The July 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

Corruption at Oakland Housing Authority

Shot Through the Heart in S.F.

Legal Challenge to Cruel Attacks on SF Homeless

GRIP's Shelter in Richmond

HUD Plans to Demolish Public Housing in New Orleans

Fresno Homeless Attacked

Stonewalling by Bush's ICH on Homeless Issues

Are We Not Our Brother's Keeper

Congress Refuses to Raise the Minimum Wage

Beyond Prisons: Challenge to the Prison System

Penal Servitude

The U.S. Racial Wealth Gap

Poor Working Conditions for Immigrants

AFSC Sues Defense Dept. for Surveillance

Surveillance and Orwell's 1984

Enron's Good Fight

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Self-Realization

July Poetry of the Streets

Child Slavery on African Cocoa Farms

The Worth of Education in the Phillipines


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Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

A Radical Challenge to the Prison System

A new book, Beyond Prisons, calls for an end to inhumane and torturous conditions in prison. It calls for the abolition of solitary confinement and the death penalty -- and the penal system as it exists today.

Interview with Laura Magnani by Davey D

Davey D (left), hip hop activist and journalist, interviews Laura Magnani (right) about Beyond Prisons, a book calling for radical penal reform. Photo by Dawn Marie Wadle

On June 14, renowned hip hop journalist and activist Davey D conducted a lively interview about the U.S. prison system with Laura Magnani, director of criminal justice programs in the Pacific Mountain Region of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The interview was conducted in Oakland before a standing-room-only audience of about 200 people who gathered to celebrate both AFSC's Justice Program and a new book by Laura Magnani and Harmon L. Wray, Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System.

Addressing the gathering, Alan Lessik, Regional Executive Director of the AFSC, asked, "What if you wrote a book that called into question the very existence of prisons, prisoners, guards, wardens and retribution? What if you wrote a book that talked about the roles of victims and their families in bringing about restoration and wholeness? What if you wrote a book that attempted to see the light in all members of our community at all times? What if you wrote a book that, 20 years from now, will be looked back upon as the turning point in how we think about justice in our society? If you had written this book, it would be called Beyond Prisons."

Pat Clark, executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international peace and justice organization, told the assembly, "Beyond Prisons is a really fine piece of work. I believe that Beyond Prisons is going to stand the test of time. It's an excellent document that really does explore and analyze the issues that confront us in this inhumane system today."

Pat Clark noted that "the American Friends Service Committee has been controversial for a number of years, saying that life without the possibility of parole is not an alternative to the death penalty." At a time when society has finally begun questioning the humanity of executions, the AFSC has challenged the humanity and wisdom of the prison system itself.

Clark said, "The AFSC has been a leading light in really thinking through what a humane system would look like, and what a world without violence would look like. I think that Beyond Prisons really challenges us to think beyond the boxes that we have allowed ourselves to be placed in. The very beginning of the book talks about a 'new morality.' And we need a new morality when we talk about criminal justice."

Clark praised the book's emphasis on offering positive alternatives to the rapidly expanding prison system. "The thing that I'm most pleased about is that it's not just a book that reviews the problems and the issues; but at the end of the book, it comes up with a 12-point plan -- 12 concrete things that can be done to make change. I want to thank you for putting out a document that's revolutionary, that's radical, that's based on faith that we have the opportunity to do the right thing."

Laura Magnani has been working for the American Friends Service Committee since 1989, primarily on criminal justice issues, and also as a supervisor for a number of the AFSC's criminal justice and economic justice programs in the region. She is a former lobbyist for the Friends Committee on Legislation in Sacramento in the 1970s, and was a co-founder of the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center in San Francisco in the 1980s.

Davey D is a hip hop historian, journalist, DJ and community activist. He has been involved with hip hop since 1977 when he started out in the Bronx as an emcee for TDK (Total Def Krew) and the Avengers. Later, Davey D came to California to attend UC Berkeley and began deejaying in the Bay Area, including at radio stations KALX, KPFA and KMEL. He has one of the most widely read hip hop websites -- Davey D's Hip Hop Corner at www.daveyd.org. The daily radio show he co-hosts, Hard Knock Radio, was voted Best Radio Show in the Bay Area. He writes for numerous publications and magazines and is a member of the Bay Area Black Journalist Association.

