasm, or stool-pigeonry, but she can just go away.  Some may argue that ONB has too many characters who appear justified in their criminal behavior, and/or they were not the real culprit (just along for the ride), or it was an accident, or they only victimized themselves.  Lets not forget this is a minimum security where, typically, people are in on bullshit charges.  But yes, for some of us: we did some fucked up shit and can never take it back.  With a show like this, however, we can take the time to see that even the most heinous actions have a story attached to them.

Laverne+Cox+23rd+Annual+GLAAD+Media+Awards+kHegfVwk1cPlThe show goes far enough to create a transgender character (Sophia) played by Laverne Cox, who is (surprise) a transgender woman in real life.  She is another potential show-stealer, with many story lines to work out.  Surely the creators can consult with Miss Major and TGI Justice on this issue.  The problem with prisons brutally failing trans people, in many ways, starts with their troubling policies on where to incarcerate someone.  I’ll leave it to others to discuss the reality of the character’s journey, but its excellent to see ONB attempt to cover the landscape.

500fullAllowing for character development is a bonus where a show has perhaps five seasons and over 60 hours to spend- especially where the characters are in prison.  New people will come in, some may get out and come back, and an incarcerated mother’s life is perhaps one of the most complicated personalities to unpack and understand.  Elizabeth Rodriguez portrays Aleida, whose own daughter becomes incarcerated.  She is probably my favorite as I sense the room for her growth and the revelations of what drives her.

And then there is Chapman, the main character.  She is lovable and hate-able, which I believe is the intent of the show.  ONB may vault actress Taylor Shilling into a leading lady, or sideline her to a memorable role, like the friends on Friends.  Either way, she is just right for the show.  Her awkwardness and confidence are evident, two traits one might expect from an Upper West Side-type-of-girl who finds her way into the Joint after thinking her adventures in the drug world were above the law… and buried in the past.

pornstache_616And the character, Pornstache… he is possibly my favorite villain since Dr. Evil.  There are also some “good” guards.  But keep watching- we shall see if they go the way most go over time.

Its not all Perfect

Struggles with poverty, addiction, violence and difficult choices are not gender-specific.  Rape by prison guards is almost (not totally) unique to women prisoners, and the rate of HIV is much higher.  Hardly any men are in prison for prostitution, but the root cause of desperately needing money is often the same: addiction, a health issue.  Despite some differences, the insanity of prison regulations is the same for both genders.  Addiction is part of ONB, but I expect to see further health problems- including amongst the older “Golden Girls,” as people die in prison every year, often amidst brutal neglect.

My primary critique thus far is that there is not enough emphasis on children of the prisoners.  Organizations such as Women On the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH) in NYC, and Justice Now in Oakland, must be going nuts, as they do the real work with women locked up.  About 75% of incarcerated women are mothers, and most of them are in constant struggles with DCYF over visitation, or even termination of their parental rights.  Prisons are still sterilizing women.  A few mothering plot-lines exist: one woman who gives birth behind bars (which received decent treatment, but could have been more intense); or the Mother-Daughter who are both incarcerated.

I’m hoping to see not just a political prisoner (there is one), but prisoners who become political.  Some refer to such people (I was one, myself) as “Political Prisoners” all the same.  I won’t mince words and terms, I just want to see some higher analysis of The System by a few of these women.  It is self-evident that wherever there are people caged for more than long enough to gather their thoughts, there will be wisdom.  One might think that Red, the kitchen matriarch, would be the font for such perspective, but I think it may be better drawn out through Gloria, with her constituency of Latinas.  Taystee is a quality “brains of the operation,” but a certain college girl not named Chapman could also develop into an intellectual force.

I would like to see more exploration of the racial dynamics in prison.  It is not the same as the outside, although it is an extension of an America that protected slave ownership through force of laws and weapons; a society that can currently whip some people up into a fury by mentioning “illegals” on welfare.  I’m someone who directly confronted racial politics and culture while incarcerated.  This was some of the most rewarding experiences for me, as it was a strike against the “Divide and Conquer” power structure that serves an outnumbered master class.  ONB sets up the “tribes” and “families” that form the society in this prison, creating a large canvass upon which to paint our human condition.

