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The Rise of Long-Term Sentences and Teaching Inside as Feminist, Abolitionist Labor

By Alice Kim, Erica Meiners, Audrey Petty, Jill Petty, Beth Richie, and Sarah Ross

This is an excerpt from The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences, Working Toward Freedom, Haymarket Books, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

In 2011, when the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project (P+NAP)—a group of artists, scholars, organizers, and writers—started teaching arts and humanities classes at Stateville prison in Illinois, our work was organized by the prison administration under a program called “Long-Term Offenders.” The abbreviation LTO, casually written on institutional paperwork and used by prison guards, is the prison administration’s shorthand for people who are serving long-term sentences, meaning life without parole or virtual life sentences of fifty years or more. For the people we met in our classes at Stateville prison, the term “LTO” signals something profound: it represents the nation’s ideological and political commitments to the long-term removal of people from their communities into prisons, a label that condemns many to a continuously controlled life.

Image credit: Monica Trinidad

In this book we deploy the notion of the long term to show how the impacts of long-term sentencing extend beyond prison walls. The loss of family, community, and resources and the struggle against targeted criminalization are woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. Long term sentencing is only the most blatant example of the “prison nation,” a term provided by activist, scholar, and coauthor Beth E. Richie.[i]

Although Illinois successfully abolished the death penalty in 2011 after a decade-long moratorium on executions, students in our classes are still condemned to die in prison. They are among the nearly 206,000 people serving life or virtual life sentences in the United States, according to 2017 research from the national advocacy organization the Sentencing Project. Policies implemented in the 1980s and 1990s—particularly life without the possibility of parole, mandatory minimums, and “three strikes and you’re out” laws contributed to a prison population increase of more than 1.5 million people over the last thirty years. As the number of people in prison has increased, so, too, has the severity of their sentences. Illinois, our home state, is one of six states where all life sentences are imposed without the possibility of parole. As the Sentencing Project outlines, of the 5,092 people serving life or virtual life sentences in Illinois in 2017, 68 percent were Black people while the state’s total Black population was estimated at 14.7 percent.[ii]

Image credit: Ivan Arenas

This engineered pattern is evident throughout the nation. Reflecting the structural racism that is endemic to the criminal legal system, one in five Black people in prison in the United States is sentenced to virtual life or life sentences. Young people are not immune either: some twelve thousand people nationwide were sentenced to long terms as juveniles. Almost one-half of women serving life without parole are survivors of physical or sexual violence, illustrating the clear link between gender violence and state violence. The national advocacy organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums reports that people released from prison in 2009 served sentences that were, on average, more than a third longer than those of prisoners released in 1990. The tally is staggering, a consequence of the so-called tough-on-crime logic that powered the policies that lock people up and throw away the key.

This framework to restore “law and order” moved into the conservative lexicon in the 1960s to directly assault Black power and civil rights movements. From Richard Nixon, whose 1968 presidential campaign focused continually on crime and urban unrest, to Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs, to Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, politicians across the political spectrum evoked the threat of crime to criminalize nonwhite, particularly Black, communities.[iii] Not simply a conservative political agenda, reforms advanced by Democrats, some in the name of ending racial bias in sentencing, also contributed to the expansion of our carceral state over the last three decades, as scholar Naomi Murakawa outlines in The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America.[iv]

Image credit: Fred Sasaki

The massive buildup of carceral control—systems of surveillance, criminalization, and confinement operated by federal, state, and local governments—has earned the United States the distinction of being the world’s leader in incarceration.[v] From metal detectors in public schools to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids at work sites, carceral practices are facts of everyday life. Every year eleven million people cycle through local jails around the country, and others are subjected to detention centers, electronic monitoring regimes, and other forms of punitive surveillance and control. As in many other states, the majority of people in Illinois state prisons come from urban areas; Chicago neighborhoods with engineered racial isolation experience grotesquely asymmetrical investment in police rather than in quality and equitable public schools. In 2013 the Chicago Reporter calculated that the annual price tag to lock up residents from just one block in Austin, an African American neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, was an estimated $4 million with the cost rising to $644 million for all of Austin.[vi]

