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JULY 21, 2011: Peg's Blogs on Hiatus...

As many friends and regular readers know, I've been dealing with a lot in my personal life, lately, while my workload has continued to grow. Rest assured that I'm in the best of company, and getting by with a little help from my friends. Still, I need to take a break and focus on centering myself. That means this site will be neglected even more than it has been.

Until I'm able to get a grip on blogging regularly and thoughtfully again here (or until someone else steps in to anchor the site), I encourage people to check out Carl Toersbijns' blog (he's a former Deputy Warden for the AZ Department of Corrections, and while not an abolitionist, he's a strong advocate for the prisoners with mental illness, and for broad-based prison reform in AZ). You may also want to drop in on Middle Ground Prison Reform's site for news.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

Since so many youth are being charged as adults, this matters to everyone...

This is going down this week, folks. Wherever you are in the country, please call or e-mail your congressman today, and specify both HIV and HEP C as concerns. This action comes in from the Sentencing Project via our friends at UNSHACKLE.



This week, people in the worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS are gathering in Vienna for the International AIDS Conference. But there's important action we can take right here at home.

Members of the CHAMP Network and Project UNSHACKLE know that mass imprisonment is fueling the spread of HIV in this country. Obama's new National HIV/AIDS Strategy also notes the links between imprisonment and HIV:

Although the available data suggests that relatively few infections occur in prison settings, there is evidence that some people with HIV who had received medical care while incarcerated have difficulty accessing HIV medications upon release-affecting their health and potentially increasing the likelihood that they will transmit HIV. High rates of incarceration within certain communities can also be destabilizing. When large numbers of men are incarcerated, the gender imbalance in the communities they leave behind can fuel HIV transmissions by increasing the likelihood that the remaining men will have multiple, concurrent relationships with female sex partners. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that a single male would transmit HIV to multiple female partners.

CHAMP and Project UNSHACKLE believe that sentencing reform - meaning that less people are locked up, and for shorter periods - is a crucial part of the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Please join us in responding to this action alert from the Sentencing Project (below), calling on Congress to reform sentencing policies as a part of the fight against HIV/AIDS. When you make your calls, please be sure to say that the new National HIV/AIDS Strategy says that "High rates of incarceration within certain communities can also be destabilizing... and can fuel HIV transmissions":

Tell Congress To Vote Yes for Crack Cocaine Sentencing Reform

This week, the House of Representatives may vote on legislation, recently passed by the Senate, to reduce the 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to 18 to 1. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, S. 1789, would also eliminate the simple possession mandatory minimum (5 years for 5 grams without intent to distribute), limit the excessive penalties served by people convicted of low-level crack cocaine offenses, and increase penalties for high-level traffickers. The U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates the changes could reduce the federal prison population by 3,800 over 10 years.

Champions for sentencing fairness are urged to contact their representative in the House today to ask them to vote yes for the Fair Sentencing Act. Call the U.S. Capitol Switch Board at 202-224-3121 and ask for your representative. They will patch you through to the correct office.

Once you reach your representative, tell them you support the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, S. 1789 because:

• The current 100 to 1 cocaine sentencing disparity is unfair. The five-year penalty for possessing as little as five grams of crack cocaine is the same for selling 500 grams of powder cocaine. The law imposes excessive prison sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses that often exceed penalties for offenses involving powder cocaine trafficking.
• The current 100 to 1 cocaine sentencing disparity exacerbates racial disparity in federal prisons. Over 80% of those serving time for a crack cocaine offense are African American, despite the fact that two-thirds of users are white or Hispanic.
• The Fair Sentencing Act, S. 1789, is an historic opportunity to advance justice and restore faith in the criminal justice system.
• The Fair Sentencing Act will also save taxpayers money. Replacing the irrational 100:1 ratio with a new 18:1 ratio will save $42 million over five years, according to Congressional Budget Office.

When you have completed your call to your representative, please email and say how it went. Also, please consider forwarding this email to a friend.

Thank you for joining the effort to reduce the crack cocaine sentencing disparity. A broad consensus among criminal justice experts, law enforcement organizations, and policymakers has emerged that concludes the current 100 to 1 disparity cannot be justified. Organizations endorsing reform include: the NAACP; Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; American Bar Association, American Civil Liberties Union; the National District Attorneys Association; and the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Healing Invisible Wounds...

July 7, 2010
Contacts: LaWanda Johnson,, (202) 558-7974 x308
Adam Ratliff,, (202) 558-7974 x306.

Most Justice-Involved Youth Affected by Traumatic Childhood Experiences

As many as 9 in 10 youth in justice system have experienced a traumatic event, yet few such youth are identified as traumatized, and fewer receive appropriate treatment or placement

Washington DC - The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a brief today examining the relationship between childhood trauma and justice system involvement for youth. According to Healing Invisible Wounds: Why Investing in Trauma-Informed Care for Children Makes Sense, of the more than 93,000 children that are currently incarcerated in the United States, between 75 and 93 percent have experienced at least one traumatic experience, including sexual abuse, war, community violence, neglect and maltreatment. Research points to long term effects of childhood trauma, including emotional problems and negative impacts on youth brain development. The brief notes that while holding youth who engage in delinquent behavior accountable is important, it is critical that trauma exposure be considered in placement decisions, as youth who receive treatment in the community have better outcomes than those placed in correctional facilities.

“Incarcerated youth already face significant challenges, but youth who have experienced trauma are even more acutely affected,” said author Erica Adams, M.D. “Addressing a child’s trauma through the public health system before that child becomes involved with the justice system is critical to promoting the well-being of the child, the family and ultimately, the community.”

Researchers found that youth who suffer trauma are more likely to develop life-long psychiatric conditions, including personality disorders, conduct disorder, ADHD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Traumatized youth can experience developmental delays, decreased cognitive abilities, learning disabilities and even lower IQ levels, with school problems including school dropout and expulsion rates at nearly three times that of their peers who had not experienced trauma.

