Category Archives: mass incarceration

What I Learned in Prison by James Kilgore

August 3, 2015

I was paroled to Champaign, Ill., in 2009, after serving six and a half years in federal and state prisons in California.

When I arrived in Illinois, I ducked questions about my years behind bars. People would ask me where I had been before. “California,” I’d say. “What were you doing there?” I’d look away and mumble something about being a writer (I did write a lot in prison) or just say “a lot of things.”

Since I’m an older white guy, with no tattoos or bulging biceps and all my teeth, no one assumes I’m a thug or a meth cook. Class and race stereo­types help steer people away from specifics.

Then one day I met a man at a birthday party who started in on the “where were you before you came to Champaign?” routine. I didn’t feel like playing the game anymore. “I was in prison,” I told him. He went bug-eyed. All he could do was repeat the word “prison.”

I, on the other hand, felt great. I realized the power of truth, even if it does come with stigma and judgment. Since we have nearly 20 million people in the United States with felony convictions and an estimated 65 million with some kind of criminal record, people need to get used to dealing with “background” as part of people’s biographies. Of course, those millions are not spread evenly. Many black folks either have a family member with a felony or have one themselves. Ditto if you are Native American or transgender. It’s not much different in Latino communities, especially if we acknowledge that immigration detention is the same as imprisonment.

After that fateful birthday party, people began asking me: “What was prison like?” At first I talked about the most painful things: that your children grow up without you, that you never get to hold your lover, kiss your mother, or walk down a quiet street in the rain. But I decided that I didn’t like sharing that pain with strangers. I put together four talking points about how prison changes a middle-class, educated white man.

First, the abnormal becomes normal. This occurs in ways that you might expect: You get called “inmate” or referred to by your prison number, not your name. You get handcuffed and put in waist chains and leg shackles when you have to leave the prison to see a doctor (and at other times when the guards see fit).

But the most abnormal thing that becomes normal is the endless stream of black, brown, and poor white bodies flowing through those gates. And those bodies will spend 10, 20, 30 years in prison. Some will do life or double life or life without parole. I had one friend who was doing 555 years. Most of those prisoners have not committed crimes that any rational society would punish so severely.

When I was in the federal prison at Lompoc, I was a GED teacher. One of my best students was Weldon Angelos, whose case exposes the madness of mass incarceration. He is serving 55 years for selling marijuana while possessing a gun — with no prior record, a family, a job. Even his judge says he should never have gotten such a long sentence. I met too many Weldons behind those walls.

Second, there isn’t much violence in prison. That always shocks people because they think that men in prison spend their days stabbing and raping each other. But instead, people find ways to live together: to share tight spaces and meager resources in a way that puts getting along at the center of their lives. I have a lot of respect for that.

The minute you arrive at a new prison yard, someone will approach you, find out where you are from, connect you to one of your “homies,” and make sure you have the basics needed to survive: soap, deodorant, a couple of Top Ramens, a pair of shower shoes. The assumption is that we all have to live together in this hellhole, so let’s find a way to do that; let’s make sure no one starves, no one stinks, no one has to walk around in bare feet.

Every prison has a well-­developed service economy, all run by prisoners. I have paid for the following from my comrades-in-arms: a massage, getting my shirts ironed, a haircut, a delicious burrito, oatmeal cookies stolen from the kitchen, color portraits of my entire family, a picture frame made from old potato-chip wrappers, and, of course, white lightning and the prison wine known as pruno. People find ways to make money, to barter, to improve their lives through systems of production and cooperation.

You can cram 150 “convicts” into a converted gym and make them sleep on triple bunks, and they will develop a way to get along without violence. They will make rules, carve out territory, and respect boundaries. Anyone who breaks the rules may be forced to do a few burpees or even get “checked” (punched), but the rules are clear. If you put 150 CEOs or MacArthur geniuses in the same space, they wouldn’t do half as well.

My next point contradicts Point No. 2: Prisons are steeped in hate and violence. Guards generally loathe prisoners. Since so many prisons are located in rural areas with mostly white populations, whereas those locked up are overwhelmingly poor people of color from big cities, prison hatred has a powerful racial tinge. Most guards have learned how to avoid using the N-word, but institutional racism lurks just below the surface.

