WNPJ Newsletter: September - October 2011
- In This Issue - Call This Justice?
- When the Caged Birds Sing, Who Listens?
- Chair's Report
- On-line Course on "The Privatization of War" Available This Fall
- Radical Hospitality
- Book Review: The New Jim Crow
- Walking in Prison-Issue Shoes
- Passing the Torch
- News of Member Groups
- Support WNPJ Through Workplace Giving
Click here to download the PDF version of the newsletter
In this issue, we explore the tragedy of our prison system, and the good work of WNPJ member groups in this area. Richard Ralston asks if the actions and attitudes of “free people” - as he calls those of us not in prison - would be more enlightened if we listened to the voices of those on the inside. Many of us are familiar with the writings from prison of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, but how many of us, when we listen to the blues, or rock and roll, remember the debt these art forms owe to the incarcerated? Professor Ralston has taught generations of UW-Madison law students to be more aware of these subtexts and what they have to tell us. Judith Adrian’s work began very close to home: the journals her father wrote while in prison for aggravated assault impelled her to seek out the voices of others behind bars. She is currently working on a book with DarRen Morris, a prisoner in Waupun. Linda Ketcham, Director of Madison-area Urban Ministry, writes of the radical nature of the parable of the good Samaritan, which answers the provocative question “who are our neighbors?” A stark summary, and a startling accusation, are found in Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow”, reviewed here by Karen Reece. Lastly, we hear from other WNPJ member groups raising important issues in their communities.
By R.D. Ralston, University of Wisconsin-Madison
If inmate voices could be heard and consulted, would the attitudes and policies of free people be different? What are the artists, essayists, poets, performers, and bluesmen telling us via narratives and other media from their captive spaces? And what ought free people to learn about prison culture and about course corrections for re-entry and pre-release strategies?
The absence of these voices is exemplified by the Scottsboro case, the notorious Alabama rape case of the 1930s, featuring nine school drop outs. The Scottsboro defendants served a total of 130 years in jail or prison, though all were later cleared of the charges wrongfully brought against them. Though reports about their appeals, reversals, and retrials dominated American newspapers with second-hand narratives throughout the 1930s, the voices of the Scottsboro “boys” were ignored throughout much of their ordeal. One of them, Hayward Patterson, wrote a told-to account, as did Clarence Norris, the last paroled in 1946, who remained angry and dismayed by both the silence of free people and their failure to hear the voices of the imprisoned.
Martin Luther King, Jr. despaired over breaking the silence of the powerful. From his Birmingham jail cell following an arrest for protesting (“parading”) without a permit, Reverend King observed, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
The difficulty of reconnecting with the community was a concern for Nelson Mandela. After a quarter century of imprisonment, he identified as the moments of greatest pain and sadness the unattended “death of my mother” and subsequently the “death of my eldest son in a car accident.” He had been kept from attending either funeral, causing him to conclude in another interview that, “wounds that can’t be seen are more painful than those that can be seen and cured by a doctor.”
Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo observed in the context of his imprisonment that the prisoner is “expected to become socially responsible but is given no chance to do so.” Ngugi also wrote of prisoners:
He is told when to wake up, eat and sleep; his letters are censored, his visitors sharply limited—his days are spent either in crushing idleness or at jobs that do not exist in the “free world,” such as making license plates for a few cents’ pay an hour.
All of these themes can be heard in the works of a legion of frequently anonymous, barely literate folk artists who may be called blues narrators. The blues narrators gave voice to convicts’ intent to negotiate the terms of their imprisonment and ultimately to renegotiate the terms of their return to free society. Anonymously and without free world coaching, they give voice to fear, loneliness, anger, and disconnection from family and community. Perhaps surprisingly, they also display complex humanity, self-deprecation and biting humor.
A medley of folk performers most usefully observant of prison landscapes include Robert Johnson, Lightnin Hopkins, Hudie Ledbetter or “Leadbelly”, Walter Brown “Brownie” McGhee and contemporary samplers, like Aaron Neville. Bluesman B. T. Washington “Bukka” White, who spent two years at Parchman in the Mississippi Delta for a fatal shooting, turned his convict experiences into a blues narrative called “Parchman Farm Blues.” In a well-known call-and-response pattern, the Parchman work gang cut trees, drove rail spikes or similar rhythmic tasks as they set social commentary to music. They spoke of mothers, wives, girlfriends – but with sly insights about the loss of social capital and its functional replacement by a new community or family of convicts. Upon his release from Parchman, White recorded an explicit “narrative” about re-entry called “When Can I Change My Clothes,” recalling his time in prison stripes inside the razor wire while indulging fantasies about life outside.
