Texas Jail Project About Newsletters Stories Reports In The News Jail Commission Peer Voices Campaigns & Actions Contact Donate

How We Have Criminalized Poverty

“How is it that a 15 year old….who the country labels worthless to the economy – how is it that this child who has no hope of getting a job or affording college – can suddenly generate 20 to 30 thousand dollars a year once trapped in the criminal justice system? The expansion of prisons, parole, probation, and 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 criminalization of poverty is a lucrative business and we have replaced the social safety net with a dragnet.”

This remarkable speech by Bonnie Kerness should be read by everybody in Texas, including those in criminal justice work as well as people in county and state government.

February 19, 2009, at Monmouth University, a Program hosted by The Human Relations Advisory Council for Black History Month

“I’d like to share a little of my own history. My early observations of oppression in this country began in the 1950’s when I was 12 or 13 watching television and seeing children of African descent my own age in the South being hosed by police and bitten by dogs for trying to go to school. By the time I was 20, I moved to Nashville, Tennessee to begin work in the civil rights movement. By 1965, I was in Memphis working with the James Meredith marches and the NAACP.

“In 1966, I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee and began working at Highlander Adult Education Center, which was the training school for almost all of the people who were organizers in the South. Rosa Parks was trained there, along with Martin Luther King, Kwame Toure (known as Stokley Carmichael), Imam Jamil Al-Amin (known as Rap Brown) and hundreds of others. It was the only place in the South where culturally diverse groups could meet. When I was there, the State of Tennessee was investigating all Highlander staff for sedition (which is treason against the State) and we were under court injunction forbidding us to continue training organizers. Every workshop that was held required that people patrol the perimeter of Highlander with shotguns to protect us.

“I was trained as a community organizer and by 1970, I had moved north. I worked either professionally or personally in the Women’s movement, the gay movement, the anti-war movement with the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, and in the Welfare Rights and Housing movements. I went back to school to get my BSW and my MSW and in 1971 began to work with the American Friends Service Committee. The AFSC is the social action arm of the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers, who have a 300-year history of commitment in dealing with human rights issues for prisoners. Quakers have a long activist history including being engaged in the Underground Railroad, which helped move slaves from the South into Northern freedom. They also built, staffed and supplied two amputee hospitals during the Viet Nam War. One was in North Viet Nam and one was in South Viet Nam.

“Since 1975, I have served as a human rights advocate on behalf of men, women and children in prison throughout the country. I coordinate the Prison Watch Project for the AFSC in Newark which deals with human rights violations concerning prisoners across the US. Many of the men, women and children that I take testimony from call their imprisonment “the war at home”. So many people are in US prisons because of the congressional War on Poverty and the War on Drugs, both resulting in a war on the poor.

“To me, the politics of the systems – the welfare system, the public school system, the health care system and the criminal justice system – play a profound role in the lives of the poor in this county. It is hard not to note that the rules and regulations of these systems which affect almost all of us, are created, written, and voted upon by mostly upper class white males whose lives will not be touched by their decisions. Their children do not go to public schools, they do not use public hospitals, they are surely not on welfare, and should they commit a crime, even the sentencing practices and prisons at which they serve their time are unequal.

“If you are a young, male of color in this country, if you are poor, should you get arrested, which is very likely, your bail will be set so high you become an economic hostage. For you, the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” has little meaning. You will sit in a cell waiting for trial without having been found guilty of anything. 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 possibly be treated as a priority, and finally you will serve a sentence which is 30% longer than a Caucasian would for the same crime. From the onset of an arrest, to court sentencing disparities, to the conditions of confinement in prison, racial profiling is practiced.

“If we take the time to analyze who is in prison and why they are there, we are confronted with the following reality: over 50% of the prisoners are Black men between the ages of 18 and 28; 80% have substance abuse problems; 60% have done nothing violent; close to 60% are in prison because they technically violated their parole contract (in other words they were not convicted of a new crime); most were abused as children; 64% are functionally illiterate; and all suffer from civil disenfranchisement often for the rest of their lives. While well over half of these men and women have not physically harmed another person, just about all of these people have been harmed themselves. Why are they imprisoned? One cannot escape the conclusion that they are being punished because they exist. Punishing them is profitable. Letting them live and flourish is not.

