Kelly Hayes talks with Alan Mills about COVID-19, prisons and making bold demands.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host Kelly Hayes.
Tensions are high in the U.S. as lockdowns continue in some states, while others have begun to ease restrictions. Gun-toting right-wing protesters have staged astroturf protests, demanding the economy be reopened. Doctors and scientists have continued to argue in favor of strict lockdowns to stem the spread of the disease. And stuck in the middle, we have everyday workers who either cannot escape the threat of going to work, or who are becoming increasingly desperate for any means of income in the absence of government relief.
What I hope people are considering as we debate our demands for stimulus and whether or not we reopen the economy, is that we are fighting for the dynamics that will define our experience of a plague. We are not talking about a policy fight that begins and ends in the next few months. We are talking about our experience of a slow-motion catastrophe of unknown duration. We don’t know if this disease will slow down in the summer. It is presently thriving in some very warm and sunny environments. But if we do manage to slow things down, we are still looking at another wave of this in the winter or fall that could be much worse.
We are fighting, right now, for what our society looks like in its darkest hours. Economies can be manipulated. Their rules can be bent, broken and redefined. That’s not true of the coronavirus. There is no question which of these problems we should be leaning into. Rather than sacrificing ourselves to the virus to save the economy, we have to transform the economy as needed to survive the virus.
We have to be willing to change everything, and part of that will be changing how we assess the value of people’s lives. Right now, many of us are being viewed as disposable by people who have significantly more power and money than we do. Even within the working class, there are gradations in how we experience crisis, and how much we benefit from the subjugation and disposal of others. Imprisoned people are generally among those at the bottom of such hierarchies. We are conditioned by society to look away from the horrors of the prison system and to blame those experiencing carceral violence for the abuse they suffer. We are conditioned to believe that some people are expendable. Because capitalism doesn’t simply happen to us. It infects our lives and our relationships with others. It positions us within dynamics that lead us to enact its violence, just as we do when we ignore the experiences of imprisoned people.
To transform our society such that we are not disposable, we have to destroy the moral framework that absolves the system of its violence. And we have to destroy the framework that absolves us of ours. Because it’s the same framework. It always has been. It’s a framework that tells us it’s okay to let people die, and that tells others that it’s okay to let us die. This terrible moment is providing us with many opportunities to redefine who we are to each other. The catastrophe that is playing out in U.S. prisons is one of those opportunities. We have a moral choice about whether to allow these people to be sacrificed to the virus, or whether we will insist that they are not disposable and must be saved. If we cannot internalize this lesson ourselves, then we aren’t going to have what it takes to imagine a better world, let alone build one.
So let’s talk about COVID-19 in prisons and how we can get people free.
Kelly Hayes: Across the United States, people are locked down in their homes to keep COVID-19 at bay. Meanwhile, millions of imprisoned people are trapped in facilities where the contagion is running rampant, creating internationally recognized epicenters of contagion. And while some Americans may not be concerned with the fate of prisoners in this moment of crisis, that view couldn’t be more short-sighted, or self destructive.
Today’s guest is Alan Mills, the Executive Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago. Alan has been fighting for the rights of imprisoned people for decades and has played a key role in recent efforts to free prisoners who are locked in facilities where the coronavirus is spreading like wildfire. Alan, welcome to the show.
Alan Mills: Thank you. Well, the podcast now I get a chance to be on it.
KH: How are you doing today, friend?
AM: You know, it’s a little lonely not having coworkers. And I hate the fact that I can’t walk along the lake all by myself. But you know, all things considered, I’m doing good.
KH: Glad to hear it and so glad to have you on the show today. During this crisis, the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago has played a prominent role in the fight to liberate Illinois prisoners who are trapped in dungeon-like conditions, and in some cases, surrounded by death. But before we get into legal maneuvers, I just want to clarify something for some of our listeners who may feel like they don’t have the head space to think about what happens to prisoners right now. Can you explain why that mindset is misguided?