Magnani's first book for the AFSC was entitled America's First Penitentiary: A 200 Year Old Failure, published in 1990. In the late 1700s, many religious people were concerned about the deplorable conditions in the Philadelphia jail, and they founded the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. Quakers made up half the membership of this penal reform group.

Quakers and other Protestants are often credited with and blamed for the development of the modern penal system, and their influence was substantial. Many were well-meaning reformers who were trying to design a more humane response to crime and poverty. But the end result was a cruel and torturous penitentiary system that destroys lives rather than rebuilding them. Davey D began his interview by referring to that history.

Davey D: I think it's very relevant for people in the hip hop generation to be up on the issues and politics around the prison-industrial complex, especially when you look at the situation that's at hand. From my travels, and I'm around the country all the time, you can go to almost any community and ask people if they know somebody in jail and pretty much three-quarters of the room will raise their hands. And over the last few years, my travels have shown that, unfortunately, a lot of people have family members that are in jail, at younger and younger ages.

We also have a culture that seems to glorify prison -- to the dismay of a lot of people who are asking, "Why are you highlighting this? Why are you making it seem so glamorous?" But obviously, it's a cottage industry for a lot of folks in the entertainment world to highlight prison, whether it's showing programs like "Cops" or going out and seeking out artists who will highlight the experiences behind jail and make it seem like it's no big deal. So I'm not surprised that we have so many people that are going into the prisons in record numbers, and I think it's important that we're involved with a conversation about this.

Congratulations about the book, first of all, and congratulations for pissing off a whole lot of folks in power. There's a lot of union members who work in correctional facilities, and private prison owners, and a few law-and-order type of politicians that aren't going to be too thrilled; but we're happy anyway because the book is a good tool.

With that being said, one of the first things I noticed in the book is that, in the very beginning, you acknowledge the role that the Quakers have played in the development of the penal system. And you also acknowledge what you feel, and what your crew that wrote the book feels, was a mistake in how the Quakers tried to move things on the correct path. Can you start off by talking a little bit about that?

Laura Magnani: Quakers were among the people who began the first penitentiary experiment which, at the time, was a reform that was supposed to be positive. It was replacing dungeon-style prisons and a lot of use of the death penalty and corporal punishment with more humane facilities, trained staff, good food and medical care. It was supposed to be an improvement.

But what happened, virtually immediately, was that prisons got so overcrowded that many of the reforms that they really intended to go on couldn't happen because of the overcrowding. Immediately, you had situations where people couldn't work, weren't getting proper medical attention, and the experiment started to unravel. However, nobody really examined that. People, including the Quakers, got very invested in their ideas, in what they thought was an improvement, and they kept trying to do it bigger and better.

They didn't pay attention to the fact, for instance, that 30 percent of the people in the first penitentiary were African Americans at a time in Philadelphia when the African American population was less than one percent. And 70 percent were immigrants. Those are the kinds of statistics that still persist today. We're still talking about the same kind of structure, the same kind of outcomes, that the prisons are still used for. People weren't evaluating that. They were just saying, "Well, gee, we're having some kinds of problems, so let's just make it bigger. Let's have more space, let's hire more guards." And that mentality of bigger and bigger and bigger is what's haunting us now.

Davey D: So what is the importance of actually acknowledging that this was the wrong direction? How do you think that will reverberate in people involved with this issue when they can see that a religious organization like the Quakers can come back and say that we made a mistake and we're trying to correct it? Will that reverberate with everybody else?

Laura: Well, it would be nice to think so. At the time that we were involved in this prison reform, Quakers played a much bigger role in government in Pennsylvania than they do now. So now, the organization that started it, the Prison Society in Philadelphia, still exists, but they're a marginalized organization now. They're no longer "the fathers." In those days, the fathers of the organization had visiting rights and access to prisons. Well, those folks don't have access to prisons now; even the press doesn't have access to prisons. So now we're speaking from the margins; we're not speaking from that position from power.

Davey D: You know, the other thing that I thought was really enlightening was the way you framed this whole concept of fear and how the whole penal system is based around that. Could you elaborate on that for people who haven't read the book?

