The “crisis” of jails in Louisville, Kentucky, is the criminal justice system

Over the past few months, jails in Kentucky have been making headlines. Earlier in the year, the headlines were about how “a pattern of employee misconduct” in one juvenile jail killed a teenage girl named Gynnya McMillen.

The new headlines, though, are about the jails in Louisville, KY, the largest city in the State. You see, Louisville’s jails are overcrowded. How overcrowded are they? To quote former inmate Jennifer Kennedy, “It was terrible…I slept on the floor, on a mat. I had to borrow a cover from someone who had one in there.”

But wait, there’s more. Louisville’s jails are so overcrowded that the State has deemed it a crisis. The director of Louisville Metro Corrections even ordered the re-opening of an old, now illegal jail. This supposedly temporary jail is illegal because the building is not up to fire evacuation standards. One judge remarked that “If they have a fire there, people are going to die.”

Even when faced with the prospect of a holocaust of prisoners, the State continued putting people in jail, and so the old, illegal jail also filled up. Now prisoners are forced to sleep in gymnasiums and use portable bathroom facilities. With every new “temporary” solution, prisoners get moved around—and moving prisoners is a violent, destabilizing process.

It’s easy to think that this overcrowding crisis is sudden and surprising, but it’s neither. The State of Kentucky created this crisis. Faced with a surplus of revenue and falling wages throughout the commonwealth, state and local governments looked to prisons and jails in which to invest excess capital. More prisons and jails mean more prisoners, an induced demand that does not depend on crime rate. This resulted in the Kentucky having the fourteenth highest overall incarceration rate in the world and the third highest women’s incarceration rate in the world.

First, the State of Kentucky knowingly hyper-incarcerates people, especially women, who worldwide are the fastest-growing prison population. The State keeps demanding more, its thirst for caged bodies never satiated, and puts these prisoners in cramped, fire-prone conditions. State officials throw up their arms, wondering how anyone could have predicted this.

How will Louisville and the State of Kentucky “solve” the crisis? The State government offered to take 200 inmates into its custody from local jails, but the state jails are just as overcrowded; state facilities were already leasing out prisoners to local jails to begin with. Instead, the State is looking to reopen two private prisons run by the CCA as another “temporary” solution. Never mind that the Kentucky CCA facilities were major harbors of sexual abuse against women prisoners.

As Louisville and Kentucky scramble for solutions, two things are clear:

  • Women prisoners, and all prisoners, matter. As the State creates and covers up its own crises, women prisoners become targets of violence to solve said crises. The pain their bodies and minds must endure directly correlates to the amount of money the State invests in prison infrastructure. Women prisoners’ space and time are inversely related to these investments. The conditions that women prisoners endure—such as the risk of being burned to death in overcrowded facilities—are also the conditions on which entire modern cities, like Louisville, are currently being developed.
  • The solution for prison overcrowding is not to build more prisons or to find more “temporary” solutions. The existence of prisons at all, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us, is a crisis in itself, a major contradiction in a supposedly “free” society that allows “un-freedom” to exist. The only real, lasting solution is to abolish prisons and create alternative forms of justice that do not inflict more violence on other human beings.

 

(Photo Credit: WDRB)

In the capital of the greatest incarcerating country in the world

On March 28, Ruth Wilson Gilmore gave the annual Yulee Endowed Lecture, hosted by the Women’s Studies Program at the George Washington University. Her talk opened with a slide showing an NAACP billboard that said, against the Statue of Liberty as background,

Welcome to America home to
5% of the world’s people &
25% of the world’s prisoners.

This is the same America that is home to 5% of the world’s population and produces 27.8% of the world’s greenhouse gases from fossil fuel, according to the National Environment Trust.

Pollution and incarceration reveal a dreadful, man-made reality. For both prison and pollution, the United States tries to change its image rather than face up to the reality. The United States is the primary source of world pollution and of prison practices. A prison binge has been built on the disregard of women, of people of color, of the poor. High levels of pollution have been built on absurd consumerism passed off as a social good. Meanwhile, for many, these add up to a cruel reality.

United States administration after administration has produced more laws to incarcerate more people and more “Acts” to cover up the high level of emission of Green House gases and other pollutants. Images of poor people, especially of women of color, abusing the welfare became as visible as the images of the destruction of the “Commons” became invisible. What one hand giveth, the other taketh away.

In her lecture, Ruth Wilson Gilmore talked about the reality of incarceration.  Her book, The Golden Gulag Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, started as a community project: a research for Mothers ROC (Mothers Reclaiming Our Children) in California, women who know too well the reality of and reasons for incarceration. They needed “a non-lawyer activist with research skills, access to university libraries, and a big vocabulary, to help them.” Gilmore fit the bill perfectly.

In her book, Gilmore relocates the two laws that sent the Mothers’ children to prison—the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act and the “three strikes and you’re out” law—into their historical political economic context. Ruthie, as everyone calls her, presented on the particular history of capitalism in the United States, the story of opportunity fertilized with inequality and racism. Her lecture was called “What Would Harriet Do? Unfinished Liberation or the Dangers of Innocence”.

Harriet is Harriet Tubman.

Harriet Tubman’s story exemplifies the root of the social and racial American construction. For Gilmore, Tubman was a designer and a political artist. Tubman’s story of unwavering determination to bring slaves of the south to freedom speaks directly to today’s “zero tolerance.” As the false stories told of African and African-derived people helped to justify the slavery of thousands of women, men and children of African descent, so today’s false story of “zero tolerance” attacks African Americans. 65 million people are currently banned from employment because of previous convictions, and those people live in the communities that most need steady employment.

The following day Ruth Wilson Gilmore continued the conversation in Dan Moshenberg’s Seminar, “Women In and Beyond the Global Prison.”

