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BOOK REVIEW: US academic Baz Dreisinger sees forgiveness in action in SA prison

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IN ARGUABLY one of the most depressing places in SA, Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town, American academic Baz Dreisinger witnessed and wrote about one of the most uplifting human interventions: forgiveness. During an eight day workshop on restorative justice she saw “prisoners coming to grips with themselves and recognising that they were also victims of a system as well as offenders … it made them confront the bad choices that they made and the wrong things that they had done,” she said recently during an interview with the Wits Justice Project about her new book Incarceration Nations.

In the book, the literature and cultural studies scholar takes the reader on a whirlwind tour. She explores forgiveness in prisons in Rwanda and SA, art in Jamaica and Uganda’s correctional facilities, women in prison in Thailand, re-entry programmes in Singapore, private prisons in Australia, “supermax” prisons in Brazil, and in Norway she visited institutions lauded as Utopian prisons.

She scoured the dark, damp prison cells across the globe looking for an answer to the “big question” she first formulated in her home country. Should the purpose of prison be correction or punishment?

America’s staggering prison statistics indeed beg that question. “America is the world’s largest jailer,” Dreisinger writes. There are 2.3-million people behind bars in the US, roughly 25% of the world’s prison population, while the US only accounts for 5% of the world population. One fourth of prisoners suffer from mental health issues, thousands of Americans are serving life sentences for a non-violent offences and children as young as eight are tried as adults in some states. The racial bias of the system further boggles the mind. “More African Americans are under criminal supervision today than were enslaved in 1850,” she writes. One in six black men end up in jail.

While there is a high recidivism rate in the US, which should signal the system’s inherent failure, the American prison model — much like its malls and fast food joints — is a popular export product. Life sentences, supermaxes, the war on drugs, all these quintessential American criminal justice phenomena have spread over the globe.

SA, with the highest incarceration rate in Africa, drank the Kool Aid too. Take for example, the “centre of excellence” Kokstad supermax prison in KwaZulu-Natal. Supermaxes are inherently American — Alcatraz is considered its first. In Kokstad all inmates are housed in single cells, often for years or even decades. SA also introduced mandatory minimum sentences for drug related charges and has seen a thirtyfold increase in life sentences since 1995.

In Pollsmoor, Dreisinger saw another typical American phenomenon. “I knew about the racial disparities in South African prisons, but when I actually saw nothing but black and brown faces, I had a moment of absolute shock. I think I saw two white people in prison during my entire stay,” she relates of her 2012 visit to Pollsmoor prison. That year might have been one of Pollsmoor’s worst. Former inmate Dudley Lee successfully sued the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) before the Constitutional Court for its negligence in curbing the spread of SA’s number one killer disease Tuberculosis among inmates.

While that case shone a spotlight on the prison’s abominable conditions, the racial makeup of the inmate population, Dreisinger noticed, was barely discussed. “It was mentioned very little in the public discourse. In the states we have gotten to the point whereby alongside the discussion about mass incarceration is the conversation about race. You can’t separate the two.”

This wasn’t always the case though. “But the attitude has changed in the past five years, thanks to publications, like the New Jim Crow.”

That book, by legal scholar Michelle Alexander, thoughtfully and thoroughly dissects the American criminal justice system, to expose the racial bias that undergirds many laws and practices that ultimately led to a disproportionate number of African Americans behind bars. Since this ground-breaking best seller hit the stores in 2010, the idea that the criminal justice system is racially skewed has slowly become broadly accepted, leading to a bipartisan effort to reform the criminal justice system and even mainstream pop icons such as Beyonce and Kendric Lamar embracing these issues.

In SA, class — often aligning with race — is a decisive factor in determining who ends up behind bars. A 2014 National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) report detailed that only 2% of the inmate population is white and 18% is coloured, yet both groups make up 9% of the South African population. The African (black) inmate population is proportionate to the general demographics. But in a report released two months ago, the Institute for Race Relations wrote that over 7,000 people are in prison because they couldn’t afford the bail.

Many of these “poverty prisoners” can be found in Pollsmoor. During the restorative justice sessions, led by Jonathan Clayton, a pastor with the Hope Prison Ministries, Dreisinger heard him say to the eight or so inmates attending the sessions: “You are not an offender. A prisoner. A criminal. You are a person, loved by God.” The sessions offered the inmates a chance to reconnect with and apologise to their family members, making the first steps towards healing and rebuilding family structures. The sessions hinged on the idea of “owning choices and working to change them.”

