How Can We Make the World Better? A Few Thoughts on “The Interrupters”.

What may come as a surprise to some readers is that many incarcerated individuals feel strongly about wanting to make amends for their past wrongs or give back in some positive way. I’ve heard over and over again “You don’t know how much it means to us to be able to give something positive to the world.” Unfortunately, with life long sentences, that is not always an easily attainable goal. However, the Frontline documentary “The Interrupters” shows not only the goodness that can be done by formerly incarcerated individuals, but also an effective tactic for preventing violence and confronting it at its roots rather than simply seeking punishment in the aftermath. The ‘violence interrupters’ that are shown attempt to address the learned behaviors and societal issues that lead to interpersonal violence and show that it is possible for communities, separate from the legal system, to decrease violence and mediate conflicts. It is an interesting and thought-provoking message that I would like to share. My questions for others who view this film are: Can you imagine using these kinds of mediation methods in your own community? Can you think of other issues which could be addressed directly to reduce violence or other harm? Can you think of other ways the formerly incarcerated, or currently incarcerated, could be positive forces in their communities? Without a doubt there are other great examples of harm reduction work and formerly(&currently) incarcerated people giving back in positive ways. I think these questions are important in order to imagine how changes in the way we view and treat prisoners could improve our communities and to see how changing our tactics around harmful behavior could improve society as well. Want to discuss these ideas? We welcome comments and messages!

Watch the documentary “The Interrupters” at the link below:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/interrupters/

Also, another great way to make a positive change in the world is writing to inmates. If you would like to know about getting a pen pal, please contact us. We have many addresses of prisoners waiting for someone to drop them a line!

Lastly, our Zines and Crafts page has been updated to accurately show our current publications and bracelets available. Please be in touch to order!

–the editor

 

 

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Recommended Reading and Viewing

Are you interested in prison, human rights, or legal issues?

Here’s a list of articles and videos we’ve seen recently that are well worth some of your time!

1. Texas Lawmakers are discussing reducing Solitary Confinement, which has large implications considering the amount of prisoners currently in ad-seg in our state. To find out more about Solitary in Texas, read the report “A Solitary Failure” by the ACLU of Texas.

http://www.chron.com/news/politics/texas/article/Lawmakers-step-up-efforts-to-reduce-solitary-6829257.php?cmpid=email-mobile

2.  George Toca was a minor sentenced to life at Angola prison in Louisiana. Recently released, he is now advocating for others like him to be released and given a second chance at life.

http://jjie.org/giving-inmates-with-life-sentences-2nd-chance-is-right-thing-to-do/192234/

3. Another minor, Kalief Browder, was held for several years at Riker’s after being accused of stealing a backpack. He was never convicted, but suffered significantly due to violence and isolation. He committed suicide last year after returning home but being unable to live normally. His mother is demanding that New York and the prison system admit that they are responsible for the mental health issues Kalief suffered during and after his incarceration, and ultimately for his untimely death.

https://www.themarshallproject.org/2016/02/17/what-kalief-browder-s-mother-thinks-should-happen-to-rikers?utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=sprout&utm_source=facebook#.cfFexFhCZ

4. At least in Houston, the local news often bombards viewers with shaming mugshots of dozens of accused sex workers and ‘johns’. Many women and men are incarcerated every year due to the illegality of prostitution and soliciting in Texas. Interesting and surprising, this article explores the history of sex work and the illegality of it in the U.S.

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/when-prostitution-wasnt-crime-fascinating-history-sex-work-america

5. Kendrick Lamar’s visual tribute to prisoners at the Grammy’s made discussions of prison and race a hot topic. See more below:

http://pitchfork.com/news/63497-grammys-2016-kendrick-lamar-performs-the-blacker-the-berry-and-alright-debuts-new-track-in-politically-charged-performance/

6. Lastly, in relation to the debate on prison and race, Human Rights activists Angela and Fania Davis discuss Restorative Justice, a movement for Abolition, and a Truth and Reconciliation Process to heal our society and ourselves.

http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/34915-the-radical-work-of-healing-fania-and-angela-davis-on-a-new-kind-of-civil-rights-activism

Looking to get involved?