AM: Well, first and most, I think in some ways, most fundamentally, people in prisons are not like some separate species. You know, the Uptown People’s Law Center started doing prisoners work when we were founded, not because we were particularly interested in prisons, but because it was people from Uptown who went to prison and people from prison came back to the community. And the people who founded this organization thought that it was silly to think of somehow when they went behind a prison wall, that they became not part of their community. And I think that’s true all over the country. Most people in [state] prisons, 95% get out. A lot of people on the outside end up going in. So to think that there’s an impenetrable wall between prisons and people in the community is just wrong. People have to remember that what happens in prison doesn’t stay in prison. If we really want to get rid of this pandemic, which is spreading throughout the world, we’re going to have to solve the problem in prisons. You know, just because of the end of their sentence, 300 people a week are released from Illinois prisons. Those people are coming back to our communities. The question is, are we going to safeguard them so that when they come home, they’re healthy, or are they going to come home with an extraordinarily infectious disease? Allowing them to call them with a disease does absolutely nobody any good.
KH: We’re also talking, in some cases, about prisons that are located in counties that don’t have much in the way of medical infrastructure.
AM: Absolutely. I mean, we’ve already seen Stateville Correctional Center, which is the Illinois prison which has the most tested and confirmed COVID-19 cases as overwhelmed Joliet’s ICU beds, and for a while its emergency rooms. But Stateville is located in one of the larger communities among our prisons. I look at Menard Correctional Center, which is way down in Southern Illinois, in Randolph County. Randolph County has one of the highest concentrations of COVID-19 in the state outside of the immediate Cook County area, and there are 2000 prisoners there. In the entire County, there are two ICU beds. In the entire southern 18 counties in Illinois, there’s less than 100 ICU beds, and that’s where the plurality of our prisoners are. So if a lot of people in prison get sick, it’s not only going to be a prison problem, it’s going to spill out into the community and will crash our public healthcare system throughout at least the southern half of the state.
KH: Whenever there’s a well publicized tragedy in U.S. prisons, conditions in these facilities are often described by journalists as though they’re exceptional. In many ways, it’s a tendency that mirrors our current public dialogue about the financial crisis. To some people, the idea of millions of Americans experiencing a simultaneous economic freefall was unthinkable. But for others, this meltdown is consistent with our long held fears about where this system was headed. Can you say a bit about how the nature of U.S. prisons makes moments like this one inevitable?
AM: Yeah. I mean, we have built this problem over the last 50 years, starting really in the early 1970s, we began the trend towards mass incarceration where we incarcerated millions and millions of people. We currently have over 2 million people locked in our prisons and jails throughout the country, and that is unprecedented worldwide, and certainly in the history of this country. We now have about seven times as many people in prison as we had in the early 1970s. So packing people into small spaces is in and of itself a recipe for disaster and has been for years. This is not the first outbreak that’s happened in prison. We’ve seen that certainly with tuberculosis. We’ve seen that with the regular old flu that comes around. So nothing here is new, but I would go beyond that. We have also, under-invested perhaps isn’t the right word, but we certainly haven’t taken care of the people that we put behind prison walls. Illinois is a particularly good example of that, where the medical care in this state has been horrific for decades.
About five years ago, Illinois spending per prisoner was towards the very bottom of the United States. We were down at about 47 in terms of the ratio between staff and prisoners, medical staff and prisoners, we were 49th of 50. We’ve improved a little bit. So maybe now we’re in the higher forties, but we’re still way down at the bottom of the stack. We at the Uptown People’s Law Center sued about the medical care that was provided in prisons a decade ago, long before anybody thought about COVID-19 or the coronavirus, or any of these other things. We just weren’t treating really, really basic stuff. I can remember vividly a prisoner that I had been corresponding for awhile with, and he’d been complaining about the lack of medical care, down at Tamms Correctional Center, our supermax prison, now thankfully closed.
And he said, “When I was up at Stateville, I got a prostate test and they told me my PSA levels were elevated. They said it wasn’t bad, but that I should have it checked every year to make sure it didn’t get worse.” Before any kind of follow up, he got transferred into Tamms and the doctors at Tamms claimed he was lying, so he never had an elevated test.
They checked his records, it wasn’t there, and [they claimed] he was just trying to maneuver the system and try to get something he wasn’t entitled to try and get away out of his cell. He got worse and worse, and they kept telling him, why you’re getting older, you have arthritis, you know, that’s why your have all these aches and pains. And he was like 40 years old. Finally, I went down to visit him and he literally had to crawl into the visiting room. He could not stand up. He could not get in and out of bed. He could barely use the toilet. And I just raised holy hell when I was down there. They finally took him to an outside doctor who realized who actually checked and found the old levels and did his tests, and discovered that he not only had cancer, but that at that point it had metastasized. They then immediately put him on to chemotherapy. However, a month later he died. This is a tragedy that repeats itself over and over again, even when there isn’t a crisis.
