Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Jena Generation --An interview with Jordan Flaherty

The Jena Generation

--An interview with Jordan Flaherty

By Angola 3 News

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist, an editor of Left Turn Magazine, and a staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute. He was the first writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience and audiences around the world have seen the television reports he’s produced for Al-Jazeera, TeleSur, GritTV, and Democracy Now.

Flaherty’s most recent articles have tackled a variety of important stories. His article, Jena Sheriff Seeks Revenge for Civil Rights Protests, follows up on the Jena Six story and exposes a wave of post-Jena 6 arrests directed at activists and the Black community in general. New Complaints of Police Violence in New Orleans, reports that “New Orleans' Black and transgender community members and advocates complain of rampant and systemic harassment and discrimination from the city's police force, including sexual violence and arrest without cause,” and then the article provides a voice to the activists who are fighting back. Did a White Sheriff and District Attorney Orchestrate a Race-Based Coup in a Northern Louisiana Town? focuses on a town called Waterproof, where “the African American mayor and police chief assert that they have been forced from office and arrested as part of an illegal coup carried out by an alliance of white politicians and their followers.”

This summer, Haymarket Books will release his new book, FLOODLINES: Stories of Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six, and this fall he will be touring with the Community and Resistance Tour. Contact him at For more information on the book and tour, please see

Angola 3 News: Can you please tell us about your upcoming book?

Jordan Flaherty: Floodlines is a firsthand account of community, culture, and resistance in New Orleans in the years before and after Katrina. The book weaves the interconnected stories of prisoners at Angola, Mardi Gras Indians, Arab and Latino immigrants, public housing residents, gay rappers, spoken word poets, victims of police brutality, out of town volunteers, and grassroots activists.

From post-Katrina evacuee camps to organizing with the family members of the Jena Six, Floodlines is the real story behind the headlines. The protagonists of this book are the people who have led the fight to save New Orleans.

A3N: What will it show readers about New Orleans and LA that they won’t get from the corporate media?

JF: If this city is going to recover, the first step is getting out the truth that New Orleans is not okay. Most of the country believes either that New Orleans has been rebuilt, or that, if not, it’s because people here are lazy and/or corrupt and wasted the nation’s generous assistance. But New Orleans is still a city in crisis. The oft-promised aid, whether from FEMA or various federal and private agencies, has not arrived. We don’t need charity, but we do need the federal and corporate entities responsible for the devastation of New Orleans to be held accountable for supporting its rebuilding. I want the world to know that it’s not too late to make a difference.

The other crucial element of this book is a tribute to grassroots resistance and culture in New Orleans. People like Sunni Patterson, Norris Henderson, Rosana Cruz, Sess 4-5, and the many other organizers and culture workers who have cultivated this steadfast resistance.

A3N: What is one of your favorite stories from the book?

JF: A central story I focus on is the case of the Jena Six, and the people’s victory it represents. Our movements should be proud of what happened in Jena. We should claim it as a success. Fifty thousand people marched in Jena, in a mass movement led by the family members of these six kids who were facing life in prison for a school fight. These Jena families didn’t have the corporate media behind them, they didn’t have money or mainstream civil rights organizations supporting them. All of that came eventually. But for months, these families were on their own, and they kept struggling and fighting for justice against incredible odds.

The massive national support these courageous families brought together helped the students. All of them remained in school rather than going to prison – and they are all now either in college or on their way. Without the world watching, the DA and judge could have done whatever they wanted.

Jena was more than a historical moment. I think that the young people from around the US – and especially the south – who traveled to Jena for the mass protests, and who also organized in solidarity in their own community, will continue to lead exciting struggles. I think we will see a Jena Generation.

A3N: You have written several articles focusing on the Angola 3. How do you think the story of the Angola 3 fits into the broader picture of injustice in Louisiana?

JF: Every year, thousands of New Orleanians are shipped upstate (or upriver) to prisons like Angola and Elayn Hunt. In telling the story of New Orleans, it’s important to tell the story of these institutions.

The United States has the largest incarcerated population of any nation on earth—the people imprisoned here represent 25 percent of all prisoners around the world. Nationwide, more than seven million people are in U.S. jails, on probation, or on parole, and African Americans are incarcerated at nearly ten times the rate of whites. Our criminal justice system has become an insatiable machine—even when crime rates go down, the prison population keeps rising.

The state of Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the United States—816 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 state residents. By comparison, Texas places a distant second with 694 per 100,000. African Americans make up 32 percent of Louisiana’s population but they constitute 72 percent of the state’s prison population.

Prison makes us all less free—by breaking up families and communities, by dehumanizing the imprisoned both during and after, by perpetuating a cycle of poverty, and by making all citizens complicit in the incarceration of their fellow human beings. Since so many New Orleanians live in prisons around the state, the stories from these prisons are also the stories of New Orleans itself. Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Orleans Parish Prison, and all the other prisons of this state are central to the narrative of New Orleans’s poor and dispossessed.

