march - june 2005

Jail and society in USA. Interview to Bonnie Kerness

The US is the country with the biggest prison population. What are the main reasons for this explosion?
The US saw its prison and jail population increase again in 2003 with the number of people held in US federal and state prisons and jails rising to 2,078,570, almost 41,000 more than the previous year. Women prisoners passed the 100,000mark for the first time ever. The number of women imprisoned rose by 5 per cent almost double the rate of increase among males. The above number do not include the number of imprisoned young people held in youth detention facilities or those being held in municipal jails.
Opver the past 25 years the us prison system has more than quadrupled in size, as the nation adopted "get tough on crime" policies. There are hundred of thousands of people in us prisons sentenced to long terms for relatively minor crimes like drug possession, the majority of them being men, women and children of color.
Mandatory sentences - often racist in nature - are filling the prisons with people, often very young people, convicted of low level "crimes".
The "war of Drugs" is better named a "War on the Poor". This is evidenced by the disparite sentencing laws, whereby a person convicted with possession of crack cocaine serves a sentence ten times longer than a person convicted of possession of the same amount of powder cocaine. This is an obvious racist practice as most of those caught with crack are people of color, and those caught with cocaine are white. The amount of time spent in prison can be enhanced by years if one is caught within 500 feet of a school. In inner cities, every place in the city is within 500 feet of a school, thus insuring longer sentences for the poor and people
of color.
In the us criminal justice system, the politics of the police, the politics of the courts, the politics of the prison system and the politics of the death penalty are a manifestation of the racism and classism which governs the lives of people living in this country. I see a glaring connection between the broken promise of Reparations and prison cages filled to bursting with young people of color who are denied the kind of start in life that youngsters of other nationalities have.
I work with Black and Puerto Rican youth who tell me that the police feel like an occupation army as if inner cities were militarized zones. They speak about the school system being the feeder to filter young people of oppressed nationalities into youth detention, jails and prisons where those bodies are suddenly worth a fortune. People say that the criminal justice system doesn't work. I've come to believe exactly the opposite - that it works perfectly, just as slavery did, as a matter of economic and political policy.
I don't believe that it is an accident that people who are perceived of as economic liabilities have suddenly been turned into a major economic asset. That young oppressed child who this country labels worthless to the economy suddenly generates 30 thousand dollars a year once trapped in the criminal justice system. The expansion of prisons, parole, probation, the court and police systems has resulted in an enormous bureaucracy which has been a boon to everyone from architects, plumbers, and electricians to food and medical vendors - all with one thing in common - a pay check earned by keeping human beings in cages. The criminal justice system is a lucrative business with a large and growing middle class of all nationalities being paid a lot of money for containing mostly poor people in cages in human warehouses. Not unlike the era of chattel slavery, there is a class of people dependent on bodies of color as a source for income.
In the US criminal justice system, the politics of the police, the politics of the courts, the politics of the prison system and the politics of the death penalty are a manifestation of the racism and classism which governs the lives of all of us. Every part of the criminal justice system falls most heavily on the poor and people of oppressed nationalities, including the fact that slavery is mandated in prisons by the 13th Amendment of the US constitution. Prison slavery in the form of involuntary labor is real. Any discussion of reparations has to include revision of that Amendment.
I'd like to share some of the voices that I hear during my day. The first two are from youngsters who have spent time in juvenile detention. These babies describe a system in which parents have no say so over what happens to their children and a system which prepares them for a future of imprisonment.
"I went in when I was 14. They have what they call an MCU there, and it's like the "hole" in a regular prison. Kids that fight go in there. If you refuse they come and get you. You get a shower once a week and they even bring the food to you. It was so cold. "
"I heard people scream, yell and holler. I saw boys get strung out on meds. The food is mostly Sloppy Joe's and one cup of water. They make you take sleeping stuff in the needles. They used pepper spray on this girl who was fighting one time. They sprayed her directly in her mouth and she couldn't breathe. They kept hitting her. We kept telling them that she had asthma, but they wouldn't listen".
On Mothers Day in Elizabeth, NJ, Eddie Sinclair, Jr. hung himself in the Union County Youth detention facility; Eddie was 17 and had stolen a bicycle. He had missed an appointment with his parole officer, was picked up and locked in isolation. It is not irrelevant that Eddie's father is African and his mother is Puerto Rican.
The treatment of imprisoned juveniles in this country violates international human rights law. The US has been cited by the World Organization Against Torture as violating UN Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the UN Convention Against Torture. Any discussion of reparations has to include the reversal of youth being tried and punished as adults. We must also reverse "zero tolerance" policies where children are concerned. Children often learn by making mistakes. If their mistakes are punished with permanent sanctions - no room is left for them to change or grow. We can't escape the similarities with chattel slavery here as well. Not only are these children taken from their families, they loose their chance at an equitable future.
I also want to share the voices of adult prisoners, which are haunting testimonies of torture being committed in US prisons:
From Utah State Prison: "John was directed to leave the strip cell and a urine soaked pillow case was placed over his head like a hood. He was walked, shackled and hooded to a different cell where he was placed in a device called "the chair"..he was kept in the chair for over 30 hours resulting in extreme physical and emotional suffering."
From Florida, "during the struggle jailers shocked the prisoner multiple times with stun guns. Inmates who witnessed his death estimate that he was shocked between eight and twenty times. The medical examiner put it at 22 times.."
A woman in Texas writes "the guard sprayed me with pepper spray because I wouldn't take my clothes off in front of five male guards. Then they carried me to a cell, laid me down on a steel bed and took my clothes off.