Now, we settled this case about medical care almost a year ago and the settlement gave the department really a 10 year period. It was going to take 10 years to bring them up to minimal constitutional standards where they’re actually providing medical care that people desperately needed. They were that far behind. Unfortunately, nature has not given us 10 years. Here we are less than a year later and we have a pandemic, not just on the outside, but spreading through the prison system. And we are simply totally unequipped to deal with that. You know, I think in some sense, the most dramatic example of that is the fact that it’s Stateville and they had to bring in the National Guard in order, not for security purposes, but to provide doctors. So we had to bring in essentially army doctors because the Stateville medical system was so overwhelmed, they just could not deal with such simple things as checking people’s temperature, checking people’s blood oxygen levels, and they just couldn’t do that sort of really simple stuff, let alone actually isolating people, let alone testing everybody. What that has meant is we have 10 deaths of prisoners at Stateville and we still don’t have universal testing of all the prisoners in Stateville.
KH: We have a habit in the U.S. of congratulating ourselves for abolishing things that still exist, albeit less officially. The state of Illinois officially did with away with the death penalty in 2011, but as you’ve just outlined, death by incarceration has continued. Can you say a bit more about how death by incarceration is enacted, even in the absence of a pandemic?
AM: Yeah. We like to talk about not having a legal death penalty, but having this slow motion death penalty. And slow motion in the sense of like the cancer story I just told, this is somebody who did not have a death penalty, did not have a life sentence, but nonetheless died because of what happened in prison.
You and I have talked about Tiffany Rusher before. Tiffany was a young woman who went into prison. I’m on a prostitution charge. She was doing survival sex work. And got into a fight, got put into solitary, and her mental health just bottomed out when she was in solitary, got really bad, became suicidal, started to engage in self harm, and rather than provide treatment or realize that solitary was a really bad idea, the department of corrections solution, and I put solution in big air quotes, which you can’t see, was to put her into a “crisis cell” where she was stripped naked, taken away all of her possessions, no books, no magazines, no TV, no radio, given a suicide proof smock to wear and left alone.
She cycled in and out of these crisis cells for months, would spend a couple of days, sometimes strapped down to a bed, and then as soon as she was released, she would attempt to harm herself again. Eventually, for the last eight months of her sentence, she sat in one of these crisis cells for eight straight months with nothing whatsoever to do.
No human being to speak to. Unsurprisingly that did not make her better. And eventually, she committed suicide and was successful at doing so. So, you know, that’s another example of somebody who got the slow motion death penalty, thereby solitary plus bad mental health care.
We have another client who hasn’t died, thank goodness, but did lose his leg. What started off as a blister went untreated and improperly treated for years, and eventually ended up with gangrene spreading up his leg, which had to be amputated. So these are all things that happened even before any kind of crisis happened. That was just the base level of care we were failing to provide to people who had what on the outside are relatively routine conditions, things that are treated every day. But inside, even those routine conditions, if left untreated long enough, can end up killing people.
And that’s what we mean by a slow motion death penalty that Illinois, and other states, I don’t want to say Illinois is unique, cause it’s not, but Illinois is among the worst. And we simply kill too many people.
KH: So what has the legal fight to free imprisoned people due to COVID-19 looked like?
AM: Well, it’s sort of proceeded on two fronts. The part that I’ve been most involved in is saying that really there’s nothing you can do in a prison that will keep people safe. Simple things like what we now all know about social isolation, which is why the tools are not sitting in the same room having this conversation. We’re doing it remotely. Social isolation in a prison cell is impossible. You’re talking about two strangers who inhabit a cell that may be as big as 6 x 12, or maybe as small as four and a half by 10 feet. What four and a half by 10 feet means is it smaller than the typical parking place. It means that if you stand up and hold out your arms, you can’t touch both sides of the cell with your fingertips because it’s not that wide. You can touch one side with your elbow and the other side of the fingertips. It means that both people can stand up in this all at the same time, but they can’t both move at the same time in that cell.