“We simply cannot afford to ignore the evidence and prevalence of the long-term effects of untreated childhood trauma,” says Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. “If we are to have strong healthy communities, then we must start with these children whose unseen and untreated wounds hinder their ability to become healthy, productive adults.”

Velázquez will be sharing the findings of Healing Invisible Wounds next week at the National Juvenile Justice Network’s eighth annual forum in New Orleans, Louisiana.

As detailed in the research brief, currently the justice system does not meet the needs of traumatized youth and may increase trauma through its use of incarceration. Thousands of youth are incarcerated each year, and few are screened for trauma-related symptoms or provided trauma-informed care. In one study, 84 percent of agencies reported either no or extremely limited information provided on the youth’s trauma history, and 33 percent of the agencies reported not training staff to assess for trauma at all. Although 60 percent of states surveyed report using universal or selective trauma screenings, the scope is often limited, and fewer than 20 percent of states provide evidence-based or otherwise standardized assessment tools. According to Adams, this may be because trauma often resembles delinquent behavior.

“Although it may be difficult initially to identify the role trauma has played, the most effective and appropriate response to traumatized youth, in or out of the system, is one of treatment and support,” says Adams. “Yet, once these children enter the justice system, quality, evidence-based, trauma-informed treatments and interventions are currently almost non-existent.”

Experts advocating for system reforms that address the unique needs of trauma-affected children say that long-term strategies to treat rather than incarcerate are needed to curb the cycle of justice system involvement at its source, and that these programs should be supported at federal and state levels.

Based largely on the collaborative work of researchers, clinicians and members of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), JPI makes the following recommendations for child-serving systems, law enforcement, judges and entire judicial systems to better recognize and treat trauma in children. The following policies outline steps towards a trauma-informed system.

  • Improve reporting of and screening for trauma exposure. The justice system and law enforcement must emphasize assisting people who experience trauma, as well as supporting people who do report incidents of violence, abuse or neglect, regardless of willingness to prosecute.

  • Improve assessment of trauma exposure. There should be an investigation into the child’s current environment beyond basic safety assurance, which is important for both diagnosis and treatment of trauma-related dysfunction by a professional trained in both general psychiatric assessment and child traumatic stress assessment.

  • Provide targeted prevention and early intervention programs. Counseling and other early interventions should be provided for all people who have experienced trauma and should be instituted relatively soon following the initial incident.

  • Ensure children who have experienced trauma receive services and treatment. Youth and families that have experienced trauma should be referred to practitioners or agencies that provide evidence-based, trauma-informed treatment. Youth should not have to enter the justice system to access these and other mental health services.

  • Avoid further trauma within the justice system. At all stages of processing, care should be taken to not further traumatize youth entering child-serving systems, most of whom have previous traumatic experiences or concurrent mental illness.

  • Consider trauma exposure when deciding sentencing and placement. Judges should receive training on the impact of trauma on youth and appropriate, evidence-based responses. It is critical for judges to understand the role of trauma exposure on youth, particularly if the traumatic exposure may have contributed to an offense.

  • Invest in prevention and trauma-informed programs. Although many states are currently grappling with record budget deficits, cutting prevention and trauma-informed programs may result in more costs down the road. The direct and indirect costs associated with child maltreatment make it among the most costly public health problems in the United States.

To read the full brief click the link Healing Invisible Wounds: Why Investing in Trauma-Informed Care for Children Makes Sense. For additional information, please contact LaWanda Johnson at (202) 558-7974 x308 or For more on JPI’s research, please visit our website at

The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) is a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to reducing society’s use of incarceration and promoting just and effective social policies.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


LGBT Youth Behind Bars: Isolated, Abused, Neglected

by Matt Kelley July 12, 2010 11:16 AM (PT)

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in prisons and jails are among our country's most vulnerable people — and what's more, they're virtually invisible to mainstream society.

Photo Credit: Erin MC Hammer

GritTV checked in this week on the issue of LGBT young people behind bars and brought us one of the more thoughtful (and frightening) presentations of the issues I've seen in a while. (Watch the full episode after the jump.) As their episode reveals, the treatment of LGBT youth in prison brings into focus a dangerous mix of many of our prison system's worst flaws.

We frequently cover the issue of sexual assault in prison, and LGBT youth are among the most victimized populations behind bars. Juveniles are vulnerable in adult prisons — or in any prison, for that matter — and LGBT youth are often the most vulnerable of that group.

But this week, GritTV guests Gabrielle Prisco and Daniel Redman didn't focus only on juvenile issues or prison rape. Instead, they connected important dots on this issue: to homelessness, to the school-to-prison pipeline and the severely excessive use of solitary confinement for our most vulnerable prisoners.

In his excellent recent Nation article, Redman tells the stories of terrified young people — often in need of help — who find themselves in the most hostile environments imaginable. LGBT youth make up 15% of the juvenile prison population, he reports, and they report 12 times the number of sexual assaults as straight youth do.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Slave Ships on Dry Land.

This is an excellent explanation of why I'm an abolitionist.


"To be an abolitionist is just that – to strive to create and rediscover alternatives to incarceration, to find solution to "crime" that restores communities rather than decimates them, it is to ask the difficult questions that push us to imagine an end to the reliance on the prison and related retributive sanctions. To say, yes, that prisons are obsolete."

Abolishing the Prison Industrial Complex

--Part one of an interview with Criminal Injustice Kos co-editors Nancy Heitzeg and Kay Whitlock

By Angola 3 News

Focusing on the prison abolitionist movement, we interview two co-editors of an exciting new series at Daily Kos, called Criminal InJustice Kos (, a weekly series "devoted to exploring the myths of 'crime', 'criminals', and criminal justice and the intersection of race/ethnicity/class/gender/sexuality/age/disability in policing and punishment. Criminal Injustice Kos is committed to furthering action towards reducing inequity in the US criminal justice system." Look for Criminal InJustice Kos every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.