Again, the discussion focused on the construction of images, from the witch-hunt that put women back in the “domus,” to the “Reaganomic” image of the welfare-queen that re-segregated poor and working African American women, thereby legitimating the re-appropriation of power and global capital. Welfare-queen became pathology. To unpack that pathology, we must learn to study “the genealogy of the phrase,” and thereby reinforce the importance of historical consciousness.

Gilmore brings to light the reality of the political economic project that requires mass incarceration. That project is genocidal, and that project of mass incarceration speaks directly to the situation of health care and reproductive rights in the United States.

Slavoj Žižek recently argued, “one of the strategies of totalitarian regimes is to have legal regulations (criminal laws) so severe that, if taken literally, everyone is guilty of something. But then their full enforcement is withdrawn… At the same time the regime wields the permanent threat of disciplining its subjects.”

I am not saying that we live in a true totalitarian regime. That is not the question. The question is whether we understand that these ‘all-guilty’ laws work to control and subjugate certain sections of the population, such as the African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and also women. Of course, women intersect with the other “guilty” populations. In many states, laws limiting women’s reproductive rights are blossoming, and punishment and incarceration await the women who try to secure or wield their rights. At the same time, the story of Trayvon Martin’s assassination fits this framework of being eternally guilty. His corpse was tested for drugs and alcohol. His shooter never had to be tested and is still alive and free.

There are many other stories that show that the current rule of law is an active political-economic tool. Ben Saperstein and May Young, two activists from North Carolina, attended the seminar with Gilmore and Moshenberg. They were there to learn and exchange ideas for their own struggle. They are involved with the Greensboro Legal Fund, which works to bring to light the fate of members of a Latino organization that has been wrongfully accused of racketeering, and has been incarcerated for political reasons.

The exchanges among activists and scholars from North Carolina, Washington, New York and beyond showed the importance of research working with activism. In this time of neoliberal surge, as Žižek remarked, “what unites us is the same struggle”. In this struggle, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s inspirational work reminds us of the importance of excellent scholarship as a means of resistance.

 

(Photo and Image Credit: astropressdc.com)

Where do the children live? Prison

I’ve been here for two weeks, and this is my third time in. I’m in the sixth grade. I was in placement but I ran away. They accused me of assault against my mom, but she scratched herself and said I did it. My dad lives in Atlanta and works in a barbershop. -E.Y., age 11 Juvenile Detention Center, Houston, Texas.

For the past forty years, the planet has been engaged in a global prison lockdown and a worldwide prison – building binge, which have resulted in the confinement of more women than ever before. This build up of lockdowns began in the United States in 1973, and has since blossomed, or mushroomed, into a global frenzy of incarceration of working class women of color and indigenous women.

The hyper-incarceration of women affects children, especially in those communities in which single women predominate as heads of households. The assault on children is more direct, however. At the same time that women, especially working class women of color and indigenous women, are being caged, their children are also being locked up as never before.

What is a child? A child is one’s offspring, a child is a minor. A child is a child, and tell me, where do the children live?

Given the prison boom, there are more offspring behind bars than ever before. Typically, the task and labor of maintaining social and sustaining contact is left to mothers, secondarily to female partners.  This is the lesson of Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, in California. When children are sent to prison, mothers are launched into a global reclamation and reconstruction project that, for many, never ends.

For example, Diana Montes-Walker’s son is an adult man in his 20s, living with bipolar disorder, complicated, predictably, by alcohol and drug dependencies. Equally predictably, her son `encountered’ the state criminal justice system, in this instance the California system. Ever since her son has been in prison, he has suffered one form or another of solitary confinement. Either he was in solitary in prison, or he was in solitary in so-called medical facilities that are actually prisons for inmates with `special needs’. In the latter, he is in solitary, but, according to his mother, with a little more freedom. He made it into the `better’ solitary confinement because his mother pushed, shoved, organized, shouted, wrote, met incessantly with everyone. And now, Diana Montes-Walker drives back and forth to scheduled meetings with doctors and social workers who don’t appear. And her son stays in solitary, and she has no idea how he’s doing.

Why is this happening to Diana Montes-Walker’s son, and so many others like him, young men and women living with mental disabilities and illnesses of one form or another? Why is he in prison? He is in prison because public mental health budgets have been shredded and then vaporized. Prisons are the new public mental health institutions. Meanwhile, Diana Montes-Walker, inhabits a State-sponsored hell, built because it’s more efficient to have her run around and take care of her son, more efficient and less costly.

Where do our children live? In prison.

In Turkey, close to 500 children live in prison with their mothers, who have been convicted. Why are they in prison? “Financial difficulties”.  For the children, three to six, there might be a kindergarten. For those under three years old, they spend the entire time in the cell with their mothers. These children are not in prison because of their mothers’ “financial difficulties”. They are in prison because of the moral and ethical bankruptcy of the State and because of the social structures that support that State.

Because of `financial difficulties’, Mississippi’s one juvenile detention center is run by a private corporation, the GEO Group. According to parents of the children being held there, the place is a horror, another State-sponsored hell. Fights break out, and the staff ignores calls for help and protection. Worse, the staff is accused of brutalizing children. Parents gaze upon their wounded and maimed children and feel a pain they describe as torturous. The lawyers describe the prison as barbaric and unconstitutional. The children describe the place as a war zone.

War zone is too nice a phrase for a place in which civilians are butchered for profit.  Child prisoners, children’s bodies and lives, bloat the coffers of private industry. They are an extractive resource whose market value continues to grow. Where do the children live? They live, and often die, in prison.

 

(Photo Credit: Richard Ross, Juvenile In Justice http://richardross.net/juvenile-in-justice)