On December 31st, 2012, prisoner support activists gathered to demonstrate at the Cook County Jail after demonstrating at the Metropolitan Corrections Center and at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Building. The Cook County Jail protest was held in part to demonstrate support for the NATO 5, five men held at the jail on “inflated charges stemming from entrapment by Chicago police offers fronting… as activists.” Participants chose to honor the five men by protesting the use of police infiltration, entrapment, and intimidation tactics within activist movements. But the larger message of the demonstration at Chicago prisons and detention centers–an annual jail-solidarity event held in many U.S. cities–is that none of the prisoner’s have been forgotten, that their incarceration is unjust, and that the nation should, as some say, “free them all.” The cry: “Free them All” might strike some as rash or absurd–why would we free all the prisoners? Aren’t some there for violent crimes, even murders? Grassroots organizer Joe Scarry cites civil rights advocate and legal scholar Michelle Alexander‘s thoughts on incarceration as a strong inspiration for the Chicago prisoner support activists. I would like to review her extraordinarily compelling and eye-opening argument now, though BORDC bloggers have written about her before. Alexander argues that our current criminal justice system has become a mechanism for disenfranchising and marginalizing impoverished black citizens, who are arrested on minor charges and then, labeled as criminals and felons, denied basic rights and freedom from discrimination:
“People are swept into the criminal justice system, particularly in poor communities of color, at very early ages, targeted by police, stopped and frisked…typically for fairly minor, nonviolent crimes, often drug offenses, the very sorts of crimes that occur with roughly equal frequency in middle-class white neighborhoods and on college campuses but go largely ignored – shuttled in to jail and to prisons, branded as criminals and felons. A nd then when they’re released, they’re relegated to a permanent second-class status, stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement; rights like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. So many of the old forms of discrimination that we left behind in the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again once you’ve been declared a felon…in major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”
As Alexander points out, there are federal incentives for mass arrests, latitude for individual police officers, and zero political repercussions for focusing drug-war efforts on poor, minority communities. The system is rigged. At Cook County Jail, roughly two-thirds of both male and female prisoners are African-American. And 70% of the the inmates at Cook County Jail are incarcerated for non-violent crimes. The concern for these prisoners are two-fold. As Scarry points out, prison life itself can harm these individuals, 90% of whom are pre-trial detainees:
In July 2008, the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice released a report finding that the Eighth Amendment civil rights of the inmates has been systematically violated [at Cook County Jail]… Specific alleged violations that have resulted in Federal sanctions and/or class action lawsuits include:
- Systematic beatings and rapings by corrections officers.
- Poor food quality.
- Inmates forced to sleep on cell floors due to overcrowding and mismanagement (resulting in a $1,000 per inmate class action settlement).
- Rodent infestation and injury caused to sleeping inmates by rat and mouse bites.
- Violations of privacy during multiple invasive strip searches.
- Failure to provide adequate medical care, including failure to dispense medications.
- Invasive and painful mandatory tests for male STD’s (resulting in a $200 per inmate class action settlement).
- Unnecessarily long waiting time for discharge upon payment of bond, completion of sentence, or charges being dropped. Wait times are currently routinely in excess of 8 hours, nearly all of which is spent with many inmates packed into tiny cells.
After release from prison, as Alexander points out, the opportunities for these individuals are few and in fact, discrimination of these individuals is legal: after serving their sentences, many people find it hard to get jobs, housing, even food stamps, as they can be denied all three things on the basis of a criminal history. And statistically, violent crime is correlated with joblessness (among African-Americans, Caucasians, the general populace). Thus, these individuals–primarily African-American, are arrested for low-level crimes that are as common in middle-class white communities as among poor African-American communities, and then put through a system that ensures their legal discrimination and predisposes them to become violent criminals. Thus the protesters cry: “Free Them All,” demanding that the nation recognize the injustices within the prison system and overhaul the entire system. Free Them All–from the prison, yes, but also from the insidiously discriminatory criminal justice system. Sidenote: Alexander Cachinero-Gorman, 23, one of the prisoner support activists at Cook County Jail on New Year’s Eve, was arrested on felony charges of aggravated battery. Protestors have called the charges “bogus,” the result of “unprovoked violence” on the part of law enforcement officials.