So Many Members of Our Community Languish In Prison without the Chance for Intellectual Development

I teach philosophy at Columbia. But some of my best students are inmates

The Gilmer Free Press

On a recent Friday night, a student and I were playing dead on the cold linoleum floor of a prison. The woman standing over us was proudly proclaiming the coldblooded murder of her no-good husband and his unwilling mistress. As professor at Columbia University, I’ve asked lots of students to act out this 2,500 year-old scene from Aeschylus’ “Oresteia.” That night, surrounded by women who have spent years in prison, the power of those words increased ten-fold.

My incarcerated students differ radically from the ones at Columbia. When I walk into a tidy, well-equipped classroom on Morningside campus, I know my undergrads have spent years preparing for academic achievement, supported by family and teachers. Trained to ask hard questions, they consider diverse perspectives and then expect to get to the bottom of things.

When a correctional officer escorts me into a prison room equipped with rickety tables, tangled Venetian blinds, and no chalk, I know my incarcerated students have been locked away for years – sometimes for decades — with virtually no opportunity for intellectual stimulation. The culture they inhabit punishes people for asking questions. Solitary confinement is often the reward for any form of precocity. As one woman explained, “If you ask too many questions in here, you’ll be punished for having the wrong attitude.” The lesson is to keep your head down.

My main goal as a teacher in prison has been to create a space comfortable enough for exploration and insight. The circumstance does not make that easy. With a heating system so loud we can barely hear ourselves think and a correctional officer randomly peering through a window in the classroom wall, it’s easy to be distracted. A quick trip to the bathroom is overseen, and class ends not at the scheduled time, but when it suits the schedule of others. Although every aspect of my students’ lives is controlled, down to the details of their drab green uniforms, our class begins at the whim of the correctional officer on duty. “Welcome to our world,” mumbled one student.

At the conclusion of Clytemnestra’s speech that Friday night, a thrilled listener showed us her goose bumps before offering a cuttingly smart evaluation of the queen’s motivations for the murders. Another student who had seemed trapped in her own uncertainties about the play’s violence, announced her admiration for Clytemnestra’s self-satisfied confession. The classroom seemed to glow with excitement.

Things didn’t work out so well for Clytemnestra. After dying at the hands of her irresolute son, she returns as a ghost to argue unsuccessfully for revenge. The “Oresteia” ends with an insecure compromise between forms of justice. Although my Columbia undergrads find this conclusion unsettling, the play’s ambiguity seems just right to my incarcerated students, all of whom have intensely experienced life’s vagaries and horrors. As one woman said, to unanimous approval, “People expect things in life to be clear, but they’re not. That’s the point.” These women’s intellectual courage and uncanny insight have created a magical space of moral and literary exploration. Despite the oppressive confines of the prison itself, they flourish before my eyes.

There are roughly 2.2 million people in a correctional facility in the United States, which incarcerates more individuals than any other country in the world. According to a 2012 study, 58.5% of incarcerated people are black or Latino. According to the Sentencing Project, one in three black men will be incarcerated.

Although more than 50% have high school diplomas or a GED, most prisons offer little if any post-secondary education.

Things have not always been this bad. In the 1980’s, when the prison population sat below 400,000, our incarcerated citizens were educated through state and federal funding. But the 1990’s brought an abrupt end to government support. When President Clinton signed into law the Crime Bill in 1994, he eliminated incarcerated people’s eligibility for federal Pell grants and sentenced a generation of incarcerated Americans to educational deprivation. Nationwide, over 350 college programs in prisons were shut down that year. Many states jumped on the tough-on-crime bandwagon and slashed state funded prison educational programs. In New York State, for example, no state funds can be used to support secondary-education in prison. Before 1994, there were 70 publicly funded post-secondary prison programs in the state. Now there are none. In many states across the country, college instruction has fallen primarily to volunteers.

The need to volunteer has become increasingly clear to a growing number of professors. If our job as educators is to nurture intellectual growth and contribute to a thoughtful future for our country, what could be more obvious than to help those who are educationally under-served?