But, Dreisinger asks as she closes the chapter on SA, “What is choice in the context of slavery, prison, labour, apartheid, segregation, townships?” In her office at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, overlooking the clean-cut mirror-like sky scrapers in midtown Manhattan, Dreisinger reflects: “I am most interested in restorative justice as an alternative to incarceration, which was definitely not the case in Pollsmoor. Given the much larger systemic change that has to happen for justice to emerge, restorative justice can really only be a kind of temporary Band-Aid. But I saw positive effects, these men opened up and lessons were learned. If even one life is impacted, that’s valuable. Working in a world of hellish prisons, that has to be a mantra — the idea that a single life matters.”

Published on Business Day Live on 16 May 2016.

#RuthInAmerica: Irreconcilable narratives in Montgomery

Senior WJP journalist Ruth Hopkins is spending two and a half months in the United States with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and the Marshall Project in New York, investigating the similarities between issues facing both the American and South African criminal justice systems. Ruth will be detailing her journey through weekly blog posts published every Friday.

ON MONDAY 25 April, Montgomery was a ghost town. The streets were deserted and the banks and shops closed. Alabama celebrates Confederate Memorial Day every third Monday of April, a day when the soldiers who died fighting for the confederate states in the civil war are honoured.

Quick history recap: In 1861, the civil war started when eleven southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. This break was caused by the disagreement between free and slave states over the authority of the federal government to prohibit slavery. Montgomery became the capitol of the confederacy and Jefferson Davis the president of the Confederacy.

On Montgomery’s Capitol Hill there is a confederate monument erected in 1898 to commemorate the 122,000 Alabamians who fought for the confederacy during the civil war.

“We have honoured our ancestors,” a woman holding a confederate flag tells me when I approach the monument. Women in hoop skirts and men in civil war uniforms wander around the grounds. An old canon is parked behind an SUV. “We call out the names of soldiers – our great great great grandfathers – who died during the war.” A guy wearing a bandana with the confederate flag and a leather jacket with the same symbol nods vigorously. “We don’t refer to the civil war, but rather call it the war of Northern aggression, or the war of states. We lost the right to decide on our own matters. To this day, the federal government interferes too much in our lives.” When I ask them what kind of matters she says: “gay marriage”.  “People say we celebrate slavery, but that’s not true,” the guy with the bandana adds.

Down on the street, protesters disagree. A statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the confederacy and a slaveholder, stands in front of the Capitol – the same place where on March 25 1965 exhausted civil rights protesters, led by Martin Luther King, reached their end point. A chaotic scene is playing out in front of the building. The police are holding back members of the Black Lives Matter Movement and Black Panthers who, so a television journalist tells me, brought a gun to the protest. They argue that the confederacy was a racist organisation that aimed to preserve slavery, well into the twentieth century, when it became the signature symbol for the Klu Klux Klan and in this century, when pictures of racist killer Dylann Roof surfaced, showing him brandishing a confederate flag in one hand, a gun in the other. A police officer throws the bandana guy a bulletproof vest, which he doesn’t put on.

When Roof shot nine African American church goers in Charleston, June 2015, it sparked a movement to do away with confederate memorabilia in various states.  Alabama’s governor Robert Bentley decided to take down four confederate flags from the confederate monument. Despite many states following suit, a recent report  by the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) still documented “1503 Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces, both in the South and across the nation.’

Montgomery, the cradle of both the confederacy and the civil rights movement, is a patchwork of remembrance and conflicting narratives. Advocates of slavery and supporters of white supremacy are honoured alongside the struggle icons, like martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and many others, who fought against the deleterious effects of racial terror. EJI’s office in downtown Montgomery is built in a former warehouse for slaves. This fact is recorded in a marker set up outside the building. It is one of three markers that EJI had to fight to get put up. 59 similar markers around town commemorate the confederacy, but the Alabama historical association deemed EJI’s markers ‘too controversial’. The issue had to be taken up with the mayor before they could be erected. One of them, by the riverside, relates the history of the domestic slave trade and reminds the reader of a crucial fact: “Between 1808 and 1860, the enslaved population of Alabama grew from less than 40,000 to more than 435,000. Alabama had one of the largest slave populations in America at the start of the Civil War.”