“Certainly, in the 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 United States criminal justice system falls most heavily on the poor and people of color, including the fact that slavery is mandated in prisons by the 13th Amendment of the US constitution. The 13th Amendment reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States”. While most of us don’t give this amendment a second thought, it really is at the core how the labor of slaves was transformed into what some people in prison call neo-slavery.

“The use of prison labor occurs throughout the country and is an integral part of what we have come to know as the “Prison Industrial Complex.” If you call the NJ Bureau of Tourism you are most likely talking to a prisoner at the Edna Mahon Correctional Institution for Women who is earning 23 cents an hour, and who has no ability to negotiate working hours or working conditions. Throughout the country, prisoners shovel manure, make circuit boards, do telemarketing, operate message services, and make custom limousines, underwear, eyeglasses, military uniforms, other war related items, etc. What other labor force has no access to the media, labor organizers, or community groups. What other labor force can’t strike. In fact, if they refuse to work, they receive charges and are often punished by being forced to serve time in isolation. Involuntary forced labor in prisons is every day real for the more than 2.3 million men and women.

“African descended, Latino and Native young people tell us that the police feel like an occupation army in their poor communities. They speak about school systems being used to feed young people of color into youth detention, jails and prisons where those bodies are suddenly worth a fortune. People have said to me 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.

“How is it that a 15 year old in Newark who the country labels worthless to the economy – how is it that this child who has no hope of getting a job or affording college – can suddenly generate 20 to 30 thousand dollars a year once trapped in the criminal justice system? The expansion of prisons, parole, probation, and 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 criminalization of poverty is a lucrative business and we have replaced the social safety net with a dragnet.

“There is no contradiction between the facts that prisons are both hugely expensive and very profitable. Just like with military spending, the cost is public cost and the profits are private profits. It is yet another way of funneling public money into the pockets of the middle and upper class. There are, for instance, hundreds of architectural firms solely in the business of designing prisons globally. Privatization in the Prison Industrial Complex includes companies which run prisons for profit while at the same time gleaning profits from forced labor. In the State of New Jersey, food and medical services are provided by corporations which have, as their bottom line, a profit motive. One recent explosion of private industry is the partnering of Corrections Corporation of America with the federal government to detain close to 1 million undocumented people. CCA has made record profits at the expense of humane conditions. At least some of those in immigration detention facilities are children under the age of 12.

“Prisons are one of the largest growth industries in the United States. We live in an age where young males, and increasingly females, of color have been moved out of a historical state of oppression into one of uselessness in the economic context of this country. They have been societally discarded as a waste product of the technological revolution, with illegal drugs turning the Ghettoized poor into invalids just as alcohol and smallpox was introduced to incapacitate the aboriginal people of this land. It is clear that there is a large middle class being paid billions of dollars for containing mostly folks of color in cages in human warehouses. Not unlike the era of chattel slavery, there is a class of people completely dependent on bodies of color as a source for income.

“I’d like to share with you some of the voices that I hear during my day. The first two are from youngsters who have spent time in juvenile detention. These children 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. I was so cold. “

“I heard people scream, yell and holler. I saw boys get strung out on meds. The food is mostly Sloppy Joes 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 a couple of years ago 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 probation officer, was picked up and locked in isolation. It is not irrelevant that Eddie’s father is African and his mother is Latina.