Books Through Bars Houston is searching for volunteers who would help get a Houston based organization off the ground. Currently Texas only has one books to prisoner program, Inside Books, which is based in Austin.

https://www.facebook.com/BooksThroughBarsHouston/?fref=ts

Upcoming Conference in Dallas, May 4-6th. Prisoner’s Family Conference. For more info:

www.prisonersfamilyconference.org

Stay tuned for upcoming posts on prison conditions and please consider reaching out to an inmate seeking a pen pal! Contact us if you are interested!

 

 

Breathing

I keep breathing

despite the odds

and capabilities.

The only people

who think I shouldn’t

don’t really know me.

They don’t know about the person

who rescued dogs and cats

or volunteered to read

to the children at the local library.

They don’t know about the father

who worked all day and night

just to watch his son and daughter

grow and thrive.

They don’t know about the reasons

they sent the boy away.

Just the awful things

they claim he said and did.

They don’t know about the money

or the legacy he lost

or the inheritance

the state stole from his kids.

I keep breathing

hoping that some day

I’ll get the chance

To right the sinking ship

To bring closure to this nightmare

To end this awful trip


This piece is by Texas prisoner John Green.(address linked) John is actively looking for a pen pal who will offer him a second chance at life and the ability to bond with someone on the outside and keep him motivated to work for parole after years of incarceration, while being a model inmate, has continued to keep him isolated and fearful that he may never be released. If you are looking for a kind-hearted and mature person to write, John would be a good friend! He loves rock music, animals, literature, and writing. I believe his writing shows his good nature and his vulnerabilities. I hope one of the people reading this will decide to reach out to him and make his days brighter.

Film: The Darkest Hour

This short documentary film is most definitely worth 50 minutes of your time. Even the first 10 or 15 minutes gives you some profound knowledge and thoughts, and there are numerous spoken word and musical interludes from Brooklyn artists that are great too. This film is based on the writing of a Texas prisoner, who is still currently incarcerated despite having been ordered released several years ago, and Dr. Betty Gilmore who has written about the psychological effects of imprisonment. Nanon was put on Death Row as a juvenile and has since been moved off due to the court ruling against executing juveniles. He is incredibly intelligent, author of numerous books, and has worked on a prison newsletter for many years. Several people in Houston plan on getting together to read their book in the near future. Please watch and share:

The Darkest Hour Film (click to view) from GoodMedia Press on Vimeo.

“We live in the age of racialized mass incarceration. An age in which tens of thousands of human beings are caged in solitary confinement every day. Some for decades at a time. “The Darkest Hour” exposes the inhumane impact of extreme isolation experienced by those incarcerated nationwide.

Through intimate interviews with death row survivors like Nanon Williams, now serving life in general population, and the last words of men like Napoleon Beazley before execution by the state of Texas, these stories reveal the savage inner workings of our justice system.

Narrated in hip hop and spoken word by artist/activist Bryonn Bain, creator of the groundbreaking multimedia production “Lyrics from Lockdown” (executive produced by Harry Belafonte), the film’s soundtrack, the “Life After Lockdown: Digital Mixtape,” features founding hip hop DJ Kool Herc and an all-star cast of legends.

“The Darkest Hour” is a call to action for a complete paradigm shift. We will either be ruled by passionate cries for punishment, or heal ourselves with the compassion required to repair a broken nation. ”

Want to read and discuss with us?

Find the book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Darkest-Hour-Shedding-Isolation-ebook/dp/B00N51PW3Q

and contact us to let us know you want to join!

Discussion of Maya Schenwar’s book “Locked Down, Locked out” from Jorge Garcia

I have been receiving letters and submissions from Jorge G., and decided to post part of one letter I received this week. Jorge is in ad-seg(isolation) at the Eastham unit, and is currently looking for a pen pal. He says about his writing: “I would like for people to see that even though I am not perfect, I am still human and still have a heart.” Contact us if you want to write to Jorge!

From a letter dated 07/13/2015:

“I was wondering if you’ve heard of a lady named Maya Schenwar? She is a journalist and prison abolitionist and she wrote a book called Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. I haven’t read her book, but I read an interview done by Tracy Frisch of Sun Magazine where Ms. Schenwar shares her views on the future of the prison system, which I found fascinating and enlightening. In one instance she was asked, “Why do we have so many people in prison in the US?”, to which she responded by saying, “One reason is that we see prison as a solution to the problem of crime. Instead of preventing crime by allocating resources for health care, early-childhood education, food, housing, and other basic needs, we’re sending people to prison.” Which is true!

