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Without Due Process: From Mass Incarceration to Assassination

How the U.S. has stopped using due process, from mass incarceration and weaponised drones, to police shootings

VCNV 150 mile peace walk from Chicago to Thomson Prison, superman federal facility

VCNV organised a 150 mile peace walk between 28th May to 10th June, from downtown Chicago to Thomson Prison, a new supermax federal facility due to open next summer with 1,900 solitary confinement cells.

The U.S. currently incarcerates 2.3 million people, that’s 10% of the population, or 25% of world prisoners.

Nationally, Blacks and Latinos are 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, and in Illinois it’s 15 times more likely.

Our walk started in downtown Chicago outside the Metropolitan Correctional Centre on Van Buren and State. By coincidence the full brunt of the Memorial Day Parades started to decamp along our street, a mass of young people congregated to unknowingly rest in the shade of an ominous urban concrete prison. Some 6,000 teenagers in military uniform, many brandishing model artillery, others marching in blocks and a lucky few in drum and brass bands. Looking across the sea of young and promising faces it was revealing to note that the majority of the teenagers were black or Latino.

It was as if these kids were marching straight out of the parade and into the military or prison.

Memorial Day Parade in downtown Chicago
Memorial Day Parade in downtown Chicago

47% percent of 20- to 24-year-old black men in Chicago, and 44% in Illinois, were out of school and out of work in 2014, compared with 20 percent of Hispanic men and 10 percent of white men in the same age group, the national average is 32%.

The walk traced a roughly westerly direction out of Chicago, across a semi rural corn belt, through some obscure towns and into Thomson which has a population of 600.

When we walked the predominantly black area of West Chicago people immediately understood the purpose of our walk and the placard messages such as “Schools Not Prisons”, children cheered, some folks stopped us to say they agreed or to thank us. One of our key messages was that money spent on prisons should be allocated to community projects which stops the root causes of crime; instead of locking people up with lengthy sentences, cementing that individual within a sector of crime and poverty. A day later we were walking through white middle class suburbs with perfect lawns and picket fences, where mass incarceration is a far away danger for ‘other people’; segregation is stark, Westside Chicago may as well be another country.

In the town of De Kalb we met members of a black congregation who told us their personal stories. One woman said her main worry in life was keeping her three black grandsons out of prison. The eldest one had already been picked up twice for the ‘scent of marijuana’ in his car. He had been hauled into police custody and remanded on bail without a crumb of evidence. Raising the $1200 bail was a massive toll on family finances, as well as continued involvement with police.

95% of prisoners in the U.S. never receive a trial, the vast majority plea guilty in the hope of receiving a reduced sentence.

Some of the older members of the congregation reflected on how the situation for black people in the US had actually worsened in the last few decades, a direct result of the 1994 Crime Bill, the ‘tough on crime’ policy started by Reagan and accelerated under Bill Clinton where incarceration rates jumped by 673,000 inmates within just two terms.

An older black father in the congregation reflected that having a black President was good for young Africa American aspirations, but in terms of noticeable improvements for black civil rights, there haven’t been any noticeable gains.

It’s now commonly documented by academics and activists that the US system of mass incarceration is the modern day form of slavery for blacks and Latinos. Prisons are being likened to slave ships with cells densely stacked on top of one another: police officers like slave overseers, legally endorsed to operate freely within black communities, shooting and terrorising people without being held to account, without scrutiny.

58% of all prisoners in the US are black or Latino, yet they make up only 1/4 of the national population.

Within privately owned penitentiaries inmates are put to work with jobs that range from making military equipment, blue jeans and baseball caps to fighting fires, clearing trees and harvesting corn, soybeans and cotton (sometimes on former slave plantation lands). Manual labour on average can earn a prisoner between 70 cents and $1.70 per day. Personal overheads for a prisoner include things like making phone calls. A prison phone contract is leased out to a private company which can charge up to 50 cents a minute, just a small part of the prison industrial complex which is now a multi billion dollar industry.

When you look at how the US treats its own citizens, it’s less surprising that it is now the central power which terrorises other nations with war and weaponised drones. Using the same demographics to incarcerate black and brown people, the US military uses skin colour, clothing, age, gender and area to assassinate individuals with drones – without due process (evidence or trail), but with the vague justification of “imminent threat” to the security of the US. My thoughts turn to Tamir Rice, the innocent 12 year old boy in Cleveland, Ohio, shot dead within seconds of police arriving at the scene.

Young black men in the U.S. are 9 times more likely to be shot by police, there were 1,134 police shootings of black men in 2015.

