Problems with Private Prisons and Students Against the Prison Industrial Complex: New Podcasts from Reza Rites and Sonic Watermelons

Cherise Morris, a Brown University student and member of Students Against the Prison Industrial Complex, visited Sonic Watermelons to discuss divesting from prisons and dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex. She also talked about how private prisons were developed and how states’ relationships with private prison-makers are contributing to high incarceration rates and unequal/disparate prison rates for Black and Latino men and women; watch that excerpt above or here.   

Divesting from Prisons, Problems with Private Prisons and Students Against the Prison Industrial Complex: New Podcasts from Reza Rites and Sonic Watermelons ft. Student-Activist Cherise Morris

by Reza Corinne Clifton

PROVIDENCE, RI – “Columbia First US University To Divest from Private Prisons.” That was the title and topic of a June 23, 2015 article written by Jenn M. Jackson, a writer who focuses on politics, news, and culture as the Assistant Editor for The Black Youth Project (BYP) – where the article appeared. BYP is an organization and multimedia news blog that serves as a “platform that highlights the voices and ideas of black millennials” by working with young people on “producing research about the ideas, attitudes, decision making, and lived experiences of black youth.”

I’ve been following and admiring the work of BYP for years, and I’m frequently pulled in by their headlines. That was the case in this instance too, but this time I was also interested due to the movement-building I’ve observed and individual relationships I have with at least a dozen scholars and activists working on “reforming prisons,” “abolishing prisons,” ending “legal slavery,” dismantling the “prison industrial complex,” and “ending the school to prison pipeline.”

According to Jackson, the actions followed a period in which “Columbia held approximately 220,000 shares in a company called G4S, the world’s largest private security firm, and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the country.” The policy-change, explains Jackson, “sets a precedent regarding how universities in this country align themselves with private corporations.” She goes on to say that “[w]hen those business firms are harmful, violent, and exploitative of certain racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual groups, these schools should seriously consider what their financial support for these companies means to students, staff, and alumni.”

2015-06-30_PIC (34 of 37)What does this mean as far as the movement and awareness-raising happening nationally and globally? What are the other trends – historically and currently – we should be examining as we talk about racial disparities in prisons and problems within the prison industrial complex? And what role do private prisons play in exacerbating incarceration rates and abuses faced by prisoners?

At Columbia, it was many students “who protested via sit-ins, teach-ins, and other public displays of concern for the University’s involvement and support for private prisons,” so to answer and discuss my questions, I reached out to Cherise Morris, a Brown University student and member of the campus organization Students Against the Prison Industrial Complex (SAPIC). In addition to her organizing work, Morris recently published an informative and artistic zine to provide “a brief introduction to the massive entity that encompasses the prison-industrial complex, its historical legacy, and its modern manifestations inside of and beyond prison walls.” Morris also works with a group of community members (including me) who are helping to found the Fred Hampton Institute for Resistance in Providence, in part, to provide community-based Black History courses and she teaches art at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute (ACI).

Full interview – Cherise Morris Visits Sonic Watermelons, Discusses Prison Divestment from Reza Clifton on Vimeo.

To hear/watch the full conversation featuring Morris speaking with me and my Sonic Watermelons team member Jose Ramirez,  click on the Vimeo video above or click here to access the Vimeo podcast link. To hear it in small parts use the Souncloud links provided below.

For more information about SAPIC, follow @againstthepic on Twitter or For more information about Sonic Watermelons, click here. For more information about the Fred Hampton Institute for Resistance, click here.

In the first part of the interview, Morris defines the term Prison Industrial Complex and talks about the communities most often targeted or caught in incarceration nets – men of color, the LGBTQ community, the Transgender community and women of color. She explains that prison industrial complex refers not only to prisons and jails, but also to indirect things like neighborhood segregation, educational inequalities, screening workers and students for previous incarceration, and the factors that lead people to be incarcerated and the realities that happen afterward. Morris also points to the practice of colleges looking at students’ disciplinary records as a practice that is a function of the prison industrial complex, as well as their practice of selling products on-campus that are made by incarcerated men and women – or what some call prison slave labor.

In the second part of the interview, Morris talks about the concept of consumer complicity and the idea that, often times, the store you’re frequenting that has lower prices can make those deals because they’re using incarcerated men and women and low to no wages – and they’re investing in things that “[get] your cousin locked up too.” Morris acknowledges that activism cannot be about demonizing individuals or ignoring some communities’ needs for affordable pricing. She says the focus, instead, needs to be on institutions like Columbia, Brown University and other colleges and universities, and she points to work being done by students at different schools who are advancing a campaign to “ban the box” (asking students about past convictions) on student applications.”Students from fifty schools who are all using the same common application can have real power.”