The shifting of financial resources away from education and into punishment and surveillance also holds true inside prisons, where resources for meaningful programming are scant. Not surprisingly, the rise of long-term sentences coincided with the loss of programs aimed at “rehabilitation.” The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the most expansive crime bill in the nation’s history, decimated higher education programs in prison by eliminating Pell Grants that provided federal financial aid for incarcerated students. As a result of this loss, approximately 350 secular college programs in prisons closed. Today, higher education programs inside are slowly being rebuilt through partnerships between colleges, nonprofits, and state departments of correction.[vii] Gillian Harkins and coauthor Erica R. Meiners point out that these programs are uneven in their goals, ideological allegiances, and institutional structures.[viii] This growth has coincided with increased public scrutiny on the problem of mass incarceration over the last decade.

Image credit: Eric Garcia

Yet today, in many states, people with life sentences, those ineligible for parole, or those marked as gang-involved or who have convictions for sexual offenses are often placed at the back of the line for the limited educational or vocational opportunities that are available. These discriminatory practices operationalize the “throw away the key” rhetoric, leaving people inside describing prison as a “living grave.” Just as funding for public schools and higher education in the free world has been siphoned away, so too has state support for services and resources in prison. When P+NAP started at Stateville prison, the John Howard Association (JHA) of Illinois, a prison watchdog organization, had disclosed in their 2010 Monitoring Report: “Like all maximum-security prisons in Illinois, Stateville has extremely limited educational or vocational opportunities. The prison offers a small GED program, a barber program, as well as a handful of on-site industries jobs for its approximately 2,550 population,” but most people who are incarcerated at Stateville “have nothing to do but sit in their cell.”[ix] In this same report, JHA noted that the Illinois Department of Corrections’ policy dictates that people with shorter sentences take available educational and vocational classes ahead of those with longer sentences, which effectively bars many people with long-term sentences from participating in programming.

Refusing this logic that some are disposable while others are worthy, and framing our work as movement building toward freedom, P+NAP was created to build connections with incarcerated people serving long terms, and to resist their disappearance into the vacuum of prison. Because we are educators who believe in a world without prisons, our learning and teaching is an intentional intervention in the apparatus of the carceral state. All of our classrooms are sites for creating new knowledge about building communities without criminalization and incarceration.

Image credit: Sam Kirk

Many of our students in prison have spent much of their life in a cell. One student, Ricky Patterson, described prison as “a dark place physically made to mentally break men by oppressing their bodies and shackling their minds to a sinking place of hopelessness.” If, at its best, education is about creating opportunities to ensure that all flourish, prisons are by their very design at odds with this vision. Caged inside a facility constructed and organized to isolate, control, and censor, our students’ lives testify to the lie of the still circulating myths of “violent criminal,” the “Class X offender,” and the “superpredator.” Eric Blackmon, another P+NAP student, described the “brilliance” of those behind the wall where “a person stripped of everything survives” by invoking “a different kind of love, a different kind of hope, and a different kind of dream.”

P+NAP operates despite the rules and regulations of the prison. The books and courses we teach are subject to approval and internal review by the state and prison administration. Together with visitors coming to see their loved ones, we are “shaken down” or searched by officers when we enter the prison. Lesson plans and homework are checked to prevent any censored material from entering the prison. While we do not teach with officers in the room, they can and do enter our classrooms at any time. “Fraternization” is what the prison watches for and punishes. The list of actions that are forbidden is long and dynamic: Never accept a birthday or a condolence card usually beautifully handmade in the prison economy. We cannot give a spare pen to a student. Restrictions extend beyond the site of the prison: a condition of being permitted to teach inside in our state is that we agree not to ever communicate, with any of our students outside the classroom, their family members in the free world, or with anyone incarcerated in any other Illinois prison. Interviews with media outlets must first be cleared by the prison.

Image credit: Maria Gaspar

Even with the extensive list of rules that regulate our access to the prison, the bottom line is: the prison is always right. And while the consequences for breaking the rules for us might be removal from this prison (and all other state prisons), the slightest infraction from students may result in solitary confinement, barred access to all programs, transfer to another prison, or denial of privileges (yard time and visits).