Solitary confinement consists of being locked in a cell 23 out of 24 hours, without human contact, without a TV. Inmates who are illiterate are deprived of the only available form of escapism – books. During the walk we were joined by Brian Nelson who had spent 23 years in solitary confinement. He said the only thing which kept him going was receiving books from his mother and becoming a ‘jailhouse lawyer’. Brian now works with a prisoner support organisation but struggles everyday with anxiety and depression. Public transport is impossible, as are crowded spaces and driving can bring on panic attacks. Prior to entering solitary confinement he had no mental health issues, within 9 months he was on medication to cope with depression.

Today he’s still trying to get an answer as to why he was actually placed in solitary. “I went from an open prison in New Mexico to being strapped to a stretcher and transported to a supermax. My lawyers can’t get an answer”. The desire to continue living is a struggle, he’s still on medication and needs to see a psychiatrist every week. Brian now prefers to spend time alone: “I first went into solitary when I was 14. They said it was for my own ‘protection’ as I was little. Now it’s like my social skills stopped developing at that age. Socially I’m still 14”.

Nobody knows how many people are currently in solitary confinement. With the massive scale of privately run prisons, the government is unable to keep a track on who’s actually in solitary and where. However it’s been estimated that upwards of 80 thousand are in some sort of segregated incarceration. The statement I repeatedly heard was, “You might not have mental health issues when you enter solitary, but by the time you get out you will”.

The UN has classified solitary confinement for more than 10 days as torture. Human rights activists are currently pushing for House Bill 5417 which proposes to limit the use of solitary confinement to 5 days.

The closing of Guantanamo was one of Obama’s key election promises when he came to office. Two terms later and he’s still struggling to make good on the promise. At one point Thomson prison was considered a likely facility to transfer the remaining 91 detainees, many of them have been incarcerated and tortured for 14 years, without trial and without substantial evidence to justify their continued imprisonment. In total 779 people have been kept at Guantanamo, 23 of which were juveniles, detained indefinitely in a blackspot, immune from international laws, devoid of human rights.  It’s unlikely their state will improve if transferred to Thomson where they will almost definitely be deprived the rights of other US prisoners (under the justification of being an “imminent threat”), and will have to also cope with solitary confinement, one of the few things Guantanamo doesn’t impose as a long term condition.

During the walk we invited Senator Dick Durbin and President Obama to spend a week in solitary confinement by way of a small qualification required before having the power to incarcerate other individuals. Our invitation went unanswered, though we did receive police surveillance and a massive presence (18 cop cars) when our group of 15 walkers arrived in Thomson. Perhaps coincidentally there was also a police helicopter circling overhead, and Thomson locals had been informed that “a riot from Chicago was heading into town”.

The US has now dispensed with due process, whether you be a brown skinned person in the Middle East targeted by a US drone, a young African American man shot on the streets by police, or part of the 95% of US prisoners incarcerated without trial. This is reinforced by US policy abroad, the CIA’s extraordinary rendition and detention program, symbolised internationally by notorious black site secret prisons and 14 years of  Guantanamo Bay has left the global image of the U.S. shattered. At the time of writing, within just two days, there have been separate incidents where US police shot have dead 2 black US citizens, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Never mind guilty before charged, the current status quo is assassination without evidence, charge or trial, guilt is decided by the colour of your skin.

Being a Woman in Afghanistan

Darulaman Refugee Camp 2014, photo by Mary Dobbing
Darulaman Refugee Camp 2014, photo by Mary Dobbing

by Henrietta Cullinan

On International Women’s Day, we should question whether conditions for women in Afghanistan have improved after thirteen years of the presence of US/ NATO troops in the country. When I travelled to Kabul recently I was able to glimpse first hand how entrenched cultural practices make women’s lives doubly hard, lives that are already made hard by the lack of security.

We hear that even people in power support restrictions on women’s ability to move and act freely in public, that they support to the custom that means that women should only travel when accompanied by a male relative.

This can be interpreted as not being able to take a plane, cross a border, but for some households this means not going out at all.  There are many consequences to not going out, that are dangerous and even life threatening, not just humiliating and unjust. Not going out is not just an issue of inequality but also a barrier to young women’s  livelihoods. I spoke to young Afghan women at the Borderfree Centre talk about the barriers put in their way and to Latifa Ahmadi, founder of Organisation  for the Promotion of Women’s Capabilities.

Latifa Amadi says “The way women in Afghanistan are treated badly puts pressure on us all.’ Her demand is that we campaign for Afghan women’s rights from all over the world”.

Women from the APV co-ordinate the duvet distribution
Women from the APV co-ordinate the duvet distribution

For a short time I was a woman in Kabul. I listened to female members  of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and at the APV’s Borderfree centre talk about the restrictions to their movements. The young women I met took on responsibilities in the  humanitarian and educational projects run from the Borderfree Centre. One young woman organized duvet handouts at Darulaman refugee camp. I saw her confidently arrive in the truck, call out names from a clip board as women from a refugee camp came rushing up to collect their duvets. I witnessed another couple of teenage girls organising the local seamstresses who embroider the Borderfree scarves, and checking their work for accuracy. Two young women teach the street children literacy and maths. Another takes charge of the community budget, organising currency exchange and banking the donations.

