Just came across this article on Policy Mic featuring a short animated video about mass incarceration in the United States. Vloggers Hank and John Greene worked with visual.ly and The Prison Policy Initiative to create the video. The vlogging brothers write in the description of the video on YouTube,
It wasn’t easy to pick this topic, but I believe that America’s 40-year policy of mass incarceration is deeply unethical, not very effective, and promotes the security of the few at the expense of the many.
It’s hard for me, as a person who was born into privilege, to imagine the challenges convicted criminals face, often for crimes that are utterly non-violent.
If you’re feeling like you want to do something about this, I’m mostly just making this video as an informational resource and to encourage people to think of felons not as bad, scary people but just as people.
The people at The Prison Policy Initiative were very helpful in the creation of this video and if you want to learn more about their work and how to get involved go to http://www.prisonpolicy.org
To be sure, the video does not cover all aspects of the conversation–there is not mention or discussion of how race and class factor into the conversation (e.g. how there is an insanely disproportionate amount of young, lower or working-class Black men in the prison system), but the video is engaging, offers a number of jarring facts, and will hopefully spur some conversation, raise awareness, and prompt people to want to learn more about the injustices of the prison system in the U.S.
The third piece in my series of love letters dedicated to the experiences and people that touch me throughout the course of this semester. The latest, I letter to my student who sustained a gunshot in the stomach two weeks ago, and how I’ve been processing it all since.
* * * * *
I hope this letter finds you well.
Well. Such a bland, insignificant word that often claims nothing more than mediocre ties to caring.
How are you feeling?
Feeling. We ask as if physical and mental emotions can be tersely conflated into a one word response like “good.”
We need to do better.
Heavy—of great weight; difficult to lift or move.
Heavy, a tangible mass, like what we feel when lifting our grocery bags or a small child up from the ground and into our arms
allowing for the contents to settle,
finding their places on the shelves of our hips, in the nooks of our arms and caverns of our eyes.
Bulbous tears have continued to drop from these eyes for the last seven days,
every time I end the second sentence of this story with, “…shot”.
I’ve told eight people about what happened to you.
Eight people have given me their ears, their eyes, their hearts, their hugs, their attention.
They have listened as I’ve unfolded the details of what went down last Thursday night:
You’d been shot in the belly.
It was gang-related.
You were in the ICU for the entire weekend, under a pseudonym so no one could find you, but you’re home now, resting.
You lost three quarters of the blood in your body.
And when the cops, standing on the steps of their precinct, saw you stumble forward towards the ground they rushed over and began interrogating you—asking you whether you were high or drunk.
It wasn’t until they pulled you up to your feet, and you screamed out in pain, that they realized you had a bullet in your belly…
I can’t stop thinking about you—there is a stream of still and moving images playing on a loop in my mind, accompanied by an internal monologue of questions,
wondering about the moments building to crescendo—
who spoke the last words, what were they? Does it matter? Are you scared?
But this mentally isolated indie film streaming on my brain waves and plucking at my heartstrings is fabricated, imagined, “flattened by my seeing.”
I have to examine how the “physical structures of our seeing and the patterns of thought these mechanisms create, among them spectating, consuming, and flattening, mis-take the world”
You see, J., I’ve been retraumatizing myself over the course of this week. I continue thinking about this event, imagining not what it must be like to get shot; not even to self-deprecatingly wonder “what I could have done to save you.” No. I keep replaying this moment as my way of connecting with you and to the human emotions associated with trauma.
Because this notion of “gang violence” has become a soapy word in our American vernacular and on the 6 o’clock news.
While we might listen to these reports for an affirmation that a shooting took place somewhere deep in the South Bronx, or in Brownsville, or in the Heights—you know, a place where we “know these things take place” because the kids there are violent, illiterate, dangerous
—we don’t hear these stories, who these young people are,
nor do we pause to think about the institutional forces, the dominant narratives, and the normalized practices that are at play, convincing us that this is simply endemic of certain populations. It’s their problem, not ours.