Laura: I think we can see it writ large today in our foreign policy, in the way we demonize categories of people and do anything in the name of that demonization. So we demonize "the other" -- people who folks perceive as different from themselves because of the color of their skin, because of the country that they came from, or because they don't speak the language -- and then play on that fear and say, "Well, we've got to push these people aside. We've got to protect ourselves from these people, these people are different from us." It just opens up all this permission to do just about anything. And, of course, we're seeing that with Iraq. We're seeing that with every piece of foreign policy now, with detaining folks and not even charging them, giving them no rights whatsoever, almost 100 percent because of the country they come from and the color of their skin.

Davey D: It seems like that conditioning has been around for so long and has been passed from generation to generation. Do we need to work on a different type of conditioning with the public at large? The public has become so used to reacting in a fearful way -- you know, lock up the doors, throw away the keys, keep them out of my neighborhood, that type of attitude. Before we even get to the 12 solutions, the 12 wonderful points in the book, do we have to have some sort of psychological counterattack to the general public that has embraced fear?

Laura: I think that's where we are trying to talk about it in terms of a new paradigm. We really have to think about these issues in a totally different way. Starting with the question: "What kind of world do you want to live in?" Let's just ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. Because it's not the kind, I think, that we're living in now. We invest in things like prisons -- and no longer invest in education, no longer have a mental health system, no longer have after-school programs for kids. Those are priorities that we set, and we can unset them. We can change those priorities. It's not been that long that it's been as lopsided as it's become now. So we really have to talk very deeply about changing these attitudes.

Davey D: But when it comes time for voting and putting people in office, and in all our collective actions, it seems like we're going the other way -- consistently.

Laura: It does seem like we're going the other way. Even since the book came out, I feel like this issue has gotten broader and broader for me. It's not just about the prison system; it's about the earth. It's about the way that we are willing to squander our natural resources, maybe in this generation that we're now in. So we have to be looking at this thing from a bigger perspective. Economically, we have to be paying attention to who is winning and who is losing in the economic system - and who is totally excluded from it. Because we can't get to a new paradigm if we're not seriously steeping ourselves in the economic issues, as well as the earth and the ecology issue. So it's big and it's comprehensive -- and it's possible! But it's only possible if we're willing to dream those dreams and work on this together.

Davey D: I thought the most compelling chapter in the book was the whole break down of the privatization of prisons and the economic incentive that people now have to keep these prisons going. You talked about the fact that the private prison industry gets paid for the number of people that's inside the prison, so it's in their best interest to have a high recidivism rate, to keep people going in and out. And that might play into all sorts of things, including the thing that I mentioned before, where we have this culture that seems to highlight prisons. So we have young kids going, "Yay, it's not that bad to go!" -- almost to the point like it's a rite of passage. Could you talk a little bit about that and what sort of dents can be made in that sort of flourishing industry?

Laura: I don't know how many people saw the movie, "Why We Fight." It's a documentary about the history of the military-industrial complex, and how Dwight D. Eisenhower really tried to sound the alarm about it, and warned that if the profit motive and the corporations really see what they have to gain from this military-industrial complex, there's going to be no stopping the military and the war machine. The exact same dynamic is taking place now with the prison system. For a while, we thought we were shifting from the military-industrial complex to the prison-industrial complex, but now we see that they're both going on simultaneously. But the same thing drives both, which is profit. People are economically benefiting from this system the way it is. In California, we have this particularly egregious problem of the CCPOA, which is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

Davey D: They're not going to like the book.

Laura: They're not going to like the book. It's a guards union. We like unions, generally speaking, but this is a union that is very invested in the continuation and deepening and expansion of this system. They are the first or second-largest political contributor in the state. Think about it! The second-largest, or the first-largest political contributor in the state. You can't be a politician in California without the support of the guards union, and that means supporting their agenda for this prison-industrial complex.

Davey D: I also found it interesting the way you talked about how a lot of the guards get stock options, so that's an incentive to keep things going. And as the prison system pulls away the law books and other types of amenities that are designed to help people once they do get out, they take away all that to save money. So is there anything that we could do immediately about this big problem?