If you want to know the humanity of society, look to its prisons

Prison is a peculiar place that molds us in ways that often depends on our disposition towards other people.  Do we care about other people?  Despise them?  With that said, self-preservation is crucial.  Chapman is not an angel.  She screws up on more than a few occasions.  If this prison were more violent, she may have been shanked two or three times already.  She is like the “NewJack” that inspired me to write “NewJack’s Guide to the Big House,” when I finally got to minimum security, after 11 years of prison.

In full disclosure, I know the writer of the book ONB (Piper Kerman), upon which Jenji Kohan based the show, and had breakfast with her the other day.  She corrected my false assumption that the prison setting, including the seeming unlimited movement of the ladies, was made for TV.  In fact, the real version of this prison is much like the show.  I was also quick to recognize that she is not the character “Chapman”- its just an awkward derivative.  We are both looking forward to the second season.

Prison is a funny place.  It is a scary place.  It is a hole in the ground where power dynamics can make you a ruler or an outcast in a matter of hours.  Someone who spent a year in there can’t know it all, and neither Piper Chapman nor Piper Kerman nor Jenji Kohan knows it all.  We can watch the show and think about fake characters confronting real issues, or we can just change the channel.  Yesterday, a guy on the plane behind me, who was finishing up his degree in accounting, was saying how one particular show is “the best, its real.  The guy basically just fucks women and makes money.” The girl next to him asked, “is that your goal in life?”  He replies, “Basically.”  We can always aspire to be that guy.

Posted in Arts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Written and Set in Prison: “House of Death”

House of Death ScreenshotBy the time I got to Minimum Security I had over a decade in prison and written screenplays, a novel, self-help guide, poetry, raps, short stories…  I was only missing a play.  Eventually all the ingredients came together and I wrote House of Death, named after Fyodor Dostoevski’s book about his life in the Russian gulag.  It is now available, in full, to watch online.  Rap battles and all.

After release I collaborated with members of Direct Action for Rights & Equality, and poet Christopher Johnson, to produce Voice of the Voiceless, a reading of prisoners’ writings.  The spine of the work comes from my self-help book, NewJack’s Guide to the Big House.  We used it as an organizing tool and saw considerable success.  I later took it to a full stage production on several college campuses.  This is where 1000 lbs. Guerilla was born.

Dan Schleifer was the Field Director of our constitutional campaign to restore voting rights for people on probation and parole in Rhode Island.  I was the organizer of our volunteers.  One night he says: “If we win this thing, I will be stage manager for your next play- for free.”

After winning the right to vote, I took Dan up on the offer and brought back my tech crew, Inphynit, and Amos Hamrick from Voice of the Voiceless.  Austin Campion came to an audition after earning his M.FA in acting.  I called up an emcee I met in Providence (Big Scythe), who in turn brought a guy I knew from prison: Erick Betancourt.  When I was told there is a dearth of Asian actors in Providence, I set out to look for an Asian performer and found Sokeo Ros, a hip-hop dance instructor.

House of Death enjoyed a tremendous run at The Perishable Theatre in Providence.  That success opened the door to produce The Exonerated.  Although law school has gotten in the way of my arts production quite a bit, I still spit at an open mic on occasion- including regular appearances with the RAE (Resurrection After Exoneration) House “Open Mic All-Stars.”  This weekend I will enter the 48 Hour Film Festival.  Last time, we won Best Original Song with “You Need Help.”

I’ve written a lot about voting, housing, and employment discrimination lately.  But I give you House of Death, because this is the writing I want you to hear.  And go figure: Erick went on to study theatre and is getting an M.FA at the prestigious Actor’s Studio in NYC.

Posted in Arts, Movement Building, Prison Conditions | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Rhode Island: 10th State to “Ban the Box” on Employment Applications

BanTheBoxYour state can be next.  This is one man’s description of how we got the campaign off the ground.

I met Linda Evans in 2007, in Oakland, and heard her presentation on an interesting issue that hit close to home: Ban the Box.  With the success All of Us or None had in their San Francisco campaign, Linda and her colleagues were trying to share the knowledge far and wide so that all employers in America would judge an applicant for who they are before finding out what they had done.  Linda asked me, as a member of Direct Action for Rights & Equality (DARE), when Rhode Island would Ban the Box.