So the idea that in those kinds of conditions you can somehow maintain a six foot separation is absurd. Other people live in open dormitories. We may have 40 people living and sleeping within a foot of each other. Again, it’s absolutely impossible to keep six foot apart. But even people who have their own cell, who are alone, have to come in contact with staff over and over and over again. And staff, frankly, has been, from all we can tell, the vector that has brought the coronavirus into the prisons. If you think about a person’s typical day, if they’re in their cell, they get fed, which means that a staff person is walking down the gallery, touching bars, touching trays, picking them up, handing them out. And each of those contacts is a pathway for cross contamination. Or if the guard himself got it from the outside and brings it in, he could be handing that off to a hundred prisoners in a day. If you think about movement, anytime you leave your cell, you have to be handcuffed. It’s impossible for a guard to handcuff somebody maintaining a six foot distance. They have to be right up in your face. They have to be patting you down, touching your clothes, touching your, you know, your hands, your legs, all of your clothing. That’s what a pat down is. When we move people, we tend to put them into a group cages. So for example, we’ve heard lots and lots of stories where people cells get searched and during that search, what they do is they move people out of their cells, put four or five of them together in a bullpen while their cells are being searched.
Again, there’s no way with six guys or five guys in a small cage that you can maintain any sort of separation, and that’s when coronavirus spreads. We had a tragic case at Stateville where somebody had been separated because they were positive for coronavirus, and then apparently he got into some oral dispute with the nurse about how they weren’t really taking his temperature properly or, I don’t know the details there, but at any rate, somebody decided that he had violated some internal rule, so they decided to send him to solitary, walked him over to solitary where they did not have positive people. Within a week, everybody on that same unit tested positive. So the very idea that somehow we can isolate people in prison cells and keep them safe, we think is just wrong. So we’ve been pushing the governor to use all the tools that are available to him to get people out of prison, the only way to stay safe in prison is to leave. So we’ve been asking, the governor has in fact, commuted sentences of a dozen or more people.
The state has the right to get back six months of good time to most prisoners in the system, and they’ve been doing some of that to get people out a little bit early. But they also have the right to put people on home confinement. Anybody within the last six months or a year of their sentence or anybody serving a lower level felony, that’s not a sex offense, can be put on home confinement. They haven’t done a lot of that. They also now have the right to furlough anybody for medical reasons, protecting them from the COVID virus is obviously a medical reason. So literally anybody they want to, they could at this point send home or put on an electronic bracelet to get them out of a prison cell. They’ve done very little of that. Although the governor did loosen the requirements for medical furlough. So literally anybody who’s now eligible, but they’re just not using that tool. So we’ve gone to court and in a couple of different ways to try to get the court to order a speed of up of that process. Sadly that has not worked. It has worked in other states. Ohio’s federal court just issued a great order getting some of the elderly and more vulnerable people out of one of the prisons in Ohio. A couple of jails around the country have had some release orders and a couple of the immigration detention centers are beginning to release people in order to keep them safe. Illinois has not yet. The other set of litigation, which we at the Uptown People’s Law Center are also involved in, is trying to improve the care of those people that are left. So we’ve been trying there. There is a federal monitor in our class action lawsuit that’s been going on for a decade and he’s been trying to get them to impose better isolation procedures. For a while we had a big fight over whether they’re actually gonna provide soap to people, since the first and biggest advice everybody gets is you should wash your hands regularly. You can’t do that if you don’t have soap and running water. At least that problem seems to be solved in most of the prisons [in Illinois]. There was not enough soap, and there’s not enough bleach and other cleaning supplies, but at least everybody has some soap now. The very fact you have to fight to get people soap is just absurd. So, you know, those are all the kinds of legal approaches we get. But I really have to say, although I’m a lawyer and I think the legal system has its uses , what this has really proved to me is there are real limitations on what the legal system is going to do for prisoners in an emergency. The law is much better at cleaning up messes afterwards than preventing them from happening in the first place.
KH: Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker has faced some backlash for releasing prisoners that some critics have characterized as violent. Can you speak to that criticism?
AM: Uh, it’s wrong. IDOC, if anything, and the governor’s office have been overly cautious in who they let out of prison. Nobody that they have let out is at high risk of committing any sort of new crime, let alone any, any sort of violence. Which is not to say nobody’s ever going to commit a crime that is released. People forget that in the ordinary course, Illinois and most states have a recidivism rate of about 50% or more. So even under normal circumstances, 50% of the people who would get out of prison are going to commit another crime. So does this to require that any sort of reform be 100% successful and have zero recidivism rate is just absurd. That’s not the way this society is set up. We wouldn’t have 2 million people in prison if it was easy to stay out. But if anything, he’s being far too cautious. And what has happened is that the people who are making these criticisms have really just focused on the name of the crime that somebody committed. It’s easy to say, well, this person committed murder, or this person had a life sentence. But you have to look behind that and say, what really happened? So for example, one of the murder cases I know about was a 14 year old who was involved in a gun sale with a much older person. His job in that sale was to hang onto the gun.