Once inside, they found merciless prison bosses, few if any visitors to burnish free world connections, and the seamlessness of life inside. A collected prison song called “I Heard the Reports of a Pistol,” tells about hard time and a give-no-quarter prison boss: “I got a red-eyed captain, squabbling boss. Oh, work in the mud and the water, but he won’t knock off.” Only a sense of humor and humanity offered, some means of segmenting the seamlessness of structural oppression. Note the sly humor in Aaron Neville’s cover of “Angola Bound,” which picks up a floating bit of folklore: “I got lucky last Summer when I got my time… My partner got a hundred, I got ninety-nine.” And the theme of coming to terms with convict life: “I’ll never go free, oh lord, I’ll never be free.”
Who are the keepers of the folklore? Can it be nurtured? Can it drive policy changes? Self-help options aside, are there not useful policy involvements and free community opportunities that may build upon prisoner initiative and self-expression? Malcolm X once confided, “I don’t think anybody ever got more out of going to prison than I did.”
Ronald Alexander, a young black inmate from Springfield, Missouri, who found himself without education and tucked away seemingly securely in prison, reflected on his unpromising post-release options, in a letter to the editors of Savoy Magazine, “If we don’t act, the problem [of young black men going to prison and not college] will only escalate. I accept responsibility for my actions, and I do not blame anyone but myself. My goal is to attend an HBCU [Historically Black College or University] upon my release and help rebuild the community that I helped destroy. But others really need to see options. Uneducated criminals are the same or worse when they get out of their cages and are put back into the community.”
The formula for a successful post-release program is well known but it will require a change in public attitudes and the flexibility of free people. As important as it is intuitively, educational opportunity for prisoners has been the most variable item in prison budgets over the last decades. Indeed, in Wisconsin as in other states, budget allocations for inmate education have suffered a relentless and feckless retreat downward as the budget for rougher “justice” has surged steadily upward (e.g., more guards, segregation units, more prisons, and prisons with higher security ratings).
America may yet learn a thing or two from its prisoners. Convicts may have to become their own teachers, but ultimately they may serve as our teachers. Others cannot do it. We need to help in the process amplifying the voices of the best of those with captive minds and active spirit our state has unwittingly nurtured inside the jails and prisons.
This is part of a longer article Professor Ralston is writing on what inmates’ expressions of prison culture are telling us, and on the need for course corrections in post-release (re-entry) policies and strategies. We are grateful to him for allowing us to publish an abbreviated section of the whole.
By Jim Draeger, email@example.com
This October marks my second and final year as chair and board member of WNPJ. I am honored to have served WNPJ members and to have worked closely with many talented, progressive activists across the state. As chair, I have come to realize the capacity of our network. Many of our current board members are also stepping down this October. I thank them for all their hard work, dedication, and passion. I also thank the returning board members for their unflinching resolve. I, too, welcome our incoming new board members. The ability for our leadership to adapt and to renew nurtures WNPJ’s future growth.
This rebirth and growth, though, is only possible through honest, open dialogue. With a hundreds of individual members and over 160 member groups, reaching consensus is no mean feat for WNPJ. Though different issues may motivate us and different experiences shape us, we all realize the importance of maintaining and strengthening our statewide activist network.
Our flexible structure and direct communication creates endless opportunities for WNPJ. We started over 20 years ago as an information-sharing network, and now our membership works together statewide to influence public policy. I challenge all of us to seize future opportunities to make our work for a peace and justice agenda even more effective. This is our capacity. Can we count on you to help us attain it?
WNPJ member Dan Kenney will be teaching a course focusing on the use of modern day mercenaries - private military contractors - by the U.S. government in the Alliance for Global Justice’s new online activist school. The course will run five weeks from Sept. 22-Oct. 8, 2011. The deadline for registration is Sept. 16, 2011. The cost of the course is $250. If you need fundraising tips to raise the tuition, send an email to Jamie Way at info@AFGJ.org. The purpose of the Alliance for Global Justice’s online activist school is to turn activists into organizers and organizers into better organizers through skills training courses and information courses about U.S. militarism and the movement to end it. For more information on the content of the course, contact: Dan Kenney, 303 Birchwood Lane, DeKalb, IL 60115, firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-793-0950.