They left me in that cell with that pepper spray in my face and nothing to wash my face with. I didn't give them any reason to do that. I just didn't want to take my clothes off.
Some of the most poignant letters I get are from prisoners writing on behalf of the mentally ill - like the man in California who spread feces over his body. The guards' response to this was to put him in a bath so hot it boiled 30% of the skin off him. Practices such as the indefinite use of shackles and other mechanical restraints, and the administration of dangerous chemical treatments, or the practice of extended isolation puts the US in violation of United Nations Treaties and Covenants. These past years have been full of thousands of calls and complaints from prisoners and their families, describing inhumane conditions including cold, filth, callous medical care, extended isolation sometimes lasting over a decade, use of devices of torture, harassment, brutality and racism. I have received vivid descriptions of four point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, tethers, waist and leg chains.
The use of extended isolation has been a growing concern for many prison activists, on both sides of the walls. The reports coming in about the use of devices of torture have largely been from isolation units, which are called control units or supermax prisons, where there are few witnesses.
In New Jersey, New Afrikan prisoner Ojore Lutalo was held in the Management Control Unit at New Jersey State Prison in total isolation from February 1986 through January 2000. One of the first people placed in that Unit in the 1970's was Sundiata Acoli. Ruchel Magee has lived under these conditions in California for more than 30 years. Both Russell Shoats and Mumia have been living in Pennsylvania isolation units for over 20 years.

There are thousands of others as well.
Many of us trace the development of control units to the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement when many activists found themselves in US prisons. Sensory deprivation was used extensively with imprisoned members of the Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army formations, Puerto Rican independentistas, member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), and white radicals. In later years we found jailhouse lawyers, Islamic militants and prisoner activists placed in extended isolation. In 1978, Andrew Young who was the US Ambassador to the United Nations noted the existence of US political prisoners. Too many of those elders are still in prisons throughout the country over 25 years later and their release is imperative as part of reparations.
Right now, the latest explosion filling the isolation cages include youth of oppressed nationalities imprisoned as a result of the racist crack-cocaine laws. Current efforts to expand the solitary confinement population involve the alleged spread of gang problems in US prisons. This trend is being repeated throughout the country, resulting in the increased building of supermax prisons. In these gang prisons called Security Threat Group Management Units, prisoners are called upon to renounce their "gang" membership - which is reminiscent of the witch-hunts during the McCarthy investigations in the 1950's and FBI Counter Intelligence Program.
If you are a youngster of an oppressed nationality in this country, and you are poor, should you get arrested which is a likely occurrence, bail will be set so high you become an economic hostage and the "phrase innocent until proven guilty" has no meaning. You will certainly not get a trial by a jury of your peers. You will be defended by a public defender who has a caseload so vast you cannot be a priority. You will serve a sentence which is 30 per cent longer than a Caucasian would receive for the same crime. If you have seen the same thing happen to your father, your uncles, your cousins - if you look around at the broader picture of what is happing to men, women, youth and children of your nationality, it is not hard to conclude that an economic and physical genocide is being committed.
The United Nations definition of genocide is

a) the killing of members of a racial or religious group

b) the causing of serious bodily harm to members of a particular group

c) deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction

d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within that group and

e) forcibly transferring children of that group to another group.
If we use this definition, it isn't hard to see how the mass imprisonment that is occurring fits that definition. Coupled with data on high infant mortality, early death of the elderly, lack of the same medical treatment, opportunities and education that is afforded to whites, and the realization becomes even more compelling.
Oppression is a condition common to all of us who are without the power to make the decisions that govern the political, economic and social life of this country. We are victims of an ideology of inhumanity on which this country was built. If we dig deeper into the US practices that I've talked about, the political function that they serve is inescapable.
Police, the courts, the prison system and the death penalty all serve as social control mechanisms. The economic function they serve is equally as chilling. Many people with whom I work believe that prisons are a form of neo-slavery and economic slavery. The US prison system echoes the dynamics of chattel slavery with economic gain and social control being a priority.
There is no question in my mind that reparations are due to peoples of Native and African decent. Our move forward with reparations will take many forms and address many levels of what is due African people, and how this should be delivered. As we succeed in gaining money and land reparations, there remains a need for social change that is revolutionary in nature. We have to alter the core of every system that slavery, racism and poverty gave birth to, particularly the criminal justice system.
The US must stop violating the human rights of children. We must alter the 13th Amendment. We have to place a moratorium on prison construction and change the racial and economic profiling of arrest and sentencing practices. Reparations have to include a focus on penal abolition, which challenges the violence of the entire legal apparatus. We need to decriminalize poverty and mental illness. We must eliminate solitary confinement, torture and the use of devices of torture. We must support a vigorous monitoring of the police, court and prison systems with a citizen review process. We need to ensure voting rights for prisoners and ex-prisoners, and enhanced use of international law. Part of the dialogue on reparations has to include opposition to all of this on a more serious level. Until this happens, neither prison administrators nor local, state or government officials has to respond. Each of us needs to understand deeply and speak loudly about the connections between slavery and the criminal justice system.
No real racial healing can take place until the US government takes responsibility for what it owes people of African decent. Reparations are not only about paying decedents of slaves for damage done but also a way for the country to humble itself before a great people whose sweat, blood, flesh and tears gave birth to so much of the wealth that exists in this country today.
Along with conditions of confinement that qualify as torture, prison labor remains a strong concern.