The sale went bad and there was a struggle over the gun. It went off by accident and he was convicted of murder. Everybody admitted that the gun went off by accident, but it was in the course of committing a felony and therefore under Illinois is very strict felony murder statute, he’s just as guilty of murder as is somebody who went out and stalked somebody and shot them. So, you know, and, and he’s now spent 13 years in prison, is a very different person, has taken advantage of every opportunity he had in prison. And the governor commuted his sentence, something that had been on his desk for a year, having nothing to do with COVID-19 or the current pandemic. This is somebody who should not have spent any time in prison and certainly should not have spent 13 years in prison. It was certainly time for him to go home. So you know, there are lots of those stories. You can’t just name a crime and then say, well, this person is violent and therefore they’re, they’re too dangerous to let out. You need to know the details of what happened. Who was that person then? How did they get involved, and what have they done since, and who are they today? Identifying people by the name of their crime is just shortsighted, wrong, and dehumanizes people in prison.
KH: I couldn’t agree more. And this also highlights the problem with some of the well-intentioned language being invoked by advocates of mass release. Some people who have pushed for decarceration have used language like “nonviolent offenders” to elicit sympathy for prisoners who are perceived as non-threatening. Can you say a bit about the violent/nonviolent divide and why relying on these distinctions is dangerous?
AM: Yeah. I mean, first of all, they’re just wrong. Statistically. You know, the highest recidivism rate is among people who are convicted of drug crimes. Everybody’s favorite example of nonviolent, which is not because they’re bad people, but because we don’t treat the underlying condition in prison. So unsurprisingly, people who are addicted to drugs who spend six months in prison and go home, aren’t magically changed. Their lives aren’t changed and their addiction wasn’t changed. But more fundamentally, what someone did, often decades ago, doesn’t define who they are. It didn’t define who they were back then, and it certainly doesn’t define who they are today. So to make this distinction between violent and nonviolent, simply as labeling people by one act, they did one day in their life, that is not how any of us would like to be judged, by the worst day in our life, which is what generally people in prison are there for, is something that happened on the worst day of their. We’d all like to be judged on the way we’ve lived our lives in general, whether we’ve done, you know, good things or bad things, and. Just to make this distinction, which is arbitrary in the first place, between violent and nonviolent makes no sense at all. I don’t think it’s okay to sentence anybody to death and it’s certainly not okay to sentence people to death by medical neglect, which is what we’re doing.
KH: Absolutely, and I definitely want our listeners to be especially mindful of language when advocating or the freedom of imprisoned people. I know that, in my own organizing, when we worked on a set of local and national grassroots demands related to COVID-19, there were people from all over the country who consulted on that list, including scientists, healthcare workers and, obviously, grassroots organizers. So it was no simple matter to devise language that everyone would be comfortable with, and we knew we were going to fall short, and even acknowledged those limitations in the document. But looking back at the demand around prisons and COVID-19, I wish we had only talked about mass release. We did talk about mass release, but we also talked about what care should look like inside prisons. And while we know that not everyone will be released, and we do want higher standards of care for people trapped inside, we know that, organizing within this system, if we ask for a mile, we’re lucky if we get an inch. We know that they’re not going to let everyone go, but I also feel strongly that what we should be aiming for is life and freedom for as many people as possible, and not trying to negotiate for lesser outcomes. There’s also a difference between what’s leveraged in court and how we appeal to people narratively, and how we convey the values behind our demands. And I just hope that’s something that people who do the kind of work I’m involved in are critical of, in terms of assessing the ways we can improve our demands, improve our language and improve upon the vision we are presenting to the public. Because I think we have to ask ourselves if the story we are telling is about the value of human life and what justice looks like.
AM: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I think the idea that somehow, we can keep people safe from this pandemic and a prison environment if we only like tweak the way we treat them, if we only hire a few more doctors or do a different rule, is just fooling ourselves. Prisons are petri dishes for disease and particularly for extraordinarily communicable disease like this one. And as I said before, it’s not going to stay behind prison walls. If we want to get rid of this virus and society as a whole, we have no choice but to get rid of it in prison. And the only way to get rid of in prison is to dramatically reduce the number of people that are in prison. And you’re not just talking about the easy cases, the old people, the people that never should have been in prison in the first place, or should have been released decades ago. You gotta really look at who’s in prison and is there any justification for keeping them there, and the answer in most cases is going to be no.