Down by the river, the City of Montgomery has put up panels depicting the history of the town and slavery is not mentioned once, while Montgomery’s role as the capitol of the confederacy takes up an entire panel of its own, proudly recounting that in Montgomery: “Confederate leaders sent the telegram ordering Southern troops to reduce Fort Sumter.”

Those two facts; Alabama’s huge slave population and Montgomery’s central role in the confederacy are intimately connected, says Bryan Stevenson, the director of EJI: “The civil war could have been stopped and tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if the federal government had been prepared to say, you can have slavery.”

Openly honouring slavery and slaveholders would not sit well with many people, so the narrative around the civil war changed, says Stevenson. People who initially were called insurgents and traitors were reframed as honourable. “If there were no black people in the state of Alabama, we wouldn’t have this kind of romantic view of the confederacy. They use this fight that started during the civil war, as a way to continue the fight against reconstruction, to fight against land, wealth and equality for black people, to fight against voting rights, to fight against integration, to fight against racial equality and that fight needs a narrative of the honouring the people who were engaged in resistance.” The SPLC points out in their report, that there were two periods in the South were the dedication to Confederate symbols spiked, during the first two decades of the twentieth century, when the Jim Crow laws were introduced and in the sixties, during the civil rights movement.

While the crowd on the hill looks harmless and a little bit hideous in their historical outfits, it is anything but a quirky habit of amateur historians, warns Stevenson. “It would be the same if you said, you know we should create a new narrative about the Second World War, the Nazis weren’t bad, they weren’t evil, they were dedicated, they were committed to Germany and we should celebrate them and honour them. Hitler was just passionate, he was committed to Germany and we should respect him.”

In Montgomery the narrative of a proud confederacy is visceral and dominant and is echoed in its street names, buildings, signs and statues. But EJI, instead of protesting the display of Southern pride and honour, has started an elaborate and ambitious remembrance project that not only includes the collection of soil from sites of lynchings to remember the victims. It also encompasses a museum that is currently being constructed at the back of EJI’s building, dedicated to the evolution of slavery into mass incarceration, as well as a memorial monument that is going to be built to remember victims of lynchings.  EJI has bought the land and enlisted the help of an architectural firm. During the annual benefit dinner in New York, Stevenson presented a video of the project. Columns representing people who died from lynchings, slowly become suspended from above, evoking the ‘strange fruit’ hanging from trees. The columns will be filled with soil from the towns and cities where the lynchings took place and. These towns will be offered the opportunity to take the column and display it as their own remembrance, thus ensuring the narrative of pain and suffering is not forgotten.

#RuthInAmerica: The Prison Rodeo

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Senior WJP journalist Ruth Hopkins is spending two and a half months in the United States with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and the Marshall Project in New York, investigating the similarities between issues facing both the American and South African criminal justice systems. Ruth will be detailing her journey through weekly blog posts published every Friday.

Angola prison, formally known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, is built on 18,000 acres of land in a river basin nestled in between the Mississippi river and Lake Killarney. It would be beautiful if I hadn’t seen the disturbing pictures of African American prisoners picking cotton while a big white guy on a horse oversees their work. Angola prison takes its name from the Angolan slaves who picked cotton on the slave plantation that used to thrive on these very grounds.

The biannual prison rodeo at Angola prison attracts thousands of visitors every year, most of whom are unaware of the history of the prison. Food stands offer Southern delicacies from Cajun dishes and sugar sweet ice tea to ‘tornado potatoes’ and fried pickles.

Angola prison was long called the ‘bloodiest prison in America’, known for its stabbings and general violence among and toward the inmates. When warden Burl Cain took over the prison twenty years ago he managed to bring about a sharp decline in violence through various religious programmes, offering college degrees in ministry, making him the darling of reform-minded Christian Republicans.

Louisiana is the world’s prison capital as it imprisons the highest number of people in America, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world. One in every 86 adult Louisianian goes to prison. One in seven African American is either in prison, on parole or probation.

The prisoners showcasing their work at the arts and crafts fair at the ‘prison festival’ are ‘trustees’; they have had a clean disciplinary record for several years. Those who are well behaved can sell their wares from behind a fence. Leaning against the wire, their fingers clasped through the grid, they try to attract the attention of the visitors browsing the paintings, leather belts, jewellery and toys at the fair. I buy a chess set from Charles. He tells me, through the fence, that it is the only opportunity for prisoners to make some money. Despite taking a 20% cut of the sold arts and crafts and charging visitors a $20 entrance fee, the prisoners have to buy their own supplies.

