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Forum on Prison Resistance and the Death Penalty invites students to become active

March 31, 2011

Last nearly a hundred people attended a forum organized by several GVSU student groups on the prison industrial complex. The student groups invited three panelists to address different aspects of the criminal justice system.

Victoria Law is a prison rights activist and author of the recent book Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. She began her presentation talking about the Attica Prison uprising, which she claims led to the modern prisoner rights movement. She then spoke about the August Prison uprising, which involved incarcerated women fighting for rights in a New York prison in 1974. She makes the point that while Attica is fairly well know in popular culture, the August Prison uprising is not because it was a women’s uprising. Victoria also made the point that much of the literature on the prisoner right movement is focused on men.

She then asks the audience to identify issues that women in prison are faced with – health issues, sexual assault, pregnancy, emotional support, HIV/AIDS, and the disproportionate number of women that are incarcerated are women of color. African American women and Latinas are 3 times more likely to be arrested than White women in the US, according to Law, which for her speaks to the inherent racism within the criminal justice system.

However, Victoria said that women have been fighting back, organizing and resisting. Some women have filed lawsuits against the prison system. These campaigns led to changes in the law, which now prohibit male guards from physically searching women and no longer being allowed to violate women’s space where male guards would often watch them undress or shower.

Women have also fought to gain the same access as men in prison to be able to take courses while in prison in order to gain skills that would provide opportunities when they got out. Women who take on these campaigns or acts of resistance are often targeted by the prison authorities, which sometimes results in longer prison terms.

The next speaker was Mark Clements, who spent years in prison beginning as a juvenile despite not committing any crime. Upon being released from prison Mark has continued being an activist around prisoner rights and now works for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

Mark began by talking about Troy Davis who is facing the death penalty.  Mark said that if you are poor and charged with a serious crime you are likely to be found guilty in the US. He said, “We are a nation that believes in the law and incarceration, even incarceration of children.”  Mark was arrested as a juvenile in Chicago and he spoke about the abuse, what he called torture at the hands of the Chicago police. He was charged with multiple life sentences.

Mark also spoke about the race and class dynamics of the prison system. He said that it has more to do with class than race. He also said that while Michigan was the first state to abolish the death penalty, the state does hand out life sentences to juveniles.

Mark then passionately pleaded with the audience to get involved, to not be apathetic, but to take action and see how the criminal justice system affects all of us. He spoke about the crimes of John Burge, a Chicago Police Detective who would systematically round up black youth in Chicago and beat them until one of them confessed to a crime they didn’t commit.

Mark spoke passionately about the evils of the criminal justice system and pleaded with everyone to sign the petition to free Troy Davis. He told the students of GVSU that they should organize a campaign on campus to speak out on behalf of Troy and to engage their fellow students in taking action against the systematic incarceration of poor people.

The last speaker was Randi Jones, who for years worked against the death penalty in Texas, which has executed more people than any other state in the country. Randi now works in Illinois and was part of the campaign that recently abolished the death penalty in that state. Randi talked about the work it took to make this grassroots campaign work. She said that we all need to learn from previous movements for change which can teach us a lot about to fight institutional injustice.

Randi then talked about what she called Lethal Injustice. This means the conditions of prisoners, the lack of rights or the fact that many states take away people’s voting rights after serving time. The US has the highest rate of incarceration than any country in the world. Lethal injustice, according to Randi, is racism.

Randi then spoke about the revolutionary movements in the Middle East, the push back in the US, especially Wisconsin, where people are organizing against the so-called austerity measures. Randi said that this is all related to the fight against the criminal justice system, when the budget cuts will take money away to school programs, which only increases the chance of more crime.

Randi ended her comments by saying that the movement against the death penalty is growing, with fewer executions now occurring across the country. She said we need to see the links between all justice issues and build a stronger movement and encouraged those in attendance to make the links with prisoner rights to whatever issue we work on – war, poverty, housing, LGBT and anti-racism work.


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