“Our youth are in grave danger with the US spending less than any other industrialized nation on nurturing its children. In spite of the dismal poverty rates, violent juvenile crime has been declining for years. Yet at least 43 states have passed laws making it much easier for children to be tried as adults. This has been propelled by congressional legislation which encourages children over 14 to be transferred to adult court. Campaigns to criminalize children have done away with the term “child” altogether. The current trend in school disciplinary “zero tolerance” policies is changing schools from safe educational havens into places which are philosophically punitive. Other evidence of the lack of tolerance for our youth is evident in suspension and expulsion rates, often for what once would have been considered pranks. The New Jersey Commissioner of Corrections has reported that the failure rate of 4th grade inner city schools has been used to predict the number of prison beds that will be needed in the future. The shame of this country is that there are two school systems – one for the haves and one for the have nots. If we allow no room for mistakes and testing of limits, we have effectively taken away childhood. Schools must return to their mission of educating children, and stop being an arm of the very flawed juvenile justice system.

“The treatment of imprisoned juveniles in this country violates international human rights law and the US has been cited by the World Organization for Human Rights as violating UN Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the UN Convention Against Torture. Any discussion of change in the US justice system has to include the reversal of youth being tried and punished as adults. 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 a social worker at 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.”

“Another writes that when she refused to move into a double cell, she was dragged out of her cell and thrown on her back. She was beaten about the face and head and describes a guard sticking his finger in her eye deliberately. She says, I was rolled onto my stomach and cuffed on my wrists with leg irons on my ankle. They stripped me.

“As the proportion of women in prison has drastically increased, so has the proportion of complaints coming in from women. Women who write and call the AFSC describe conditions of confinement which qualify as torture. They suffer from sexual abuse by staff with one woman saying, “That was not part of my sentence to perform oral sex with officers.” Women have reported the inappropriate use of restraints on pregnant and sick prisoners, including one woman whose baby was coming at the same time the guard who had shackled her legs was on a break somewhere else in the hospital.

“Some of the most poignant letters I get are from prisoners writing on behalf of mentally ill prisoners – 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. Another man wrote telling us of the suicide of a man in isolation in Ohio. He says no one told this man why he was in segregation. He had no violence on his record. He was transferred to an isolation cage with no conduct report, no notice, no conference and he did not know why he was there. In a letter to his family, he spoke of having “no hope here”.

“These past years have been full of thousands of calls and complaints of an increasingly disturbing nature from prisoners and their families. Most describe 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 and five point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, use of dogs, tethers, and waist and leg chains.

“Prolonged solitary confinement often for the purpose of behavior modification has been a long time concern for many prison activists, on both sides of the walls. The reports coming in about the use of devices of torture are often from isolation units, which are called control units or supermax prisons, where there are few witnesses. Right now there are thousands of people living in enforced solitary confinement units in US prisons, including young people in juvenile detention and adult facilities and a shocking number of the mentally ill.

“Many of us trace the expansion of isolation and the development of control units to the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement when many activists found themselves in US prisons. Incarceration and the use of isolation and torture were used on these political prisoners and then extended to other prisoners. Sensory deprivation was used extensively with imprisoned members of the Black Panther Party, Puerto Rican Independentistas, members of the American Indian Movement, members of the New Afrikan Independence Movement and white radicals. In later years, we found jail house lawyers, Islamic militants and prisoner activists placed in extended isolation. In the case of New Jersey prisoner Ojore Lutalo, with the exception of a brief period in general population, he has been held in isolation in the Management Control Unit at New Jersey State Prison since 1986. Right now efforts to expand the solitary confinement population involve the alleged spread of gang problems in US prisons. And while prison officials tell advocates that the isolation prisons hold only the “worst of the worst”, who we are really monitoring there are prisoner activists and the mentally ill. We know from extensive research that prisoners suffering form mental illness fare very poorly when subjected to harsh conditions including long stints in segregation. This trend of placing people in isolation is being repeated throughout the country, propelling the building of supermax prisons.

“Much of the focus on my work since the mid 1980’s has been the shocking use of extended isolation in the form of control units, supermax prisons, security threat group management units and administrative segregation units. In some cases I have been monitoring people who have been held in this form of isolation, often without charges or without explanation, for decades. I have heard from and spoken with people who have been held in isolation for years, including one woman in NJ who describes rubbing her nails against the rubber seal of a three inch window. After 8 months of bloodied fingers, she managed a tiny opening through which she could feel fresh air.