I am the first professor at Columbia to volunteer in a brand new initiative sponsored by Columbia’s Center for Justice. The main goal of the Justice-in-Education Initiative is to provide education to presently and formerly incarcerated people. Collaborating extensively with community partners, my colleagues’ commitment is to develop programs that support faculty and students in providing educational opportunities to this underserved population. The success of my experience is just the beginning.

There are hundreds of thousands of students just like mine scattered across the country eager to be educated and keen to join the ranks of active participants in our democracy.

As a society, we owe them (and ourselves) that chance. A National Institute of Justice study has found that 76.6% of formerly incarcerated people return to prison within five years of release.

According to research by the Rand Institute, recidivism goes down by 43% when people are offered education.

Those who leave prison with a college degree are much more likely to gain employment, be role models for their own children (50% of incarcerated adults have children), and become active members of their communities. Some of my students are quite clear about the desire to motivate their children: “the conversation changes when you’re educating yourself.”

The pleasures I’ve found teaching in prison are among the richest I’ve ever had. But the pleasure I find in this pedagogical delight is matched by the pain of recognition that their intellectual exploration will cease without volunteers like me. We must not allow so many members of our community to languish in prison without the chance for intellectual development. We must find it in ourselves to educate all Americans.

~~  Christia Mercer - The Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University ~~

The Only Truly Compliant, Submissive Citizen in a Police State Is a Dead One

The Gilmer Free Press

“Do exactly what I say, and we’ll get along fine. Do not question me or talk back in any way. You do not have the right to object to anything I may say or ask you to do, or ask for clarification if my demands are unclear or contradictory. You must obey me under all circumstances without hesitation, no matter how arbitrary, unreasonable, discriminatory, or blatantly racist my commands may be. Anything other than immediate perfect servile compliance will be labeled as resisting arrest, and expose you to the possibility of a violent reaction from me. That reaction could cause you severe injury or even death. And I will suffer no consequences. It’s your choice: Comply, or die.”— “‘Comply or Die’ policing must stop,” Daily KOS

Americans as young as 4 years old are being leg shackled, handcuffed, tasered and held at gun point for not being quiet, not being orderly and just being childlike—i.e., not being compliant enough.

Americans as old as 95 are being beaten, shot and killed for questioning an order, hesitating in the face of a directive, and mistaking a policeman crashing through their door for a criminal breaking into their home—i.e., not being submissive enough.

And Americans of every age and skin color are being taught the painful lesson that the only truly compliant, submissive and obedient citizen in a police state is a dead one.

It doesn’t matter where you live—big city or small town—it’s the same scenario being played out over and over again in which government agents, hyped up on their own authority and the power of their uniform, ride roughshod over the rights of the citizenry. In turn, Americans are being brainwashed into believing that anyone who wears a government uniform—soldier, police officer, prison guard—must be obeyed without question.

Franklin Graham, the heir to Billy Graham’s evangelical empire, offered up this “simple” piece of advice for “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else” hoping to survive an encounter with the police:

Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience. If a police officer tells you to stop, you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. If a police officer tells you to lay down face first with your hands behind your back, you lay down face first with your hands behind your back. It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong—YOU OBEY.

Clearly, Graham’s message resonated with a core group of Americans: almost 200,000 individuals “liked” the message on Facebook, with an astounding 83,000 fans sharing his words of advice with their own friends, none of whom seem to recall that Jesus Christ, whom they claim to follow and model their lives after, not only stood up to the police state of his day but was put to death for it.

It’s not just mainstream evangelicals who have been brainwashed into believing that a good citizen is a compliant citizen and that obedience will save us from the police state. In the wake of a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer responsible for the choking death of Eric Garner, Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, declared:

“We have to teach our children, our sons and our daughters, no matter what they look like, to respect New York City police officers, teach them to comply with New York City police officers even if they think it’s unjust.”

Similarly, Officer Sunil Dutta of the Los Angeles Police Department advises:

If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the right, it doesn’t matter if a cop is in the wrong, it doesn’t matter if you’re being treated with less than the respect you deserve. If you want to emerge from a police encounter with your life and body intact, then you’d better comply, submit, obey orders, respect authority and generally do whatever a cop tells you to do.