Most men in Angola are sentenced to life without parole. This means they will die in prison. Some of them tell me it’s not the worst prison to be in. One inmate, who wants to remain anonymous, tells me: “If you show initiative you can make it work.” Others say it is hell inside – a modern day slave plantation – where there are violent guards and inmates, and bible study is the only way out.

The rodeo starts when the star spangled banner plays. Bucking bulls and kicking horses have inmates in striped black-and-white uniforms flying through the air. Even though the prisoners are kitted out with body armour and helmets, they resemble rag dolls, as they crash to the ground or are trampled on. In one of the many game variations called ‘convict poker’, four men sit around a table and the last one to get up and run away from the bull wins. One inmate limps away after a bull flings him to the ground. Another game is to have prisoners stand inside a hula hoop and wait for the bull to attack them; the last man standing wins. The crowd cheers and laughs at the rodeo clowns running around agitating the bulls.

“The rodeo is degrading and inhuman,” says Robert Hillary King, who is one of the Angola 3, a trio of men who were at the ugly coalface of the American criminal justice system for decades. Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and King were locked up in solitary confinement in Angola for years because, so they say, of their allegiance with the Black Panther Party. They were falsely accused of murdering a prison guard and a fellow prisoner in the early seventies when they were educating inmates to organise against the harsh prison conditions in Angola.

King spent 29 years in a cell the size of an average bathroom, a debilitating experience he writes about in his book. Woodfox was recently released after spending 43 years in an isolation cell. Wallace died three days after his release in 2013. If you want to imagine what solitary confinement is like check out the Guardian’s virtual experience here.

“We tried, as much as that was possible from our cells, to educate inmates about the exploitation of the rodeo,” King said in a recent interview. I will be writing more about him and Angola prison in articles follow. Gregory Bright, who spent 27 years in Angola for a crime he did not commit, agrees: “There were always guys who came back injured from the rodeo,” he says, “one guy had severe kidney problems after he was attacked by one of the bulls. He later died from complications. No one talks about that.” Both King and Bright cite boredom and desperation as a reason for the incarcerated men to elect to partake in the rodeo.

Visitors pile out of the prison compound when the bulls are back in their pens and the prisoners returned to their cells. I ask them, as they place their purchases in their cars, what impression the rodeo made.

“I have heard about the rodeo for years,” a young couple from upstate Louisiana tells me, “and I always wanted to go. It wasn’t as good as a real rodeo, because the prisoners can’t stay on the bull as long.”

Another couple, lecturers at a criminal justice college in Texas, thinks it is a wonderful chance for the prisoners to mix with family members and friends and to interact with the outside world. The man adds that he really enjoyed the rodeo, which he says would impossible in Texas. When I ask him why, he shrugs and says: “health and safety.”


#RuthInAmerica: Books Through Bars

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Beena Ahmad [left], Books Thru Bars volunteer and former Wits Justice Project staff member.

Senior WJP journalist Ruth Hopkins is spending two and a half months in the United States with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and the Marshall Project in New York, investigating the similarities between issues facing both the American and South African criminal justice systems. Ruth will be detailing her journey through weekly blog posts published every Friday.

MY FRIEND and New York attorney Beena Ahmad – who worked for nearly a year with the Wits Justice Project – had a quirky habit. In her neighborhood in Brooklyn she picked up books that people left out on the street with great enthusiasm (an aside: you can furnish your entire house with the stuff people discard; from baby shoes, to antique cupboards, to electronics). Sometimes I would share her joy, like when she picked up a battered copy of ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, placed on a garden wall. At other times though, ‘Form Your Own Limited Liability Company’, for example, didn’t seem quite as riveting a read.

But when I entered the basement of the bookstore Free Bird, where Books Through Bars New York hosts one of their weekly book packing volunteer groups, I got it.  About 10 people were seated around a table or browsed the shelves crammed pell-mell with books.

Incarcerated people write to the organisation, requesting books they want to read. The volunteers read their letters and go through the book collection to see if they can find any matches and mail the books to the inmates.