Then there is white supremacy. In prison I acquired the social skill of making polite conversation with someone with a swastika tattoo on his forehead or a nicely inked “thank God I’m white” across the back of his neck. Prisons are hotbeds of white supremacy, a special form of hatred that keeps prison populations divided and makes it difficult to mount resistance to the myriad ways in which the institutions violate the rights of their charges. Unfortunately, the ideology spills out into the streets.

While I hate white supremacy, I don’t hate all white supremacists. Most are victims of circumstances — but still dangerous.

Finally, in prison you always know someone is benefiting from locking you up. People make money designing those crepe-paper suits they put on you when you move to another prison. Companies like Bob Barker (“America’s Leading Detention Supplier”) profit from a range of disgusting products, like one-inch razors and canvas shoes with black and white stripes on the side. Other companies make millions designing and building prisons and supplying them with everything from food to toilet paper.

Guards are the most obvious profiteers. They’re constantly cooking up overtime schemes. Thousands of guards in California make more than $100,000, and last year more than 100 had paychecks surpassing $180,000. That’s a criminal misuse of taxpayers’ money.

Prison changed me. I’m a little less fun now, less prone to look for the lighter side of things. I do try. But most days, prison is all I can talk about. I’ve become an obsessed campaigner against incarceration, against the madness of solving social problems with concrete and steel cages. My obsession may not make me an ideal party guest, but I can’t think of a better way to spend my time.

James Kilgore is a visiting lecturer in global studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He spent six and a half years in prison for crimes related to his participation in political violence during the 1970s, and a subsequent period of more than two decades as a fugitive. Since his release, he has published three novels. His most recent book is Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (The New Press, 2015)  He can be contacted at




Are We Really Witnessing the End of Mass Incarceration?

by James Kilgore

from Counterpunch, November 2013

from the back of the bus “This is the beginning of the end of mass incarceration.”

Natasha Frost, associate dean of Northeastern University’s school of criminology and criminal justice

After more than three decades of “tough on crime”, the New Jim Crow, truth in sentencing and three strikes, the law and order project looks adrift with no one rushing to bring it back on course.  The bubble of prison construction is about to burst, if it hasn’t already. Pretty soon it may be difficult to find anyone who admits they once advocated serial prison building and trying fourteen year olds as adults. Crime figures are down while other distress  meters rise into the danger zone- unemployment, homelessness,  and deteriorating public education.  No longer can Directors of Corrections masquerade as first responders and lay claim to unlimited funding streams. Budgetary and social justice alarm bells are ringing loud and clear.  On top of this, as Soros Justice fellow Tracy Huling notes, a “newfound political will” from state Governors of both parties “to close prisons and, in some cases, to reduce the overall size of their incarceration systems” has emerged.  At a local level, more than 40 municipalities and counties from, Kalamazoo to Jacksonville, have passed Ban the Box legislation which removes questions about criminal background from job applications. Even people with felony convictions seem to be getting a fair shake.

For those of us who have spent years of our lives in cages and for everyone who has been fighting mass incarceration, this reality is encouraging but also a little unsettling. We have perfected our mantras, honed our talking points of condemnation for everything from supermaxes to technical parole violations.  Now everyone speaks like they are on our side.  In a battle where the lines were once clearly drawn, the division between them and us is getting murky.  After six and a half years inside Federal and state prisons, I’m getting pressure to call prison guards “correctional officers,” being told I must find commonality with them as “exploited workers.”   Such urgings push me into an uncomfortable corner.  Time to take a deep breath and survey the lay of the land.

The Carceral Big Picture

Capturing the big picture requires looking at several aspects of what some of us call the prison industrial complex. The first is the numbers game: do we really have less people behind bars? The answer is, yes.  For the past three years, the total number of people in prisons in the US has fallen for the first time since 1972, a post-2009 decrease of about 43,000  out of a prison population of more than 1.5 million (2.2. million including jails).  No massive celebrations are in order, however.  Some disturbing new trends are creeping into the mix-like the meteoric increase in the incarceration of women in the last few years. Besides, even with the reductions, the US still far outdistances the rest of the world in per capita incarceration rates and states like Pennsylvania continue to promote massive prison construction projects. 

