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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by James Kilgore

Imagining a World Without Prisons

 By James KilgoreTruthout | Op-Ed

This story is the seventh in Truthout's "Visions of 2018" series, in which activist leaders answer the question: "What would you like to see created, built, imagined or begun this year?" Each piece will focus on a bold idea for transformation, to give us fuel as the year moves forward.

In circles of prison abolition and criminal legal reform, the call to imagine a world without prisons -- a sort of cageless utopia -- has recently grown louder and stronger. The point of doing this is to allow us to break free from the present reality in which it has become so normalized to have millions of people locked up or incarcerated in open-air prisons of various forms. When asked to imagine a world without prisons, many people talk about peace, the absence of police, or a world where everyone's basic needs are met so we wouldn't see poverty and inequality driving criminalization and "crime." White supremacy would be a distant memory in this world. This exercise can be valuable and inspiring, but also at times a little off base. Frequently there is a tendency to leap from the present to utopia ...

After Prisons: A Supervisory State?

After Prison? Freedom, Decarceration and Justice Disinvesment

By William G. Martin and Joshua Price (eds.)

Lexington 2016

Reviewed by James Kilgore, Daily Kos

After Prisons? is a remarkable book for several reasons.  First of all, it remains strong from start to finish.  Every chapter offers disciplined research and fresh ideas. Second, unlike the vast majority of books on criminal justice, this volume doesn’t focus on high profile states, cities or the federal government. This is about criminal justice in small, rural counties in upstate New York. But most importantly, this book departs seriously from what is becoming the orthodoxy in criminal justice “reform” - that a steady, policy wonk-driven set of “smart” changes will peel back the carceral state.  After Prisons? decisively contests that notion.

The product of a five year project led by co-editors William Martin and Joshua Price, the argument’s power rests largely on the fact that it emerges from New York, the model state for liberal and radical reform agenda makers. Largely through activist pushback against the War on Drugs, changes in arrest, charging  and sentencing policy New York has seen a 25% decline in state prison population since 1999. New York City’s jail population has ...

Follow the Money: Invisible Investors Seek Big Bucks in Mass Incarceration

by James Kilgore and Brian Dolinar, Truthout

When authorities booked Richard Murphy into the jail in Monterey, California on January 18, 2013, the war veteran likely never envisioned ending up being back in court months later, not to face criminal charges, but to expose the abuse he would suffer at the hands of the jail’s private health-care provider.

His saga began when he complained to guards about his injured back. Before his arrest he managed the pain with prescribed medication and regular cortisone shots, neither of which he could get in jail. Despite his repeated pleas, it took several months to get even a cane. During this time, he could not get out of bed without serious pain, and his condition worsened.

In addition, Murphy had a severe mental illness. He received no attention from jail authorities even after claiming he heard demonic voices and felt suicidal. In a sick call note, he complained, “I’m a disabled vet who served my country with honorable discharge and should not be treated like trash over an officer’s attitude.”

On at least five occasions, the guards responded by putting him in a “rubber room,” where he was stripped naked and ...

Jails: Time to Wake Up to Mass Incarceration in Your Neighborhood

By James Kilgore, Truthout

Jails admit nearly 12 million people every year. Yet they are largely off the radar of critics of mass incarceration. However, as a new report by Vera Institute and actions by activists around the country demonstrate, jails matter.

In February 2015, the MacArthur Foundation launched a $75 million grant initiative to support counties and cities in developing strategies to reduce jail populations. Julia Stasch, MacArthur’s president, noted that “jails are where our nation’s incarceration problem begins [and] too often serve as warehouses for those too poor to post bail, nonviolent offenders, or people with mental illness.” The MacArthur initiative represents a belated awakening to the reality that jails are the local face of mass incarceration and, in many places, the New Jim Crow.

To date, popular knowledge about jails has remained a compendium of scenes from “Cops,” MSNBC’s “Lockup” or the pics circulated by on their website and their widely-distributed magazine. But the critical lens is widening. Even small Midwestern towns are taking action.

On February 23, 2015, the city council of Urbana, Illinois passed a resolution condemning mass incarceration. The resolution went on to urge their county board, currently debating a much contested $32 ...

Private Prisons: Just Bit Players in Mass Incarceration

Private Prisons: Just Bit Players in Mass Incarceration

by James Kilgore             

Copyright, This article was originally published on October 19, 2015; reprinted with permission.

Social justice activists love to hate private prisons. The loathing is easy to justify. Making profit by locking people up and keeping them there is repulsive. Moreover, major private prison operators like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group have a history of tragedy and ruthless behavior. From the early days of CCA when cofounder Tom Beasley described marketing prisons as "just like ... selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers" to more recent revelations of locking up preschoolers, private prisons have plumbed the depths of immorality. And they have thrown money at the project, spending millions on lobbying for harsher sentencing laws to secure their bottom lines, even bribing judges to incarcerate juveniles.

Since 2000, private prison companies have staked out the war on immigrants as their market niche, working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to promote the passage of harsh anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona, Alabama and other states to corral more "customers" for their growing stable of detention centers. Unless you are a shareholder, there is little to ...