Annie Soga, a 26-year-old volunteer who describes herself as a ‘library school dropout’ and her boyfriend Tim Nicholas run fanzines and are regular volunteers for Books Through Bars. “Dictionaries are most popular,” she says. According to this website “more than 60 percent of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.” If prisoners learn to read and write their chances of ending up back in prison drastically drop, and it also allows them to understand their rights.

Annie Soga [left] and other Books Through Bars volunteers sorting through mail. 

Exonoree Gregory Bright, who I interviewed in New Orleans this weekend, knows this. He went from being illiterate, to representing himself before the Louisiana Supreme Court. Eventually, with the help of the Innocence Project, he was exonerated for a murder he never committed and for which he spent 27 years in Angola prison. I will return to his story in blogs and articles to come. Gregory told me he had to drop out of school at the age of 11 to take care of his dying step-father. After his arrest and conviction to life without parole, he managed to teach himself a few words, starting with a religious magazine he found in his cell. The only written words he could recognize were those in the prayer ‘Our Father’, which his step-father had taught him to read. These words were his starting point. In Angola, lifers were not allowed to participate in any programmes, as the prison did not consider literacy skills relevant. Life without parole means you will die in prison, so why bother, seems to have been the reasoning. Gregory persisted though and taught himself to read and write, with the help of dictionaries. When he was proficient enough to read legal texts, it became his sole activity. “It didn’t make sense to waste time on anything else than proving my innocence. My friends would find me asleep in the morning, my head resting on law books.”

The power of books shines through in the thank you notes uploaded to the Books Through Bars website. One person writes that he is grateful for the books on photography that the project sent him, “the books (…) have provided great inspiration for artwork that I have completed for other inmates and staff at this facility.” Another man writes: “I would like to thank you for the books you sent me last month. I’m going to be executed May 30th but I’d like you to know that those books will give me much pleasure in the days remaining to me.”

Given the grim reality of life behind bars, it comes as no surprise that sci-fi and fantasy are popular requests, as are stories and pictures about family life; a surrogate for the loved ones that are missed.

Some books are not allowed though. Many prisons ban hardback copies and some ban books with maps and DIY books. In Alabama, The Equal Justice Initiative sued the Alabama Department of Corrections over its ban of the book ‘Slavery by Another Name’, which documents the abhorrent practice of ‘convict leasing: “African Americans in Alabama and throughout the South were re-enslaved in the years following the Civil War, due in part to laws specifically written to facilitate the arbitrary arrest of African Americans. Unable to pay the resulting fines, in addition to the costs for their own arrests, they were sold as forced labor to mines, railroads, farms, and quarries.” Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s director had sent the book to a man working in the prison library of an Alabama prison.

Books ready to be mailed

The Department based its decision on a regulation, which states that any piece of mail or other material “may be determined to be a threat to the security of the institution.” The case was settled in 2013, when the book was allowed in the prison.

When the evening draws to a close in the Free Bird basement, there are at least eight bags full of packaged books that need to be mailed. The brown packages clog up the first postbox and we haul the bags to the second, around the corner. I imagine someone in a cell unpacking and reading ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ and I know this was an evening well spent.

#RuthInAmerica: Looking Away

Mrs. Mamie Kirkland, a 107-year old survivor of a lynching that took place in 1916.

Senior WJP journalist Ruth Hopkins is spending two and a half months in the United States with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and the Marshall Project in New York, investigating the similarities between issues facing both the American and South African criminal justice systems. Ruth will be detailing her journey through weekly blog posts published every Friday.

IT IS A natural human reaction to look away when confronted with injury or suffering. I grab a cushion or duck away behind the closest body when there is blood and gore on television. In this era of mass media where drowned refugee children wash up ashore and onto your screen and where ISIS decapitations flood the internet, this reflex can translate into ‘misery fatigue’, the feeling one wants a break from the constant stream of human misery the media feeds us. But it’s not only the consumers of mass media that feel the need to look away; also those who have been injured often want to escape the memory of the pain.

On my last day in New York, I had the privilege of attending a benefit of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) hosted in Manhattan. It couldn’t have been a better segue into the second part of my fellowship, which started the next day, with the EJI in Montgomery.

At the benefit, EJI’s director Bryan Stevenson presented the Champion of Justice 2016 awards to Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on death row for a crime EJI would later prove he never committed. I will return to his mind-boggling story another time.