In 2009, while at an artist retreat focused on prison issues, I met Sarah Walker, of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition.  They had a pending statewide bill to Ban the Box, which passed their legislature while we were in upstate New York.  Sarah never asked me when Rhode Island was going to Ban the Box.  She told me we had to do it.  Meanwhile, Scott Slater won a special election to succeed his father as the representative from my district in South Providence.  He was very quick to explain that he wanted to support civil rights issues and learn about the legislation DARE is advocating regarding jobs, housing, and prisons.

In 2010 I took a recently released friend to a legislative committee meeting of RI Coalition of Addiction and Recovery Efforts (RICARES), where I met Ian Knowles.  After hearing what they were working on, and wondering how the work fit in with DARE, I asked what their “organizing issue” was- the piece of legislation through which they can do outreach and get people engaged.  I asked them how many people in recovery had criminal records.  Upon hearing such a high percentage, I asked if they had heard of “Ban the Box.”  They had not, so I shared everything Linda, Sarah, and Maurice Emsellem (of National Employment Law Project) had taught me on the issue.  After all, our neighbors (Connecticut and Massachusetts) were passing similar legislation.

RICARES and DARE began to build a coalition, and I set out to write a bill that took the best of all worlds, particularly the Boston city ordinance on the matter.  Rep. Slater agreed to take it on, and we quickly worked to broaden our support.  DARE member (and subsequent organizer) Jordan Seaberry branded the campaign with an excellent logo, which turned into a t-shirt.  We had a petition, co-sponsors, and got a committee hearing.  DARE organized a rally, and I reached out to Republican Mike Chippendale to support the bill.  RICARES organized their annual lobby day, while we supported the late Providence City Councilman Miguel Luna’s successful push for a resolution in support of Ban the Box.

The key is to tell our stories.  John Prince was DARE’s Chairman of the Board of Directors.  He served many years in prison, enjoyed massive respect throughout the city, and is courageous enough to share his stories of struggling in the job hunt.  Luis Estrada is a formerly incarcerated man, a gifted paralegal, and able to speak with the sincerity of someone who lives constantly under the mark of what he did decades ago.

These issues are larger than any efforts of one person or organization.  They must transcend, take root, and multiply.  I left Rhode Island in August 2011 for New Orleans, but the work at DARE carried on with members and organizers of our Behind the Walls committee.  I could do little more than make some calls, send some emails, and write the occasional testimony for the legislature, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  DARE and RICARES continued to build support, as did the people of many other allied organizations in the area.  The most exciting part of this legislation process, to me, is that directly impacted people are the ones leading the discussion and driving the issue.  DARE is an organization that embraces and develops such community members.  When I was released from prison, their members’ arms were the only place I felt comfortable.  Organizers like Mimi Budnick, Sara Mersha, and John Prince recognized that I could be helpful to my neighbors, and made sure that formerly (and currently) incarcerated people find ways to get involved.

We had a bill seemingly come close in 2012, and I tried to be helpful from afar by raising awareness.  That year, the EEOC finally developed and passed their own regulations regarding hiring people with a criminal record.  This reinforced our resolve and further developed our legal arguments why employers should support this policy and avoid liability.  In 2013 DARE and the coalition made a short film, “Beyond the Box,” profiling Donald, Jay, and Thomas, three men who refuse to take “no” for an answer… even if it has been far too common a response, prior to even making an interview.  The film even features my first boss out of prison: Frank Jenestreet, owner of Liberty Rentals.  When I see him, I basically feel like going to work.  This is clearly what everyone in Rhode Island has been doing on this issue: going to work.

Rhode Island joins Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, Maryland, Connecticut, and Massachusetts- along with over 50 cities and municipalities that have Banned the Box.  In fact, half of the states have some form of the legislation enacted inside their borders, as is detailed in a report by NELP.  I’m fortunate to have been there in the beginning, but even more blessed that a movement of people are organizing there today.  This multi-state, multi-organization support network all relies on people.  These are people and organizations who band together to create the Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement, or web platforms like Nation Inside.

The support this year was overwhelming, and ultimately so were the House and Senate votes.  Governor Lincoln Chafee signed this bill and immediately sent a message of hope to every person in prison, and everyone pounding the pavement looking for work: Keep your head up and keep trying.  “Luck favors the prepared man,” so the story goes.  It also favors those who can get into an interview and explain who they are, before having to reveal who they may have been on their worst day years ago.