Stay tuned for part 2, where we focus on the practicality of prison abolition and take a close look at alternatives to the US prison system.

Dr. Nancy Heitzeg (whose online name is “soothsayer99”) is an activist educator and Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the interdisciplinary Critical Studies of Race/Ethnicity program at Saint Catherine University. She has written and presented widely on the subjects of race, class, gender and social control. Nancy is the author of Deviance: Rule-makers and Rule-breakers, and several articles exploring issue of race class gender and social control including: "Differentials in Deviance: Race, Class, Gender and Age" (in The International Handbook of Deviant Behavior, Routledge, forthcoming Summer 2010); "The Case Against Prison: in Prison Privatization: The State of Theory and Practice (forthcoming Fall 2010), "Education Not Incarceration: Interrupting the School to Prison Pipeline"(Forum on Public Policy, Oxford University Press, Winter 2010); "The Racialization of Crime and Punishment: Criminal Justice, Color-Blind Racism and the Political Economy of the Prison Industrial Complex"(with Dr. Rose Brewer, which appeared in a special volume co-edited by Dr. Heitzeg and Dr. Rodney Coates, of American Behavioral Scientist: Micro-Level Social Justice Projects, Pedagogy, and Democratic Movements, Winter 2008); and Race, Class and Legal Risk in the United States: Youth of Color and Colluding Systems of Social Control" (Forum on Public Policy, Oxford University Press, Winter 2009).
Be sure to read our earlier two-part interview with Heitzeg, published by Truthout, part one: Visiting a Modern Day Slave Plantation and part two: The Racialization of Crime and Punishment.

Kay Whitlock (whose online name is “RadioGirl”) is a Montana-based writer, organizer, and activist long engaged in progressive struggles for racial, gender, queer, environmental, and economic justice. She has written extensively on the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and class in relation to police and prison violence, most notably in her former position as National Representative for LGBT Issues for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization. Her publications for AFSC include Corrupting Justice: A Primer for LGBT Communities on Racism, Violence, Human Degradation & the Prison Industrial Complex (pdf download and In a Time of Broken Bones: A Call to Dialogue on Hate Violence and the Limitations of Hate Crimes Legislation (pdf download). With Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, she is the co-author of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, forthcoming from Beacon Press in February 2011 – an analysis of queer criminalization, centering race, class, and gender, from colonial contact to the present.

Angola 3 News: Why do you consider yourself a prison abolitionist? What does this term mean for you?

Nancy Heitzeg: If one accepts, as I do, that prisons in the US are a contemporary extension of chattel slavery, that prisons are irredeemably rooted in racism and classism that prisons serve no purpose save corporate profit and raw retribution, then one must call for their abolition. Prison “reform” is insufficient if the very notion and reality of prison itself is grounded in inequality, injustice and destruction.

In a small yet dense book, Angela Davis asks Are Prisons Obsolete??? If prisons are indeed social structures rooted in racism, classism and fear – then we must take the questions seriously. We must try to imagine a nation – perhaps a world without prisons.

"As important as reforms may be, frameworks that rely exclusively on reforms help to produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond the prison...We must give serious consideration to abolitionist strategies to dismantle the prison system...which preserves existing structures of racism as well as creates new ones...this is no more outlandish than the fact that race and economic status play more prominent roles in shaping the practices of social punishment than does crime." (Davis 1998 105)

I have always known people who were in prison and or known of others who were. I have always thought about prison. "Letter from A Birmingham Jail", Blood in My Eye, The Ten - Point Program of the Black Panther Party, The Attica Prison Uprising, and Free Leonard Peltier! all shaped my political consciousness from the youngest of ages. I have always studied the prison -- even though my area of graduate study and expertise was more broadly focused on deviance and all aspects of social control - formal medical and informal, the prison and correspondingly the death penalty always loomed as the sanction of last resort – the punishment fit for those who were to be most "feared" who represented at least in theory, the most dangerous of all rule-breakers. And soon it became comparatively clear that the definition and control of deviance was more closely linked to WHO the deviant was rather WHAT the deviant did. Some murderers were never arrested, others merely fined, and still others were imprisoned or executed. Same with all the rest: the robbers the assaulters the thieves the dealers of drugs and so on. Far from being mutually exclusive or race and class blind, systems of control are inter-dependent and over-lapping, and discretion often is shaped by discrimination. You can not be an honest scholar of the sociology of deviance without also being a scholar of social inequality – of race class gender sexual orientation and age.

Race, class and gender are inextricably bound up with the definition and control of deviance. To the extent that the privileged and empowered "norm" is white, male, financially well off, heterosexual and adult, then people of color, women, the poor, GLBTQ persons, and the young become "the Other", the "abnormal", the "deviant". Further, these "Others" have been subject to labeling and social control based on the intersection of race, class, gender and other differences. The "matrix of domination" shapes access to systems of social control as well as to social opportunity. And, while there are "deviants" of all classes, all races, all genders and ages, the models under which they are controlled reflect their relative social status. It became clear that prison was not really for the "worst" of all offenders because corporate white-collar crime is responsible for a least 5 times more deaths each year and 10x more money lost than so-called street crime. Prison was a place for the poor, the black/brown, the young – it was meant for those "others" we were lead to fear most.

So the prison is a site where justice was not served but where injustice was further re-inscribed, a place where punishment often does not fit the crime if there indeed was one, a place where social inequality was both the precursor and the antecedent. The prison is for me — with the many who write from within the walls – a site of resistance.

To be an abolitionist is just that – to strive to create and rediscover alternatives to incarceration, to find solution to "crime" that restores communities rather than decimates them, it is to ask the difficult questions that push us to imagine an end to the reliance on the prison and related retributive sanctions. To say, yes, that prisons are obsolete.

