TOUGH ON CRIME ISN’T WORKING: Letter To The Editor

Responding to recent shootings, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown declared that “violent felons” need to “stay in jail longer.”

If he means that pretrial detainees must be jailed longer, this is unconstitutional. You can’t delay someone’s trial to jail them longer.

If he means that people convicted of violent crimes must stay in prison longer, this is equally ignorant. In Illinois, if someone commits a murder with a gun, he or she faces a minimum 45-year sentence, which the person is unlikely to outlive.

What makes Brown think that increasing that sentence will make a difference?

Brown’s outworn “tough on crime” rhetoric betrays his disregard for the failure of punitive deterrence and the real social needs of marginalized communities. Another police officer, Patrick Skinner, stressed in a recent Washington Post op-ed that “the rhetoric and the tactics and the aggression of war have no place in local police work.”

Yet Brown invokes the same aggressive approach and demonizing labels used by his predecessors and politicians for the past 40 years, which have proved ineffective in preventing crime and disastrous for marginalized communities.

Curiously, Brown hasn’t called for harsher prison sentences for violent police.

People (including those in uniform) need to be held accountable for their actions. But extreme punishment is a failed and racist policy. The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate, and yet our cities have some of the world’s highest crime rates.

Illinois stands out for extreme sentencing laws, which have sent thousands of Illinoisans — over 70% of whom are people of color — to prison for the rest of their lives.

To bolster past politicians’ “toughness,” these people have been permanently torn from their families and communities.

Communities have sent a clear message: no more law enforcement “toughness” or swaggering sound bites. They want real solutions for families who are both victims of violence and caught in cycles of incarceration.

Brown’s burying of these concerns with knee-jerk rhetoric underscores why the Chicago Police Department must be defunded. Plans for shifting resources to social and mental health services and community renewal and for reopening closed schools, all of which have proved to prevent crime, would be much more inspiring.

— Joseph Dole, policy director, and Shari Stone-Mediatore, managing director, Parole Illinois

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STATEVILLE VOICES: A Festival Of Short Plays

In the spring of 2019, through the Northwestern Prison Education Program, playwright and Goodman Artistic Associate, Rebecca Gilman, taught playwriting at the Stateville Correctional Center.

The students embraced their first playwriting class and, for their final projects, each wrote a short play. Ranging from comic to tragic, the plays tackle subjects as unique, original, and inspiring as the men who wrote them.

Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, we planned to offer three live performances of the Stateville Voices plays: one at the Goodman, one at Kennedy-King College and one at Stateville.

We still intend to present live readings at the Goodman and Kennedy-King once it is safe to do so. We also want to take the plays to Stateville when the prison is no longer on lockdown.

However, given that the population at Stateville has been one of the hardest hit by COVID19 in the country, we felt it was urgent to present a live virtual event featuring some of the Stateville Voices plays as well as a panel discussion looking at what life is like at Stateville at the present moment.

Live on Facebook and YouTube on Friday, July 3 at 5PM.

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MINNEAPOLIS VOTES TO DISMANTLE THE POLICE DEPARTMENT

The Minneapolis City Council on Friday unanimously approved a proposal to change the city charter to allow the police department to be dismantled, following mass public criticism of law enforcement over the killing of George Floyd.

The proposed amendment next goes to a policy committee and to the city’s Charter Commission for a formal review, at which point citizens and city officials can also weigh in.

Activists had long accused the department of being unable to change a racist and brutal culture, and earlier this month, a majority of the council proclaimed support for dismantling the department.

It is time to start from scratch and reinvent what public safety looks like.

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FORGOTTEN PRISON PANDEMIC

In prison, having a cellmate you get along with is a rarity, but for Anthony Ehlers and James Scott, who have been cellmates for nearly five years at Stateville Correctional Center, they were one another’s family.

“He and I were a big odd couple to be best friends,” Ehlers, 48, wrote in a letter about Scott.

“Guys used to make fun of us. We didn’t care. I’m sure it was kind of weird, he was a short, bald, dark-skinned Black guy, and I am tall, and very white. But, we were inseparable.”

