Category Archives: Featured Writing

Clinton Walker on the Social Costs of Being “Tough on Potential”

Clinton "Nkechi" Walker
Clinton “Nkechi” Walker
Excerpt from an Interview with Nkechi on 2/2/15

In your last set of responses you describe a system and approach to young people (and particularly toward urban youth of color) that has become “tough on potential.” Layne and I thought this phrasing was very powerful. We wanted to follow up by asking, what does it mean for a society to be “tough on potential” and what are its impacts? What would a different approach that alternately encouraged human potential look like?

A society is tough on potential when its first course of correction towards its citizens is punitive.

The essence of tough on potential begins and ends with the children of its society. I believe education is a direct root to all potential. When society and its electors allow its educational system to fail in value and care, it do so with deteriorating the growth and possibilities of its children. It’s the epitome of being tough on potential when society allows its children to be subject to the harshest penalties of the judicial system such as a Life sentence in prison. It’s tough on potential when an ex-offender returns to society only to be confronted with a depressing and discouraging reality, that many opportunities to become a productive citizens are limited or stripped from them, opportunities such as adequate employment, state and federal benefits and the right to vote. It’s tough on potential when society and its elected refuse to recognize and exercise the ability to forgive and allow a second chance to those who have been incarcerated for decades and has achieved the highest degree of rehabilitation. Finally, it’s tough on potential when the lawmakers and members of the court who make up the judicial system blatantly disregard the lasting effects of sentencing a person to a prison stint of no return. These effects consist of displacement of families and the dismantling of communities.
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LifeLines Participants on How You can Be Active in “Fighting for the Light of Day”!

lifelines headerNow that people have received the LifeLines pamphlet and read your words, what do you hope they will do with that knowledge?

DAWUD: I want people to know that we need all of their creative talents, innovation, cognitive abilities, passion for justice and freedom, and determination to bring forth structural changes to emerge at this hour in our struggle. We must understand that our struggle is a continuation of what was started centuries ago when people of various walks of life came together to challenge chattel enslavement, the Black Codes, Jim Crow segregation, discrimination on other levels, etc. The struggle for justice and human rights has historical roots and our current struggle to challenge and abolish DBI is in line with this same tradition.

I hope everyone understands that this will not be an easy fight, thus we need unity in order for us to prevail. We must use our various talents and skills in a collective fashion as we move forward. In closing, I want to thank everyone for their efforts and sacrifices.

NKECHI: Recently, I’ve read that it’s the love of justice that strengthens the soul. The fact that these words are reaching the ears of folks, and actually being heard, is a clear testament of the love of justice that’s in the atmosphere. The LifeLines Project provides firsthand knowledge and a direct avenue to understanding how, in many ways, Death By Incarceration is in relations with, and in fact a continuation of, the dismantling of families and communities. It also gives warning for us to understand that justice cannot be a mere byproduct of prison and profit. Therefore, we cannot afford to allow that knowledge and understanding to fall to the wayside. The old cliche is that knowledge is power, and in the realm of physics, power is energy that must remain active and channeled to ensure the best possible outcome.

In the spirit of my recent read, I wish for the love of justice to be so great that it has strengthened the soul of the listener. I hope it do so in such a way that the listener recognizes the power that they have and it motivates and energizes him or her to continue fighting the just fight that will bring an end to the slow, torturous death known as Life Imprisonment without any chance of parole.

JAMES HOUGH: Now that you’ve got the LifeLines pamphlet, what you gonna do? (Yeah, you!) First, there are several things that the recipients of the pamphlets must do: Thank with gratitude the creators/producers – Emily, Layne, and all the other folk at Decarcerate PA! The small, un-thanked, abolitionists who’ve been around as long as injustice itself. The candles that won’t go out. Please thank them with all you might, then join onto them and move with us. It doesn’t matter how much, or what duty one does, everything helps. Second, recognize that these are your prisons (and prisoners), citizen. You pay for all of them; what are you getting in return for your $2 billion-plus tax dollars? What type of persons would you want to produce with your tax dollars? When you know that, you should contact your local legislator and find out how your resources are being used and how you want them used. The sooner you recognize that you own this system, the sooner you will help reshape it. Third, try to learn about the PA prison system (the $2 billion dollar shadow state). This will enable you to know the difference between fact, myth, and fiction. You’ll see its strengths and weaknesses amongst other things. This will constantly shape strategy and tactics. Fourth, know that there are (many) more than the profiled prisoners who’ve earned a second chance (by self-reformation) and need your support to help create a society worth living in. All lives being interconnected, you just may save the life of the person who helps thousands or more. Knowing this means that all the good we do in this effort goes unwasted. Human potential is uncondemnable. Fifth, and finally, know that we are not ungrateful. Many of us live in “spiritual-debt” due to whatever act(s) landed us here. Almost as if an ever-present sadness lives within us. We may rarely proclaim it, but we know you guys and gals are living blessings to us. In struggle, seeing victory!  Yaya (James)