We must ask ourselves, “Does the multiplicity of seeing tragedy compound the horror
or do the repetitive views overwhelm and desensitize?”
This is the ‘closest’ I’ve been to knowing someone who’s been shot,
and I’m overwhelmingly aware of what a privilege it is for me to say this; for this to be my reality.
It’s not a feeling of guilt or naiveté; it’s the weight of the awareness, of the borders and worlds that I am straddling right now. I am working to reconcile my simultaneous locations in them all, and understanding that reconciliation is really neither feasible nor covetable.
This is difficult knowledge we’re dealing with.
That’s not an excuse or prescription, but rather a description; a naming of place, and space and time that deserves attention and love. Or else the knowledge will become dangerous and polarizing (more so than perhaps it already is).
All this said, I want you to know, J, that I see you.
Though I may sometimes be looking at you…sometimes looking after you.
Please know that more than anything, I’m striving to see with you.
Recover strong, heal well, and be safe.
Even before you got hurt, I looked for you in the hallway every Monday and Thursday, when you weren’t coming to school on a regular basis.
I stood against the wall, perching my heels at a 45-degree angle against the plaster and linoleum, scanning faces for yours
I walked up and down the hall once or twice, bobbing and weaving past individuals, then groups of friends, squirming through the hallways, occupying as much room as they can (and they should—they’ve been locked up in classrooms since 8am).
For the past month, I’ve come up empty handed every time, yet still kept looking.
And then today, I hadn’t started my search for you yet, I was going to get settled in my classroom first and there you were.
You’re so much smaller than you were two months ago.
I try to make eye contact with you three times from across the hall, I try to wave, unsure if you see me.
I’m fighting off the guidance counselor who is handing me a survey the students have to fill out—that asks questions that we require them to place themselves in boxes, to represent their answers with “x”s; to place themselves back in the boxes that I am so committed to working with them to break out of.
I’m fighting off students streaming down the hallway, backpacks swinging, sneakers squeaking, laughter so loud, but it feels so far away.
I walk over and I know that you’ve seen me at this point. You’re clumsily putting your jacket on, pretending to be busy, being a 17-year-old.
You look up and make eye contact with me—I timidly unroll my arms to a curved wingspan, so incredibly unsure if this is ok. If I can come into contact with you. To hug you.
You mirror my limbs, a small smile on your face, and you hug me.
It lasts only a brief moment before we pull back.
I ask you how you are.
I ask you how you’re feeling.
And then I’ve go no other questions, not the slightest idea of what to say to you next…
I am not qualified for this shit…
…but it’s alright.
Since the last love letter I’ve realized that my lack of qualifications actually makes me one of the most qualified people to be having these experiences. To have these young people in my life. They are providing me with moments and glimmers of, and access to realities other than mine, which will slowly equip me with the qualifications to know that this “shit” can never truly be mastered, but that it is in the experiences I gain expertise in the willingness of unknowing.
Post-script, written in the afternoon following the morning’s love letter.
Because the Youth, Media & Educational Justice course is a year long, as opposed to a final paper, we were asked to bring an ‘artifact’ to the last class–something that represented where we were in our thinking about the course, the topics, the experiences, as we left for winter break. Below is my artifact: a “love letter” that I wrote for myself and to my classmates, reflecting on becoming a mentor for a court-involved young person.
* * *
Dear Youth, Media, and Educational Justice Fam,
It’s been nearly two months since my last love letter. To you. To us.
Like last time, it’s challenging to know exactly where to begin.
To reflect on and dissect and pinpoint and pull apart where we have been.
What we have done.
Who we continue to become as a collective. An entity. A family.
Since my last love letter, we have continued to work tirelessly and creatively to locate where exactly youth, media, and justice intersect and overlap; we’ve jumped head first into conversations about and experiences of realness, and messiness, and about possibilities.