In the third part of the interview, Morris discussed the history of prisons and how they evolved over time from the 1700’s to 2015: “Everyone’s talking about mass incarceration and black men and women being incarcerated at such high rates, but this has been happening since the birth of the modern prisons.” Prior to the Civil War, she explains, prison populations were predominantly white; Blacks were enslaved at the time – with legally sanctioned constraints on movement on top of labor demands already. After the Civil War, she explains, prisons everywhere changed to being predominantly Black and one reason is because of the introduction of “Black Codes” or laws that intentionally targeted former slaves and “criminalized blackness.” Morris contextualizes the situation with a reminder that the 13th amendment bans slavery unless it’s used for punishment and imprisonment. Morris linked this history with the more contemporary story about the rise and impact of private prisons, and how the war on drugs, and the differences between crack and cocaine sentences in particular – a more contemporary version of the Black Codes – helped fuel the development of private prisons. The racially biased laws and high incarceration rates, says Morris, led to states both making financial deals with private companies to house the growing prison population and appeasing private prison companies by ensuring filled prisoner beds. Not meeting the lock-up quotas means paying the corporations, says Morris, which means governments are incentivized to keep incarceration rates up. Morris talks about other scams, abuses, and problems within the prison industrial complex, including bad practices by telecommunications companies providing phone services in jail, “human rights violations” such as maggots being found in food continually and sexual assault in the facilities.

Visual credits:
Reza Clifton
Sophia Wright (in-studio photos)


Black Youth Project article on Columbia

SAPIC zine; good info, stats, etc.

For-Profit Prisons: Eight Statistics That Show the Problems

Free Spirit Media video on

Venus Sings at the Afro-Latino Festival: A Playlist and Summary

afrolatino blog collage 2
by Reza Corinne Clifton

NEW YORK, NY – Festival withdrawal.

I’m not sure it can be diagnosed, but I’m positive that’s what I’m suffering from. That’s because it’s been exactly 7 days and 16 hours since the launch of the third annual Afro-Latino Festival in NYC – which I, too, attended last weekend. Last month, I had included the festival as part of my ‪#‎venussings‬ and ‪#‎sonicwatermelons‬ 2015 Music Festival Guide, but it surpassed my expectations.

What was so good about it, you ask? In short: the people; the music; the attention to scholarship.

I’ve got videos, photos, and interviews from the Festival, coming soon, so you’ll see what I mean. For now, though, here are some videos/tunes from four of the musicians who attended the festival and brought great vibes: Les Nubians, who I’ve followed for nearly the same 20 years the band is celebrating this year; Danay Suarez who was one of the reasons I was inspired to attend LAMC last year; Los Hacheros, whose salsa melodies and rhythms had me dancing fearlessly at the festival’s Friday night Gala; and Cultura Profetica, whose reggae chops are so beloved that most in attendance during their Sunday night performance were singing along, word for word, song to song.

Tune in to Sonic Watermelons this Tuesday (and every Tuesday) from 7-8 PM on to catch additional reports and stories from the Festival. Plus follow me on,, and @3amblack on FB, Twitter and IG for additional reporting from me, Reza Rites/Venus Sings/DJ Reza Wreckage/The AmbitiousBlackFeminist.

Los Hacheros


Cultura Profetica


Les Nubian, Embrasse Moi

Les Nubian, Makeda

Les Nubian, Son Reggae


Danay Suarez, Cuando Ya No Este

Danay Suarez, Flores

Danay Suarez, Siempre Que Llueve

Risk-Taking, Art-Making and Bringing the Funk: A VS Podcast and Review of Esperanza Spalding’s ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’

Click on the video or here to watch/listen to my newest podcast on Vimeo.

Risk-Taking, Art-Making and Bringing the Funk: A Venus Sings Podcast and Review of Esperanza Spalding’s ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’

by Reza Corinne Clifton

BOSTON, MA – In 2009, I trekked alone to Jazzaldia, one of the biggest jazz festivals held annually in Europe. The concerts that make up this melodic gathering happen in San Sebastian, a city in northern Spain also known as Donostiako for those who speak Basque. As I noted and remarked back then, “It is a place with mountains, rivers, coves, sand-surrounded bay waters, handsomely aged facades and edifices, city-side ports, cobblestone streets, and so much more.”