Angola or another “lifers’ prison” is frequently the final stop on an unjust journey that begins with children born into substandard health care and housing; then shuttled into a school system that treats them like criminals from a young age; then left with few job options in a tourism-based economy in which corporations such as those that own the city’s hotels profit while the residents are left out; and finally entangled in a criminal justice system that treats them as guilty until proven innocent. This is the “cradle-to-prison pipeline,” and nowhere is it more entrenched than here in New Orleans.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the injustice perpetrated by this system is the case the Angola Three, locked in solitary confinement because of their political beliefs.

Statements by Angola warden Burl Cain have made clear that Woodfox and Wallace are being punished for their political views. At a 2009 deposition, attorneys for Woodfox asked Cain, “Let’s just for the sake of argument assume, if you can, that he is not guilty of the murder of Brent Miller.” Cain responded, “Okay. I would still keep him in [solitary]…I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kind of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the Blacks chasing after them....He has to stay in a cell while he's at Angola.”

Louisiana attorney general James “Buddy” Caldwell has said the case against the Angola Three is “personal” to him. These statements by Caldwell and Cain indicate that this kind of vigilante attitude not only pervades the DOC, but that the mindset, in fact, comes from the very top.

The problem is not limited to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola—similar stories can be found in prisons across the country. American Friends Service Committee reported that on any given day in the United States, up to two hundred thousand men and women are held in solitary confinement. The director of the ACLU’s National Prisoner Project, Elizabeth Alexander, told reporters, “If you look at the iconic pictures from Abu Ghraib, you can match up these photos with the same abuses at American prisons, each one of them.”

A 2008 legal petition filed by Herman Wallace echoed Alexander’s words. “If Guantanamo Bay has been a national embarrassment and symbol of the US government’s relation to charges, trials and torture, then what is being done to the Angola Three… is what we are to expect if we fail to act quickly….The government tries out its torture techniques on prisoners in the US—just far enough to see how society will react. It doesn’t take long before they unleash their techniques on society as a whole.” If we don’t stand up against this abuse now, it will only spread, he argued. The vigilante violence enacted on the streets of New Orleans after Katrina—condoned and carried out in part by the police—is one example of the truth of Wallace’s predictions.

The case of the Angola Three is truly an international issue, and Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King are an important part of the city’s civil rights history. Among those who know this history, the Angola Three are an urgent and ongoing concern.

A3N: Any closing thoughts?

JF: Those who have not experienced New Orleans have missed an incredible, glorious, vital city—a place with an energy unlike anywhere else in the world, a majority–African American city where resistance to white supremacy has cultivated and supported a generous, subversive, and unique culture of vivid beauty. From jazz, blues, and hip-hop to secondlines, Mardi Gras Indians, and jazz funerals, New Orleans is a place of art and music and food and liberation.

New Orleans is a city of slave revolts and uprisings. In 1811, the largest slave uprising in U.S. history was launched just upriver, as more than five hundred armed formerly enslaved fighters marched toward New Orleans, partially inspired by the Haitian revolution. As one historian described, “The leaders [of the revolt] were intent on creating an [enslaved persons] army, capturing the city of New Orleans, and seizing state power throughout the area.” Although the revolt was defeated, it inspired more over the following years.

In 1892, Homer Plessy and the Citizens Committee planned the direct action that brought the first (unsuccessful) legal challenge to the doctrine of "separate but equal"—the challenge that became the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy, part of a community of Creole Black intellectuals and community leaders, boarded an all-white railcar after notifying the railroad company and law enforcement in advance. While the action was ultimately unsuccessful, it was an important turning point in this long history of locally led resistance to racist laws.

You could say the spirit of the Panthers was born in Louisiana. The Deacons for Defense, an armed self-defense group formed in rural central Louisiana in 1964, inspired the Panthers and other radical groups. The Deacons went on to form twenty-one chapters in rural Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, continuing a legacy of defiance that inspired future generations. Several civil rights workers and future revolutionaries were born in this state, including Black Panther leader Geronimo Ji-Jaga, born in Morgan City, and founder Huey P. Newton, born in Monroe. Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, also known as H. Rap Brown, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and later the justice minister of the Black Panther Party, was from Baton Rouge. Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton’s parents were also from Louisiana.

So there is an intense and terrible history of racism and white supremacy in New Orleans, but also an incredible history of resistance, and that is what I am trying to pay tribute to in Floodlines.

--Angola 3 News is a new project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Christian Perspective On Prisons --An interview with Stan Moody

A Christian Perspective on Prisons

--An interview with Stan Moody

By Angola 3 News

Stan Moody has served in the Maine State House of Representatives both as a Republican and a Democrat, pastors a small country church in Central Maine and served as a Chaplain at the maximum security Maine State Prison, where he ministered to inmates in the Supermax unit. He has authored several books on the state of the evangelical church in America, including No Turning Back: Journal of an All-American Sinner, Crisis in Evangelical Scholarship: A New Look at the Second Coming of Christ and McChurched: 300 Million Served and Still Hungry.