By Linda Ketcham, Director, Madison-area Urban Ministry
On Sunday June 25, I was privileged to be at the worship at Trinity United Methodist Church. Trinity has been one of Madison-area Urban Ministry’s (MUM’s) partners for years. The reason is clear - it is their commitment to the idea of radical hospitality. Their inclusion of formerly incarcerated people in the life of their congregation, their participation in MUM’s Circles of Support Program, are witness to their form of radical hospitality. Their willingness to open their building to use by other faith traditions is also witness to their radical hospitality.
In both Jewish and Christian teachings, we are instructed to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors. In Genesis 18 Abraham and Sarah welcome three strangers. In Leviticus 19:33-34, God commands Israel to welcome the stranger and sojourner because the Israelites were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Eboo Patel, founder and President of The Interfaith Youth Core describes radical hospitality this way. While he was visiting his grandmother he found a woman, a stranger living in the house. When he asked his grandmother why she would take in a stranger, reminding her that it could be dangerous, his grandmother answered, “Because I’m a Muslim, and this is what Muslims do.” Radical hospitality.
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is the embodiment of radical hospitality. In the parable, an expert in the Law of Moses stood up and asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus turns the question back to him and asks him what is written in the Scriptures. The man replies, “The Scriptures say, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. They also say, Love your neighbors as much as you love yourself.” Jesus tells the man that he has given the correct answer but the man, as if looking for a way out, asks, “Who are my neighbors?”
Inherent in Jesus’ answer – the story of the Samaritan - is the belief that we are all neighbors.
We live in a state and country where we have lost our way as it relates to this call to welcome the stranger. We have lost our way, perhaps because we are too afraid, afraid of neighbors who do not look, speak, dress or worship like we do. Currently most elected members of the Legislature and House ignore the question “who was the better neighbor” seeking instead to define anyone who does not think, act, look or worship like them as “the other,” seeking to separate neighbors rather than bringing them together as a community.
Radical hospitality is what every MUM Circle of Support volunteer offers to someone newly released from prison. Radical hospitality is a community that says to those returning from prison, “Welcome home, we are glad you are back with us, neighbor.” Radical hospitality says to our courts, our legislators, our police, that the formerly incarcerated person is my neighbor, is your neighbor. Not only is he or she welcome here, they belong here. Radical hospitality must become the driving philosophy behind our prison re-entry efforts. Radical hospitality transcends race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, sex, ability. Radical hospitality views each and every individual, in the words of the Unitarian Universalist Principles, as having inherent worth and dignity.
For more information on MUM’s prisoner re-entry programs, visit their website, www.emum.org, and click on ‘What We Do’. MUM is a member group of WNPJ.
By MUM volunteer Karen Reece
“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander, published by New Press, January 2010
We have all heard the numbers. With over two million prisoners, the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. The U.S. prison population has quintupled since 1980. Although African Americans comprise ~12% of the U.S. population, they make up ~40% of the prison population. Wisconsin is widely known for incarcerating more African Americans per capita than any other state.
Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration serves to maintain a racial caste system similar to that of the Jim Crow Era (laws that maintained segregation between the 1870s and 1960s). Alexander opens her argument with an enlightening review of U.S. history describing the political environment that shaped Jim Crow, sparked the War on Drugs and fueled mass incarceration. She asserts that the War on Drugs (which began in the 1970s) drove the dramatic increase in the prison population. Creation of financial incentives for law enforcement, media propaganda and institutionalized racism resulted in a disproportionate effect on African Americans. Disenfranchisement and legalized discrimination against felons seeking employment, housing and education (eerily reminiscent of Jim Crow) prevents the ex-offender from improving his/her social status. Skeptics will appreciate the heavily referenced assertions and logical discussions.
Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” is densely packed with information, yet is easy to read and difficult to put down. Alexander’s intent is not to offer solutions, but to spark discussion and awareness. This is a call to action to all people who care deeply about racial justice. In closing, Alexander stresses that the noticeable silence from civil rights leaders and organizations makes this an issue best fought with "grassroots, bottom-up advocacy on behalf of 'all of us.'"