The second recipient of the award was Mrs. Mamie Kirkland, a 107-year old survivor of a lynching that took place in Ellisvile, Mississippi in 1916, when she was 7 years old. Her son helped her onto the stage. With her head just about peeking above the lectern, she related with vividness to an enraptured audience the chilling events that uprooted her life a century ago.

Kirkland said she could never forget what happened that day. She remembered her father coming home and instructing her mother to pack their bags and get the children ready. Crowds had gathered, calling for his and his best friend’s lynching. Her father left immediately, her mother ushered her five children onto a train the next morning. The family made it to St East Louis, Illinois in one piece.  Mr. Hartfield, her father’s friend, however, decided to return to Ellisville, where the threat was carried out: a mob shot, hanged and burned the man, because he had allegedly raped a white woman.

This accusation, Ida B Wells pointed out in her book “Southern Horrors, Lynch Laws in All its Phases (1892), was often barely supported by facts, but rather fueled by the hysterical fear of ‘miscegenation’, basically interracial relationships. She wrote in 1892: “the dark and bloody record of the South shows 728 Afro-Americans lynched during the past eight years.” Only one third of those victims had been charged – not found guilty – with rape. The rest were tortured to death because of a perceived need to protect the ‘honour’ of the white woman. However: “The white man is free to seduce all the colored girls he can,” Wells wrote.

“He could have been my father,” Mrs. Kirkland said of her father’s friend. As she stood there, her petite frame, fragile voice and heart-rending memories were met with quiet sobs and the dabbing of tears by people seated around me.

The family’s ordeal was anything but over after they escaped the lynching. A few years later, they had to yet again face racial terrorism when bloody race riots broke out in Illinois. When they resettled in Alliance, Ohio, it didn’t take long before crosses were burning on their lawn.

“I didn’t even want to see Ellisville, Mississippi on a map,” Kirkland said of her first experience of racial terror, she understandably preferred to not return to the site of such pain and suffering. However, EJI’s research into lynchings, changed her mind.

Aiming to address the lack of commemoration of the legacy of racial terror, the EJI has documented how many lynchings have taken place in the southern states. Last year, they released this report, that provides proof of more than 4000 lynchings – a gruesome figure that is barely included in history books or part of historical remembrance in the South. “Lynchings were violent and public events that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. This was not “frontier justice” carried out by a few marginalized vigilantes or extremists. Instead, many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) (…)People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity.”

In the report, EJI referenced Mr. Hartfield’s case and when Mrs. Kirkland’s son read about it, he contacted them.  Hartfield was his grandfather’s friend whom he had heard so much about. He convinced his mother to return to Ellisville. So, last year, on the spot where Mr Hartfield had been hanged from a gum tree, several family members and EJI attorney Jennifer Rae Taylor (who spent some time with the Wits Justice Project) held hands and prayed together to remember the atrocities both the community and the witnesses seemed to want to forget.

This act of remembering , of not looking away, is central to EJI’s work. In Alabama – the former capitol of the confederacy – the state’s role in the civil war is oft commemorated and remembered, while its role in the domestic slave trade, lynchings and adherence to Jim Crow laws is assigned to the periphery.

During the benefit, Stevenson unfolded ambitious plans to reverse this. EJI wants to build a museum that is dedicated to the evolution of slavery into modern day mass incarceration, captured beautifully in this animated video. Additionally, the organisation intends to erect a memorial site to commemorate the more than 4000 victims of lynchings in the South.

Meanwhile, they have started a more simple, yet very powerful way of remembering the people who were brutally lynched by white supremacists between 1870 and 1940. The organisation is hosting a project whereby members of the community and others can collect soil from the sites of lynchings. The soil will be placed in glass jars with the names of the victims on them. The jars will become part of an exhibition on the legacy of lynchings and racial terror in the United States.

EJI reminds us that looking away doesn’t heal wounds: “Public acknowledgment of mass violence is essential not only for victims and survivors, but also for perpetrators and bystanders who suffer from trauma and damage related to their participation in systematic violence and dehumanization.”




#RuthInAmerica: Punishing Language

Ginger (pictured above) spent just three days on Rikers Island but her time there continues to affect her.

Senior WJP journalist Ruth Hopkins is spending two and a half months in the United States with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and the Marshall Project in New York, investigating the similarities between issues facing both the American and South African criminal justice systems. Ruth will be detailing her journey through weekly blog posts published every Friday.