We recount our experience of these conditions to illustrate that while we perceive the stakes to be high, they are impossible for our students and their families. And yet we recognize that our classrooms in this prison are similar to other contexts where we, and many of our comrades, teach and work. Some of these restrictions resemble the conditions in Chicago’s public school system where “softer” versions of security checks and surveillance are implemented. Teachers face increased scrutiny of course content and materials, students face zero-tolerance policies and metal detectors, and in most educational institutions, police can enter a classroom at any time. Building freedom for all requires naming the profound differences between teaching inside the prison and outside it, but it also requires identifying the similarities in order to build stronger coalitions and alliances.

Image credit: Nicole Marroquin

For many of us, this labor at Stateville is our third or fifth shift; it is labor beyond our paid employment, and our unpaid care work. And like much of the other unpaid labor that sustains our communities, this work is mostly done by women. This reality is acutely spatialized in prisons across the United States: visiting rooms are full of sisters, mothers, lovers, and aunts, while just beyond the doors of the visiting room are incarcerated people. Outside the prison, again, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, lovers, and wives bear the burden of incarceration and take up the fight for their loved ones in courts and on the streets. They are the ones who accept exorbitant fees for collect phone calls from the prison, mail books to their incarcerated loved ones, and add money to commissary accounts.

The overlap of (hetero)gendered, racialized care work and the structures of carceral control brings the movement to end long-term sentences into dialogue, and perhaps into tension, with other feminist facets of our personal and political lives. Alert to the various challenges and possible contradictions of working in a maximum security prison for men—rather, for people the state identifies as men—part of our work is to name and critique how movement work done by women is often geared toward supporting and freeing cisgender men. “The work of the world,” the poet Marge Piercy writes, is “as common as mud” and women are often the ones “who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward” and “do what has to be done, again and again.”[x]

Image credit: Aaron Hughes

As a collective dedicated to ending the nation’s reliance on prisons and to building feminist and antiracist struggles for justice, we are critical of how forms of liberal, generally white, feminism continue to play a key role in bolstering and upholding carceral practices. Longterm sentences, more surveillance, and increased criminalization are frequently advanced in the name of “protecting women and children”—a stance often termed “carceral feminism.” As Victoria Law explains in her contribution to this anthology, “While its adherents would likely reject the descriptor, carceral feminism describes an approach that sees increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to violence against women.” Such punitive measures purport to address the harm some women experience, yet criminalization is not a deterrent, nor a preventive tool or response capable of igniting cultural shifts that reduce violence.

In 2001, INCITE!, Women, Gender Non-Conforming and Trans people of Color Against Violence, and Critical Resistance issued a statement on “Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex” calling for “social justice movements to develop strategies and analysis that address both state and interpersonal violence . . . that do not depend on a sexist, racist, classist, and homophobic criminal justice system.”[xi] From this framework many local groups are creating practices that respond to harm without criminalization. For example, two organizations in Philadelphia—Philly Stands Up and Philly’s Pissed—implemented a community-based restorative justice approach to address sexual violence within their communities “through direct involvement of those who have caused harm.”[xii]

Image credit: Ryan Griffis

Our feminist politics includes commitments to end gender violence and to build stronger and safer communities without strengthening prison, policing, and borders. While the work inside the prison—teaching, advocacy, learning, support, and attempts at institutional change—continues, and hopefully offers opportunities for new forms of academic and cultural expression, we also challenge feminist practices that feed the carceral state and have created policies that opened doors to incarcerate many of our students. Our courses link feminist movements and analysis to our students’ lives.

We stand in the tradition of feminists, often women-of-color queer people, who understood that “there is no such thing as a single issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives,” as poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote in 1982. Building from the work of earlier Black feminist organizers, including the Combahee River Collective, legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw popularized the term “intersectionality” to refer to the multiple ways that power and privilege intersect and to name how social positions and identities—ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, race, class, and others—are mutually constitutive.[xiii] All of our identities shape our lives and modalities of resistance and refusal. While we coalesced through our teaching at Stateville, we have overlapping and deep stakes in other, concurrent movements: projects to elevate the dignity and rights of people living in public housing, collectives to germinate the analysis and experience of women-of-color writers and thinkers, struggles for queer liberation and against capitalism, mobilizations to end the violence of policing and to build community, and, uniformly, movements to end violence against all women.