Kay Whitlock: I never set out to be an abolitionist, but that’s where my journey inevitably led me (it is described in more detail in my essay "The Long Shadow of Prison: My Messy Journey Through Fear, Silence, and Racism Toward Abolition," which appears in Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States, edited by Solinger, Johnson, Raimon, Reynolds, and Tapia. There was no single grand moment of sudden political revelation – "AHA!" I didn’t grow up in a liberal household; I was a white, working-class kid in a community where racism was fierce and, for many years, unchallenged. My journey took many years; it was marked by the never-ending accumulation of terrible facts and detail that illuminated the hydra-headed nature of the prison system and mass incarceration. That includes the obvious use of imprisonment historically to control people of color and poor people; horrific exploitation of prison labor; the too-limited, cramped, and ultimately false promises of "rehabilitation"; disenfranchisement of millions of people – mostly people of color – with felony convictions; endemic violence, use of torture, and abuse of human rights in U.S. jails and prisons; and the expansion of prison profiteering.

In the face of this accumulation of knowledge, I had a choice. Either I would have to close my heart and mind, or I would have to face these truths head on, and make a decision in line with my conscience, ethics, and spiritual belief (I am a Buddhist practitioner).

Really, it’s as simple as that. If you know about mass violence and injustice, do you turn away, making justifications for your silence and indifference? Or do you act on what you know of the systemic hell of the U.S. incarceration system and how the misery it produces corrupts and harms every aspect of U.S. society? And, particularly relevant for me, when you’re a white person and consider yourself anti-racist, what do you do about the evil of mass incarceration?
In my view, the role and reach of prisons in U.S. life constitutes one of the greatest moral crises of our age. To me, declaring myself an abolitionist means that:

• I am part of a growing, diverse, movement that seeks not only to abolish the institution of the prison in the United States, but also dismantle the confluence of public, private, political, and economic interests called "the prison industrial complex."

• over the years, I have come to see more and more clearly the ways in which the U.S. prison system is foundationally, fundamentally, and violently racist; it has been from the very beginning. Because I care passionately about dismantling racism and white privilege in this country, the abolition of the prison system seems to me an essential part of the struggle.

• I have come to see that human rights abuses and torture within U.S. prisons is normative, not a "bad apple" departure from the norm.

• I do not accept our society’s increasing utilization of prisons to reinforce racism; to criminalize mental illness; to police and punish the very poverty it has created; to avoid coming to terms with a shattered public education system; and to police and punish sexual and gender nonconformity.

• in my view, only the call to abolition opens up sufficient creative and imaginative public space in which to think about what authentic justice might look like if the concepts of justice for all, community well being, and universal human rights were at the center of our vision addressing the understandable yearning for safety and security. Otherwise, we will simply accept the inevitability of prisons and never fundamentally challenge their nature, reach, and function in this country.

A3N: How does today’s prison abolitionist movement related to the movement to abolish slavery in the pre-U.S. Civil war period? What is the legacy of pre-Civil War black chattel slavery on today’s prison-industrial complex?

NH: The term abolitionist is a direct reference to the movement to abolish slavery. Again in Are Prisons Obsolete???, Davis argues that the prison industrial complex is indeed the new plantation – the latest in a series of historically uninterrupted efforts to legally and economically suppress blacks. As slavery inspired the abolition movement and Jim Crow segregation/extra-legal lynching inspired he Civil Rights Movement, so too the prison industrial complex must be resisted by new abolitionists.

And yes we can draw a direct link from slavery to the prison industrial complex. In the South especially, there is really no difference but the name in places like LSP Angola , an old plantation which immediately was transformed in to a penitentiary after the Civil War.

The abolition of slavery did not result in the abolition of legitimated white supremacy in the law; it merely called for new methods of legally upholding the property interests of whiteness. The criminal justice system begins to play a new and crucial role here. There was a subsequent transformation of the Slave Codes into the Black Codes and the plantations into prisons. Following Reconstruction, the rights extended to blacks via the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were quickly subverted by laws and Supreme Court rulings that upheld racism. Laws were quickly passed that echoed the restrictions associated with slavery, and criminalized a range of activities of the perpetrator was black. The newly acquired 15th Amendment right to vote was curtailed by tailoring of felony disenfranchisement laws to include crimes that were supposedly more frequently committed by blacks. And, the liberatory promise of the 13th Amendment – "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the United States"- contained a dangerous loophole- "except as a punishment for crime" This allowed for the conversion of the old plantations to penitentiaries, and this, with the introduction of the convict lease system permitted the South to continue to economically benefit from the unpaid labor of blacks. This practice in combination with a brutal convict lease system in many southern states effectively allowed for the perpetuation of slavery -- just by another name.

Following the end of legalized racial discrimination, there was an especially concerted effort to escalate the control of African Americans via the criminal justice system.

Marable (1983:120-121 makes this point, "...white racists began to rely almost exclusively on the state apparatus to carry put the battle for white supremacy...The criminal justice system became, in short, a modern instrument to perpetuate white hegemony."

These practices gain primacy during the post-Civil Rights years as the criminal justice system provides a convenient vehicle for physically maintaining the old legally enforced color-lines as African Americans are disproportionately policed, prosecuted, convicted, disenfranchised and imprisoned. The criminal justice system and its’ culmination in the prison industrial complex also continues to guarantee the perpetual profits from the forced labor of inmates, now justifying their slavery as punishment for crime. Finally, the reliance on the criminal system provides the color-blind racist regime the perfect set of codes to describe racialized patterns of alleged crime and actual punishment without ever referring to race.

As Angela Davis (1997:62) observes, ""Crime is one of the masquerades behind which "race", with all its menacing ideological complexity, mobilizes old public ears and creates new ones."