JAMES CANADY: First, I’d like to say to the people who do take the pamphlet that they are open to hearing us out, that they are caring people and that they are fair when it comes to the justice system. I just hope that people who take the pamphlet pass the word around that people that are sentenced to life do deserve a second chance at life. Because it can change a lot if people do back us up.

AVIS: People should write to the Senators and Governor and ask that they abolish LWOP in Pennsylvania.

TERRI: Now that people have received the pamphlet and heard my words, I hope they will have gained some knowledge and take that knowledge and share it with every single family member and friend they have, whether they are pro-inmate or not, so that more people begin to see the possibility of redemption, change, and renewal. I’d also hope that those same people would listen less to media propaganda and dig more into facts and true statistics and get away from the scare tactics and political machinations this society has gotten lost inside. We are bright people all around, and some of us have done really ugly, harmful, stupid things, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for a better tomorrow.

PHILL: Now that you’ve received this pamphlet, please spread it to others. Help break down the myth that people condemned to death in prison are the “worst of the worst” and are a danger to the community. No one remains the same, and no one should be forever denied an opportunity for redemption. Imagine being trapped in your worst moment for the rest of your life, with no way out. This is the definition of Death By Incarceration.

Many of us recognize the irreparable harm we’ve caused. We have to live with the guilt, sorrow, and regret for the rest of our lives. All we ask is for the chance to  try to put some of our wrongs just a little more right. Just the chance.

This is an issue that affects everyone. A society should be judged by how it treats its “lowest” citizens. In a society that throws people away, no one is safe. A society that doesn’t believe people can transcend their worst moment has no future.

Dawud Lee & Nyako Pippen on Ending Mass Incarceration

One Hood United: A Youth and an Elder Share Their Perspectives

on the Efforts to End Mass Incarceration

By Nyako Pippen and David Lee

How do we stop mass incarceration?

NYAKO PIPPEN: Our short term resolution would be to first parole the many prisoner being held months and even sometimes years over their eligible minimum release date. People whom have met the criteria for being paroled, but are being unfairly denied parole for frivolous and often discriminatory reasons. For example, being labelled a “threat to community” of “lack of motivation.” These are far-fetched excuses that are impossible to determine in a brief parole hearing.

Second, we must release the many elderly prisoners that are being held captive for reasons that stem from racist, self-serving judgers who place these elders behind bars at a time when class and race discrimination were disguised as the “war on crime.” These older prisoners hold no apparent threat to the public and if anything most will be a benefit to the community and can assist in education our youth out there seeking direction.

Also, we must come together as a people! As a nation! And work to have these outdated and discriminatory laws abolished. Beginning with one of the most detrimental of all – Death By Incarceration. In other words, Life Without the Possibility of Parole. Such sentences are being issued at an unprecedented rate. Often due to over-zealous prosecutors who overcharge defendants in the first place. Furthermore, eliminate the wide range of charges for which these sentences can be imposed. Ultimately it will take for our communities to form a movement that will force lawmakers to restructure these guidelines and mandatory sentences.

For the long term permanent solution, we must work to bring about awareness through education. We have to educate ourselves in order for us to infiltrate this system that was built on racial, class, and gender discrimination. We need to create opportunities to place people in positions to change this system from the inside out. We need people from similar backgrounds and people who have an understanding of our culture and our struggle, and who do not view the world through a capitalist lens.

DAVID LEE: I personally believe that the process is already in motion with the organizing being done by organizations like Decarcerate PA, Human Rights Coalition, Black Lives Matter, and others. Once you enlighten people about how we’re being systematically oppressed, we can then collectively work toward creating real solutions to our collective issues. We know that the mass incarceration movement in this country has been directed toward people of color, and poor people in general. We must each people that in order to live in a truly free social arrangement, we cannot allow human beings to be treated like incorrigible animals in American prisons.