Also, the numbers game isn’t everything.  We need to ask what happens to people who have been taken out of prison.  Do they find jobs? Are substance abuse and mental health treatment programs available? Are they managing to avoid constant harassment by police? Do they really have a future or are they destined to live at the margins, in the gutters, alleys and board ups of U.S. cities? And most importantly, how many of them are locked up somewhere else just to keep the state prison statistics looking good?  Answering these questions is difficult.  That trending catchall, “alternatives to incarceration,” can become a shell game where punitive policies submerge themselves in benevolent clouds of risk assessment tools and evidence-based practices.  Punishment adopts many pseudonyms.

A quick snapshot of the nation’s four largest prison systems sheds considerable light on the complex dynamics involved.  Let’s begin with the good news, New York, where the most significant changes have occurred.  Since 1999 the prison population in New York State has decreased by 24% with eleven prisons closed.  Law enforcement officials have been quick to attribute these shifts to reduced crime produced by “hot spot” policing and “zero tolerance.” Activists Judith Greene and Marc Mauer call the decreases the result of “a remarkable change in drug enforcement policy in 1999 that entailed an unprecedented curtailing of NYPD’s  ‘war on drugs.’”  These policy changes didn’t come about through a spontaneous change of heart by police, nor did legislators simply wake up to budgetary pressures. Rather, the work of   civil society groups like the NYCLU, the Correctional Association’s  “Drop the Rock” campaign, and the Drug Policy Alliance’s Real Reform coalition exposed the bankruptcy of aggressive drug prosecutions.  Eventually the public and then key officials like District Attorney Joe Hynes began to see the light.

Reforms to laws such as the removal of mandatory minimum sentences, contributed to a decline in drug arrests, from 40,361 in 2008 to 29,960 in 2012.  Moreover, while the stop and frisk policy has deservedly landed New York City with a New Jim Crow label, figures from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services show that Black drug arrests have actually been decreasing- from  42% of the total in 2008 to 35% in 2012.  More people now receive citations for minor possession.  In other cases, instead of offering penitentiary time, authorities channel thousands through treatment-based diversions like drug courts.  Relaxing conditions of parole is also part of the new approach, precipitating a huge reduction in returns to prison for petty transgressions like missing a meeting with a parole agent or failing to look for work.  Still, even with all these changes, New York State’s per capita incarceration rate remains at 425 per 100,000, well below the national average of 728 but about four times that of the United Kingdom and five times the rate in Sweden.  Though New York has made great strides, forgiveness and mercy have not yet been thoroughly etched into the logo of the New York State Department of Corrections.


California presents another version of the reform scenario: a set of administrative changes forced down the throat of the governor by a Federal Court decision.   Despite its reputation as a Blue state, California has been at the cutting edge of racialized mass incarceration.  As recently as 2007, the state assembly voted 70-1 to pass AB 900 authorizing the construction of 53,000 new prison and jail “beds.”  But a high profile campaign by Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a coalition of over 50 organizations and an advocacy heir of prison abolition pioneers Critical Resistance, slowed the state’s capacity to roll out the construction. Then in 2009 the Federal Courts intervened.  In a landmark move resulting from legal action by prison resident Marciano Plata, the court upheld the plaintiff’s allegations that medical care in California’s prisons was inadequate. The decision pointed to overcrowding, rather than lack of services, as the root problem.  The court then ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to slash the population from its then 200% of capacity to 137.5% within two years.  Failure to comply would mean the Feds would step in and run the system.

 In response, Jerry Brown, first as state Attorney-General, then as governor, bought time with legal appeals while he developed his plan of “realignment.”  Vowing not to release people early, the Governor “realigned” individuals  from the state prison system by shifting them into county jails and community-based programs. AB 109, passed in 2011, was the enabling legislation, removing the cap on county jail sentences and clearing the deck for people to serve unlimited time in county lockups as long as they were “non/non/nons” –non-serious,  nonviolent, and non sexual.  Despite disturbing results like one man being sentenced to 43 years in LA County Jail,  Stanford law professor  Joan Petersilia responded with typical Golden State hyperbole: “The importance of California’s realignment experiment cannot be overstated…This is the biggest penal experiment in modern history.”