“If any of you became an intern at the AFSC in Newark, one of your first assignments would be to sit in your bathroom for four hours. Picture yourself in an 8 by 10 cage in a human warehouse. There may be dozens of silent cages to your left and right, and you may be in the middle tier of half a dozen tiers above and below. Picture being in this eerie silence for 23 to 24 hours a day, day in and day out, month in and month out, year in and year out for the next 15 years. There is a huge steel door between you and the rest of the world and this space is where you eat, sleep, exercise, wash, think and take care of bodily functions. You may be allowed out once a week for exercise or you may be not allowed out at all. In one testimony I received, a prisoner who had been held in isolation for 6 months was having his first window visit outside his cage with his lawyer. He was rectally searched three times going to the visit and three times when being returned to his cage, despite the fact that he hadn’t been in the same room with another human being for those 6 months. There are things happening in US prisons that you cannot give me a reason for.

“Those coming out directly to the streets from years in isolation talk about sleeplessness, paranoia, feelings of violence, and an inability to relate to anyone who hasn’t had the experience of prison and isolation. Family and friends report that the loved ones being returned to them after finishing their sentences are not people they know anymore. The people who have endured this describe years of living in an environment so toxic to mental functioning that they are unable to relate to the world as we know it upon release. One man described cutting himself just so he could feel something. I once asked a man why he threw feces on officers, what could possibly compel him to do that? He said it was the only power he had left. In a system where 95% of prisoners return to our communities, the impact of these practices is felt far beyond prisons. Dealing with these issues of cruelty and torture isn’t just a matter of human decency. They involve, among other things, serious public health concerns with both immediate and long term implications.

“Public health issues concerning prisoners coming out abound with mental and physical issues including Hepatitis C, Tuberculosis, HIV, mental illness, and symptoms related to post traumatic stress disorder. Many leave the prisons without any of the medication which formed the bedrock of their treatment, thereby risking the diffusion of these diseases. For more than 25 years, I have provided counseling for people re-entering society from prisons, jails and youth detention facilities. The prognosis for staying out of prison is poor with over 60% of people returning. Many of them went into prison with symptoms of post traumatic stress which developed in their inner city childhood. Prisons are often traumatizing places in the lack of feeling, concern and opportunities for self-improvement. Many of the formerly incarcerated who I’ve treated come out with symptoms of post traumatic stress. Complex issues of reunification of families at the same time as learning how to build a life make re-entry an incredibly difficult period. How do you teach someone to rid themselves of degradation? How long does it take to teach people to feel safe, feel trust and feel a sense of empowerment in a world where they often come home emotionally and physically damaged and unemployable? There are many reasons that ex-prisoners do not make it – paramount among them is that they are not supposed to succeed.

“When the news about the torture going on at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq broke, then President Bush said that “what took place in that prison doesn’t represent the America I know”. Unfortunately, for the more than two million US citizens and countless undocumented immigrants living in US prisons, this is the “America” that they, their family members, their lawyers and activists DO know and experience daily. What happened at Abu Ghraib, what is happening at secret prisons all over the world and at Guantanamo Bay, is a reflection of the physical and mental abuse taking place every day to men, women and children living in the jails and prisons of this country. President Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo Bay and US international secret prisons is simply the tip of the iceberg. I am hoping that he will give some depth to his focus on torture to include a review of the political and economic policies of US prisons which foster the practices I’ve described.

“The conditions and practices that the imprisoned testify to are in violation of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Convention Against Torture and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. US prison practices also violate dozens of other international treaties. US prison practices also fit the United Nations definition of genocide. According to the UN genocide is: the killing of members of a racial or religious group; the causing of bodily harm to members of a particular group; deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction; imposing measures intended to prevent births within that group; and forcibly transferring children of that group to another group. 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 of color, lack of the same medical treatment, opportunities and education that is afforded to whites, and the realization becomes even more compelling.