KH: I don’t think that most people in the U.S. realize that, in the late 60’s, there were actually discussions about whether or not prisons had outlived their usefulness and should be abolished altogether. Of course, all of that changed as a shifting economy and the destruction of the welfare state created a broadening criminal dragnet. These mechanisms have facilitated the violence of capitalism by separating so-called productive members of society from people who are deemed surplus. Some of the people who were incarcerated during the early prison boom of the 70’s and 80’s are now elders who are trapped in the path of COVID-19. In a sense, millions of tragedies have delivered us to this moment, which could serve as a breaking point for an untenable system. Can you tell us what has historically happened when conflicts over prison conditions come to a head, and what you hope will happen instead?
AM: I think it’s important and people really don’t realize who is in our prisons these days. Back not that long ago, the typical prisoner is what a lot of people think of: a 20 to 25 year old, usually a man who has committed a violent act and is being punished for that. Today in Illinois, for example, over 45% of our prisoners are over the age of 50. We have a couple of dozen who are over the age of 80. This is the result of decades of truth and sentencing, mandatory minimums and a bunch of other laws that have gradually increased the amount of time people spend in prison. So that what used to be a young person’s facility has turned into a senior citizen home. So, you know, I think that’s how it, in some sense, how we got here today. But your larger question really goes to how did we end up with so many people in prison at all? How did we end up with the situation where a large part of the public is willing to write off prisoners? And I think that there were some real turning points historically where that happened. And I like to point to Attica as being one of the crucial turning points here. In the early 1970s, conditions in Attica prison, which is in upstate New York, were horrific, but actually about the same as they are today in many of our maximum security prisons. Illinois has really old prisons. All of Illinois’ maximum security prisons were built before the 1920s. Attica was built at almost the exact same time as our Illinois prisons were and looks exactly the same. Prisoners there began to protest, first peacefully, and then when there was a crackdown, there was at first some pushing back, pushing and shoving sort of backwards, and ultimately they took over the entire prison. The narrative right then and there broke into two different storylines that were being put out. On the one hand, there was a storyline that Attica was such a mess, that was so repressive, that it was so overcrowded and prisoners had been denied so many things that all of us consider to be normal and almost a right, like toilet paper, like soap, like educational opportunities. All those things were denied to people in Attica. And there was a real movement saying, well, of course, if you don’t fix the prison system, this is going to happen over and over again.
But there was also a counter narrative that was very carefully designed, and because of the work of some really good historians, like Heather Ann Thompson who wrote an entire book about the Attica experience, Blood in the Water, we know that it was a very intentional that before the takeover happened, then governor [Nelson] Rockefeller met in his pool house with people from the department of corrections, from the local states attorneys, from the state police, and they all came up with a narrative and they all came up with this narrative that this was the radical Black people who were causing this problem, even though, in fact, everybody, whites, Latinos, and Blacks, all had a leadership role in the movement and were supported by outside organizations covering all of the ethnic groups. But the narrative that came out was very much that this was a Black person problem, and that these people were animals. And this was frankly coordinated all the way up to the White House. Because Nixon did us the favor of taping off his conversations, there’s an audio tape of a conversation between Nixon and Rockefeller where Nixon says, well, this is the Blacks that are doing this, right? And Rockafeller says, yeah, it’s the Blacks. And Nixon says, well, you won’t have a problem. And the next day, Rockefeller authorizes the armed takeover of the prison. And as a result of that, over a dozen people were killed. The original narrative that was put out was that the people being killed were the prisoners who were slaughtering the hostages they had taken. We now know that was completely false, that not a single hostage was harmed by any of the prisoners. Rather, the hostages were all killed as a result of the takeover by members of the national guard or, or sheriffs or anybody else got a gun there, as were the prisoners. So everybody died of bullet wounds. Nobody died of anything that the prisoners did. But that’s not the narrative that went out. The narrative was, these are animals.
We had no choice but to take them back over again. They were slitting people’s throats. They even made up a story that they’d emasculated one of the, one of the guards using a knife. And all that was totally false. But nonetheless, that narrative that somehow prisoners are different from those of us that are on the outside, that somehow they are uncontrollable animals, that the only way to punish them is to deprive them of everything.
