Although the mantra “Black Lives Matter” was developed by black women, I often worry that in the collective consciousness it carries with it an implicit masculine association, one that renders subordinate or even invisible the very real and concurrent subjugation and suffering of black women, one that assigns to these women a role of supporter and soother and without enough space or liberty to express and advocate for their own.
Last week, the prism shifted a bit, as America and the social justice movement focused on the mysterious cases of two black women who died in police custody.
The first and most prominent was Sandra Bland, a black woman from suburban Chicago who had moved to Texas to take a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A & M University, a historically black school about 50 miles northwest of Houston.
Is it just a coincidence that a young black woman died similarly in an Alabama jail cell?
Then, there was the case of 18-year-old Kindra Chapman, arrested on Tuesday in Alabama for allegedly stealing a cellphone. According to AL.com: “Jailers last saw her alive at 6:30 p.m. She was found unresponsive at 7:50 p.m. Authorities said she used a bed sheet to hang herself.” According to the paper, she had been booked in the Homewood City Jail at 6:22 p.m.
The deaths seem odd: young women killing themselves after only being jailed only a few days or a less than a couple hours, before a trial or conviction, for relatively minor crimes.
And the official explanations that they were suicides run counter to prevailing patterns of behavior as documented by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which has found that, on the whole, men are more likely to commit suicide in local jails than women, young people are less likely to do so than older people, and black people are the least likely to do so than any other racial or ethnic group.
I think these two similar deaths of black women need to be closely examined by independent investigators from the Department of Justice.
As Blow noted, the tragic deaths of Sandra and Kindra call attention to the fact that the lives of black women as well as black men are in danger when they come in contact with police. Even if these women did commit suicide, most likely neither would have been in jail if they were white. Would a policeman have stopped a white woman for not signaling a late change and then slammed her head on the pavement as a Texas officer did to Sandra Bland? I don’t think so.
Over the weekend, I read a long article at the Huffington Post about what happens to young people who end up in the adult prison system. It’s a shocking and heartbreaking story, and it’s extremely important. I hope you’ll read it, because I can’t possibly do it justice with excerpts.
Cruel And All-Too-Usual: A Terrifying Glimpse Into Life In Prison–As a Kid, Story by Dana Liebelson, Art by Luke Tedaldi. The story is also accompanied by graphic videos. Here’s the introductory section of the story:
When the video above was filmed, the girl on the bed was 17 years old. For the purposes of this story, I’ll call her Jamie. There was a time when she liked acting in goofy comedy skits at her Detroit church or crawling into bed with her grandmother to watch TV. She loved to sing—her favorite artist was Chris Brown—but she was too shy to perform in front of other people.
Jamie, whose mother was addicted to crack cocaine, was adopted when she was 3. At high school, she fell in with a wayward crowd and started drinking and smoking weed. Since she didn’t always get along with her adoptive mom, she lived with a close family friend from her church whom she referred to as her sister. One fall day in 2011, they got into a bad fight over their living arrangements. The friend told police that Jamie threw a brick at her, hitting her in the chest, and then banged the brick so hard on the front door that she broke the glass mail chute. Jamie denies the assault—and the police report notes that the brick may not have hit her friend—but she admitted to officers that she was “mad” and “trying to get back in the house.” The Wayne County court gave her two concurrent six-month sentences, for assault and destruction of a building.
In a wealthier Michigan county, kids convicted of minor offenses are almost always sentenced to community service, like helping out at the local science center. Doug Mullkoff, a criminal defense attorney in Ann Arbor, told me that prison in such circumstances is “virtually unheard of.” But Jamie is from Detroit, and in January 2012, she was sent to the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, a prison that holds inmates convicted of crimes like first-degree homicide. From this point onward, her world was largely governed by codes and practices and assumptions designed for adult criminals.