Laura: There's currently a bill in the legislature that a lot of liberal legislators have been jumping on the bandwagon of, which is to supposedly transfer 4500 women from prisons to community-based programs. But if you look at the definition of those community-based programs, and find out who is running them, you realize that they're just changing locations. A provision has been added to the bill that says those programs shall be run by correctional people. So, we're talking about "community-based programs" that are run by guards. And I gotta say, you're still in prison. That's not a release program, it's not even really a step-down program. So it's very entrenched, the way this plays out.

And the prison movement is alive and well in California. You see that on Hard Knock radio every time I turn it on. You guys [referring to Davey D and other Hard Knock programmers] are breaking it down and really talking about things that people don't hear anywhere else. So the first step for us is to tell the truth. The first step is to really get the word out to people so that they can't say they're releasing 4500 women when, in fact, we're just transferring them to another location with the same guys holding the keys.

Davey D: Right -- semantics.

Laura: Semantics! Same thing when the Prison Law Office won the lawsuit about Pelican Bay and about holding people in security housing units that shouldn't be there - mentally ill people in security housing units in solitary confinement. So they renamed the unit. They don't call it a security housing unit now; they call it something else. They send a psychiatrist down there once or twice a week and they say those folks aren't locked down. Well, it's semantics. It's just changing the name.

Davey D: Just out of curiosity, with all the progress that we've supposedly made by 2006, how many organizations or people of color are involved in having ownership and being involved at high levels of the administrative aspects of both government-run and private prisons? Do we have black faces and brown faces that are running these institutions, and have they been sensitive to community needs or have they just been more of the same?

Laura: I don't have any statistics on that, but we do have black people and brown people throughout the prison system, as we do in police forces. My experience is that there is a culture that goes with these jobs, just as there is a culture that goes with police work; and you can come in there with a lot of knowledge about the community and different life experiences and it doesn't take very long for the culture of incarceration to take hold of you. These are good jobs; these are high-paying jobs for people who don't have to have gone to college, and the benefits are good. So it's pretty complex what causes people to go into the work and what happens to them once they get there.

Davey D: So if we're getting co-opted, then it comes down to one of the main premises you raise up in your book -- which is whether or not we try to reform or actually abolish the prison system. At least when I've been to prisons to visit, you do see black and brown guards, but some of the brutality seems to be worse than it's ever been. You're sitting there going, "Damn, we've been fighting to get folks in there -- folks of color -- but now they're in the prisons and everything's gotten worse." So maybe we really do need to abolish this whole thing, as you advocate.

Laura: Well, we think we do; we think we do [prolonged applause]. This is a system that is so seriously broken that it can't be fixed. I would use the "E" word -- which is "evil." It really is the personification of evil in the way it has played out now for quite a few decades. So we don't believe it can be reformed. We don't believe it can be tinkered with or adjusted in cosmetic kinds of ways, but that we really have to start over from scratch. And starting over from scratch means starting a lot of things over from scratch, including our economic system and the kinds of economic drivers that keep this system going.

Davey D: Right, and that's the first step you're saying that we need to look at -- penal abolition. Let me ask: Do we do it in stages or do we just do it outright, and if we do it in stages, how does that look?

Laura: Well, if you can figure out how to do it outright, I'm down with that [laughter and applause].

Davey D: Well, here we are in Oakland with 60 murders. There's a lot of folks who can't hear about any sort of abolishing of prisons when they feel that they've been terrorized in their own neighborhoods. How do we communicate that to folks who are victims, as well as folks who are on the oppressive side of this system?

Laura: The first question we have to ask is, "Is the current system working for you? Are you getting something from it?" Because people are trapped in that fear place, it's really hard to step back and look at it. It's true that there are 60 murders in Oakland. It's appalling and it has to stop. We would all agree with that. But is the system that we're working with now doing anything to actually stop it?

What we try and recommend in the book is the understanding that we're not going to have penal abolition overnight or even maybe in my lifetime, so we talk about some of the issues around incremental change. What can we recommend that won't actually prop up the existing system, or make it last longer, or give ourselves the illusion that we're doing something when we really aren't? I think we learned that lesson the hard way with Struggle for Justice [an AFSC book on the prison system published in 1971].