This mega- “penal experiment” came with a local sweetener, extra funds for counties to accommodate the “realigned.”  Some sheriffs opportunistically used this money for jail construction rather than placing people in alternative programs.  A few prosecutors developed their own pushback strategy “upping ” the charges, to make sure a person’s  conviction would warrant a prison rather than a jail sentence.  Despite these obstructions, the plan succeeded in moving some 25,000 people out of the state system over the next two years, but fell short of the court-mandated target.  Earlier this year, the Supreme Court issued a final verdict: the state had to reduce to 137.5% of capacity by the end of 2013. Brown then added a second round of “bonuses” to local authorities for his pass the buck strategy – $315 million in extra funding to county sheriffs to accommodate their new immigrants from CDCR with the figure to almost treble by 2015.

On the surface, Petersilia does seem to have a point – that the importance of this “cannot be overstated.”  The issue is defining that importance. While Brown’s counter to the Feds has bounced thousands out of state prisons, medium- and long-term impact remain in doubt. As more money drifts down to the county level, more sheriffs may opt to expand jail capacity rather than fund programs.  If this occurs, the net result could be no significant reduction in the ranks of the incarcerated but simply more people in county jails, less people in state prisons.  This would be a clear cut loss for the men and women behind bars, since nearly any state prison, even California’s violent and racially segregated facilities where I spent a little over three years, offers programs and services vastly superior to those of  most county jails.

On the other hand, if realignment were to succeed and keep reducing the number of people incarcerated in the Golden State, Governor Brown would have discovered a way of decarcerating by administrative fiat rather than a philosophical shift or significantly modifying draconian legislation and carceral practice.  

Ultimately, the importance of Brown’s initiative may actually be in realigning the CDCR with private prison providers.  While California has largely avoided private prisons, with Brown under the gun to reach the 137.5% by the end of 2013, the Governor signed an agreement with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to lease a minimum security facility in the Mojave Desert which holds 2300 beds.  While the privates generally are staunchly anti-union, the deal allegedly would staff the facility with guards from the ultra-right union, California Correctional and Parole Officers Association (CCPOA), a major backer of Brown’s campaign.

In the meantime, CURB and many other groups continue to pressure against any expansion of the CDCR’s capacity, consistently calling for the release of people with non-violent cases as a more meaningful alternative than Brown’s administrative restructuring.

California’s process demonstrates how decarceration is about far more than numbers.  The recent hunger strike by men in the Security Housing Unit in Pelican Bay provides evidence that the punishment paradigm remains alive and well in California. Brown and CDCR officials’ steadfast refusal to negotiate with hunger strikers who were demanding an end to isolation cells in which some of them had remained for over four decades, revealed that little had been realigned in the minds of criminal justice authorities in the Golden State.  Only continued pressure from below by organizations like CURB is likely to yield more permanent results.


The upbeat version of recent criminal justice history in Texas characterizes the state as a poster child  early adopter of prison reform.  The narrative goes like this: when 2007 budget projections showed Texas would need 17,000 prison beds in the next five years at a cost of $1.6 billion, a now –retired, cherry  Red state legislator named  Jerry Madden stepped in.  A series of startling reforms ensued – including the spread of drug courts, mental health and substance abuse treatment and lower parole case loads. The resulting changes freed up some 12,000 “beds” in the state system, though Texas continued to carry out contracts with more than a dozen private prisons.

 In policy terms Texas, once the beacon for the “make my day” set , did soften, especially when it came to releasing people on parole.  In addition, a broad-based coalition which included the ACLU of Texas, Grassroots Leadership, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, AFSCME Local 3807, the Texas Inmate Families Association and several other groups successfully foiled attempts at private prison expansion. While the state managed to free up enough “bed space” to close two institutions, a look at the overall numbers is equivocal. Texas did register a decrease of almost 3,000 people in the state prison system from 2011 to 2012, but the numbers remain at 2005 levels of slightly over 152,000, still the US’largest state prison system.  Furthermore, with an astronomical per capita incarceration rate of 923 per 100,000, Texas doesn’t amount just yet to any beacon of hope.  As a recent post from high profile blogger “Grits for Breakfast” asks: “If Texas justice reforms were so great, why does the state still have the nation’s largest prison population?” Good question.