Image credit: Dave Pabellon

An abolitionist feminist praxis is needed now more than ever to challenge the indefinite long-term caging of our communities. To build communities that ensure real safety for all, we invest in the question Angela Davis, a former political prisoner and freedom fighter, posed in 2001: Are prisons obsolete? Always imperative, abolition includes movements for decarceration, eliminating punitive drug laws, shrinking—not reforming—police powers and forces, and redirecting public resources from punishment toward communities. Critical Resistance defines prison-industrial-complex abolition as “a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.”[xiv]

A practice and a politic, abolition is working toward the obsolescence of prison, but, as importantly, this paradigm surfaces necessary questions and opportunities for action. What histories of dispossession and displacement must be named and accounted for? What must be transformed and built to eliminate harm, cultivate strong communities, and create forms of authentic public safety? What are the levers and the mind-sets that make prisons and policing appear logical, necessary, and possible? Abolition involves dismantling institutions that reproduce and mask harm, but it also demands the more radical work to imagine and to build up practices, vocabularies, and communities that facilitate self-determination. The work to build up community responses to end sexual violence; the mobilizations to challenge the indefinite caging of our communities; our collective and daily labor inside and outside of prisons to demand other futures—this is decidedly radical feminist work. We are in the struggle, together, to build communities that ensure real safety for all, leaving no one behind—this is an abolitionist practice.


Alice Kim, Erica R. Meiners, Audrey Petty, Jill Petty, Beth E. Richie, and Sarah Ross are Co-Editors
of The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences, Working Toward Freedom.

Editor’s note: The Praxis Team is very fortunate to have worked with former Praxis Center Editor Alice Kim on building this online social justice resource. Since leaving the Center, Alice has gone on to become the Director of Human Rights Practice at the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights at the University of Chicago and is a co-editor on the important anthology The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences, Working Toward Freedom. We are so proud to have worked with Alice and want to thank her for all her contributions to the Praxis Center. In honor of her work, this week’s post is an excerpt from The Long Term, which we encourage our followers to read in full.

[i] Beth E. Richie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation (New York: New York University Press, 2012).

[ii] According to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau, “State and County Quickfacts: Illinois,” www.census.gov/quickfacts/IL.

[iii] Josh Zeitz, “How Trump Is Recycling Nixon’s ‘Law and Order’ Playbook,” Politico, July 18, 2016, www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016 /07/donald-trump-law-and-order-richard-nixon-crime-race-214066.

[iv] Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[v] Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie,” Prison Policy Initiative, March 14, 2017, www.prisonpolicy.org /reports/pie2017.html.

[vi] Angela Caputo, “Cell Blocks,” Chicago Reporter, March 1, 2013.

[vii] Gillian Harkins and Erica R. Meiners, “Teaching Publics in the American Penalscape,” American Quarterly 68, no. 2 (2016) 405–8.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] John Maki, “Monitoring Tour of Stateville Correctional Center,” John Howard Association of Illinois, September 14, 2010, p. 6–7, www.thejha.org/sites/default/files/Stateville%20Report.pdf.

[x] Marge Piercy, “To Be of Use,” in Circles on the Water (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 106.

[xi] “Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex,” INCITE! Critical Resistance statement, 2001, www.incite-national.org /page/incite-critical-resistance-statement.

[xii] Lance Kelly Esteban, “Philly Stands Up: Inside the Politics and Poetics of Transformative Justice and Community.” Social Justice 37, no. 4 (2012): 44-57.

[xiii] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” in The Public Nature of Private Violence, ed. M. A. Fineman and R. Mykituk (New York: Routledge, 1994), 93–118.

[xiv] See, for example, “Abolition,” Critical Resistance, http:// criticalresistance.org/about/not-so-common-language.

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