Travel restrictions had other effects on the young women beside making life awkward. While I was in Kabul, I had my own experience of not being able to go out. In my case the reason was because I was a foreigner. The hazards of not going out were realised one day, when by chance all the young people left us four guests alone. I felt like a child again. I wasn’t even sure how to call a cab.

I hardly knew where I was. It was only when, to avoid the traffic, the taxi driver took a circular route home I worked out the relationship between the river, the mountains, the main roads and our house. I slowly built a mental map of main roads, the market stalls, a  flyover and offices.

We asked the young women at the Borderfree Centre about restrictions on their movements, on not going out. They said under the Taliban it had been much worse; no girl over the age of nine could leave the house. There are still some families that don’t allow their daughters to go out. An example they gave was of a family who spoilt their daughter, loved her very much bought her all sorts of beautiful clothes and expensive treats, but wouldn’t allow her to go out or use a phone. This made her very unhappy. She told them, ‘I don’t care about the clothes or the food.’

Many women live their entire lives in the home
Many women live their entire lives in the home

The girls experienced varying degrees of restrictions. Some were allowed out but had to be back before their father came home. One said she was often hassled in the street, being asked where she was going, what was she doing, does her father know. A relative might see her and tell her father. Another reports not being able to go out if there are men in the house, if their father’s at home. If a woman is not used to going out into society, one girl said, when she does she will not know how to behave and then might put herself in danger. She might behave inappropriately, and be called a prostitute.

If girls cannot go out their education suffers. The girls said confidently 50% of girls in Kabul could have an education if they want to. These particular girls were attending classes, university or school in the city. Whizzing around in our delegation taxi, we often saw crowds of teenage girls outside schools, collecting their exam results, carrying their files and books, rushing to lectures.

Some girls seem to be getting an education. How good an education was a different matter; our friends complained of out of date text books from Iran, a teacher who kept them waiting in the cold, who talked about himself instead of teaching the class. The girls in our community were university students studying for their first year exams. We were told to help as much as possible with the housework and the cooking. They must study hard; they had to do twice as well as the boys to be taken seriously.

Henrietta talking to young women at the Borderfree Centre
Henrietta talking to young women at the Borderfree Centre

At the Borderfree Centre, the girls explained that fathers don’t want their daughters to ‘show the whites of their eyes’, an Afghan expression. That is intelligent women become bad women by rolling their eyes, being disrespectful towards their fathers and male relatives. So fathers don’t allow their girls to go to school.

Some fathers believe universities are bad for girls, because there are mixed classes and male lecturers.  The fathers don’t allow the girls to come to the Borderfree Centre, for the same reason: girls and boys are mixed together. Some girls come to the centre in secret they said. Others have discussed it with their their father and he’s given permission so they don’t care what the other relatives think. More enlightened fathers are happy to discuss things while others insist the female members of the families are home when he gets home.

Latifa Ahmadi, Director of OPAWC
Latifa Ahmadi, Director of OPAWC

Not being able  to go out makes education hard for older women too. Latifa Ahmadi runs an education project at the OPAWC, offering literacy and numeracy classes. The students progress to learning ‘handicrafts’ such as tailoring, chicken farming and jam making so they can earn a living. We met some of the women upstairs in the freezing classroom, everyone in their coats. They held up their text books. I asked them what made literacy hard, expecting the usual answer, spelling. No spelling wasn’t hard. The thing that was hard, was not being able to leave the house. One said she had to lock her children into the apartment. One woman has to come in a burkha.

OPAWC has even had to move its literacy centre because the local ‘warlord’ has created a problem for them. The ‘warlord’ spread propaganda, saying the literacy classes were teaching Christianity. He told the Mullah to tell the women not to come. When she found

Craftwork by women at the OPAWC centre
Craftwork by women at the OPAWC centre

out, Latifa showed the Mullah the text book. The syllabus is provided by the government, and covers women’s rights, health, domestic violence, and handicraft.

All the young women at the Borderfree Centre and Latifa Ahmadi at OPAWC emphasised how important it is for Afghan women to know their rights. If women never go out they will not be able to attend classes. If women are not educated they will not know their rights. Girls and women need to know their rights to a life free from violence, to equal pay, to be able to work, to access healthcare. They talked about putting out a radio programme to help women not allowed out of the house. Women need to be able to demonstrate for their rights, to healthcare, to work, to freedom from domestic violence, even if they join a protest ‘hiding’ in a burkha.

Artwork by Afghan woman, as part of an OPAWC project
Artwork by Farida Mohammady, as part of an OPAWC project