Corporations You’ve Never Heard of are Making Millions from Mass Incarceration

By James Kilgore, Truthout

Likely the most well-known prison profiteers in the United States are the Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group. Between them, these two firms pulled in about $3.3 billion last year running scores of private prisons and immigration detention centers.

However, these two firms are not alone in feasting at the trough of corrections expenditures. Many other companies, most of them off the popular radar, are also benefiting from epidemic prison and jail building. Some may even be operating in your neighborhood. Here we’ll do a quick sketch of several such companies, outline their activities, ponder their deeds of infamy and reflect a little on how to curtail their profiteering.

Turner Construction: If We Build it They Will Come

Let’s start with the construction sector. Prison construction managers don’t come with a tool box and a pick-up. They are world-class operators. The largest player in this field is New York-based Turner Construction, a subsidiary of the German giant Hochtief.

According to IBISWorld, Turner’s average annual income for prison and jail construction came to $278 million per year from 2007 to 2012. This represents lots of money in most quarters, but qualifies as only ...

Mental Illness and Jails, Race is Left out of the Equation

Mental Illness and Jails, Race is Left out of the Equation

By James Kilgore, Truthout

In 1843, social justice crusader Dorothea Dix went before the Massachusetts Legislature with the intention of addressing an acute problem of the day: the incarceration of people with mental illness. Her declaration to the assembly highlighted the "state of Insane Persons," protesting that they were confined "in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience." Her efforts led to the creation of the state's first mental health hospitals. For the next several years, Dix travelled from state to state, repeating her cycle of advocating for special facilities for people living with mentally illness apart from jails and prisons. Though she was successful in many states, her work now stands as ancient history. When it comes to mental health, we have retreated back to the days of the "cages, stalls and pens."

In many communities, jails have become the only option for police confronted with a person in mental health crisis in public. The reason behind this is obvious: the virtual shutdown of the nation's public mental health care system for which Dix fought. From 1970 to 2002, the per ...

The Persistence of Mass Incarceration

The Persistence of Mass Incarceration

by James Kilgore

Over the last four years, “we have turned the corner” has become the dominant narrative on mass incarceration. The basis for this optimism appeared sound. From 2009-2012, total prisoner numbers were down nationally for the first time since the late 1970s, with the figures for Blacks behind bars also declining. Moreover, people in surprising places were making conciliatory noises. Attorney General Eric Holder grabbed some new handles – champion of employment access for people with felony convictions and promoter of lighter sentences for those with drug offenses. Some New Jim Crowdiscourse even crept into his rhetoric. The New York Times consistently peppered their op-ed pages with condemnation of the bloated U.S. carceral state, proclaiming in a May 24, 2014 piece that “The American experiment in mass incarceration has been a moral, legal, social and economic disaster. It cannot end soon enough.”

To top it off, the right wing joined the “softer on crime” fray. Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich sparked a conservative anti-imprisonment drift through their Right on Crime organization which decried the excessive use and cost of punishment. Then Rand Paul followed suit, standing shoulder to shoulder with Cory ...

The Spread of Electronic Monitoring: No Quick Fix for Mass Incarceration

The Spread of Electronic Monitoring: No Quick Fix for Mass Incarceration

by James Kilgore

In a troubled criminal justice system desperately looking for alternatives to incarceration, electronic monitoring is trending. North Carolina has tripled the use of electronic monitors since 2011. California has placed 7,500 people on GPS ankle bracelets as part of a realignment program aimed to reduce prison populations. SuperCom, an Israeli-based Smart ID and electronic monitor producer, announced in early July 2014 that they were jumping full force into the U.S. market, predicting this will be a $6 billion-a-year global industry by 2018.

The praise singers of electronic monitoring are also re-surfacing. In late June 2014, high-profile blogger Dylan Matthews posted a story on Vox Media, headlined “Prisons are terrible and there’s finally a way to get rid of them.” He enthusiastically argued that the most “promising” alternative “fits on an ankle.” Joshua Earnest, press secretary for the Obama White House, even suggested ankle bracelets as a solution to getting the 52,000 unaccompanied immigrant children out of border detention centers and military bases in the U.S. Southwest.

The reasons behind this popular surge of electronic monitoring are obvious: Prisons and jails (along with immigrant detention ...

Repackaging Mass Incarceration

Repackaging Mass Incarceration

by James Kilgore

Since my CounterPunch article in November 2013, which assessed the state of the movement against mass incarceration, the rumblings of change in the criminal justice system have steadily grown louder. Attorney General Eric Holder has continued to stream his mild-mannered critique by raising the issue of felony disenfranchisement;* the President has stepped forward with a proposal for clemency for people with drug offenses that could free hundreds. In the media, we’ve seen a scathing attack on America’s addiction to punishment in The New York Times and the American Academy of Sciences has released perhaps the most comprehensive critique of mass incarceration to date, the 464-page The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. 

In late May 2014, several dozen conservatives including Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and former NRA president David Keene pulled together the first Right on Crime (ROC) Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. The ROC, an organization which boasts a coterie of members with impeccable right-wing credentials, reiterated the need for conservatives to drive the process of prison reform. The conference’s “call to action” argued: “In our earnest desire to have safer neighborhoods, policy responses to crime have too ...


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