Out of Control: Chapter 23–The Imprisonment Binge–Don’t Believe the Hype, 1994
In February we organized a program (1 page PDF) with Luis Talamantez, a Mexican-American man who, during his 20 years of incarceration in California prisons, had been inspired by the revolutionary prisoner George Jackson. After Jackson was assassinated, a prison rebellion ensued, and Luis and five other prisoners known as the San Quentin Six were tried for those events. Luis was acquitted and released from prison in 1976, and now was one of the primary leaders of the opposition to the new Pelican Bay Prison control unit in northern California. Erica would speak about Westville and Luis about Pelican Bay.
Back in the fall of 1993, just several months before Talamantez came to Chicago, prisoners at Pelican Bay brought a class action lawsuit alleging violation of the civil and human rights of the prisoners. The California Department of Corrections had been touting Pelican Bay’s Special Housing Unit (SHU), opened in December of 1989, as an example of how such control units can reduce violence in the prison system. Steve, nifty statistician that he is, obtained and analyzed the 95-page annual report of the California Department of Corrections. According to the CDC, prison escapes, assaults on staff, and violent incidents all went down in the year after the SHU was opened. What Steve discovered was that all three of those indicators had been declining prior to the opening of the SHU, and none of those declines were accelerated by the opening of the SHU. So the prison was not only deliberately deceiving the public, but had engaged in a multi-million dollar project that was unnecessary, since all indicators of prison violence had already been steadily improving. We produced a flyer entitled “The Myth That The Pelican Bay Control Unit Has Reduced Violence” (2 page PDF).
While we were involved in all of this control unit work, we were also following the growth of the United States prison-industrial complex. In fact, “explosion” would be a better word than “growth.” For many years, CEML had been talking about this unrelenting increase, pointing out that it was this increasing incarceration that was the real crime, fueled as it was by sending more and more people of color into cages.
Pushed by some of the newer members, the Marion Committee was now morphing into a broader organization—the Campaign to Confront the Racist Imprisonment Binge known by us as CCRIB. We didn’t give up the Marion Committee, but we attempted to form more of an umbrella group, joining with the National Lawyers Guild, which some of our lawyer members were already part of, and a number of individuals.
When Howard Peters, the Director of Illinois’ Department of Corrections (IDOC) was invited to speak at a local museum, we put together a flyer “WHO IS HOWARD PETERS and WHY IS HE DOING THOSE THINGS?” We explained that Peters was presiding over a huge expansion of the Illinois prison system. With no money for education, health care, welfare, or jobs, the state of Illinois was able to come up with huge amounts of money for prisons.
That said, the crime rate hadn’t changed, and nobody felt any safer. Jonathan Kozol, in his book Savage Inequalities, pointed out miserably low levels of funding for urban schools, and used as an example the all-Black East St. Louis, Illinois school system. Now Mr. Peters and his colleagues had just converted a school in East St. Louis into a prison.
On April 11, 1994 the Sun Times printed a letter from a Charles King of Lakeview (our neighborhood) entitled “Prison Boondoggle.” King stated that Howard Peters was now calling for 2,244 more prison beds, after telling us a year before that he needed $100 million for a new supermax that would free up space in the rest of the prison system.
A year later, the same complaint! The U.S. was now the world’s leader in imprisonment, with about a million people in prison (and this did not include juveniles, jails, probation or parole). What’s more, Black people were now eight times more likely to go to prison than White people, and in Illinois that figure zoomed to 14 times more likely!
That summer we welcomed, along with several other groups, the Caravan for Mumia Abu-Jamal. It had originated in San Francisco and the travelers were on their way to Philadelphia to work to stop the execution of Mumia. Not that many people were engaged in radical prison-related organizing, especially with a national sweep. We couldn’t have been more thrilled at the energy and intelligence of these young people who were so engaged in this process. Several young people slept at our home that night and we stayed up late talking, excited to hear about each other’s work.
In October we held our usual fall program, sponsored this time by CCRIB, entitled “Law and Order Hysteria and the U.S. Imprisonment Binge.” We raised money and took out a full-page ad in the Chicago Reader entitled “Don’t Believe the Hype” (2 page PDF).
The speakers were Jerome Miller, the former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services and Director of the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services; Randolph Stone, Director of the Mandel Legal Clinic at the University of Chicago; and Carlos Vega, a former Illinois prisoner, of the Prison Action Committee.
A few days later we held a morning demonstration at the Cook County Courthouse, demanding money for education, housing, and jobs, not for prisons. Since it was during the week and many of our supporters were unable to take off from work, we expected a relatively small turnout. Imagine our surprise when hundreds of young African-American men and women appeared, very organized and disciplined, breathing life into the demonstration with loud and rhythmic chanting. It was rumored that the group they were with was connected to Chicago gangs. It was hard to know what to believe, but if the rumor were true, they were certainly channeling their energies in a positive direction!
A few days after the demonstration, we held a public meeting of CCRIB. There was no keynote speaker, no movie or multimedia event, no performers—just us and a discussion about crime and imprisonment. We had advertised it widely at our program and demo, and with the costly full-page ad in the Chicago Reader, a newspaper with a weekly circulation of 10,000. Scores of people showed up. The discussion was lively and quite a few people signed onto the work of CCRIB. However, managing a large group turned out to be more difficult than we assumed, and the unwieldy discussions in the following weeks were far less productive than the CEML meetings to which we were accustomed. Eventually the process lost steam and melted away.
At the same time, others in the Chicago area were taking up similar concerns. For example, I gave testimony that month as part of a panel on Racism in the Civil and Criminal Justice System at an event entitled “Racism in Chicago,” and sponsored by the Chicago Interreligious Coalition Against Racism.