It is also where I first saw Esperanza Spalding perform. Back then I wrote the following review based on her set at Jazzaldia:

PG_9_Esperanza_mmoves_issue3“During her mesmerizing performance, Esperanza Spalding played familiar and signature tunes like Fall In, She Got to You, and I Know U Know from her album “Esperanza,” among other selections, showcasing her distinct skill as a jazz vocalist and sophisticated upright bassist. She also ushered in the return of Plaza de la Trinidad as one of the performance spaces [after several years of renovations that caused a popular stage in the festival to be closed for years]. Off-stage, she talked personally and intimately about her hair – which is styled in a distinct, large afro – and its significance in terms of pride in her heritage and abhorrence of chemicals, and she confessed to participating in impromptu jam sessions. Spalding also performed on a second day alongside saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Roy Haynes.”

Fast forward to a little less than 6 years, and I was on my way to once again see (now Grammy award-winning) Spalding do her thing! This time around it was a May 16, 2015 concert she was holding at Paradise Rock Club in Boston as part of her recent (and still touring at the time of the podcast) project called ‘Emily’s D+Evolution.’ And I was with artist Tamara Diaz, so I had someone with whom to reflect, share and compare notes.

Don’t necessarily have time to watch the full podcast? Click on the Soundcloud link above to listen to part I.

What did Diaz and I think? Take a listen to this #musicmovesreza / #venussings podcast to hear the report we shared on Sonic Watermelons, the online radio show I produce every Tuesday alongside Jose Ramirez and Deejay Kellan.

Click on the Soundcloud link above to listen to part II.

In addition to the concert review presented by Diaz and me, the segment features audio clips dating back to my 2009 “Venus Sings in Spain” interview of Spalding at Jazzaldia, short snippets of selections from Spalding’s Chamber Music Society cd, and a short promotional video by Spalding about her ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’ project.

Click on the Soundcloud link above to listen to part III.

To tune in live to Sonic Watermelons, listen from 7-8 PM every Tuesday here:

To read my Venus Sings in Spain coverage, click here:

To follow Venus Sings and #musicmovesreza updates, bookmark here:

From Providence and NYC to San Sebastian, Spain: A 2015 Venus Sings and Sonic Watermelons Music Festival Guide

(Captured here, from left to right, are Reza Rites / Venus Sings, performer Danay Suarez, and artist Tamara Diaz)

PROVIDENCE, RI – “It’s summertime in the city and the festivals are hot!” That was the theme of the June 16 episode of Sonic Watermelons, the show I produce alongside Jose Ramirez and Deejay Kellan for Brown Student and Community Radio (

After a group discussion about the June 11-14 Providence International Arts Festival, I ran down a short “Venus Sings” list of events I highly recommend. That list is below.

Danay Suarez, featured in the video above, who was a 2014 LAMC artist, is on the line-up for this July’s Afrolatino Festival, a space described as a gathering to “celebrate the contributions that people of African descent from Latin America and the Caribbean have made to (NYC) and the global culture as a whole.”

Catch Sonic Watermelons every Tuesday from 7-8 PM (EST) on And follow music news and cultural tidbits on,, and @3amblack on FB, TW, and IG.

Life after Esperanza Spalding in Boston, May 2015: Radio Report on Sonic Watermelons and Podcast Coming Soon

espalding_boston_may15Life after Esperanza Spalding in Boston, May 16, 2015:
Radio Report on Sonic Watermelons ( and Podcast Coming Soon 

by Reza Corinne Clifton

BOSTON, MA – What happens when you go to what you expect is a jazz concert, but leave having experienced what could be called a rock opera? What’s it like when you anticipate bossa nova, and instead hear hints of Prince, Betty Davis and Parliament Funkadelic?

Tune in to Sonic Watermelons this Tuesday, May 26 to hear “Venus Sings” and “Sonic Watermelons” coverage of the May 16, 2015 Esperanza Spalding concert that was held at Paradise Rock Club in Boston. The report and corresponding podcast will feature contributions from artist and regular Sonic Watermelons contributor Tamara Diaz as well as audio clips from my 2009 “Venus Sings in Spain” interview of Spalding at the annual Jazzaldia Jazz Festival in San Sebastian, Spain.

Tune in live from 7-8 PM this Tuesday during Sonic Watermelons, or keep following to catch the podcast.

To warm up and read my Venus Sings in Spain coverage, click here.