By Judith Adrian, Edgewood College
What will prisoners teach us, if we listen to their words and view their art – their calls to those of us on the outside? They are trying to tell us about the inhumanity of today’s prison systems. For the most part, in my experience, prisoners do not deny that they should be punished for their crimes. But today’s system too often stretches beyond punishment, to cruelty and castigation. And who, then, are the people we release back into society? Hurt people hurt people. I believe that, in 20 years, people will look back at the prison system of 2011 and ask, “What on earth were they thinking?”
In the book, Hurt People Hurt People, DarRen Morris and I are writing about two men’s crimes, their experiences of incarceration and their subsequent life paths. One, a white man with powerful political connections, served three months of a twenty-year sentence. He was released to the military, served there and completed medical school on the G.I. Bill. Had this not happened, I wouldn’t have been born. He was able to access the unearned privilege of the world he knew.
The other, a black man with no political connections, has now served 17 years of a life sentence – more than half of his life in Wisconsin prisons. DarRen has struggled with hearing impairment, mental illnesses, and extreme abuse. He has been able to access his voice through painting and writing and, in so doing, to keep spirit and soul intact.
In our writing, we are looking at issues of race, class, and power as they relate to inequities in incarceration. We are looking at childhood experiences, expectations and opportunities. We are exploring prison life. And we are discovering subsequent life paths, including my father’s eventual involvement in medical experiments done on incarcerated men and the ethical issues he had to have faced in doing that work as he was able to see prisoners as humans while living the secret of having walked in prison-issue shoes himself.
We are sad to report that WNPJ has lost four long-time members recently: Dr. Jim Allen, R. Thomas Arbogast, Marjorie Colson and Anita Zibton. All four had been actively involved in member organizations for many years. Dr. Allen was a great supporter of all the work we do at WNPJ and received a nomination for peacemaker of the year in 2004. A member of Veterans for Peace since 1991, he was a founding member of Veterans for Peace - Clarence Kailin Chapter 25, in Madison. A retired social worker, Tom Arbogast was instrumental in peace and justice work throughout southwest Wisconsin for decades and was named WNPJ’s Senior Peacemaker of the Year in 2004. Marjorie Colson was involved with the “Joe Must Go” campaign in the early ‘50’s, to unseat then-senator Joe McCarthy. She joined WNPJ in 1997 and was active in the local Grey Panthers group and the Dane County SOS Senior Council. She worked tirelessly for the adoption of a national singer-payer health care system. As a young woman, Anita Zibton demonstrated for peace during Vietnam in Washington, D.C. and later took her children to protest the Afghan and Iraqi Wars. More recently she worked for peace closer to home, helping organize the first peace walk in Viroqua, and peace vigils that continued until her illness. As a social worker, Anita was a strong advocate for woman and children.
Their departure leaves us with deep sadness, and their contributions to peace and justice will be missed. But the work will continue, thanks to the younger people stepping forward to fill their shoes. Let’s cheer the energy and enthusiasm around WNPJ’s Solidarity Sing-along, and thank song leader Chris Reeder for his commitment. We also get hope from the students and other youth working on immigrant rights with Union de Trabajadores Immigrantes and Voces de la Frontera. And what a bonus we have in our community with the presence of so many international and internationalist students at the UW campuses, working to educate others about the importance of international understanding and to strengthen our commitments to the United Nations and its agencies. Our peace groups are also tremendously strengthened by the young veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, who know better than most U.S. residents the need to end our occupations. There is much to make us hopeful in the energy of the next generation of peacemakers. Thank you.
Grannies Give Birth: The Madison Raging Grannies traveled to Eagle River and the Northwood Grannies were born at Many Ways of Peace
By Jessica Rosenberg, Northwoods Raging Grannies
The Northwoods Raging Grannies gaggle was conceived after a winter peace studies series at Many Ways of Peace in Eagle River. We’d heard the Madison Grannies at the Capitol and wanted our own group singing up North. We asked the Madison Grannies to mentor us and Andree offered to host at her beautiful Minocqua resort. In early May, Barbara, Susan, and Mary from Madison joined seven fledgling Northwoods Grannies to bond over music, food, and politics. Our debut was May 7 at Many Ways’ “Peace Java Jam” (just a few months after our February brainstorm and “birth”). Since May, the Northwoods Grannies have performed at monthly Jams, at the North Central Wisconsin Labor picnic, and on July 9, six Madison Grannies rejoined our growing gaggle at the Eagle River Peace Festival. This looks like the beginning of a long, beautiful and harmonious friendship!