…But since my last love letter, I’ve also seen the bruises on the pale, thin wrists of the young woman I mentor–painted on her by the handcuffs of a police officer who arrested her in her living room, in front of her 9-year-old brother and 10-month-old sister;
…bruises from handcuffs of police officers who were responding to a 911 call from her own mother who didn’t want her in the house.
What do I say to this 15-year-old girl as she shows me her bruises and shares her side of the story?
She speaks to me, a weak staccato quiver in her voice, and tells me about an altercation she had with a girl in the group home last night; about how she doesn’t feel safe here in the group home anymore.
What the hell do I say to her—as the scent of my perfume wafts up from the folds of my warm, knit sweater, and reminds me of my family, of summertime, of feeling free and warm and safe—as my mind darts from one image to another, trying to picture her living room, her mother, the journey from Brooklyn back to the group home in lower Manhattan, (in the back of a police car?)—as I unconsciously glance down at my watch: 7:00pm. We have another 30 minutes here. I’ll be home in time to walk the dog and stir the pulled pork brewing in the slow cooker before my sister gets home. Before I lock my door, turn off the lights, and curl up in my warm bed and drift into sleep stressed out about the readings I didn’t yet do for class tomorrow…
How do I listen to her and react to her when according to the “rules” for mentors I can only give this girl a “side-hug” for safety reasons?
What the hell do I say to her when with every passing moment I’m increasingly blinded by my own privilege? By the inarguable fact that I will never know what any of this actually feels like.
Cause like, all I wanna do right now is hug this girl and tell her it’s going to be alright. And tell her that she’s safe here. And ask her a million more questions about what this feels like and what the deal is with her father? And why it is that she is the only one out of the four children in her family who lives in a group home?
I rub her back quickly, a give her a side-hug, and all that comes out of my mouth is, “I’m sorry.”
And she looks at me, with glassy eyes, and the corners of her mouth pull down like she’s holding the other side of a magnet below in her hands, and she nods.
And my mouth takes a similar shape, and my heart gets heavy, and there’s a sharp zing that pierces my core as I take a deep breath in an effort to push the tears that are threatening to emerge back into my eyes.
I am not qualified for this shit.
The following Tuesday, I’m told she is AWOL.
And I wonder if I’ll get paired up with someone else.
I’m still there every Tuesday, collaging and laughing and spending time with the other young women. But the mentoring sessions at the group home feel different, they’ve lost a bit of meaning. They’ve started to feel like a Tuesday night chore, and I feel like an asshole for thinking that.
I don’t see my mentee for three weeks.
And then last week the mentoring supervisor tells me she’s back. That she doesn’t know where she’s been, but that it may not have been the safest situation, and there may be some trauma involved in the situation.
My stomach lurches at the news—I’m relieved that she’s safe, I’m excited to see her, but I’m also absolutely terrified to know where she was, what’s happened, and what the hell I’m going to say to her.
I am not qualified for this shit.
The supervisor tells me that she almost cried when they told her that I’d been coming even while she was away. She couldn’t believe I’d still been there even when she was not. The weight of her decision to go AWOL took on a new meaning when she realized that there were other people involved and affected by her actions. They had her sign a commitment contract, binding her participation in the mentoring program. I don’t know what that means. I don’t necessarily understand the “procedural rationale”. But okay.
I see her from across the room. Her hair is straight, not braided in cornrows or tucked under a fitted as usual. She looks smaller than I remember.
We make eye contact and a big smile spreads across her face.
I stand up.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, with a familiar staccato quiver in her voice, “I missed you,” as she hands me a folded up piece of loose leaf paper, “I wrote you a letter…I’m sorry.”
She gives me a full-on hug. And I full-on hug her back. Screw it.
That night we play bingo. As we prepare our cards, she tells me bits and pieces about what happened at the group home that made her leave, and where she’s been since. We eat pizza, and laugh as B5 and G32 are called…I’m happy she’s back.
