Young Activists Battle The Prison Industrial Complex

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"Being in jail is like... it traps your mind," says Chino. "You get caught up in a lot of the shit that goes on, kind of like you stop being human for a minute, you know what I’m saying, you can’t be how you was when you was on the outside, cause that shit will get you killed or hurt in jail. It’s a dehumanizing process, it makes you harder, it doesn’t rehabilitate you."

Chino is a youth organizer working for the New York Prison Moratorium Project (PMP), a non-profit dedicated to fighting prison expansion and the debilitating effects of the prison industrial complex. She is working to educate and organize youth in poor communities of color.

Dreadlocked and tattooed, Chino wears the marks of her own jail time not in her clothing or speech, but on her face, which looks older than her 21 years. She spent most of her adolescence under the supervision of the NY Department of Juvenile Justice(DJJ), in and out of some of the harshest detention centers and prisons in the state, including Ryker’s Island. Chino grew up in East Flatbush, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and her legal guardians have been prison guards since she was 13, when she was first arrested for auto theft.
Inside Chino was often harassed and picked on because of her sexual orientation and remembers being "thrown in the bing, being beat up by the guards so bad that I had a hairline fracture on my ribs, being thrown in what they would call ‘the hole’, in solitary confinement." When she was sixteen Chino had a lung collapse and almost died.

"After that I decided, you know, I want to calm down." When Chino laughs her true strength comes through and it is clear why she has made it this far. Hers is not a laugh of dismissal, defense, or resignation, a cheap chuckle to deflect the pain of the situation. No, it is a laugh of acceptance, not of the conditions which still face hundreds of thousands of youth on lockdown around the country, but of her own experience and the lessons her own life have taught her.

It is this acceptance that lets Chino use the anger that still flashes in her eyes when she talks about the struggle to keep kids out of the ever-growing system. But, at times, even she is overwhelmed by facts like the plan to spend of 64.6 million dollars on new juvenile detention beds in New York City despite the fact that crime rates for youth have gone down nation-wide over the last decade. The city’s two existing facilities, Crossroads in Brooklyn and Horizons in the Bronx, are now operating under capacity.
Prison Industrial Complex: a marriage of public and private interests working together to institutionalize repressive policies, enforcement practices, activities, and culture that target, control and exploit poor communities of color and rural communities, youth of color, women, immigrants and the lesbian and transgendered communities, among others.
--Definition by the Prison Moratorium Project


It is also this acceptance which motivates her in the face of pie-charts and bar graphs, reams of scholarly reports and government findings, a seemingly never ending tide of brothers and sisters who appear in the sparsely-adorned offices of PMP as statistics, their names scrolling slowly down her computer screen.

With an annual budget of around $260,000, and only 5 permanent staff members, Chino and the PMP have been remarkably successful at raising awareness of, and opposition to, the Prison Industrial Complex. (see sidebar for definition)

The statistics are on their side. Most people are generally appalled by the fact that it costs $130,000 a year to confine a young person to a secure detention facility, according to DJJ, but that the New York City Board of Education spends only $10,000 a year per student on education. This kind of spending disparity exists in many major cities across the country, but its results may be especially evident in New York.

It has been exhaustively demonstrated that alternatives to incarceration programs are working. Community-based counseling and co-ordinated care for adolescents with serious emotional disabilities (roughly 20 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system suffer from some sort of serious emotional disturbance) are not only much less costly, but reduce re-arrest rates and racial disparities in sentencing drastically. (Also check out Less Cost More Safety: a New Spin on Juvenile Justice, by Mikhaila Richards for more on this.)

For the youth who don’t live in states where these alternative programs exist, however, life can become an endless cycle. Only 27 percent of youth incarcerated nationwide in 1997 were guilty of violent felony crimes. But, virtually every study of recidivism (the tendency to slip back into criminal behavior) among youth sentenced to correctional facilities finds that at least 50-70 percent of offenders are arrested again within one or two years of release.

Chino describes her experience: "When you get out you have no concept of trying to reintegrate back into society... none what so ever. And there’s no programs to help you do that, so you’re just stuck, like, in this limbo between two worlds, and since you’ve been force fed this bullshit your whole life, of course you go with the negative. I mean, you get the few kids that pull themselves up by the bootstraps, or whatever, and make it, but that’s like a one in a million..."

