"Cruel and Unusual Punishment" of Incarcerated Youth

            California’s decision this month to reform the use of solitary confinement of prisoners brought further attention to the wide-spread use of this medieval method of incarceration.  The use of medieval dungeons in U.S. prisons consistently violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”  Solitary confinement in 21st century prison-dungeons are by design a form of torture that leaves its victims – especially young people – socially and psychologically traumatized for life.

            Take the case of Kalief Browder who was imprisoned at the age of 16.  According to the New Yorker, Kalief

spent more than one thousand days on Rikers waiting for a trial that never happened. During that time, he endured about two years in solitary confinement, where he attempted to end his life several times.

Surveillance videos secured by New Yorker investigative reporter Jennifer Godderman vividly show “an officer assaulting [Kalief] and of a large group of inmates pummeling and kicking him.”

In 2013 Kalief Browder was released from jail when charges were dropped against him for supposedly stealing a backpack.  As publicity grew over his unjust imprisonment, there was an outpouring of support for him.  But Kalief never recovered from his time in the dungeon: This past June at age 22 Kalief committed suicide

Kalief Browder’s cruel treatment, however, is not unusual for U.S. jails and prisons. Unfortunately, his decision to commit suicide is not unusual either.  Solitary Watch reports that

Juveniles are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than a juvenile detention facility and 19 times more likely to kill themselves in isolation than in general population.

 The U.S. regularly violates international justice agreements that it has signed.  Diversity and Education describes medieval practices of degradation and torture the U.S. uses in its detention of adolescents, including:

  • Solitary confinement 21-24 hours a day despite known research on the negative effects for healthy psychological development
  • Life sentences without parole for juveniles – only nation in the world to do so
  •  Use of shackling as a punishment rather than as a restraint even when not convicted of a crime
  • Juvenile court “trials” without legal representation

With increased news attention to this medieval criminal justice justice system, maybe elected local, state, and federal official will take steps to stop the U.S. from being an international outlaw in its mistreatment of juveniles.  Simply following a 1990 United Nations resolution would be a good start.  In signing onto UN resolution "Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of Their Liberty," the U.S. in principle agreed that

All disciplinary measures constituting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment shall be strictly prohibited, including corporal punishment, placement in a dark cell, closed or solitary confinement or any other punishment that may compromise the physical or mental health of the juvenile concerned.

Continuing attention to U.S. violations of juvenile human rights can be a start to shifting public opinion away from medieval torture techniques and toward more humane treatment and restorative justice for young people.

“Europe,” the Migration Crisis, and Multiculturalism

            As some migrants are hailing their arrival to Germany, I’m reminded of the statement by Germany’s popular conservative chancellor Angela Merkel and de facto leader of the European Union.  In 2013 when faced with an increase in immigrants, especially Muslims, Merkel reacted by declaring that “the multicultural concept…has failed, and failed utterly.”

            As we’ve seen in the cruel financial treatment – led by Germany’s chief central banker of Greece by the European Union bankers in putting Greece in a permanent state of financial servitude and now with the handling of waves of migrants, the fiction of “Europe” and European unity is unraveling.  We are reminded that national boundaries are a human invention for political reasons, not for the promotion of human rights.

           Going back centuries, the idea that Europe would be reserved as the headquarters for a Christian Empire ruled by people of a certain skin color continues to be challenged by the realities of our diverse and multicultural world.  Hopefully, the people of Europe will find common humanity with the dire circumstances that these thousands of migrants are facing.

A Texas Educational Approach to Racial Truth & Reconciliation

            A recent Gary Trudeau “Doonesbury” cartoon shows a befuddled social studies teacher claiming – in accordance with Texas social studies standards – that secession from the United States by the Confederate States of America was primarily about so-called “states’ rights” while slavery was down the list of reasons.  The clueless teacher then is confronted with a student who notes that in the Texas Declaration of Secession “the word ‘slave’ appears 18 times.” The student is subsequently scolded for using “outside sources.”

            In Diversity and Education – after examining the Texas Administrative Code’s social studies standards – I concluded that

The anxiety by social conservatives over ethnic studies and multiculturalism extends to interpretations of what should be included and excluded in the public school curriculum. Representative of this trend is how the state of Texas reworded its social studies standards to reassert common culture privileging of Christianity along with more favorable impressions of patriarchy, the Confederacy, capitalism, and the military.

Additionally, the Texas Educational Standards to which a generation of youth are being subjected represents

a backlash against Islam and immigrants of color and overtly mutes a history inclusive of slavery, political gains of women, racial discrimination, labor unions, indigenous histories, and excesses of capitalism.

            This rewriting of history to conform to a sanitized White Christian narrative is indicative of the challenge to Racial Truth and Reconciliation, not only in Texas but throughout nation.  But hope rests with small but significant acts of teacher resistance.  Kirk White, a middle school social studies teacher in Austin, explains:

Are there some things in there that don’t belong? Sure, but I hope teachers don’t buckle and interpret the language too narrowly.  If we have to talk more about our so-called 'Christian nation' in class, then let’s talk about it— the good and the bad. A good teacher will know how to take advantage of this situation.

But it remains unclear how the world views of young people will be affected when exposed not to teachers like Kirk White but to such teachers as the one lampooned by cartoonist/satirist Gary Trudeau.

Time for a U.S. Truth and Reconciliation Commission

     A fitting recognition for the first anniversary of the killing of an unarmed African American adolescent by a white Ferguson police officer would be the convening of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  It may be the time that we – the people and our  public officials  face the sordid history of the nation that has allowed the continuation of racial oppression in support of various forms of White nationalism.  The first step to radically change continuing forms of institutional racism will likely require some sort of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

       A Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial declared in July that “Virginia must lead on racial truth and reconciliation”: 

      After the [Civil] war, Virginia and its fellow states in the Confederacy avoided an accounting.  The gentleman’s code apparently deterred integrity. Accounting has not occurred; the half remains untold.  The United States has not authorized a truth and reconciliation commission.  Although blurred, the color line persists.  Barack Obama’s election did not translate into a post-racial society.  White America seems to have believed that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 erased history . Several centuries of slavery followed by segregation and racism, de jure and de facto, apparently left no trace.  The attitudes insulted those who made history and those who lived it.  Nothing could be less conservative than a reluctance to confront the past. 
      This is Virginia’s opportunity….  The slaveocracy took root in the Chesapeake. Richmond served as capital of the Confederacy…   Virginia is the ideal state to take the lead in addressing truth and reconciliation, in other words. 

      The controversy over displaying and the eventual lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina served as an example of the kind of soul-searching and action that is neededbut much more is required on broader and deeper scale.  

     The convening of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is needed not just in Virginia, but in settings throughout the United States.  Such an accounting of racial wrongs against people of color can be an important start to dismantling economic and political racial inequities that continue in housing, jobs, and education.


Note to Cincinnati Prosecutor: Murders by Police Do Happen in the U.S.

            As we approach the one-year anniversary of the death of unarmed Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer, a slow but discernable shift is occurring among some public officials in response to the heightened public awareness brought on by the Black Lives Matter social justice movement.  This shift is seen in the legal response of the killing of unarmed African American Samuel Debose in Cincinnati.  The point-blank murder of another unarmed African American by a police officer is unusual in only that a prosecutor choose to do his job and charge the cop for murder

            The prosecutor in this case, however, appears shocked at this incident which is actually part of a larger pattern of racial oppression carried out under the watch of prosecutors across the nations.  He claims,

This doesn’t happen in the United States, OK? This might happen in Afghanistan. People don’t get shot for a traffic stop.

Too many examples to counter this assertion of American exceptionalism, but isn’t the prosecutor aware of his own state news from just a couple months ago when Cleveland police officers were acquitted for the fatal shootings of two unarmed African Americans sitting in their own car – with 137 shots?  The prosecutor in that case who unsuccessfully tried the Cleveland cops compared the police defendants to an "organized crime syndicate" for their lack of cooperation in the case in their practice of engaging in the unwritten Blue-Wall-of-Silence.

In Urban America and its Police: From the Postcolonial Era through the Turbulent 1960s, Harlan Hahn and Judson Jefferies provide insights on the policing of Black actions from private slave patrols to the rise of modern urban police departments:

The primary objective of white voters and politicians was to prevent both slave and free black persons from disrupting a segregated social structure, and the police served as an essential instrument of that policy.

This historical pattern that has provided police impunity in their use of violence on Blacks continues, but through the unceasing Black Lives Matter movement we are witnessing a small but significant disruptions to this system. 

Sandra Bland and Smoking While Black

Reflecting on Sandra Bland’s arrest and eventual death while incarcerated in a Texas county jail with its own legacy of White supremacy is an important reminder that historical patterns continue to inform 21st century racial disparities.   What was her “crime”?  Apparently not giving a White police officer the deference required by White custom for Black people since the colonial era and the founding of the United States.

Like the Black youth Emmett Till who in 1955 was visiting relatives in Mississippi and was mutilated and murdered for reportedly flirting with a White woman, Sandra Bland was also from Chicago and refused to follow the deferential custom imposed by Whites on Blacks. 

Like other African Americans who have been despised by Whites and arrested for nearly any concocted reason, Sandra Bland – an educated women on her way to a new job at a local university from which she herself had graduated – was simply asserting her knowledge of her civil rights when she was pulled over for a lane violation while she smoked a cigarette

Although no arrest had been made, the existence of the cigarette so inflamed the White policeman that he threatened Bland while pointing his Taser at her: “I will light you up!”

This scene reminded me of  Douglas Blackmons description in Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II of a 1908 world that could result in the arrest of a Black man – or something worse:

So the term for those African American men deemed specifically worthless for their defiant attitudes was ‘cigarette dudes.’ These men were cocky in comparison to their peers; they had learned reading and writing, and sometimes worked and sometimes slouched on street corners. Sometimes cigarettes sat akilter on their lips… Instead of threadbare overalls, the uniform of all blacks and poor country whites for as long as anyone could remember, these men might wear trousers and jackets, even neckties… On their faces an air of defiant confidence, visages of the men they knew they should been allowed to be…

“According to almost every white, these cigarette dudes were the source of every trouble in the South… To be rid of them forever, by whatever means could accomplish that goal, was something nearly every white man in the South…had openly called for and worked toward…”

Contrary to assertions of a post-racial America, overcoming 400 years of racial oppression will take the continuation and expansion of the social justice movement Black Lives Matter.