I recently read an article titled “Germany’s Humane Prisons” by Ellis Cose, in the USA Today, and it talked about treating prisoners like human beings rather than like animals. Prisoners lived in apartments rather than cells. Thus, the ideal was about human growth and development, not human devaluation and oppression. If we can change the narrative to human development and respect of all human rights, you would not have a need for so much imprisonment. Human development should be taking place from childhood to adulthood. Thoroughly developed human being with equal opportunities available to them, in a social arrangement geared toward loving and respecting each other, would not be committing so many acts of rebellion and aggression in the first place.

We have to help people to see the truth about what is actually taking place. We must understand that crime will always exist in a social arrangement such as the one that exists here in this country. But poor people did not create this arrangement, nor do we perpetuate it. America was built off of enslavement and oppression, so in order to stop mass incarceration we must stop those people who profit off of our agony.

How do we ignite hope in those who don’t believe there can be change? Of for those who don’t know we need change?

Nyako: I think of our more reliable sources of hope is to remind our people of where we came from and what we have overcome thus far. Our proven resilience will remind our people that through our unity we can overcome virtually anything. In a society where instant gratification is the mentality of the masses, it is important to highlight the progress that we, as a people, have made over the years. Pointing out the direct and indirect impact protestors had/have on our people, and those who oppose us, can go a long way (e.g. Million Man March/Justice or Else, Black Lives Matter, and the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, just to name a few).

Now as far as the people who don’t believe we need change, I think this speaks to us as a people controlling our own source of media. Living in a society that propagates all sorts of negatives in regards to us, it’s important that we establish a media source that will inform people of what’s truly happening in the world, not the distorted version. I believe in our people enough to believe wholeheartedly that once they are informed and educated as to the oppressive, racist and unjust state this country is currently in, they will get on board for the sake of protecting our rights to live as human beings.

David: First we must properly educate ourselves regarding historical, political, and other germane issues and share what we gather with those people in despair. If we organize with confident and like-minded people, we will be able to secure some small victories as we work toward creating a larger vision. Each small victory builds confidence for those in despair. Thus, we can help people begin to see and believe in the larger visions we create. There are times when people need to see examples of their power to change, and they need to see positive results in various areas of our struggle to help them to see how we can make progress while still continuing to struggle toward larger goals.

How do we implement actual life skills into our schooling process?

Nyako: The importance of life skills must be highlighted to instill confidence in our people and to show them how to survive in this country. I believe that the traditional curriculum is important: math, writing, reading, etcetera. But the emotional development and character development are equally important. Without these survival skills our current educational process is failing us. Oftentimes, the background which we come from hinders us to the point of us not acquiring the necessary skills to translate the things we learn into success.

Life skills like emotional discipline and character development are the link between education and success. Therefore, I think that it is imperative that we adults come together and create formats for a more comprehensive curriculum that will cater to both education requirements and other essential life skills. Once we’re able to establish effective curriculums for our children we can approach the school system with our proposals and pressure them to adopt them based on the unique needs of our children.

David: Schooling really is about training our children to assist in the maintenance of an oppressive super-structure known as the U.S. government and her corporate cronies. We want to educate our children because education is about empowerment, and in the process we must teach them all the necessary survival skills. We must teach them the necessary defense strategies and how to build institutions. We must each them how real communities function. All this and much more must be a part of their education.

How do we highlight injustice, as well as race and class discrimination, without teaching hate?

Nyako: Our first task would be to create an avenue of media that will reach the people. Especially the youth and those of us living in poor neighborhoods throughout the country because it is vitally important that we reach this demographic. Once we have the attention of this group we can highlight the many examples of discrimination that plagues our society everyday. We must also highlight and teach this country’s history of discrimination. This would show how far we have come, while simultaneously showing how far we have to still go. Thus we can find ways to channel our anger in positive ways.

David: Telling the truth in regards to white supremacy and capitalism is not about hating other people, but about stopping oppressive practices. Our struggle for liberation and self determination has never been about hating people based on race or class difference. Notwithstanding, without the truth being told in an emphatic manner, we cannot enlighten the wretched souls being crushed under the weight of systemic oppression. The truth is the truth, and we must teach our children the truth without teaching them how to be like what we’re working to stop!