Jamie is 20 now, but her soft brown eyes make her seem younger. When she first came to prison, women old enough to be her mother told her she was cute and promised to take care of her. “They rub on you and stuff, I can’t stand it,” she said. In the seven months before her 18th birthday, prison records show that Jamie was housed with at least three adult cellmates, including one in her 50s who had a history of cocaine possession. Jamie said she was also around adults in the showers and the yard. She had a bunkmate who did drugs she had never been around before, “something you snort.”
In this environment, Jamie found it hard to stay out of trouble. And when trouble came, she didn’t know how to explain herself to the guards. According to Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), Jamie “failed in every instance” to meet good-behavior standards that under Michigan law allow certain inmates to have their records scrubbed clean after they serve their sentences. In June 2012, Jamie’s special status was revoked and she was resentenced to up to five years in prison for her original crime.
When this news sank in, Jamie snapped.
That led to the scene in the video, in which Jamie was essentially tortured by prison employees during their efforts to control her. This scene is just one example of the horrible treatment that minors receive in the U.S. prison system, as more and more juveniles are tried and sentenced as adults. Liebelson writes:
In the course of reporting on a lawsuit against the Michigan prison system, I obtained a series of videos depicting the treatment of underage inmates in adult facilities, as well as hundreds of prison documents through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and other sources. (Jamie is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.) These materials show under-18-year-olds being restrained, held in solitary confinement, forcibly extracted from their cells, tasered, and allegedly sexually assaulted. Some of these incidents would not violate any official rulebook, but are simply accepted practices inside adult correctional institutions.
In 1822, when prison reformers in New York proposed the nation’s first juvenile institution, they saw the need to keep children separate from adults as “too obvious to require any argument.” The juvenile justice system was founded on the idea that young people are capable of change, and so society has a responsibility to help them overcome early mistakes in life. More recent science has only confirmed this principle. Because adolescents’ brains are still developing, their patterns of behavior not yet fixed, they have a far better chance of being rehabilitated than adults. And yet this potential is lost in prisons and jails, which barely recognize any distinction between adults and minors. Amy Fettig, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said, “The adult system is not designed in any way, shape or form to treat children, to rehabilitate children, or to recognize that children are different than adults.”
That is no longer the case in our country. Children are thrown into prisons with adults who take advantage of them and prison authorities who have no training in dealing with teenage offenders. As always in our system, the situation is likely to be worse for African American than white young people. I hope you will take the time to read this important story.
A few days ago, The Washington Post published a story that demonstrates that law enforcement personnel who are black can also face greater challenges than white officers and administrators.
POCOMOKE CITY, Md. — The crowd gathered outside City Hall last week, demanding that their community’s first black police chief — fired amid allegations leveled against white officers of departmental racism — be given his job back.
In a place that bills itself as the “Friendliest Town on the Eastern Shore,” angry residents marched with posters that read “We Support Chief Kelvin Sewell” and jammed inside the quaint red-brick building to voice their outrage to the Pocomoke City Council.
Pocomoke City has been on edge since Sewell was fired by the council June 29. According to the former chief and his supporters, he was sacked for refusing to dismiss two black officers who described working in a hostile environment.
The chief was fired because he supported the two officers in an EEOC complaint!
The officers alleged in complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that they faced racism that was overt and rampant — allegations the city denies. Among the incidents alleged: a food stamp superimposed with President Obama’s face that was left on a black detective’s desk and a text message that read, “What is ya body count nigga?”
“This is one of the most egregious cases of primary racial discrimination and retaliation for assertion of rights before the EEOC that I’ve seen,” said Andrew G. McBride, co-counsel for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which is representing Sewell. “Chief Sewell has a fantastic record as a police officer. He was terminated because he stood up for two African American officers who filed an EEOC complaint.”
It’s unbelievable! We’ve gone through nearly 8 years with our first African American President, and concurrently we’ve seen shocking levels of overt racism come to the fore in this country. We’ve seen one political party basically surrender to the racism of its political base. Where do we go from here? Where do we start to change this?
What else is happening? Please post your thoughts and links on any topic in the comment thread and have a good day.