Because in Struggle for Justice, we advocated an end to the indeterminate sentence system, and we played a role in ending indeterminacy in sentencing, which we still believe was bad. We still believe that giving people indeterminate sentences -- which means, say, 15 years to life or something like that, with the parole board deciding when you're getting out -- really wreaked havoc on people's lives and was tremendously discriminatory. However, we were naive about the politics at the time, and as we were treading down this liberal path of abolishing indeterminacy, another whole group was treading down this other path of mandatory sentences. And you've all seen what's happened with mandatory sentences. So we ended up with more and more mandatory sentences.

So we have to be very wise about what kinds of recommendations we make, and who we're in bed with in the process, so we can figure out exactly what to recommend. So we have some tests in the book about this. A number of principles must be followed if we're going to advocate for incremental change, so the recommendations won't make some things worse on behalf of making something else better.

Davey D: So if there were two or three things that you could advocate right now, and you could wave a magic wand here in California, what could we do now?

Laura: We could start with abolishing the death penalty [prolonged applause]. We could then move on to solitary confinement. The American Friends Service Committee is in the process of launching a national campaign to end solitary confinement [applause].

Davey D: Your book has a whole section on that, and eliminating solitary confinement is also one of the 12 solutions the book advocates. But for people who haven't read the book, could you talk about the use of solitary confinement -- how it's being deployed now in the prison system and what sort of damage it's doing.

Laura: You know, there's always been solitary in various forms; there's always been isolation as a disciplinary action against prisoners, and certain people have been locked down for long periods of time. However, in the last two or so decades, we started building whole institutions for the exclusive purpose of locking people down 23 to 24 hours a day for years at a time. And these are called security housing units. Virtually every prison has them now, in some form or another. It's not just the adjustment center, which has always been around, and which is used for disciplinary isolation for limited periods of time. These are places that people are doing years at a time.

Davey D: You even said life for some.

Laura: Some people are literally sentenced to life in these units. Well, you just heard about it with regards to some of the people who have been convicted around the terrorist rules. And they're proud of the fact that they're sending them to these kinds of facilities for life. But I had a reporter read to me the names of the people in this category, and it was a dozen or so people, and it was all the worst of the worst that you can think of; but I'm here to tell you that there are tens of thousands of people in these facilities who are not even remotely the worst of the worst. They use them for all kinds of manipulative reasons, especially related to gang identification. And when I say "identification," I don't mean anything that's been verified at all, but just their idea of association -- guilt by association is what it really comes down to.

Davey D: You also wrote that solitary confinement may cause insanity for many people who are isolated for long periods like that; so obviously that's going to eventually wreak havoc, not only for their family members, but for society, which will have to reap the havoc that they bring back because they're no longer the same.

Laura: There are people in the room with much more expertise on the mental effects of solitary confinement than I have. The Prison Law Office has litigated repeatedly on this issue, thank goodness. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what that would do to your mind - that kind of isolation and sensory deprivation, where you don't see natural light, where you don't have human contact, and you don't have anything to stimulate your aesthetic sensibilities. What does that do to human beings and why would we want to do that to one another?

We have a prison system instead of having a mental health system, instead of having drug treatment. We don't have a healthcare system for everyone in this country, so people who are suffering from various kinds of addictions end up in the criminal justice system. We use the criminal justice system for homelessness. All of these social issues could be handled in a completely different setting than through law enforcement; but because we aren't funding mental health and health care and drug treatment or making it possible for people to have a house to live in, our society then pours people down this one funnel into criminalization.

Davey D: One of the 12 solutions in your book is about working inside as long as necessary. Elaborate on how we do that.

Laura: Well, I think it's particularly relevant to the church and faith communities, because they're the ones that really have been vigilant about going inside and being with prisoners, and just accompanying people who are doing this kind of time. For the last few years, I've been going out to the Dublin prison and doing a women's group there about once a week with Cindy Preston-Pile, my co-facilitator. Our group is a healing and spirituality group for women in prison.

For all the advocacy that we do on the outside, it's really important to have those personal relationships so we really know what people are going through on a daily basis. It keeps us human, but it also says to the folks inside that we haven't forgotten you. So as long as this horrible system exists, we do need to be in relationship with the people inside, and the people coming out. It's really a daunting situation because we've got over two million people incarcerated now. So I don't want to be naive about how much we can reach people. From the mail we get, I know people are just dying from their isolation.


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