Where Texas has succeeded is juvenile justice. After a set of scandals involving abuse of youth in state lockups in 2007, authorities closed nine facilities and built community-based alternatives. Perhaps adult corrections officials should study their juvenile counterparts more seriously.

The Federal System

Lastly, we come to the Federal system-the nation’s key carceral growth area. Despite the recent chest-beating by Attorney General Eric Holder about setting aside mandatory minimums, the Federal  Bureau of Prisons(BOP) has not succumbed even to the rhetoric of decarceration,  let alone the practice. Instead, the Feds have adopted an expansion-oriented business model, partnering with private prisons to tap into the   “niche market” of immigration detention leading to an 84% rise in  the number of people in immigration detention since 2005. In addition, Congress has imposed a mandatory quota of 34,000 immigration detainees- ICE cannot let the number fall below that figure, despite declines in actual “illegal” border crossings.  Coupled with harsher immigration laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, all this has led to a spiking of deportations, with 2012 numbers surpassing 400,000 for the first time in history.  In a previous Counterpunch  article, I have termed this wave of deportations “The New Operation Wetback”, after an actual US government program in the 1950s which repatriated hundreds of thousands  to Mexico. But nowadays deportation is not the only issue.

Under the current regime people with a prior illegal entry conviction can be sentenced to up to two years in prison before being repatriated.  Those with a previous felony conviction who enter the US illegally can receive up to ten years, 20 years if it was an “aggravated felony.  Locking up the undocumented has become the primary face of mass incarceration with the Feds leading the charge. The outcome has produced a drastic change in the demographics of those in prison.  Since 2000, the number of African Americans in prison has actually fallen slightly but the ranks of “Hispanics” have increased by more than 50%.  This has provided a lifeline for an almost moribund private corrections sector. While the privates control only 8% of the “beds” in the system nationwide, in the immigration detention sector they own and/or operate roughly half of  the “beds.”   Although the rate of African American incarceration remains about 50% higher than that of “Hispanics” the large-scale operations of mass incarceration may increasingly be led by the troops of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rather than drug squads or SWAT teams.  


In New York a popular mobilization along with politicians waking up to fiscal realities helped precipitate important changes.  In Texas and California, the results have been much more uneven with political pushback and bureaucratic manipulations like realignment stalling comprehensive shifts.  While the national and state level conversation has altered, we stand at the precipice of a very complex period- the bursting of the bubble of prison construction can assume many forms. Tracy Huling points out some of her concerns in this regard: I am worried that … entrenched special interests, including unions representing prison workers and for-profit private prison companies, might somehow combine to create the perfect storm.

Citing California Governor Brown’s dealings with private prison kingpin CCA, Huling goes on to add, “In that kind of scenario, given the extent to which campaign contributions and other kinds of bribes already corrupt the democratic process, all rational public policy considerations about the costs and benefits of prisons might be thrown out the window.”

A key point which grows from Huling’s analysis is that significantly changing the prison industrial complex entails wresting money and resources from corrections for programs and ultimately transformative processes that attack the problem at its core. In short, there is no stopping mass incarceration without redistribution of wealth and tax revenue, without attacking poverty and inequality.

Those who have benefited from mass incarceration will find new ways to resist change, new ways to brand and deliver their commodity.  In 2010 private prison operator the GEO Group, bought the nation’s largest electronic monitoring firm, BI Incorporated. Clearly, GEO Group CEO George Zoley, who earned $7 million in 2010, thinks that GPS is part of the wave of the future. In a society where many people look for technological solutions to social problems, electronic home incarceration, especially as the surveillance capacity of GPS escalates, offers many attractive possibilities for investors and corrections power brokers.  If prison and jails cells are rendered too costly, with home detention,  families can shoulder the expense of room and board and the state can extract daily user fees for being monitored. Most programs already impose such user fees, typically from $5 to $17 a day.