Posted in Employment, Legislation, Movement Building, Rehabilitation | Tagged , , , , , ,

Hunger Strikes, Force Feeds, and Solitary Dreams

While the California prisoners enter their fourth day of hunger strikes, the people of Guantanamo enter their 40th. Meanwhile, Herman Wallace has spent over forty years in solitary confinement in Louisiana. These three aspects, all coming to new awareness this week, represent a consistent mode of punishment in America, “The Land of the Free.”

1_photoDungeons of California SHU
As some people are well aware, there have been recent hunger strikes in Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and other facilities in the California system. The people’s demands are not to go home, or run rampant, but to have humane conditions regarding food, education, and sunlight; along with a fair process regarding their accused status as security risks.

You can read their own words here, in a great post on Solitary Watch.

2LIHGDB6U0LMS1KK-rszw514Yasin Bey (aka Mos Def) Courageously Gives Force-Feeding a Try
People forget that many people on the island of Cuba, caught in dungeons for allegations since proven false, are free to go. These are the U.S. prisoners at Guantanamo, along with others who have not gotten their day in court after (for some) a decade in detention. Yasin Bey tried being force fed, something that is likely to happen to at least some of the distant California prisoners. Every taxpaying American should watch this demonstration. They are paying for the chair, straps, tubes, and “food.”

It’s amazing that the most powerful nation in the world can devise a way of keeping people alive, against their will, and yet cannot find an appropriate nation for releasing innocent people, nor an appropriate trial to test the evidence against others.  The United States has assured the world it will force feed in respect to the fasting traditions of Ramadan.

Herman-Wallace-April-2013.jpg.pagespeed.ce.Qd11zs4y_rHerman Dreams of a House
When artist Jackie Sumell learned about the Angola 3, she only knew the basics: Three guys are being put in solitary confinement, and having their sentences extended, for a sketchy charge of killing a prison guard. Like two actors who heard about the Death Penalty at a rally, they asked: “What can I do?” Those actors created the Exonerated, a world famous stage play that helped convince Gov. Ryan that too many questionable convictions have put his people on Death Row in Illinois. As someone who once directed the play, I can tell you that arts have a transformative power for a wide range of people.

Jackie and Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3, started building a house together, from the mind of a man in a cage. “Herman’s House” has since become an international exhibit, and they are attempting to make it a reality as a community resource in New Orleans. A film about “Herman’s House” made its national debut on PBS this week. The film is powerful. The court system has also proven to be powerful. Although a federal judge and the wife of the prison guard both think the Angola 3 (particularly, in the case of Albert Woodfox) did not commit the killing- the state of Louisiana has appealed the decision to a higher court. Woodfox awaits a new trial, Wallace has terminal cancer, and Robert King has been released. Louisiana has a history of locking on to the wrong scent. Fortunately there is also a history of defying that sort of power.

The Solution is Water, Vapor, and Ice
People want concrete. We like to see and hold things. We like a comprehensive plan. Democracy and culture doesn’t work like that. To create justice and equality, the actions are big and little, seen and invisible. This week we have seen those who toil in obscurity intertwined with famous indelible works of magnitude. We are seeing thousands, if not millions, of voices collectively speaking out against tyrannical practices.

fenway03The work must be incessant. Unceasing. I once mowed lawns for a living. I could make the most beautiful lawn with just the right design of lines to work in your yard. I dreamed of mowing the lawn of Fenway Park. And the thing is, no matter how majestic I made your lawn: to keep it nice, I had to come back next week and mow it again. I didn’t mind. I took pride in it every week. And it wasn’t just about your house looking its best; it was also about me creating the best work I can, doing my part.
This is what democracy is like. Find a role. Do your part.

Posted in Actions, Commentary, Innocence, Prison Conditions, Prisoner Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Does the Prosecution Rest? Changing the Narrative to Let Justice Be Done

george-zimmerman-trial-defaultThe George Zimmerman trial is on my Facebook wall.  It is on TV at the gym.  Needless to say, from a guy who doesn’t have a TV: it is everywhere.  Because this case is one of the few high-profile cases where some traditional roles are reversed, it creates a moment to see those roles.  After receiving positive feedback from writing the six rules for aspiring (and current) prosecutors to be effective, it is time to continue with the subject.