In this way, the old police motto to “protect and serve” has become “comply or die.” As I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State and in my forthcoming book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, this is the unfortunate, misguided, perverse message being beaten, shot, tasered and slammed into our collective consciousness, and it is regrettably starting to take root.

Despite the growing number of criminal charges (ranging from resisting arrest and interference to disorderly conduct, obstruction, and failure to obey a police order) that get trotted out anytime a citizen voices discontent with the government or challenges or even questions the authority of the powers that be, the problems we’re experiencing in terms of police shootings have little to do with rebellion or belligerence or resistance.

Rather, the problem arises when compliance doesn’t happen fast enough to suit the police.

For instance, 15-year-old Jamar Nicholson was shot in the back by police after they spotted him standing next to a friend holding a toy gun. “Officers ordered the boy to drop the weapon multiple times,” reports the Los Angeles Times. “When he didn’t comply, one of the officers opened fire.”

Martese Johnson, a 20-year-old college student, unarmed and in the process of walking away from a bar where he’d just been denied entry for being underage, was tackled by police and had his head slammed to the ground and bloodied, allegedly for being intoxicated, belligerent and using a fake ID. Johnson, who it turns out was polite, had a legal ID and was not drunk, survived the encounter after 10 stitches to his head.

And then there was Christopher Lollie, who was tasered, arrested and charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct and obstruction of the legal process for refusing to identify himself to police while waiting to pick his children up from their daycare. Footage of the encounter shows Lollie asking, “Why do I have to let you know who I am? I don’t have to let you know who I am if I haven’t broken any laws.” The charges against Lollie were eventually dropped.

Nicholson, Johnson and Lollie aren’t the only Americans being taught a hard lesson about compliance at the end of a government-issued gun.

World War II veteran John Wrana, 95 years old, dependent on a walker to get around, and a resident of an assisted living center, was rushed by five police officers—one with a Taser and riot shield, others with handguns and a 12-gauge Mossberg pump shotgun—after refusing treatment for a urinary tract infection and brandishing a shoehorn. One of the officers, allegedly fearing for his safety, fired multiple beanbag rounds at Wrana at close range, who bled to death from internal injuries.

James Howard Allen, 74 years old and recovering at home from a surgery, was shot and killed by police who were asked by family members to do a welfare check on him. When police crashed through the man’s back door, they found Allen, perhaps having just awoken and fearing a burglary, armed with a gun.

These shootings and deaths, and many more like them, constitute a drop in the proverbial bucket when it comes to police killing unarmed American citizens, and yet you’d be hard-pressed to find exact numbers for how many unarmed citizens are killed by police every year. Indeed, while police go to great lengths to document how many police are killed in the line of duty, police agencies aren’t actually required to report the number of times police officers engage in homicide. Suffice it to say, however, that the numbers are significantly underreported.

One website estimates that police kill on average three citizens a day in the United States. In 2014, 1100 individuals were killed by police in the U.S. That’s 70 times more than other first-world nations, and almost 20 times more than the number of U.S. troops killed in the same year in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rarely are these officers given more than a slap on the wrist. More often than not, they operate with impunity, are shielded from justice by the governmental bureaucracy, and are granted qualified immunity by the courts.

A recent report by the Justice Department on police shootings in Philadelphia, which boasts the fourth largest police department in the country, found that half of the unarmed people shot by police over a seven-year span were “shot because the officer saw something (like a cellphone) or some action (like a person pulling at the waist of their pants) and misidentified it as a threat.”

Now it’s one thing for those who back the police—no matter what the circumstance—to insist that if you just obey a police officer, you’ll be safe. But what happens when compliance isn’t enough?

What happens if you play it safe, comply and do whatever a police officer tells you to do, don’t talk back, don’t threaten, and don’t walk away—in other words, don’t do anything that even hints at resistance—and still, you find yourself staring down the wrong end of a government agent’s gun? After all, the news is riddled with reports of individuals who didn’t resist when confronted by police and still got tasered, tackled or shot simply because they looked at police in a threatening manner or moved in a way that made an officer “fear” for his safety.