Boutique prisons constitute a second reform which can sustain or expand incarceration.  Not all forms of carceral  punishment come with orange jumpsuits and electrified fences. Now we have a range of product variations designed to “humanize” the captive experience:  “gender-responsive” institutions (which were part of Brown’s realignment), mental health lockups (the GEO Group has also heavily invested here), and family friendly immigration detention centers  where mothers and fathers do time with their children while awaiting adjudication.  And lastly, in a society predicated on dividing the rich from the poor, we have the pay to stay facilities where folks in Beverly Hills or Anaheim can fork out $150 a night not to have to sleep with the riff raff.  All of these “alternatives” keep the resources and the focus on detention and deprivation. 

Ultimately, the reversal of mass incarceration necessitates not only designing genuine alternatives but transforming the dominant national mindset.  Perhaps the biggest challenge to current thinking relates to notions of innocence and guilt. Often when I speak to people about decarceration or ending prison construction, they accuse me of advocating for the release of Charles Manson or backing drive by shootings in inner city communities. But hundreds of thousands of people behind bars fall between the “non-non-nons” and the Mansons. They should be released long before their ridiculously long sentences have expired. 

These people and their families are the major victims of mass incarceration. They carry the violent label in a legal system that has been structured to punish the violence of the poor, particularly that of poor people of color.  African American youth catch a violent label for possessing an unregistered gun or get an assault on a police officer resulting from an aggressive stop and frisk. Latinos and poor whites earn the violent tag when they commit a robbery born out of the desperation of addiction or just plain old no food in the house and no access to food stamps because of a drug conviction.  The bottom line dictates that if we change peoples’ social and economic realities, we can change the way they act.

I have walked prison yards with many people I would not like to see back on the streets any time soon. But I have walked with far more people who were doing life or 30 years because they got backed into a corner where doing something destructive felt like or perhaps was the only option.   To reduce US incarceration rates to the relatively sane levels of other industrialized countries, we have to decarcerate more than the non-non-nons. This will only come about when the social movement addressing mass incarceration grows stronger and begins to grapple with the complex racialized nexus of incarceration, poverty, inequality and the state.

Post script

Let me end on an optimistic but contradictory note. For the past eighteen months I have been involved in a campaign to stop a $20 million jail project in the county where I live- Champaign, Illinois.  After lots of ups and downs, just two weeks ago the county sheriff, who had been the chief inspiration behind the jail plans, stated that he had shifted in his thinking, was no longer asking for a cent for construction and was ready to experiment with policies that would keep people out of jail and avoid spending money on incarceration. At the end of the meeting, after considerable discussion, he reached out to shake my hand and I accepted.  I thought about washing that hand as soon as I got home but I didn’t. Still I’m not ready to call anyone a “correctional officer” just yet. Old habits die hard and they usually hang around for a reason. 

Reflections on the Campaign to Stop Jail Construction in Champaign County (IL)

By James Kilgore, Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice

UnityMarchIX 081_webWhen we began our campaign to stop jail construction in Champaign County in early 2012, I thought we were doomed.  The grand plan to spend $20 million on this project seemed like a done deaI. The Sheriff was driving the initiative; the leading lights in the County Board seemed to think jail construction was the only prudent course. Yet, nearly two years later we have a very different scenario. The 2014 budget for Champaign County doesn’t include a single cent for jail construction. In fact, the county has allocated more than $200,000 in new money for social programs aimed at keeping people out of jail.  In a county of slightly more than 200,000 residents, this is an important start.

How did this happen?  The answer is simple- a campaign of ordinary people, led by a core from the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ), turned the situation around. This campaign is proof that action by people at the grassroots level can make a difference.

Here I want to briefly reflect on the key measures we took to make our campaign a success. But I also want to issue a word of warning. The campaign is not over yet.  We are actually just beginning a much longer and more complicated process of changing the criminal legal system in this county from the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach that has dominated not only Champaign County but much of the country for the last three decades.