Strengths of the Prosecution

First, it is our entire society that prosecutes.  From the water-cooler gossip to the 6’oclock news, from prison guards to post-incarceration employers, all segments of our culture finds a way to punish people for their wrongdoings.  When all of these sectors are aligned, particularly if the offender fits a certain narrative, the prosecutor is most effective in their role.

Trayvon Martin TrialIn Zimmerman’s case, society has mixed opinions.  Someone from another country who doesn’t speak English might easily watch TV thinking Trayvon Martin is on trial, including calling it the “Trayvon Martin Trial,” accompanied by images of a hooded, Black, teenage boy.  Such an image is typically used of perpetrators, not victims, and this is the narrative America is used to.  Some parts of our nation, especially our media and prosecutors’ offices, may need to examine their prejudices and assumptions.

When unleashed, the “full extent of the law” can rarely be beaten.  The resources of the prosecution are limitless, with the help of police and community groups (of which Zimmerman felt he was one) the target is caught once a single hook gets sunk in.  This is where the prosecution excels.  They systematically have confused the defense counsel’s ethical duty (zealous advocacy for their client) with their own: to let justice be done.

Orleans D.A. Leon Cannizaro and NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas

Orleans D.A. Leon Cannizaro and NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas

Errors of the Prosecution

In some jurisdictions, about a third of cases prosecutors bring charges on are dismissed.  Even after attorneys are appointed the prosecutor is still holding on to terrible cases. They have a choice once someone is arrested, to decide whether this charge should be pursued or not.  Whether a case deserves more time spent on investigation, assigned to lawyers for both sides, and taking up space on the court calendar.  In New Orleans, the public defender had 18% of the felonies, and 59% of the misdemeanors, dismissed in 2012.  Next door, in Jefferson Parish, the dismissals are 23% and 32% respectively.  In many cases, whether the person spends anywhere from a few nights to a few months in prison, they are likely to lose a job, apartment, and even a significant other.  They may fall behind on payments such as past court costs or child support which, ironically, will result in a warrant for their arrest.

Dismissed charges are the ones where the prosecutor admits their mistake.  Knowing how well they can prosecute (leverage they hold, deals they can broker, and investigation they can muster), it’s a clear loser when the case is dismissed.  Typically it is because there was no evidence whatsoever.  It begs the question of why someone was arrested in the first place, but it’s understandable for a lot of confusion to exist when the police roll on to a scene.  That confusion apparently remains at the time of arraignment, although the D.A. would prefer you look at their controversial trial conviction rate, a tiny percentage of cases, to judge effectiveness.  On the other side, we don’t hear the Orleans Public Defender bragging that they won over half their felony trials last year.  Perhaps because it is less than 100 cases they handled.

The Orleans Public Defender handled 27,000 cases last year with its 54 lawyers.  Among 34,000 arrests by the NOPD, only 1300 were for a “violent felony.”  This is important to know, when we are inundated with the message of living in a violent city, and multi-millions are dedicated to law enforcement, only 4% of the arrests relate to that narrative of violence and fear.  Less than half the felony arrests result in convictions, and many of those are for misdemeanors.  Meanwhile, judges are being rated on how fast they can close a case rather than whether justice is accurate and rights are protected.  In New York City, as the infamous “Stop and Frisk” trial has shown, the police are being rated on how many arrests they can make.

View from the Public

There are signs that the prosecution’s infallibility is crumbling and their status as “humans,” with flaws and all, is taking over.  Nobody is jumping head over heels about the prosecution of George Zimmerman, but perhaps people should recognize that in non-televised trials, these government lawyers are making the same fumbles all the time.  This isn’t a scripted movie and not everyone can be Tom Cruise.

A recent survey showed that people of all ages, genders, and political persuasions lack faith in the prosecution, many believe prosecutorial misconduct is widespread, and overwhelming numbers don’t believe they are punished (and they are not).  For those most interested in maintaining the justice system as we know it, some action may need to be taken before the faith in it completely crumbles.