The current racial dynamic of the prison industrial complex bears this out. Mandatory minimums for drug violations, "three strikes", increased use of imprisonment as a sentencing option, lengthy prison terms, adult certification for juveniles and the expanded use of the death penalty -- all disproportionately affect the poor and people of color. A brief glimpse into the statistics immediately reveals both the magnitude of these policy changes as well as their racial dynamic. Despite no statistical differences in rates of offending, the poor, the under-educated, and people of color, particularly African Americans, are over-represented in these statistics at every phase of the criminal justice system. While 1 in 31 adults is under correctional supervision and 1 in every 100 adults is in prison, 1 in every 100 black women 1 in every 36 Latino adults , one in every 15 black men, and 1 in 9 black men ages 20 to 34 are incarceration. Approximately 50% of all prisoners are black, 30% are white and 1/6 Latino .Race of victim race of offender and social class remain the best predictors of who will receive the death penalty

The racial disparities are even greater for youth. African Americans, while representing 17% of the youth population, account for 45% of all juvenile arrests. Black youth are 2 times more likely than white youth to be arrested, to be referred to juvenile court, to be formally processed and adjudicated as delinquent or referred to the adult criminal justice system, and they are 3 times more likely than white youth to be sentenced to out-of –home residential placement Nationally, 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime. While boys are five times as likely to be incarcerated as girls, girls are at increasing risk. This rate of incarceration is endangering children at younger and younger ages.

KW: There is a clear and dreadful line of continuity connecting the institution of chattel slavery and policies and public/private interests supporting mass incarceration. Examine the Slave Codes and then the post-slavery Black Codes to see how readily "emancipation" morphed into "criminalization." Legal segregation followed; today, the racial impact of "get tough on crime" and the expansion of the prison industrial complex continue that direct line. (I want to note, too, that federal, state, and territorial laws criminalized traditional American Indian cultures and daily life. Luana Ross powerfully addresses this in her book, Inventing the Savage: The Social Construction of Native American Criminality. The criminalization of immigrants, today particularly immigrants of color, deserves our attention.)

But so many people – I would certainly guess most white people – in this country are neither aware of these facts nor particularly want to know them because they shake up our tendency to want to believe that systemic racism is either gone or well on the run. In my work, I meet countless people who believe that that slavery is a relic of the past; that black people should just "get over it" and "move on." There is enormous resistance to learning about and recognizing just how the prison-industrial complex works in our society – and how low-income people of color provide the bodies that produce the profits for the incarceration industry.

In my work, I am particularly intrigued with the amount of anger so often directed at anyone who raises these questions – even anger from much of the liberal-left, particularly white folks. The depth of that anger, the depth of refusal to engage these historical and contemporary facts tells me that we’re dealing with enormous fear here. Racial fear; Racism. In many cases, that racism is not intentional; it certainly is unexamined. But nonetheless it is always there, at the very heart of things. Abolition discussions pull the rug out from under the cozy fiction that we actually are entering a post-racial phase in U.S. history and give lie to the comforting bromide that slavery is behind us.

In many respects, I believe that contemporary abolition discussions mine the mother lode of racism in the United States.

A3N: What do you think are common public misperceptions of the abolitionist movement? What roles do mainstream educational institutions and the corporate media play in creating these misperceptions? How can abolitionists best confront these misperceptions and constructively engage the general population?

NH: We must confront false assumptions and stereotypes that are fueled by media. The fears that lead to excessive prisonization are fueled by public misperceptions of crime...A substantial body of research documents the role of media - especially television – in constructing perceptions of crime, public images of the criminal, and subsequently shaping public policy.

Of particular note is media- generated hysteria of the 1980s and 1990s that inextricably linked and over-inflated "teen super-predators", inflated accounts of gang-violence and the crack cocaine "epidemic" -- all were unmistakably characterized as issues of race.

As Walker Spohn and DeLone note:

"Our perceptions of crimes are shaped to a large extent by the highly publicized crimes featured on the nightly news and sensationalized in news papers. We read about young African American and Hispanic males who sexually assault, rob and murder whites, and we assume that these crimes are typical. We assume that the typical crime is a violent crime, that the typical victim is white, and that the typical offender is African American or Hispanic."

The TV world of crime and criminals, however, is an illusion. These assumptions are false.

The reality of crime is very different from what media images suggest. An examination of official statistics (gathered annually by the F.BI. and U.S. Department of Justice and published in Uniform Crime Reports) presents data that is the exact opposite of what media presents to us.

The reality of crime is this: most crime is undetected/unreported, that which is related to property; rates for all crime are declining; the "typical" offender for all crimes is white; the "typical" victim is African American; and crime tends to be an intra-group event. Countering these media myths of crime with the truth – whenever and wherever we can – is first and essential task of abolitionists.

KW: Well, it seems important to first underscore how mainstream media – now almost wholly corporate controlled – helps to demonize prisoners, typically downplays news about police misconduct and the systemic nature of prison violence, and promotes "get tough on crime" policies. In the hands of most media, crime becomes simply another commodity. The more sensational, lurid, horrific, and terrifying, the more profitable it is. About a dozen years ago, a guy named Steven M. Chermak did a study of crime reporting (Victims in the News: Crime and the American News Media 1995), and he found that over half the crime stories he looked at were primarily based on police and court records. Not surprising, but it limits not only the source filter, but also the perspective and information that might be available.

So the stories are framed almost entirely by arrest records, police reports, and hurried exchanges between prosecutors, police, and reporters. Now, that material may be incomplete, misleading, or inaccurate in whole or in part. But accuracy or the wholeness of the story doesn’t matter. That’s the narrative. The perspectives of victims – of some kinds of crimes – might be incorporated a little bit. But you can be pretty sure that the people already considered ‘criminal’ – whether they have been rightly charged or not; whether they have been convicted of a specific offense or not – are not going to be there in any meaningful way. Not even if they have been brutalized or mistreated within the criminal legal system. That’s not really a "crime." After all, don’t "criminals" deserve to be treated as scum? Aren’t they automatically less than human? And how often are the stories of people whose lives are shattered by corporate misconduct and exploitation centered in the reporting of corporate-controlled media? So there’s a profound bias in what stories we hear, and whose voices are heard from the beginning, framing the narrative.