From “Rights of the Condemned”

Excerpt from Rights of the Condemned

By David Lee

What follows is an excerpt from a longer article written by Lee in response to an editorial by Dom Giordano that appeared in The Philadelphia Daily News on October 15, 2014. In Giordano’s own editorial, he vigorously voices his support for the ‘Silencing Act’ – a reactive, unconstitutional piece of legislation that was introduced in the fall of 2014 by PA Representative Mike Vereb following a remotely delivered commencement speech by Mumia Abu Jamal for Goddard College. The bill, which passed both the PA House and Senate overwhelmingly, was challenged in the courts on several fronts and was ruled unconstitutional.

It is vitally important for those of us condemned (in the eyes of prejudiced people) to maintain our human right to voice our pain. Mr. Giordano suggests that every time that Mumia Abu Jamal speaks that it revictimizes Mrs. Maureen Faulkner, the widow of slain police officer Danny Faulkner. Well, if he is going to be honest then it is safe to suggest that there are many instances in which she is exposed to painful issues by people not in prison. Do you silence those voices too? Moreover, listening to the broadcast commencement address at Goddard College is optional; people who do not wish to listen, do not have to listen. Furthermore, Mumia has maintained his innocence throughout the entire process, and many facts have been presented to suggest that he is in fact innocent. But due to political reasons those issues are not given the same considerations that a police officer would get if he/she were even charged with killing a Black man. Additionally, what about Mumia’s family – do they count? They are subjected to painful rhetoric as well, but who is speaking about their pain?

Now let us look at this situation from a reverse standpoint: what if a police officer had killed Mumia and 33 years later this officer was presented with an opportunity to speak on the radio. Does any honest person believe that this would raise an issue for Mr. Giordano? Would he care about how Mumia’s family felt about the program being aired with the police officer responsible for killing Mumia? Does he care about all those family members of the thousands who have been convicted of crimes and have spent years, even decades, in prison for crimes they did not commit, before being found to be innocent and released? Or the thousands who are innocent, but sadly lack the resources to prove their innocence? Or the thousands in prison for taking deals because they’re afraid of being over-prosecuted by overzealous and uncaring prosecutors. These victims do not count in the minds of those working to smash the voices of the wretched beings in the nation’s prisons whose real crime is mere underdevelopment and poverty.

In American society, it is always a safe bet to vent your absurdity on the most vilified and powerless segment of this country: prisoners! We, for the most part, are powerless to fight back. Sadly, in the minds of some people, it is okay to further trample upon our human rights because we’ve been condemned and demonized by those who view us as not in the special class of human beings. I cannot help but to cogitate in regards to how Giordano might feel about all the Black men being killed by cops around this country. Are the cops allowed to have a voice and to go onto the internet and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend themselves and to elevate their standard of living in the process? Are these takers of human life deemed worthy of having a voice? Accordingly to some people, only certain types of people accused of killing someone are allowed to speak. We the condemned masses filling up the nation’s prisons have no such rights. We must be silent while we’re being persecuted because some people might get upset with us for challenging their lunacy.

I am an impoverished Black man who has spent close to three decades in prison for a crime I did not commit and my human rights are stepped on every day of my existence in Pennsylvania’s cages of despair and agony. I could care less about Mr. Giordano’s foolishness, but he seems to represent enough people to force me to speak on this issue. We prisoners and our families can ill afford to allow people like this to just continue to walk over our rights to live as human beings. We must organize our voices too! We have a right to voice our pain! I do have compassion for those who have lost loved ones to senseless violence, but placing innocent people in prison does nothing to assuage your pain. Justice cannot be about throwing people into these cages and allowing them to just waste away. And if we’re going to speak about victims, what about all those victimized by the criminal justice system, some of whom have spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit. Do we have any say in this matter?

Most of those able to overturn their cases do so through DNA evidence, but what about those of us who do not have DNA evidence available to prove our innocence? What about all those people who have been time barred by unjust laws and cannot even raise vital issues in court? We must understand that we too have rights, and we must continue to organize and fight in order for our rights to be respected and honored. We cannot continue to allow venomous people to silence us due to our status. We must exercise our voices at every possible opportunity because we have no other weapons available to us. We must resist attempts of anyone who wishes to further strip us of our humanity. These are our God-given rights, and we must protect them with a profound passion, or lose them due to others’ fears and insanity.