The first time I was locked up was when I was in the 6th grade, for possession of marijuana. I had a couple of  joints which I thought I could sell to save some money to buy me some new shoes, which my single mother couldn’t afford to buy me cause she had bills, rent, and needed to feed me and my brothers and sisters. But they didn’t bother asking me why or try to find a way to help me. All they did was place me in a cell by myself til I went to court and was released to my mom’s custody, scared and ashamed because my mom had to miss a day of work for my stupidity. I wonder what would’ve happened if I had been asked why I had the joints and offered help, maybe counseling and an after school job? I might have learned a better lesson. This is something I would like to see change for the benefit of the youngsters going through similar circumstances so that they get a better chance at a decent life, because it’s not their fault to have been born into poverty or to a struggling single parent, and they shouldn’t be made to pay for it.

Another thing is how hard it is for us ex-convicts to get a decent job upon our release. This is something that keeps me up late at night; the closer I get to getting out, the more I’m scared of not being able to find a good job to help my family. There is so much new technology I know nothing about, and I’ve heard from friends that have gotten out how even if they find a job, once the boss finds out they had a criminal record they would get “laid off”, even though they were qualified for the job and doing a good job. So when I start thinking about it, it’s too scary… ”

To buy the book: http://www.amazon.com/Locked-Down-Out-Prison-Doesnt/dp/1626562695

To read the full interview: http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/474/criminal_injustice_maya_schenwar

Comment below on your thoughts about what Jorge has to say!

The Real Root of Hate

by Mpaka, Texas Death Row inmate.

How should a society

define the motive behind a hate crime?

            Is it simply domestic terrorism?

                                                                                          Plain ole racism?

Or perhaps it’s a cancerous influence

of mind derived far from

                                          the realm of mankind?

For the father of all lies

          has always lied,

                                                    and tried to hide

his true nature for years.

But

          his existence has been exposed;

for the ideology of racial supremacy

sold its soul

to spiritual wickedness in high places.

So to combat a racist:

fight the Prince of Power in the air

   on the battlefield of prayer.

Then we can

conquer the spirit of hate

with love, kindness, and solidarity cause

that’s what it will take.

Report on “Overuse of Solitary” from ACLU of Texas

As some readers may be aware, in the last several years inmates in several states have protested against the use of long-term solitary confinement and the conditions in “ad-seg”. This has also recently been the case in Eastham Unit and on Death Row in Texas (Polunsky Unit) according to correspondence I have personally received from inmates in those facilities.

In February of this year the ACLU of Texas released a 50-page report finding that Texas greatly over uses solitary confinement, and that it has concluded that this practice has had a negative effect on (violence in) the prison system, our communities, our economy, and inmate mental health overall. The report states that Texas uses Solitary at a rate of over 4% in our prisons, for an average of 3.7 years and that “Texas locks more people in solitary-confinement cells than twelve states house in their entire prison system”. The report finds that a drastic decrease in use of Solitary in other states, like Mississippi, has either greatly decreased the rates of violence or had no negative effects. They also concluded that the damage Solitary does to inmates has absolutely no rehabilitative effects and increases the likelihood of recidivism and violence once they are released. This is probably greatly due to findings that Isolation worsens or creates mental illness in a large number of inmates. The report demonstrates these findings as well as giving proposed solutions to the issue of overuse of Solitary Confinement, which would save Texas tax payers millions of dollars every year. The report is relatively short and written in a easy to read manner; find the pdf here:

http://www.aclutx.org/2015/02/05/a-solitary-failure/

I think this report may change the way anyone views the current state of prisons in our state (and country) and the need for a major change. Furthermore, I recently watched a TED Talk by journalist Johann Hari which seemed relevant  to this report. The talk focuses on addiction and compulsive behaviors rather than Solitary Confinement, but his findings certainly seem to challenge us to consider isolation and the way we treat prisoners.  When I considered his reference to the mice experiments, I immediately saw a connection to the ACLU’s findings on isolation and mental health. So, I will link to this video as well. You can also read the transcript here.

“Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong”

Sources:

Protest in California: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/other/living-tombs-thousands-california-inmates-protest-solitary-confinement-hunger-strike-f6C10681430

Ohio hunger strike: http://wkbn.com/2015/04/14/activists-side-with-inmates-over-ohio-prison-hunger-strike/

Texas Death Row protests:  https://www.facebook.com/HumanRightsOnDeathRow/posts/1480982272162509 and

Eastham Unit protests: letters from inmate Jorge G.