We almost never hear the stories that are more complicated: how, for example, police often blame victims of "hate" or interpersonal violence for assaults against them – particularly if those victims are poor, people of color, and may be profiled as undocumented immigrants. We hear about prison rape as a gigantic, homophobic joke – and the image of gay men – so often framed as black in discourse about prisons as thugs, disease spreaders, rapists and sulliers of innocent, heterosexual white men (caution: link to racist and homophobic analysis) is reinforced, when in truth, incarcerated queers actually are disproportionately targeted for sexual violence. And there’s a thudding silence in the mainstream media surrounding the experiences of most people in prison.

It’s no surprise then that so many of us who don’t routinely have to deal with law enforcement violence end up with the false idea that most people in prison are irredeemably violent; that they are sadistic murderers and rapists. And that prison is the only line of safety that protects "us" from these alleged violent predators. We aren’t encouraged to think critically about the racial and class coding that typically goes into these images. No accident that the "revolving door" rapist image, promoted by supporters of the first Bush, then running against Dukakis for the presidency, was Willie Horton, a black man. White people, particularly, aren't encouraged to think of prisoners as members of our communities, as our neighbors. But for countless people of color, of course, prisoners are members not only of their communities, but also their families.
Today, of course, we’ve turned crime and policing into entertainment-rich "reality" shows on television (caution: this is an entertainment blog link). No question there who are the good guys and the bad guys. So we learn to consume demonized criminalizing images (pdf download) and police pursuit and mistreatment of those demonized "others" as both enjoyable and energizing. That is truly obscene.

I know from my own experience that many folks believe that we abolitionists are out of touch with the reality of violence and care more about "criminals" than "victims." That we are ready to loose hordes of psychotic, murdering rapists on the public because we don’t care about holding anyone accountable for the harms they do to others. In fact, we are viewed as eager to "excuse" their actions. Over time, many people have come to believe that only prisons keep us "safe" from violent others. And that to even question these myths is the same as an intentional attack on "victims of crime." I know from personal experience that many think we are "unrealistic" and know nothing about the devastation of violence and crime firsthand. So wrong – but it is such a prevalent belief.

The majority of people I know in the abolitionist movement – including myself – have experienced violence not only at the hands of individuals in the community – in families, schools, at home, on the streets - but also at the hands of police or prison officials. And I don’t know anyone who believes that any of this violence is unimportant or "excusable."

But we cannot just "counterattack" with our own demonizing narratives about law enforcement and those who disagree with us in order to challenge these perceptions. That just keeps the cycle going. I do believe we have to lay bare terrible truths about prison violence, but do so within frameworks that lift up the kinds of visions of community that we all hunger for. Unless there is something to fight for, and not just something to fight against, we will be on the defensive.

We also have to be willing to wrestle with difficult questions, not dodge them. Let's face it: there are some scary people who are exceptionally violent and not inclined – for whatever reasons – to change. They are relatively few, and we certainly shouldn't structure a whole policing/imprisonment system around them. But what do we do to help ensure that those few very violent folks won't keep harming others without just recreating the brutal system we have now?

And I think we have to deploy many tools in our struggle: facts and figures, yes, but also cultural means of humanizing the stories we have to tell. Most of all, we need to produce more cultural forms of imagination – poetry, visual art, video, theater, movies, dance, posters, novels, new media – that are powerful enough to even momentarily interrupt the fear that drives the anger that so often shuts down discussion.

We have to reach that emotional spot in people where they begin to recognize that they also have something to contribute to the story, and something profoundly important to gain from new approaches. We have to begin to deconstruct "us" and "them" in the general population, even as we seek to tell the truth about what happened– what is happening - and why. The story of how we got to this miserable state of affairs and what we can do to get out of it.

--Angola 3 News is a new project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Brewer's sick, dying, and innocent prisoners: Letter to the Governor.

My note to the Governor today via her website; posting it here, too, just to make sure it isn't lost:

First Name: * Margaret J
Last Name: * Plews
Phone: 480-580-6807
Email: *
Street: PO Box 20494
City: Phoenix
County: Maricopa
State: AZ
Zip: * 85036
Subject: legal/law *
Topic: Sick, dying, and innocent prisoners, and the Board of Executive Clemency

My friends and I at Arizona Prison Watch are gravely concerned about the number of state prisoners who are dying inside from medical neglect, from homicide, and from their own hand due to the despair of mental illness and incarceration - as well as those succumbing to terminal illness while awaiting compassionate release petitions which we suspect she has no intention of approving, just as Janet didn't. We find that totally unacceptable.

We are particularly concerned right now about the fates of prisoners William Macumber and Davon Acklin. The Board of Executive Clemency recommended Macumber for immediate release last year because they believed him to be innocent: the governor denied his petition, giving no reason. This is incomprehensible, and we'll be initiating a public campaign for his freedom if the governor doesn't take responsibility for acting on the Board of Clemency's recommendations in his case.

You may already be quite familiar with Davon Acklin's mom Julie, who has been trying to save her son's life - also going through the Board of Executive Clemency now. He's sick from hepatitis C and the ADC is refusing to treat him, we believe largely because of his serious mental illness, which appears to be the standard MO. This despite the stipulations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which we intend to file a complaint about if appropriate care isn't provided to that child, or if he isn't sent home so his mother can get it for him.

We will also be seeking a new CRIPA investigation into the ADC - and possibly the AZDJC - if the other concerns we've raised aren't promptly addressed, and prisoners continue to die at present rates from neglect, abuse, and despair. The one poor child at Adobe Mountain appears to have been bullied to death; there's no excuse for that. Director Branham has, however, been quite gracious in trying to work with us given the limitations of confidentiality laws, so he may have bought some time. The ADC is out of time, however. As far as we're concerned, all of Chuck Ryan's prisoners are her prisoners too, and she bears a great deal of responsibility for their welfare. Criminalized or not, they are still real human beings with loved ones, hopes, and dreams. The state has a duty to protect them while they are in your care.