Background to No More Jails

Champaign County has two jails, one in downtown Urbana, another at Brookens in East Urbana.  The impetus for the proposed jail expansion came from the supposed deterioration of the downtown facility, built in 1980. By 2012 local officials as well as an inspection team from the National Institute of Corrections declared that the downtown jail was in “deplorable” condition, actually beyond repair.  They wanted to close it down and bring in the construction crews.

As noted above, in those early days they seemed destined to get their way.  The sole voice in opposition was Board member and CUCPJ leader Carol Ammons, now an Urbana City Council member.   Gradually a core of us rallied around her and formed what would ultimately be No More Jails.  Our foundation was the decade of work CUCPJ had done on social justice issues, particularly focusing on race and the criminal legal system.  CUCPJ’s campaigns against the use of Tasers by police, for jail phone justice and the mobilizations in response to the police killing of African American youth Kiwane Carrington in 2009 formed a core of awareness and experience on which we could build.  Another precursor was a reading group based on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow in which many of us participated.  Engaging with Michelle’s book helped us to see the plans for new jail cells in our county as the local face of the racialized mass incarceration that she described so vividly.  We wanted no part of it. We began to meet regularly and attend the County Board meetings.  Our journey had begun.

Keys to Success:

 Number One: Standing Firm on the Basics

As I look back, I think there were five main reasons we managed to gain some measure of success. First, and most importantly, we stood firm on two principles: no new jail cells and the need for community participation in decision-making. When Board members and law enforcement came with explanations about how we needed a jail to protect the people inside, how we needed it because women and the mentally ill deserved better facilities, about how having one jail instead of two would save the county money, we refused to budge.  We correctly identified the key issue -the priority was to spend more money on ways to keep people out of jail, not ways to make people more comfortable inside their cells or make the system run more smoothly. We were also adamant that this process should be public. We were confident that few people in our county really wanted to spend their tax dollars on jail cells.  Our views were borne out: through the entire time of the campaign not a single person ever came to the County Board to speak in favor of building that jail.

Number Two: Adapting to Change

Though we stood firm, we recognized that as the campaign progressed, the terrain changed. We began by attending Board meetings on a weekly basis and making presentations during public participation.  Though we got a chilly reception at first, after a while some County Board members began to listen. We responded to their newfound openness to dialog and altered our tactics. Instead of opposing their every move, we found ways to work with them to shape the debate and decision-making process. As a result, instead of hiring an architect and a construction firm, the County decided to contract a consultant to do a needs assessment – not only of the building issue, but of the criminal justice system as a whole.  We then studied the firms that applied for the consultancy and advocated for the one we thought would be most likely to support an alternative course.  When our favorite was selected, we connected with their Director. We organized public meetings for him to dialog with local residents. We communicated with him individually, lobbying for our alternative vision to inform his report.  We assisted him where possible in gathering information and in getting a better understanding of how the local system worked. In the end, he wrote a report which put jail building on the back burner and prioritized the kinds of alternatives to incarceration which we had been advocating all along.  Our engagement with his work and his willingness to open the door to our ideas was crucial to influencing the County Board’s final decisions.

We also pushed for another process, one that involved more public participation in the decision-making. This resulted in the Board setting up a Community Justice Task Force to develop proposals for alternatives to incarceration. Two CUCPJ members ended up on that Task Force and played a leading role in its operations and its lengthy final report of June 2013.

Once these processes got under way, we developed working relationships with various board members. We identified our allies and those that were undecided and held one-on-one meetings with them to discuss relevant issues.  Gradually we made our dedication and knowledge apparent to them.  Several members who were hostile to us initially began to listen.

Number Three: Research, Research, Research

We did our homework and became the experts on the issue.  We spent hours building a profile of who was incarcerated in our county -demonstrating that our jails cells were teeming with people who didn’t belong there- those with traffic tickets, mental illness, substance abuse problems, women with non-violent charges.  Most importantly, we identified the seriousness of the racial disparity in our jail population.  We found that consistently more than half those in the jail were African-American in a county with a 13% Black population.  This was a key point in exposing the pitfalls of building new jail cells-that ultimately they would end up caging more Black youth.  We also uncovered the ways in which incarceration specifically impacted women in the jail, contributing to the separation of families and facilitating the unnecessary loss of child custody among parents in the jail population.  All of this served to expose the irrationality of mass incarceration at the ground level.