Changing the Narrative

A Black male teenager was shot and killed in New Orleans recently.  The police are likely following all available leads, and the prosecutors would naturally utilize all their resources to convict whomever the police arrest.  There may be deals for “jailhouse snitches,” to whom the suspect conveniently divulged every detail of the crime.  There might be anonymous tips and rewards paid out.  Such tactics are common in all cases of wrongful conviction, including several famous cases here in New Orleans.  With that said, the shooter may in fact be the one caught.

The prosecution would thrive in prosecuting where the shooter is a young Black male.  If Trayvon Martin shot George Zimmerman, there wouldn’t be any “doubts” expressed on mainstream TV, no remarks about the “burden of proof.”  Prosecutors didn’t even bother to correct simple, prejudicial, inaccuracies that Martin was 5’11”, not 6’2”; and photos used to justify his unarmed threat were of other people.  Prosecutors thrive where the community demands an “eye for an eye.”  They fare best if the victim is a young White person who “didn’t deserve to die.”  The common realities however, is that we need to move beyond our stereotypes and the stories our media has grown comfortable in telling.

In this New Orleans case, and many others, the boy’s father was himself incarcerated.  He knows wrongfully convicted people and also knows the impact of using prisons to destroy communities and end lives.  He wants to stop the violence on the streets, yet do that through jobs and education- two things sorely lacking in New Orleans and in many parts of our country.  Increased presence of armed police, in an overall distressed community that (believe it or not) never recovered from Katrina, is not a path to peace.  It is like saying “look, the murder rate in prison is lower than in New Orleans, so lets just put everyone in prison.”

Let Justice Be Done

For prosecutors to serve their purpose, they need to reflect the will of the communities they work within.  They also need to be accurate.  Potentially destroying the lives of a third of the people they charge, where the case simply wasn’t there, is inexcusable.  Catch-and-Release is not an acceptable form of justice.  People aren’t fish to be used for sport, nor budget increases.

Posted in Commentary, Courts, Innocence, Race | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Dear Gov. Chafee: Sign Ban the Box!

BanTheBoxDear Governor Chafee,

Yesterday, mere hours before the House passed “Ban the Box” (5507A) by a 62-3 vote, I spoke with a friend who had been told by a temp agency he is “toxic,” and they could never hire him. I said this wasn’t a good case for litigation under federal law. He didn’t care about suing anyone; he was just feeling down about his job search.  Unlike most of the 2014 college graduates (with dual degree Honors) my friend has a criminal record from age 16.

Later that day, the EEOC settled with one of the largest trucking companies in America. J.B. Hunt will change its blanket policy that prohibits hiring people with a criminal record, and instead follow the federal agency guidelines, that past crimes should be relevant to the job when used for denial.

I went to law school to receive more interviews, to explain why I would be a good fit for the job. I applied to 30 law schools that made decisions on paper, and do not offer interviews. I got rejected by all of them, yet got into half the schools where I spoke with someone.  I’ve since become a positive addition to both Tulane and New Orleans.

I’ve spoken recently with several friends out job hunting.  Some are husky like the actor James Gandolfini or David “Big Papi” Ortiz. Some are not as confident with their words.  Some are next to homeless. All have criminal records and yet none of this impacts their ability to do solid work. Over 150,000 people have gone through the ACI over the past few decades and those of us who “made it” learned to be flexible to survive. We learn to adjust our sights in the job market, but I urge you, as Governor, ensure that nobody has to stop looking.

Those of us with criminal histories, recent or long past, are your residents, your voters, and your people. We have families. Our children depend on us to set an example and pay the bills. We are looking to erode barriers after we have served our time. When we fail, the pain transcends past one individual, as we are forced to choose from different, less hopeful, options.  Yet when we succeed, that too ripples outward.  Last year, three of us from the ACI formed Transcending Through Education Foundation.  Just this past week we chose our inaugural scholarship winners from a strong pool of applicants.  These are people making the most of their situation, who are helping others, and we want to give them some support amidst (typically) a sea of negativity.

Those of us living with criminal convictions know that the only way to make up for what we’ve done, to our families and community, is to persevere and overcome the barriers. Returning to prison because we couldn’t find a job isn’t good for anyone. Fear is what fuels customs of exclusion. Not knowing someone makes it almost understandable. But such customs have been struck down and driven out of America in the past.