“Article 1 of the UN Convention Against Torture prohibits policies and practices that “constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.” The history of international attention to US prison issues is compelling. In 1995, the UN Human Rights Committee stated that conditions in certain US maximum security prisons were incompatible with international standards. In 1996, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture reported on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in US supermax prisons. In 1998, the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women took testimony in California on the ill treatment of women in US prisons. In 2000 the United Nations Committee on Torture roundly condemned the US for its treatment of prisoners, citing supermax prisons and the use of torture devices, as well as the practice of jailing youth with adults. The use of stun belts and restraints chairs were also cited as violating the UN Convention against Torture. In May of 2006, the same committee concluded that the US should “review the regimen imposed on detainees in supermaximum prisons, in particular, the practice of prolonged isolation”. It is not surprising that little of this international attention has ever made its way into US media.

“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 US criminal justice practices, 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 chilling. Just as in the era of chattel slavery, there is a class of people dependent on the poor, and on bodies of color as a source for income; and a government which uses incapacitation as a form of social control.

“The Department of Corrections is more than a set of institutions. It is also a state of mind. That state of mind led to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. That state of mind led to the American style ethnic cleansing that many say occurred in New Orleans after Katrina. Sending the military into New Orleans instead of caretakers felt suspiciously like a war on the poor to many of us.

“The AFSC has always recognized the existence and continued expansion of the penal system as a profound spiritual crises. It is a crisis that allows children to be demonized. It is a crisis which legitimizes torture, isolation and the abuse of power. It is a crisis which extends beyond prisons into school and judicial systems. I know each time we send a child to bed hungry that is violence. That wealth concentrated in the hands of a few at the expense of many is violence, that the denial of dignity based on race, class or sexual preference is violence. And that poverty and prisons are a form of state-manifested violence.

“One of the things that the AFSC is currently giving birth to is a Center for Healing and Transformative Justice. There are models of justice that we as a civil society need to explore other than the punishment and retributive model currently used by the US government. Native American and African descended elders have given us many models of healing and transformative justice. The Center will be a space to bring this collective wisdom together in order to vision these other methods of justice. One of the things I anticipate as being part of that ongoing dialogue is the issue of reparations owed to both African descended and Native Americans. No real racial healing can take place until the US government takes responsibility for what it owes people of African and Native decent. Reparations are not only about paying for damage done, just as we did to the Japanese after World War II. Reparations are also a way for the country to humble itself before great peoples whose sweat, flesh and tears gave birth to so much of the wealth that exists in this country today.

“I’ve been part of the struggle for civil and human rights in this country for over 40 years. I have seen the horror that US government policies wreak. I have never seen anything like what I am seeing now in US prisons. My soul is haunted by what I read in my daily mail. We need to alter the very core of every system that slavery, racism and poverty has given birth to, particularly the criminal justice system. The United States must stop violating the human rights of men, women and children. We need to decriminalize poverty and mental illness, and in many cases, homosexuality. We must eliminate solitary confinement, torture and the use of devices of torture. We must alter the 13th Amendment as well as place a moratorium on prison construction. We must change the racial and economic profiling of arrest and sentencing practices. 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 people in prison and the formerly incarcerated along with enhanced use of international law. The restriction of civil rights is something we can and should debate regularly as a society. The violation of human rights simply isn’t negotiable.

“I am hoping that this may be a moment in time, like the 60’s and 70’s, when an activist generation really can make a difference. We need to rekindle a national abolitionist movement against torture and prisons, and to rekindle a movement among people who dare to believe that over 2 million people need not be imprisoned to make the rest of us feel safe. No matter what professions you all go into, I have a hope that you will consider a life time of activism in social change. Whether we work to stop war, end racism or oppose the oppressions of globalization, we need to see the connections in our work and the ways these issues connect to the punishment regime. I know that Alex Bartlow and the other members of the Human Relations Advisory Council feel much the same`1 way and I applaud their courage in putting together this and other brave and progressive programs. It is a privilege to be here.

“Thank you.”