A FEW DAYS after I arrived in New York, to start a criminal justice reporting fellowship, I emailed Johnny Perez, who works at the Urban Justice Center. Johnny is an advocate for their mental health project. Not only does he do a lot of work at the troubled Rikers Island prison complex in New York, he also spent a fair amount of time in prison himself. He spoke about the three years he spent in solitary confinement at an event I attended and I was struck by the suffocating intensity of his experience.

One of the articles I’m working on is about Rikers; the sprawling prison complex located on an island wedged in between the boroughs Queens and the Bronx. It is an embattled facility that has courted controversy and fell into disrepute, following reports on widespread violence, disease, corruption and outdated architecture. It reminds me in many ways, of Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town.

Recently, a commission was founded to explore possible solutions to the plethora of problems afflicting Rikers. A groundswell of consensus seems to have formed around the idea of closing the jail.

In my email I asked Johnny if he knew of any current or former inmates who would be willing to talk about their experiences at Rikers and their ideas on what kind of changes they want to see take place at the prison complex.  We too often speak about certain groups, without speaking with them.

Johnny wrote back:

“As advocates we try to stay away from dehumanizing language and try to use language which upholds the dignity of the person. For this reason we refrain from describing people as inmates, and refer to them as People: Formerly incarcerated people, presently incarcerated people; person convicted of a crime, etc.”

The use of the word inmate has never been an issue at the Wits Justice Project. We have debated innocent vs. guilty and I gave a talk about the problem of innocence in criminal justice work. But we randomly and repeatedly refer to people behind bars as inmates. Initially I didn’t take Johnny’s remark that seriously, but it stayed with me and sank in. Prison is dehumanizing and words can stigmatize.

This I knew from my research into trafficking in women, for a book I wrote about it in 2005.  Prostitute has different connotations and signals different political, social and economic meanings than the word sex worker.  I replaced the words ‘illegal migrant’ with ‘undocumented migrant’, because a person can lack the right documents, but never actually be illegal. Similarly, victims of trafficking became survivors of trafficking, shifting the focus from the pain inflicted, to the strength in overcoming and surviving abuse, exploitation and slavery. The words we use reflect ideas and biases that are often left unspoken, unwritten (inmate: criminal: guilty: monster: not human).

What then, does the word inmate mean? Up until the 1920s, it referred to lodgers, at boarding schools, seminaries and institutions. It could simply mean the resident of a house. Over time, it became to be associated with lodgers in asylums, prisons and hospitals and nowadays is commonly known to refer to a person incarcerated in a correctional facility.

In the United States (as in many other countries), the word inmate often means a hostile takeover of the rest of your role and place in the world. It obliterates what you were or hoped to become.

In America, in addition to the obvious loss of freedom of movement, incarceration means you will lose a basic democratic right to vote. Due to harsh mandatory minimum sentences, people might end up behind bars for years on end for relatively simple offences. Additionally, a criminal record often turns out to be a life sentence, effectively barring people from finding work, voting and eligibility for food stamps and other social benefits.

I find out what all of this means when I meet Jenel, a young woman whose nickname – like mine – is Ginger. Several years ago she was caught riding the metro without a valid ticket and was arrested. The NYPD processed her through the system and she ended up cuffed in a police bus, crossing the east river to the penal colony Rikers Island. She stayed there for three days until her brother scrambled together the $500 bail that was set. Her brief encounter with the criminal justice system has spilled over into the rest of her life. With a criminal record, she finds that prospective employers shy away when they find out she spent some time behind bars. She found work for a direct sales company selling energy contracts door-to-door, earning approximately $800 a month, which is barely sufficient in an expensive city like New York. Not only does she continue to skip the fare because she sometimes simply doesn’t have enough money to get to work, she also finds her future hopes and plans stymied.

Ginger is bright and witty, with a sharp eye and a deft pen. She writes poems, raps and features, which you can find on her blog. I’m working on a video story on her life, so you will hear more about my nicknamesake here.

Ginger was an inmate for three days but it scarred her for life. People, and more importantly, institutions, attached far-reaching consequences to that word.

As a journalist I can’t always use the language I prefer. Word counts throw a spoke in the wheels, as does the need to use language that is commonplace or commonly accepted. So I doubt I will never use the word inmate again. But at least my awareness has been raised; and through this blog, hopefully yours too.

Related Links:

The Marshall Project also writes about the use of the words ‘inmate’ and ‘prisoner’ here.