When we went door-to-door in 2006 to talk about voting rights, we learned that folks of all varieties believe we are all still residents, and everyone deserved a second chance. When we started awareness around Ban the Box, we’ve seen the growth of similar support. These are all pieces of a larger fabric to mend, to truly weave us into We The People. A people all in it together.

I raised this issue during your 2010 campaign and you responded as genuinely concerned and supportive.  Governor Chafee, please stay that course and sign this bill.


Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is a former organizer with Direct Action for Rights & Equality, current treasurer of Transcending Through Education Foundation, and a summer Ella Baker fellow for the Center for Constitutional Rights.  He is a third year law student at Tulane University, and continues to volunteer as a member of FICPM, VOTE, and National Lawyers Guild.  He will always be a member of DARE.

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Posted in Employment, Legislation | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Supreme Court and Voting Rights: What They Did, and What We Do Next

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin ...

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The good news:  Racism is over.

The bad news:  This is the lie we keep telling ourselves while racist actions are still happening at the highest levels of government.

For instance, a recent FBI investigation in Alabama recorded state senators referring to Black citizens as “Aborigines,” and openly discussed keeping a referendum off the ballot because it might increase Black voter turnout.  One said, “every Black, every illiterate” would be bused to the polls on “HUD-financed buses.”  These are 2010 conversations that became public in United States v. McGregor.

The ugly news:  Congress needs to re-draft a law defining where racist voting practices should be reviewed under the §5 standards.

The Supreme Court overturns part of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) 

Justice Kennedy wrote the Court’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling in a manner that does not follow precedent, furthering the cynicism of those who feel courts merely do what is in their heart and then write a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to serve as “The Law.”  Ultimately the Court held that Congress would need to write a new formula to determine which states (or political jurisdictions) should be held to closer scrutiny.  They felt, definitively, that if Congress were to draft the formula today it “plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula.”  But is that so?

Justice Ginsberg’s scathing Dissent notes that Shelby County, Alabama would certainly be covered by any formula.

Any new law Congress enacts must account for what is known as “second generation barriers,” referring to the evolved nature of crafting ways in which minority voters have their political power diluted.  Here are a few common tactics:

(1) Racial Gerrymandering is where districts are drawn in ways to split up a non-White neighborhood and disperse parts of it into majority-White neighborhoods;

(2) At-Large voting is a way where a majority-White city can have votes count in every sub-district.  Rather than have representatives of each neighborhood, we would have ten people represent the entire city.  This is very common with school boards;

(3) Annexation of white areas into a municipality while refusing to include similar non-White areas.  This is one way to change the demographics of your city or town: redefine the city limits.

(4) Using criminal records as a proxy for morality laws that strip people’s right to vote- sometimes before teenagers are even given a chance to vote in the first place.

Why do we need a Voting Rights Act at all?

The whole reason the VRA was passed is because the courts could not keep up with the politicians that pass such laws.  Congress and President Bush re-authorized the VRA in 2006, and this Court is basically saying they should not have.  Every time a law was struck down, a slightly different head of the hydra would rise in its place.  §4 of the VRA defined the jurisdictions to be covered closely, and §5 created two key provisions:

  1. Every change in the voting process has to be pre-cleared by the Justice Department before it is enacted, and
  2. The standard for racism is whether it has a disproportionate negative impact on minority groups (ethnic and/or language).  This is broader than §2, where it must be shown that the politicians had a racist intent.

Justice Ginsburg points out that in many parts of America, particularly these states that are no longer subject to closer scrutiny, voters are severely polarized on racial lines. Thus, when incumbents seek to entrench themselves, they will strategize around creating race-specific disadvantages.

But racism is over.  It is no longer 1965, says the Court.

If the VRA showed no impact on reducing political racial chicanery, then we would not bother renewing a failed policy.  But if it worked so much to eradicate it, we can also not bother renewing the successful policy.  So how did arguing the middle ground lose?  Because the Court ignored a large body of evidence, merely to note that registration of Black voters is similar enough to White voters.

The Court fails to reconcile the fact that although the (formerly) Covered Jurisdictions account for under 25% of the American population, they generate 56% of successful litigation under §2: intentional racial discrimination.