 We added a financial dimension to our research as well, uncovering how the County was spending taxpayers’ money, emphasizing the need to reallocate more of the $4.6 million collected every year in Public Safety Sales Tax.  At the time, the county was spending 95% of that money on bond repayment for criminal justice construction and support for law enforcement.   In pressing for a change in the allocation of these revenues, we encouraged a new framing of the idea of public safety. For us and for much of the community, public safety was about ensuring people’s access to healthcare, housing, employment, education and treatment not simply growing the number of police and jail cells.    

Besides analyzing the local situation, we researched trends and successful changes in other communities across the country and brought them into our criminal justice debate.  We spoke about prison closures in New York, the blocking of a jail construction plan in Bloomington, Indiana, a re-entry program in Richmond, California. All this helped Board members to realize they would not be alone if they opted for changes.

Number Four: Network, Network, Network

We sought allies. We formed alliances with constituencies who would be affected by new jail cells. Groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the local Immigration Forum played a vital role in convincing Board members that opposition to jail construction wasn’t just coming from a small cohort of “fringe elements” in the community.  Other local organizations from various quarters added their own contribution to the campaign along the way: the ACLU, Against War, Racism and Exploitation (AWARE), the Campus Labor Coalition, Citizens with Conviction, the Friends Meeting, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), the League of Women Voters, the Ministerial Alliance, the NAACP, New Covenant, the North End Breakfast Club, and the Planners’ Network. We further broadened our base by reaching out to the general public through door to door surveys, petitions, online appeals, building a social media presence and data base, tabling at events like the Farmers’ Market and C-U Days, holding public forums on key issues and using the airwaves of our local community radio station WEFT, especially the Saturday morning Higher Ground segment.  One of our biggest successes was linking up with a local theater co-op to stage a showing of the anti-Drug War film, The House I Live In.  We filled the house to capacity-more than 300 people, including three County Board members, and used the opportunity to inform people about our campaign.

We also extended our networks beyond Champaign County, connecting with other groups in other parts of the country who had organized campaigns similar to ours and sharing experiences.  These links were enhanced by joining Nation Inside, a national social media network focused on criminal justice issues. Their support gave us a national exposure as well as a web-based platform to post messages, videos and other information about our work.

We used these connections to engineer a big final push as the time drew near for the County Board to vote on their next steps. We contacted our friends in academia and professional circles and got them to email, phone or meet face-to-face with their Board members. We upgraded our data base and did phone banking to bring people out to Board meetings and mobilize them to communicate with their Board member. We printed lime green t-shirts with “Build Programs Not Jails” on the front and wore them en masse to Board meetings. We bombarded the Board Chair and the Chair of Finance with hundreds of postcards signed by our supporters made from lime green card stock urging them to vote for alternatives to jail construction.  We mobilized high profile national campaigners like Michelle Alexander to sign onto a letter to the County Board praising their efforts to consider alternatives and urging them to stay away from further construction. 

Number Five: Mass Incarceration Is Always About Race

We kept the issue of racial disparity at the center of our campaign.  We found new ways to repeat a message that many Board members, law enforcement gatekeepers and much of the public simply did not want to hear- that we had a problem of racial profiling in our criminal justice system that required serious action and building jail cells was only going to make it worse. We made sure that the Board knew this issue was not going to go away.

Next Steps

These are some of the reasons why we were able to stop the construction of jail cells.  I wish I could say that we can now rest on our laurels, that the battle is over and our county is inevitably headed down a new path.  Social change doesn’t work like that. It is an uneven process.

 Already elements in the judiciary are pushing back -refusing to implement some of the recommendations of the needs assessment consultant and the Community Justice Task Force.  No doubt as some of the new programs experience growing pains, others will want to turn the clock back and return to the old ways.  We need to remain mobilized to make sure this doesn’t happen. We have accomplished a lot in this campaign, but we have only just begun the journey to change how criminal justice operates in our county.  Moreover, we have to push harder to move more resources across to housing, job creation, mental health and family support in order to eradicate poverty and rebuild the communities that have been torn apart by mass incarceration. There is still a long way to travel.