For instance, Levar Jones, pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt, was shot after complying with a police officer’s order to retrieve his license. The trooper justified his shooting of the unarmed man by insisting that Jones reached for his license “aggressively.”

What more could Jones or anyone have done to protect himself in that situation? How does a citizen protect himself against a police officer’s tendency to shoot first and ask questions later, oftentimes based only on their highly subjective “feeling” of being threatened?

The short answer is you can’t.

The assurance of safety in exchange for compliance is a false, misguided doctrine that has us headed towards a totalitarian regime the likes of which the world has seen before.

Rest assured, if we just cower before government agents and meekly obey, we’ll find ourselves repeating history. However, history also shows us a different path, one that involves standing up and speaking truth to power. Jesus Christ walked that road. So did Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless other freedom fighters whose actions changed the course of history.

Indeed, had Christ merely complied with the Roman police state, there would have been no crucifixion and no Christian religion. Had Gandhi meekly fallen in line with the British Empire’s dictates, the Indian people would never have won their independence. Had Martin Luther King Jr. obeyed the laws of his day, there would have been no civil rights movement. And if the founding fathers had marched in lockstep with royal decrees, there would have been no American Revolution.

The long answer, therefore, is that we must adopt a different mindset and follow a different path if we are to alter the outcome of these interactions with police.

No matter what path you follow, it will be fraught with peril. America is in the midst of a nervous breakdown, brought about by prolonged exposure to the American police state, and there are few places that are safe anymore.

A good test is this: if you live in a community that has welcomed the trappings of the police state with open arms (surveillance cameras, forced DNA extractions, Stingray devices, red light cameras, private prisons, etc.), all the while allowing its police forces to militarize, weaponize and operate beyond the reach of the Constitution, then you don’t live in a democratic republic—you live in a microcosm of the American police state.

If you have no real say in how your local law enforcement operates, if the only oversight of police actions is carried out by fellow officers, if any attempt to criticize the police is edited out or not covered by your local newspaper or TV station, drowned out by your fellow citizens, or intimidated into silence by your local police, then you have no recourse when it comes to police abuses.

Finally, if, despite having done nothing wrong, you feel nervous during a police encounter, you fear doing or saying the wrong thing in front of an officer will get you shot, and your local police dress and act like extensions of the military and treat you like a suspect, then it’s safe to say that you are not the one holding the upper hand in the master-servant relationship anymore.

This is the death rattle of the American dream, which was built on the idea that no one is above the law, that our rights are inalienable and cannot be taken away, and that our government and its appointed agents exist to serve us.

~~  John W. Whitehead ~~

Jim Brown Goes Home

The Gilmer Free Press

I was scrolling through my News Feed today and found a post by Jim Brown’s son, Billy Brown, that his father had passed away last night.

Those of us who knew him, were saddened by this. Duane had taken me up to Pine Grove a few years back to interview Mr. Brown, retired prison guard of the Rosedale Prison Camp.

Preacher George Rose, who grew up just around the bend from the camp on O’Brien, had suggested that we get in touch with my cousin, Leary Vanhorn, as Leary knew where Jim lived.

Leary pastored a Baptist church up there at the time and he was a friend of Jim. Leary and his wife, Lou Rose Vanhorn, now have the ministry at Elizabeth Baptist Church.

Leary met us at a small shopping area and we followed him to Mr. Brown’s house. We enjoyed meeting Jim and enjoyed his stories. He had health issues and was on oxygen.

He told us that his wife had gone on to be with the Lord and a son was taking care of him.

I had a list of questions ready and he answered them and gave details of each one. His greatest desire was to be able to come back and walk that two lane country road from the camp up to Rosedale and back. That is where he met his sweetheart, Donna Jarvis, and later married her.

She went to the Methodist Church in town. Their reception was held in a house at Rosedale that had a bathroom, to better accommodate all the people at the wedding.  Jim Brown’s son, Billy, posted that if anyone saw a tall man of dark complexion, walking the Rosedale Road in the vicinity of the camp to Rosedale, we would know who it was.

He went home to be with the Lord and his lovely wife, Donna, who died at only 52 years old.