That narrative won out. And that was a very intentional, you know, this was before Fox news, but if Fox news had been around, they would have been leading it. But it was a very intentional narrative by the powers that be saying, we want to expand the system. We want to use this system as a way of not only cutting out, as you said, excess labor, um, people aren’t really needed, but also radicals. Also people who are calling for change, people who are organizing, and we saw this in the Black Panther Party where they ended up incarcerating or killing the leadership, labeling them as criminals in order to do so. So this has been an intentional movement to convince the public at large that it’s okay to lock up more people than have ever been locked up in the history of this country or in the history of this world. That it’s okay to spend millions and millions and millions of dollars doing that even though the crime rate has not in fact changed at all. All that’s happened is we’ve destroyed communities.
KH: In addition to how we see imprisoned people as being fundamentally dangerous or harmful, there’s also the matter of how we see ourselves, and how structures like the prison system bolster ideas that people have about themselves as being fundamentally good or decent. A lot of people cling to the idea that they are “good people,” positioning goodness as an identity, rather than something we create outside of ourselves with effort. But some of those people, who see themselves as fundamentally different than prisoners, and sort of inherently law-abiding, may be in for a rude awakening in our changing world. As capitalism cuts its losses in this time of crisis, what do you think the broadening dragnet of criminalization will look like?
AM: So on the one hand, we are certainly criminalizing dissent more than we have done in many, many years in this country. But on the other hand, we are also driving more and more people to economic desperation. Which on one hand leads to things like self-medication through the use of drugs, which we then make illegal and use that as a reason to incarcerate people, and also makes some people engage in activities that are illegal but are actually crimes of survival, which may be things like buying or selling marijuana, which is now legal, but only if you do it from a licensed facility. If you buy from an unlicensed person, it’s still a crime and you can still go to jail for it. If you possess it and you can’t prove you bought it from a licensed facility, you can still go to jail for it. If you are hungry and you shoplift a bag up a loaf of bread, you can still go to jail for it. So we not only criminalize dissent, we also criminalize survival. And we’re seeing right now the number of people who are losing their jobs or who are temporarily without any sources of support, is skyrocketing. I believe the statistics are that on April 1st about a quarter of the population could not pay its rent in full. May 1st I suspect that number is going to go up rather dramatically. You know what’s going to happen when we have 50,000 people in Chicago all being evicted at the same time? What’s going to happen when our homeless population swells and all these folks have no way of eating or living other than staying on the street? We’re going to criminalize that. That is the history of this country. We end up criminalizing people after we deprived them of the ability to take care of themselves.
KH: So with all of that said, what gives you hope?
AM: What gives me hope actually is the grassroots. We are seeing more people out on the streets, even though we can’t do mass demonstrations, we are seeing people be very creative in ways that they can push back against this. And I’m not talking about lawyers, I’m talking about regular old people who are, you know, loved ones who are not involved in this movement at all before picking up the phone, calling legislators, organizing Zoom chats, flooding the governor’s press thing that he does every afternoon that the comments and chats there was demands that people be out doing car caravans, doing car protests in the loop.
Where people can still stay apart. Doing a prayer vigil outside of Cook County Jail where everybody was six feet apart doing the prayer vigil. So it really gives me hope that there are people out there who are actively attempting to bring this to the public’s attention and it’s working. I think prisons have gotten more press in the last six weeks, then they got for the six months prior. So everything that’s happening, both legal and grassroots, have done a really good job of grabbing the attention of the public. My hope is, and the reason I have some hope, is that that conversation will not end once people have the right to go back out of their houses, that this is forcing societies as a whole to reexamine a whole lot of things.
But in particular, the question of who do we have locked up, why are they there, and do we really need in this country 2 million people to be locked in cages? I think the answer is clearly no and more and more people I think are coming to that realization as they see what’s happening in prisons, and are hearing from their neighbors that in fact this is regular old people who are locked in prison, not some animals from outer space.
KH: Well, if any of our listeners are riled up and eager to get involved, you can support the work the Uptown People’s Law Center is doing by visiting their website at uplcchicago.org, and if you would like to learn more about efforts to support imprisoned people via mutual aid you can go to the website Beyond Prisons, and that’s at beyond-prisons.com. And Alan, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for joining us today, and for all that you do.
AM: Thank you, Kelly, and thank you for doing such a great podcast every week.
KH: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
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