In March, when Ehlers felt body aches, a sore throat, dry cough and a loss of smell and taste, he worried he had been infected with COVID-19, and worse, that Scott would get sick too. He was right.

While Ehlers survived the virus, Scott did not.

Raul Dorado, 41, said when he first saw fellow prisoners exhibiting symptoms, the prison was not yet on lockdown.

“I noticed that many more than usual were sick,” wrote Dorado, who has been at Stateville since 2000. “Some said things like, I don’t know what the hell this is, but it’s kicking my ass!”

“I feel fragile, like a porcelain plate slipping out of a child’s hand,” wrote Dorado about his mental state. “Disposable, like a bent spork.”

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AN END TO LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE?

After spending more than half his life behind bars, George Mullins can tick off what he sees as sorely needed programs: economic literacy, conflict resolution, learning how to recognize trauma and triggers, connecting with family, positive reinforcement.

It’s too easy to languish otherwise, watching each year roll by like heavy fog.

A quote from Bryan Stevenson, president of the Equal Justice Initiative, struck a chord: “You are more than the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

We cannot create a system that serves people adequately—people suffering from trauma, people who are victims of violence themselves—we can’t serve them if we’re not listening to them. Not just listening to them, but centering them.

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PRISON PANDEMIC: COVID-19 In Jails & Prisons

Roughly 120 fewer people were released from Illinois prisons between February and May 2020 than during the same four months last year, despite warnings from public health experts that lower prison populations are the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The report notes that only one Illinois prison—Vandalia Correctional Center—is at an occupancy level that allows people to maintain a safe distance.

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JUNETEENTH 2020: An Extraordinary Moment

The next election should focus on creating a framework to allow people calling for the abolition of modern prisons to begin the hard work of creating new institutions.

Americans need to vote to help activists continue anti-racist work that will allow us to envision the possibility of a society that is free of racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia.

I don’t know whether it would have unfolded as it did if not for the terrible COVID-19 pandemic, which gave us the opportunity to collectively witness one of the most brutal examples of state violence.

This is an extraordinary moment which has brought together a whole number of issues.

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PROTESTS AT COOK COUNTY JAIL AWAKEN PRECKWINKLE

A day after Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle voiced support for defunding police, the County Board on Thursday advanced a measure resolving to redirect money from the failed and racist systems of policing.

The resolution was introduced by Commissioner Brandon Johnson.

“It is time for Cook County government to take a bold step forward to break the systemic cycle of oppression and subjugation of a significant portion of its population,” Johnson said during a virtual board meeting Thursday.

“The Justice for Black Lives resolution is a demonstration that the Cook County Board of Commissioners will decisively break the back of residential segregation, inequity, over-policing and disinvestment in predominantly Black communities.”

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SHUT DOWN VIENNA

Activists and family members of people incarcerated in Vienna Correctional Center are calling on the Illinois Department of Public Health to shut down the minimum-security prison in southern Illinois.

The prison has been plagued by electrical issues, which caused intermittent power outages over several weeks in May, according to news reports.

Prison officials have relied on backup generators, which generate noxious fumes and are themselves unreliable.

The petition also claims the prison is infested with black mold and rodents in the dining halls and kitchen. These ongoing issues have made the facility dangerous, especially during a pandemic.

Activists have often called for the closure of prisons, including Stateville, Pontiac and Menard.

Vienna, which opened in November 1965, is often on the list.

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2700 SOUTH CALIFORNIA AVENUE

A cacophony of car horns, drums, cowbells and trombones echoed along the strip of grass just beyond the coiled razor wire glistening in the sunlight.

A few onlookers peered from turret-like openings on the other side of the wire-topped wall to see what all the noise was all about.

“We love you!” the protesters yelled.

For the Chicago Police and the Cook County Sheriff’s Department there was only scorn, as about 150 protesters on foot — as well as hundreds more in cars — demanded the defunding of the Cook County Jail.

“We have pumped more and more money into mass incarceration and our communities are no safer. So anyone who believes this is actually working, I would question their reasoning.”

The protesters outside Cook County Jail, at 2700 South California Avenue, said money taken from the facility would be put to better use if it funded housing for the poor, mental health services and other social service needs.

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