I’m sure that if the Lord allows us to come and go, Jim would have requested to walk that road again.

Another thing that Jim told me was that he and some other men would set on a big log in front of the store, eating their lunch, and solving all the world’s problems. Jodi Barton has started a site entitled, From the beginning, Rosedale WV and in one week’s time, she had 174 people involved. Someone mentioned hearing about that log where the men would sit and talk.

People are posting real old pictures and sharing their memories and stories that have been handed down through the generations. My mother had ties up this way and my husband grew up here, so I have contributed some, also. Jim Brown was loved and respected. Many of the older folks remember him and they know the Jarvis families of Rosedale and their relatives.

We are all connected somehow. I recently found out that my mother was related to the wife of Alexander Shock, the first pioneer to this area and Shock was named after him. He had married Eliza Stump and they built the Shock log cabin. Mom’s grandma was Roxie Stump Lowe, a descendant of Eliza.

Until next time, Happy Spring!  Get out and see what Easter flowers are blooming. I have yellow crocus blooming and daffodils are in bud. Jonquils aren’t far behind. My surgery leg is better but now the other leg is getting bad with the O.A.  My 3 month check up with Dr. Courtney is coming up in April and I will probably have to schedule another knee replacement surgery on the right leg. Take care and God bless.

~~  Jeanette Riffle ~~

On “Real Women”

The Gilmer Free Press

I am an unreal woman, evidently. A fake, a fraud, an alien-woman of sorts. At least that’s what I keep hearing and reading. Because evidently, real women have “curves,” “back fat,” “bass,” and “booty.” Real women struggle to lose weight after childbirth. They have droopy bits and wrinkles, so I am told.

I am 42 years old. I am 5’10 and weigh 110 pounds. I do not have an eating disorder, I am just naturally tall and thin, I eat generally healthy foods, and I am a lifelong runner who paid for most of my college by competing in Division 1 track and cross country. I lost all the weight I gained with my healthy (7.1 pounds, 20 inch) baby within one week of delivery. According to popular culture, this makes me not “real” at best, and, if you listen to popular music, it might make me a “silicone Barbie doll” or a “skinny #####.”

This focus on so-called “real women” may sound nice, but in actuality is as divisive as the excessive emphasis on being model thin. When former super model Cindy Crawford released an untouched photograph showing her beauty but also her flaws, people went crazy, claiming that this made them love her even more because she is now more “real.” Dove has lead the “real” women movement with its “Campaign for Real Beauty,” featuring several supposedly “real” women in their bras and panties. While these women definitely don’t have typical celebrity or model bodies, it was revealed in 2008 that these photos were also photoshopped, hence not actually real at all.

People magazine recently featured the photography of Jade Beall, who captured “real” women after pregnancy. The focus, of course, is on those who struggled to lose their baby weight. Because that’s what “real” women do. When pregnant model Sarah Stage released pictures of her small and still muscular stomach, she suffered from skinny-shaming, with many asserting that somehow she was delinquent because she didn’t gain enough weight. Yet Stage’s baby is by all measures so far completely healthy. Maria Kang, now known as “fit mom” ignited an online war when she photographed her very fit body asking women “What’s your excuse?” Kang is the mother of three children under the age of three, and has argued that many women use children, work or other obligations as an excuse not to take care of their personal fitness and health. Women accused her of fat-shaming, of bullying, and demanded that she apologize.

Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate any chance to open up a conversation about women’s many body types and the strange and oppressive pressures placed on us (and that we place on ourselves) to meet these socially constructed standards. I fail to see, however, how skinny-shaming is any better than fat-shaming. It is unclear to me how poking fun of women who are thin and fit serves to challenge the excessive focus on women’s bodies.

Film star Maggie Gyllenhaal offered a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of women in her commentary about the roles for which females were being considered for Oscars. She noted that “these women who are sometimes powerful and sometimes not. Sometimes sexy, sometimes not. Sometimes honorable, sometimes not.” In sum, not “real” or “unreal” by some visual criteria but instead different from one another in many ways, physical and otherwise.

~~  Laura Finley, Ph.D. - Teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology ~~

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