WNPJ members and allies — including the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, Sierra Club and Madison InfoShop, along with WNPJ’s environment working group — are actively supporting residents of Ashland and Iron Counties fighting the proposed strip mine in the Penokee Hills and Bad River Watershed, part of the Lake Superior basin. Gogebic Taconite (GTac), a subsidiary of the Cline Group, wants to open a strip mine that will be a half-mile wide and 22 miles long in the Penokee Hills. This ore body runs just south of Highway 77 from Upson, WI to southeast of Mellen, WI. GTac and their legislator friends tried to rewrite Wisconsin’s iron ore mining laws. Their first attempt was a total fiasco for the company, as the lobbyist-written proposal was exposed as trashing clean water regulations, giving mining companies the right to declare eminent domain, and eliminating local mining impact committees. The bill was withdrawn, but a second attempt to undermine our current state protections is expected this fall. For more, see www.savethewatersedge.com and to join WNPJ’s efforts on the issue, contact us at email@example.com or (608) 250-9240.
To The Wisconsin Center 4 Missing Children & Adults (WCMCA). We look forward to hearing more from WNPJ’s newest member group. Please welcome them to the network! You can contact John D Robins-Wells at PO Box 33, Fort Atkinson, WI 53538 or W5521 W Pleasant Hill Rd., Jefferson, WI 53549. Phone: 920-220-1558 or 920-674-6960 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.wcmckids.org.
A group of citizens opposed to the controversial 5,000-cow factory farm (called the Richfield Dairy) has gained significant strength since early July. Many families living within just a few miles of the proposed CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) were unaware of it until this grassroots effort began.
Generations of family farming are being threatened by the growth of these factory farms said Terry Tinkle, a WNPJ member and resident of the Coloma area. “It has been the policy of the state, under the corrupting influence of the agribusiness lobby, to create regulatory loopholes and grant massive subsidies to just a handful of factory dairy farm operators.” noted John E. Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders, a WNPJ member group. Nearly 600 people turned out for a WI Department of Natural Resources (DNR) hearing as part of the permitting process on July 18th at the Adams Community Center. Many corporate partners, contractors and employees of Milk Source stated their belief that Milk Source was deserving of the permit and a steward of the environment. However, the majority of area residents present pointed out that a dairy of 5,000 to possibly 8,000 cows will have a negative impact on the quality of air, water and life. These residents strongly requested that the DNR do its job and have an independent Environmental Impact Study completed before issuing any more permits. They identified the already high levels of nitrates in existing ground water, the low water aquifer levels in the proposed area and the discharge of high phosphorus contaminated effluents into local streams as areas of most concern. For more, see www.stoptherichfieldcafo.org.
You can help strengthen WNPJ by participating in — and promoting to your co-workers — the Community Shares of Wisconsin workplace giving campaign. Community Shares is the nation’s oldest social action fund. It raises funds to support its 63 member nonprofits, including WNPJ! Many of these funds are raised through workplace giving campaigns, which are held each fall but can start as early as August or run as late as November. Community Shares works with 130 public and private employers. You can visit www.communityshares.com and click on “partner businesses” under “workplace giving” to see if your workplace is already involved. If it is, please consider supporting WNPJ and Community Shares many other worthy nonprofit members, and encouraging your colleagues to do the same!
You can choose how to donate:
- You can designate your gift to WNPJ (and other particular groups, including several of our member groups!), and WNPJ will receive 100% of your donation — none is taken out for administrative costs.
- You can designate your gift to Community Shares, and support all its wonderful member nonprofits, including WNPJ.
Both types of gifts are needed and much appreciated!
If your workplace doesn’t participate, you can find information on the Community Shares website about starting a workplace giving campaign, or call them at 608-256-1066. If you have questions about WNPJ’s participation, please let us know at email@example.com or 608-250-9240.
Thank you for your support of WNPJ and Community Shares of Wisconsin, and for all that you do!