Justice Ginsberg could not ignore the inconvenient evidence that 1965 is not so long ago.  Among her citations from the Congressional record:

  • There were more DOJ objections (to proposed election law changes) between 1982 and 2004, than between 1965 and 1982;
  • The majority of post-1982 DOJ objections also find discriminatory intent;
  • Over 800 proposed changes since 1982 were altered or withdrawn after DOJ objection;
  • In 1990, Dallas County, AL (includes Selma) tried to purge every voter who failed to return a voter update form;
  • In 1995, Mississippi attempted to reenact a registration system that was originally designed to disenfranchise Black voters in 1892;
  • In 2000, Albany, GA tried to redistrict in a way, according to DOJ, designed to push back the increasing Black voting strength;
  • In 2001, the mayor (and the all-White alderman) of Kilmichael, MS decided that the answer to so many Black candidates for office was to not hold elections at all.  After DOJ demanded elections, a Black mayor and three Black aldermen were elected.

The Court ignores Shelby County in “Shelby County v. Holder”

The most twisted irony of this Conservative majority ruling is that, under the Court’s own precedent, a facial challenge to the law is the hardest case to make.  As Justice Ginsburg succinctly points out (quoting Justice Scalia, for instance, in prior cases): if a law is capable of being constitutional anywhere, then it can’t be simply struck down as a whole.  No county in Alabama, such as Shelby, is in position to argue that the VRA is unconstitutional.  Perhaps a place without such a rich history of racist policies should have been the model plaintiff, but not Shelby County- who likely should have lost the even lesser argument of an “As-Applied” constitutional challenge.  (The law may be constitutional on its face, but as it is applied in this case it violates Due Process, Equal Protection, etc.).

The Court took this case not to rule in regards to Shelby County, AL, but for all of America.  This contradicts their stance on deciding particular controversies.  Certainly any new formula will include Alabama as a state to watch closely.  Shelby County uses an at-large voting scheme that is tainted by racial discrimination, yet today’s ruling lets them off the hook by saying that other jurisdictions might be unfairly covered by §5 of the VRA.  How quickly Justice Scalia forgets a 1987 case where he agreed that, under the VRA, a city could not annex areas based on racial motivations:  City of Pleasant Grove v. United States happens to be right next door to Shelby County.

In 1985 the Court ruled that Alabama’s scheme of disenfranchising people convicted of “crimes of moral turpitude” was illegal (Hunter v. Underwood).  Unlike most other disenfranchisement laws, this one was clearly found to have been enacted to target Black citizens of Alabama.  The list goes on, in Alabama and elsewhere, some of which is cited by Justice Ginsberg.

Does America only have time to talk about race in a racist way?

After nearly two centuries of laws that are openly hostile towards non-White Americans, we apparently grew weary after just three decades of discussing and enacting change.  Since the 1980’s, people don’t want to hear about racism anymore; many people born since then act as though they lived through the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s.  At the end of the 1970’s, we learned that the FBI was targeting Black, Latino, and Native American leaders for demise, through imprisonment and assassination.  Of course it was a good time to stop talking about race, and pretend it was all an unfortunate past.

It is questionable as to whether today’s Congress wants to acknowledge race and racism.  We have a Black president, after all, elected by 51% of the voters (which translates into about 25% of the American people).  In 1965 people had been actively protesting for a decade.  The Supreme Court and Congress watched the news, and coincidentally decisions were made that respected all citizens’ rights to be American.  Today we are fractured into as many issues as there are websites and cable channels.  To motivate Congress, we may need to assemble in the streets and show that political power will not be snatched so easily by the simple stroke of a fifth Supreme Court justice’s pen.


It cannot be overlooked that the Court ruled not to rule on affirmative action in education on Monday; Scaled voting rights back to 1965 on Tuesday; and liberated gay people to get married on Wednesday.  It does not take much effort to recognize the value in this order, and what it does to social justice commentators.  Even this writer has been criticized for not reserving this day to celebrate the demise of DOMA.  Yet it can’t be forgotten in the news cycle- we need to be able to focus on multiple issues simultaneously, and not fall for any Three Card Monty maneuvers not MasterRaceFul tactics of deception.

Posted in Commentary, Courts, Race, Voting Rights | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment