I am interested in working in a cooperative enterprise with men and women who have been incarcerated. I have come to this place through my personal experience and the recent knowledge garnered through the USMA residency and readings for Urban Economies reinforces my ideas.
A friend of mine, from Minnesota, was arrested in 1999. Sara was indicted for events that took place in the 1970s and was faced with a trial in Los Angeles. To avoid a harsher sentence, she made a plea bargain with the prosecution. I later learned that this is standard practice for most any one who faces any kind of criminal charge. People are threatened with multiple charges and long sentences and then convinced to agree to a lesser charge for a shorter time in prison or jail. These kinds of plea deals are the norm mostly because people are not properly represented. Without a decent defense, people are pressured to take a deal over the threat of doing 15+ years, or even life, even if they did not commit the crime. Anyway, Sara ended up spending about eight years in Central California Women’s Facility, CCWF, a women’s prison, in Chowchilla, CA. At the time, it was one of two women’s prisons right across the road from each other, deemed the two largest women’s prisons in the world. At the height of California’s prison overcrowding epidemic, in 2007, there were almost 8000 women locked up inside the two prisons.
I came to Los Angeles on a temporary basis, I thought. I was supported by the National Lawyers Guild to be in L.A. and build a support network, pending the upcoming trial. The trial didn’t happen, Sara went to prison and I got an exciting job at the Center for the Study of Political Graphics and so I became a resident of Los Angeles. It is still hard to believe. Because of my placement in Los Angeles, I was able to visit Sara over her eight years of confinement. I usually brought her mother, who may not have been able to go as often. Usually there were three of us that took the trip together; sometimes my daughter Lucie joined the excursions. We would go to visit on the available hours on Saturday and Sunday. This meant that we rented a hotel room and paid for meals during the trip. This included meals inside the visiting areas. Food was provided by an outside vendor or purchased from a machine. In the first few years, high-priced food options, brought in by a local vendor, included things like fried chicken, burgers, cut-veggies, omelets, and even desserts and ice-cream. This was a treat for the women who had visitors, a diversion from the regular nasty menu that was dished out inside the walls. In the last few years that I went up there, food was only available out of the vending machines and more expensive. Food costs for visitors easily came to $50 a day. The total cost of our trips, with gas, hotel and food was over $350. You can imagine what a sacrifice this is for most families driving up to Chowchilla to visit their loved ones. Because of this intimate experience, in the past fifteen years, I have gained a lot of knowledge about mass incarceration in the United States, but most specifically, in California and Los Angeles.
I have been an activist most of my life; I was politicized when I took my first Women’s Studies class in 1976. I was a freshman at the University of Minnesota, Morris, a small campus in the NW agricultural area in the state. I chose that remote campus because they had a brand new state-of-the-art fine art facility—I planned to get an art degree. As one of my required social science courses, I suppose, I took an introduction to Women’ Studies class taught by Mimi Frenier. Her curriculum offered a radical feminist perspective that I have adhered to ever sense, at least in theory. My women’s studies classes led me to discover Marx, Lenin, Selma James, Bell Hooks, Shulamith Firestone and the likes. I was introduced to international liberation struggles around the world when I started volunteering at a small collective bookstore, MayDay Books, in the Twin Cities. With members of May Day Books I helped start the Twin Cities Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa in 1978. I was quite naïve but quickly learned about the horrors of the Apartheid State in South Africa and began to understand the ties to racism at home in the U.S. The laws of the Apartheid regime were modeled after the Jim Crow laws in the South.
Many U.S. Corporation were doing business in South Africa essentially supporting a political structure that segregated people of color, denied them any political power, and forced them to carry pass cards that indicated the areas they were allowed to be. Blacks could legally only be in white areas if they had a permit to work there. If they did not have a pass they could be arrested and thrown in jail. The U.S. also supplied arms to the South African Government through Israel.
During the same period of time I was employed as a city bus driver in Minneapolis and was a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union. It was a good job. I earned a wage and the benefits that enabled me, as a single parent, to support my family and buy a home. During my thirteen years in the job I saw the union weakened and jobs degraded in negotiations. Extended transportation services that normally went to union workers were being contracted out to private providers. Multiple classifications of drivers and mechanics were created: part-time weekends, part-time week days, slower wage progression and varying benefits for each class of driver was a tool that split the work force, and so, weakened the power of the members to negotiate. These tactics were happening in unions around the country. During the residency, I was pleased that Steven Pitts, economist and co-founder of the National Black Workers Center Project, emphasized the role of labor unions as a fundamentally democratic entity where workers can realize power. Though, through history, unions have had their share of corruption and mismanagement, the overall structure of a union provides a shared space for workers to express their common grievances, to negotiate wages and benefits, and to socialize with a like-minded community. There was a time when Black workers could get good union jobs. They could support their families, buy a house and earn a decent retirement. Those days are gone. This was my experience. Pitts presented an insightful analysis of what has happen since then. He calls it the age of inequality—1973 – present day—the era of Reaganomics and rising unfettered capitalism. Pitts’ basic premise is that inequality is due to the absence of power and that economic justice and racial justice cannot be separated. It is clear that the gross disparities in the black community is due to a lack of power so the goal should be to how the community can rebuild the capacity to make change, effect policy decisions and “twist arms”.
The conversation of unions has its own contradictions. It is my understanding that the original unions were meant to be a reform and only a step toward worker owned industries and production. In the “Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein discusses how neoliberalism has prevailed and the economic divide between the richest few people and the working poor and have not’s is the widest gap in U.S. history. “In December 2006…CEO’s (in the U.S.) made 43 times what the average worker earned in 1980, when Reagan kicked off the Friedmanite crusade. By 2005, CEOs made 411 times as much. Today there no living wage jobs for certain sectors of the community. According to Pitts, today, underemployment is a bigger problem than unemployment in the Black community. People are working fulltime jobs, maybe even two or three, and they are still living in poverty. Loretta Stevens and Patsy Howard, Co-Directors of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center confirmed that 18% of Black adults in Los Angeles are unemployed and 30% are underemployed.
Anthony Thigpenn, head of California Calls and founder of SCOPE, stated that change will come through the organization of those who are most impacted by the 40 year right wing assault on jobs, social services, and freedom in the Black Community. 70% of the people incarcerated in California’s state prison system are from Southern California. A disproportionate percent of these folks are from the African American community in Los Angeles.
I believe that the ongoing conversations about reparations owed to the African Americans are critical. And, the act of building alternative economies is essential. No one in the current power structure is going to make changes to benefit the most impacted people in the community any time soon. Certainly not fast enough. So, it is up to people who understand the consequences of the “age of inequality” to work with people who have been disenfranchised to change the paradigm and create alternative economies on the local level that are inclusive and truly democratic. The population of formerly incarcerated men and women in Los Angeles is growing and economic options for them are few and far between. Many people are barred from public housing, education grants, and certain job categories. And though awareness is growing, employers are hesitant to hire people who have been convicted of a crime. There are efforts around the country to “Ban the Box” in order for qualified candidates to even get a foot in the door. The “Box” refers to the check box on job applications that asks if you have ever been convicted of a crime. Regardless, we know that there are not enough living wage jobs. This is why the Los Angeles Black Worker Center’s “Do You See Me Now” Campaign is so important. Winning 10% of the construction jobs coming to Los Angeles would provide 270,000 jobs in the Black community. And yet, this is just a small sector of the work force and many kinds of people are looking for ways to support their families and make productive contributions to their community.
I was solidly impacted by my experience visiting the women’s prison and hearing stories about women’s lives and how they came to be incarcerated and separated from their children. Because of this experience, I have been involved in grassroots organizing to fight prison and jail expansion in Californian and Los Angeles. Through this work, I have met a broad network of people doing work on many aspects of the criminal justice system and I have come to know and love many people who have spent way too much of their lives locked up. I am so motivated to make my vision come to fruition. I want to form a work-owned cooperative with formerly incarcerated people from Los Angeles. I will be working with members of the Fair Chance Project to define what sort of enterprise that might be. We have discussed many ideas: a recycling project, a communications service, creating arts and crafts items from recycled materials for resale or a combination of a number of things within an Eco –Center, of sorts, perhaps with a RECYCLING theme. Recycling Materials, Recycling News and Recycling Lives.