I do expect a response on these matters by Friday afternoon - our campaign to address them with the community and media will otherwise begin first thing Monday morning. We hear from these families and prisoners all the time - often we receive copies of letters sent to Governor Brewer pleading for assistance. We'll have them crying on the news every night and we'll be coming to her campaign events until the governor either steps in and steps up, or gets voted out. We can be extremely creative about these kinds of things, as can our friends - thousands of whom are already pretty outraged by SB 1070.

I will be looking forward to a reply from your office.

Thank you.

Margaret J Plews,
Arizona Prison Watch
Arizona Juvenile Prison Watch
Hard Time Alliance (Hep C in AZ Prisons)

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Crime of Being a Young Latino Male

A year ago today, a 16-year old boy who was prosecuted as an adult and sent to the Minors Unit at ASPC-Tucson, died suddenly for reasons the family is still unsure of. The Arizona Department of Corrections reported that the autopsy suggested it was heart failure. From everything I've heard about that kid in the year since, he had a good heart, which was undoubtedly broken and deeply grieving due to his separation from his family, school, and community.

Edgar's death prompted me to launch Arizona Prison Watch last summer, and led me to investigate the many other juvenile justice issues I was coming across. Then, in May of this year a child committed suicide in Phoenix at one of the state prisons for youth, as did a 17-year old boy on the same Minors Unit in Tucson that Edgar died in. He had just been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Those three boys convinced me that I needed to start a blog dedicated to looking at how the prison industrial complex affects our children (though incarceration of them, as well as incarceration of parents).

I didn't know anything about Edgar when he died, except what I could dig up in court records. But his sad and soulful eyes haunted me. Then in November of last year I was contacted by someone who formerly worked at his school, and knew the teachers most involved in trying to help him. Genie gave me a lot of insight, as well as a thorough summary of the day that Edgar made his plea bargain, written by one of the teachers who went to court for him. What happened to Edgar speaks a lot to what's wrong with the juvenile justice system in this state, which is why his story in particular is so important to tell.

This is who Edgar was and how he ended up dying in a state prison for men:

Edgar and a twin sister were born in Mexico. Soonafter, his family moved to Arizona, where his mother had family. Edgar quickly learned English and grew up here. Since he experienced brain damage at birth, he spent most of his school years in special education programs; testing showed that he was not likely to progress beyond a second-grade level in academic activities. Cognitively, his development was arrested such that his mental capacity was that of a 7 or 8-year old child.

Edgar was always eager to please. He was liked by all of his teachers and counselors, and was very much loved by his family. He was also naive and vulnerable as a result of his disability, but his family - particularly his brothers - worked hard to protect him. Unfortunately, one day in May of 2008 - soon after he turned fifteen - he was playing unsupervised in the park because everyone in his family was at work. He saw a fight on the way home, and stopped to watch, so he was present and picked up with the other kids when the police arrived.

It's unclear what transpired during or immediately after the fight, before he was arrested, but Edgar reportedly brandished a screwdriver at a couple of people. I suspect he was either showing the bravado needed to survive the streets, or he was afraid that he might be attacked and was showing that he could defend himself. No one who knows him believes that he had either the temperament or the capacity to really threaten or harm anyone. His arrest seemed like a terrible misunderstanding that an investigation and explanation of his disability should clear up.

It didn't. Instead, he was detained from the day of arrest without bond until the day he was transferred to the custody of the Arizona Department of Corrections. Despite his disability, Edgar still wanted to graduate from high school. I'm not sure what his plans beyond that were, but his counselor referred to him as one of the DREAM Act kids. Edgar's family never got him legally documented, so he was regarded by police and prosecutors as a criminal alien.

Edgar's cognitive limitations compounded the seriousness of the charges filed against him and the sentencing because he was accused of being a gang member. SIx adults from the community spoke at his sentencing to assure the judge that allegation was untrue. But a cop showed up too, talking about how Edgar had shown them gang signs, gave one officer a gang handshake, and had a gang symbol on his shoe. Of course, it's characteristic of young children to imitate behavior they see, and known gang members were apparently involved in the disturbance that he got caught up in. Two of them told the prosecutor that Edgar was the main agitator and had the "weapon" (the screwdriver) - they got plea bargains for 3 1/2 years for their testimony against him; Edgar was threatened with enough charges that he could have been facing 80 years in prison; I suspect that was what scared the other boys, too...

(this is a work in progress folks - I'll be finishing it up today)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Build strong children, or fix broken men?

For at least a few more generations, we shall have to do a lot of both.


Harvard Law School News
June 28, 2010

April Conference to Dismantle the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline...

In the United States, an African American boy faces a-one-in three risk of being incarcerated during his lifetime and for a Latino boy the risk is one-in-six. For ten of thousands of young people, childhood can consist of a pipeline to prison. On Thursday, April 29, 2010, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School hosted a conference addressing the issue locally: “Coming Together to Dismantle the Cradle to Prison Pipeline in Massachusetts: A Half-Day Summit of Community, Faith and Policy Leaders.”

The summit focused on the underlying causes of this pipeline—such as pervasive poverty, inadequate health and mental health care, gaps in early childhood development, disparate educational opportunities, chronic abuse and neglect and overburdened and ineffective juvenile justice systems—and it looked for solutions.

Dr. Marian Wright Edelman, the conference’s keynote speaker, alluded to theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s argument that the fundamental test of morality in a society is how it treats its children. Drawing upon examples of inadequate assistance and education for our youth, she demonstrated just how significantly the U.S. has failed to treat its children well.

Edelman, who is president of the advocacy organization the Children's Defense Fund, focused on the need to move from punishment to treatment. Drawing on Frederick Douglass’ remarks that it is easier to build strong children than it is to fix broken men, she asserted that we must, “reweave the fabric of family and community.” She argued for a comprehensive reform approach to “address the needs of the whole child,” and also “break the connection between child welfare and juvenile punishment.”

Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School, said it was important to recognize the limits of law. Law has many uses, she said, “but for the kind of problems we are talking about today, we need coalition, we need movement, we need people, and we need hope.”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Help Wanted: Your two cents.

I've been composing this blog for three days now, with few breaks. I want it to be a library of sorts - a virtual infoshop - where folks can find pretty much every juvenile justice link they need in one place. Because of the diversity of issues among youth in both the juvenile and adult systems, that's nearly impossible. There's so much information I want to share that it's begun to bog me down; I just can't put it all up there, and I'm afraid to crowd the really good stuff out.

So, my friends, I will need your help, especially these next few weeks. If you peruse this page and see something missing that should be here, email me. If you hit a broken link or read an article that seems inappropriate, let me know. If you have suggestions for a published article, send me a link and I'll check it out. Same with general issues about the system or facilities that you want to learn more about - maybe I can find some things that are already published and post them, or make a few calls and write something up. You are also welcome to write your own opinion pieces and submit them - I don't have guidelines - just be decent, reasonable, and accurate. All emails of that sort should go to

As for allegations of neglect, abuse, poor facilities, or particularly brutal twists in the juvenile justice system - let me have them and we'll discuss where to go. We may use the blog to expose issues that haven't seen much light yet; first-hand accounts can be very enlightening, and while I'd prefer to have everything on the record, I will respect requests for people to remain anonymous if they fear retaliation. We may also quietly contact the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and request a CRIPA investigation instead (as was done with the AzDJC about abuse at their programs a few years back). We may even turn what you have over to the Phoenix New Times if it seems to demand investigative journalism - they are much faster than the DOJ. Whatever we do, it will be our decision (yours and mine), not just mine.

Finally, if families and community members - even AzDJC employees - want to meet and organize around juvenile justice reforms, let me know and I'll help people connect with each other. In the meantime, if there are one or two people willing to help with this blog - doing research, fine tuning the margins, following up with feedback and concerns, writing editorials - please contact me: Peggy Plews,, or 480-580-6807.

Monday, July 5, 2010

About Arizona Juvenile Prison Watch

This blog is intended to shine some light on Arizona's juvenile justice system, and to serve as a resource to individuals and groups concerned about the effect of the prison industrial complex on our children. It is edited by Margaret J. Plews (known to all but my father and law enforcement as "Peggy"). I also author and administer the Prison Abolitionist, Hard Time: Hep C, and Arizona Prison Watch blogs, and write at several other sites.

When I post my own commentary with articles written by others, I usually indicate so with voice, boundaries, and italics. I screen all comments as I try not to post vindictive, slanderous, or otherwise cruel statements: words alone, I believe, can be violent, and I won't have violence here.

Dissent, however, is fine - it compels me to re-think and articulate my own positions better. I have a prison abolitionist's bias; some find it radical and provocative. Others don't care what it's called: they tend to recognize my bias as their own because they've had enough of this, too. In short, I believe we can and must build our civilization around non-violence, which we can't without abolishing the prison industrial complex. "Criminal justice" as we know it is all too often violent and retaliatory, serving not to make us more safe, but to reinforce the misogynistic, homophobic, classist white supremacy that capitalism both nourishes and thrives on.

Often those we end up criminalizing, including children are victims from the lower and middle classes engaged in some form of survival or resistance - not sociopathic predators. Many are psychiatrically disabled or chemically dependent, not criminally-inclined. They are survivors already of physical abuse, rape, war,
hate crimes, poverty, and other forms of violence, some at the level of genocidal attacks on their people. Prison in particular compounds such trauma; it certainly doesn't "correct" the effects.

While I realize there are many people who can't safely be returned to society from prison today, I believe that we need to plan for their return to society tomorrow, and prepare our children now to negotiate the world differently than we learned how to - beginning with the value of non-violence. That means not even giving the state exclusive permission to use violence...which means the state will have to justify and defend its existence to the people without soldiers and cops. If it can't, then maybe it shouldn't exist...

That's just a small sample of my radical bias. I also spent many years doing outreach to people who were homeless and mentally ill, building a supported housing program and transitioning people out of homelessness, negotiating at all levels of the criminal justice system for the freedom - and the "treatment" - of those I advocated for. I always had the best intentions, but I don't know that they were always in my clients' best interests. I didn't understand a lot of things that I understand now.

For those of you willing to engage with me on these ideas and stretch a little here: Please be creative and reach for what you believe the next generation needs and deserves - not just what is "realistic" for us to build or for them to settle for. The prison abolitionist's dream of social and economic justice is not one to belittle or diminish: the time has come to realize it, actually, as anything less is unsustainable. In any event, though, whether you agree or disagree with my occasional remarks or choice of articles, feel free to leave a comment - it'll probably go up once I see it.

Also, there's a lot of ground to cover here, and I'm no expert in juvenile justice, so beyond what feedback you have on specific blog posts, please think about how I can make this a better site for folks. Email me your suggestions, corrections, information, or links that you think might be helpful to kids and their families being chewed up by the system, policymakers trying to decide where to invest too few resources, YCO's and street cops thinking there's got to be a better way to do this than training these kids to be better prisoners (and criminals), and community members desperately trying to keep vulnerable children from falling through the cracks and landing in the laps of their local or state systems of justice.

Finally, if you're presently wrestling with the system and have some questions, all I have to offer is my opinion, really: I don't have legal training, money, power, or most of the answers. I'm not even really from around here (I moved here from Ann Arbor in 2004). I've been known to really piss people off, too, so I may not be the best friend to have fighting for you. But I'll do my best to help or refer you elsewhere if you have a pressing concern for someone in the system and need a hand.

My contact info is:

Peggy Plews
AZ Juvenile Prison Watch
PO Box 20494
Phoenix, AZ 85036