…This is not a success story. It’s not meant to depict an event in which all loose ends are gathered and re-tied tightly. There is still a lot of shit going on. She has had 3 altercations in the few days since her return. I still do not know what to say…
But that moment of reunion was one of the most powerful moments I have ever experienced. This is the work. This is why a course like “Youth, Media and Educational Justice” exists. This moment solidified for me why taking on a mentor role in the life of a court-involved young person could fundamentally change the game. How do we work to make invisible children—whose lives are silenced, disrupted, misunderstood—more visible?
I may not be qualified for this shit, but I’m learning and growing and humbled and terrified. And it is now more than ever clear that it’s worth it.
In love and gratitude,
Juvenile in Justice is an image-based project aiming to document the placement and treatment of American Juveniles housed by law in facilities that treat, confine, punish, assist and, occasionally, harm them. Richard Ross, a California-based photographer, began the project five years ago and it has been traveling as an art exhibit around the world for the last year.
From the website:
Juvenile in Justice includes images of over 1,000 juveniles and administrators over 200 facilities in 31 states in the U.S, plus extensive information collected from interviews. The hope is that by seeing these images, people will have a better understanding of the conditions that exist. Children’s identities are always protected and faces are never shown.
Juvenile In Justice is a unique source for images of the American juvenile justice system, which are made available to all institutions and non-profits aimed at youth justice system reform– including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Campaign for Youth Justice, Equal Justice Initiative, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
It was difficult to find any information about how Ross gained access into so many facilities and was able to interview so many young people. The only limited explanation of the process that I could find was in a press release for the Ronald Feldman gallery in New York City (one of the hosts for the traveling exhibit). It reads:
Ross gains access to the spaces of incarceration, and those working and living within them, through a complicated process of obtaining permission from all levels of administration, permission that is often at the discretion of individuals working in the system. [He says,] ‘I wanted to give a voice to those with the least amount of authority in any U.S. confinement system.’
It is interesting to consider the relationships among “youth,” “media” and “educational justice” as they intersect and emerge within the Juvenile in Justice project. Ross uses familiar art forms (photographs, video, audio recordings) to tell the stories of young people in the juvenile justice system. His work provides an incredible rarely accessible insight into what detention centers and incarcerated youth look like. While the quality of the footage both still and moving is quite beautiful, the images are chilling yet moving. At the same time, however, it is necessary to offer questions about space, audience, and power as they relate to this project.
By “space” I’m referring to the art galleries around the world that have hosted the traveling exhibition, displaying the project’s artifacts. I wonder about what we tend to associate with an “art gallery,” what assumptions we might make about who has access to these spaces? What kind of conversations are had in these spaces? Are the stark white walls and rather sterilized curation of the photographs meant to ironically mimic the environment of a detention center?
Closely tied to space, I think about how notions of “audience” relate to this project. Who is the target audience of this work? Who are the stakeholders? And which audiences have access to the spaces in which this work is shared?
And finally, “power.” It is always crucial to consider the inherent power dynamics that [tend to] exist between adults and young people, especially when the young people are already involved in a system that has rendered them completely powerless (in this case the juvenile justice system, specifically juvenile detention centers). Ross has documented and exposed this aspect of the juvenile justice system in an incredibly raw and unique way, and it is possible that drawing attention to this topic may result in a greater sense of accountability on the part of the justice system. Yet, we must also think about how Ross’ presence in the detention centers — his photographing, interviewing, etc. — may have been received not only by staff but by the young people. Where do we draw the line between voyeurism and educational justice?
I pose these questions not necessarily to elicit answers, but rather in attempts to encourage us all to remember, like John Dewey (1980), that “a work of art is not the object itself–the physical painting, sculpture or photograph…but what the work does ‘in and with human experience'” (cited by Hubard, 2013). Our lived experiences, the contexts within and lenses through which people may see and interact with these pieces are different and that is an important reality to keep in mind.