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.”
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).
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 facebook.com/studentsagainstthepic. 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.
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