The United States spent 15 billion dollars on juvenile justice in the year 2000, with most of that money paying for the confinement of a small segment of the juvenile offender population. The problem, as Chino and the folks at the PMP will tell you is not a lack of information or research on the faults of how this money is being spent. That’s all old news. The problem is that people tend to feel powerless against awareness such a huge system.

What is the key to changing all this? PMP believes it is in education and mobilization. Along with sister organizations in California and Colorado who share the same name, PMP New York works to fight prison expansion, with an eye toward abolition. The most important way to do this, as Chino told me, is to teach young people about prison issues, and to help organize youth to pressure government to invest in communities through education, health clinics, art centers, after school programs and social services. This is no small task as the public school system has grown to resemble a prison itself, with more police officers than well-trained teachers and harsh punishments such as expulsion for minor infractions like fist fighting. "How do you want kids to grow up and learn anything valid when they get thrown out of school and tossed into DJJ for slapping someone in the face?" Chino asks.

One way PMP has tried to reach out to kids where the public school system has failed is through a partnership with Raptavism Records, and the release of a compilation Hip-Hop CD featuring many well-known and underground hip-hop and spoken word artists tackling prison issues. What began in 1996 as a very small, independent project hoping to "reclaim hip-hop and educate both artists and listeners about the destructive effects of the for-profit prison industry," soon generated quite a bit more interest. Responding to increasing demand, the No More Prisons campaign wing of PMP hosted a very successful Hip-Hop Teach-In in June of 1997 on these very issues, attended by over 40 artists, managers and journalists, which served as a springboard for later projects. After releasing a five track original sampler in 1998, No More Prisons was ready to release their first-full length CD in 1999, complete with an introduction by Cornell West and positive reviews in the Village Voice, the Nation, Details, and Urb. Production is currently underway for the second full length CD, though performers and a release date have yet to be set.

New York based Hip-Hop artist and journalist Rosa Clemente describes herself as part of the "Hip-Hop nation." Recently named one of the "50 top Hip-Hop activists to look out for in 2002," by Red-Eyed magazine, Clemente sees Hip-Hop culture as a means of education and struggle. She is currently managing the "Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win" tour, a three-month stint through colleges and universities around the country meant to address, through the elements of Hip-Hop culture, issues which affect Black and Latino/a communities, such as, the prison industrial complex. The tour features recently freed political prisoner Fred Hampton Jr., son of Fred Hampton, the former head of the Black Panthers in Chicago who was assassinated when Fred Jr’s mother was 8 months pregnant, and Mutulu Olugabala (M-1) of Hip-Hop duo Dead Prez.
"Hip-Hop is a valuable tool of resistance because it is so much a part of the Black and Latino community... It can be used for good or for bad, and the question is really ‘how are we gonna use it?’ Culture has always been part of struggle, and we need to use Hip-Hop culture as a weapon, as a tool of resistance."

"I was born in the South Bronx in 1972, so I grew up on Hip-Hop," Rosa says. "Hip-Hop is a valuable tool of resistance because it is so much a part of the Black and Latino community... It can be used for good or for bad, and the question is really ‘how are we gonna use it?’ Culture has always been part of struggle, and we need to use Hip-Hop culture as a weapon, as a tool of resistance."

Though sales of the first No More Prisons CD were not spectacular, PMP hopes that the message and its means of delivery cause a lasting impression on those who are really listening. Much of the music is designed to help foster healthy skepticism for the next generation of young minds joining the struggle. Fred Hampton Jr. echoes this belief. "A tour of this magnitude, discussing these issues, is long overdue. Mutulu and I have joined together in a fight to free the minds of our young people. By introducing new methods of thoughts, new ideas and challenging old ones, we hope that our discussions will continue long after our tour is complete."

When it comes to getting a message across to youth, it makes sense that performing and organizing go hand in hand, to reach youth before they get caught up in the system.

As Chino says, "[Knowing that] I can keep one kid from going through what I went through, just one kid, and show them that they have options, that’s what keeps me going."

If you would like to bring the "Dare to Struggle Dare to Win" Tour to your campus or organization, please contact Rosa Clemente at 1-866-206-9067 ext. 1496. For more information on the Prison Moratorium Project, e-mail pmp@nomoreprisons.org or call 646-486-6715.

For a complete list of groups organizing around juvenile justice issues, visit Prison Activist.org.



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