Moody has written several recent articles focusing on prison issues, including A Suspicious (and Lonely) Death in Maine State Prison’s Lockdown Unit, At Angola Prison, Does Jesus Christ Save?, and Maine's New Capital Punishment Law: Solitary Confinement.

Angola 3 News: The Bible uses the word “prison” 116 times, and Psalm 69:33 reads, “. . . the LORD heareth the poor, and despiseth not his prisoners.” Throughout the Bible, prison and executions are identified as tools of oppression against the underclass and dissidents, including the early Apostles and Jesus himself. The Bible presents the liberation of prisoners as a social good, as illustrated by the following noteworthy passages:

· Which executeth judgment for the oppressed: which giveth food to the hungry. The LORD looseth the prisoners.” (Psalm 146:7)

· “I the LORD have called thee in righteousness . . . to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.” (Isaiah 42:6-7)

· “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me . . . to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” (Isaiah 61:1).

US popular culture often proudly makes reference to the Judeo-Christian traditions so prominent in US history, yet “Get tough on crime,” is still the winning political slogan of the day. How did society come to view incarceration as a social good, as something necessary to keep society safe?

Stan Moody: First, we have ghettoized ourselves into white, suburban group-think that builds on self-righteousness. We are probably the most self-righteous nation on earth, which precludes us from contemplating, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Tragically, the greatest social good in America has become the acquisition of wealth through “legitimate” means, such as self promotion and corporate empire building, where greed becomes an acceptable virtue. Those who take shortcuts to the American Dream are pariahs to be banished from the kingdom of us pedestrian wannabees who, in frustration, quietly cheat on our taxes and on our spouses.

Jesus makes it clear that His followers are to love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, leave vengeance and retribution up to God and visit Him in prison. “Inasmuch as you have or have not done it to the least of these my brothers, you have or have not done it to me.”

A cursory examination of our nation’s history will satisfy that the founders had no Christian theocracy in mind and, in fact, crafted a document that expressly ensured otherwise. Yet, people who advocate for the theocratic view are not listening. The best evidence that we are not a Christian nation is not in the actions of government but in the actions of our erstwhile evangelical state church that has embraced the Republican Party as God’s instrument for redemption. The vehicle for that redemption is a moral code rather than divine grace. Getting tough on crime is just another version of an anti-Christian moral code.

A3N: Why do you suppose prisons and prisoners’ living conditions are so far removed from the popular US consciousness today? How do US popular culture and the corporate media present the issue of human rights in prison?

SM: Very simply, as the nation with by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, neither the public nor the mainstream news media wants to know anything about prisons. Prisons are the depositories of our social programming and education failures. “Get them out of our sight.” The ultimate driver is cost. Only as the public becomes aware of the enormous cost of the revolving door of incarceration will they begin to pay attention to what is going on inside and how we might change the dynamic. Corrections has taken full advantage of this denial by essentially saying, “You cannot possibly understand what we are up against.” They have built incarceration into a growth industry that is sapping our national strength and shredding our decency.

There is a shroud of secrecy that envelops prisons. That shroud of secrecy is protected through a system of nepotism, patronage, and public ignorance and apathy. The public thinks of prisons as country clubs, while they are, in fact, crushingly boring places within high-tech boxes designed more for mass movement than rehabilitation. The human element has tragically been removed from most US prisons by a public frustrated in pursuit of its own dreams, thereby advocating for crushing the spirits of those getting what they enviously consider to be a “free ride.”

Both the mainstream press and the public it entertains are too pedestrian for relevancy in this volatile world in which we live.

A3N: How can people of faith shed light on human rights abuses in prisons?

SM: The best answer is to challenge the comfort zones of your denomination, the media, your friends and neighbors and your political leaders. Write, speak and live out your faith on the front lines of activism for human dignity, especially when it disturbs your comfort zone. Only through patient suffering can you convince others of the legitimacy of your beliefs.

Belief in the power of God to move mountains by touching one life will drive people of faith toward little victories, knowing they are cumulative. While Christian volunteers in prisons are legion, they scatter to the four winds when the subject of human rights is raised. As a Chaplain at Maine State Prison, I sometimes was criticized by management for not sticking to “Chaplain things,” meaning administrative and counseling duties. There was hardly a single volunteer who joined with me once I stood up for Sheldon Weinstein, who died of a ruptured spleen in segregation on April 24, 2009, a couple of hours after I requested a roll of toilet paper for him. He had been using his pillow case; he had no pillow anyway.

I speak as a Christian, believing that the willingness to sacrifice one’s own comforts in defense of the human rights of those in exile among us is the best barometer of the legitimacy of faith. “Touching a life” rarely brings press coverage, but it may well reap huge rewards in the grand scheme to which people of faith must demonstrate devotion.

We must take great care, however, not to be caught up in embellished stories. If we recognize our own need for redemption, we will see the whole person rather than his or her crime.

A3N: The Bible also makes several references to the persecution of the early Christians through physical torture and forced labor (II Corinthians 11:23), and solitary confinement (Acts 28:16). Quakers and other faith-based prison reformers developed Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary, self-avowedly “one of the most expensive and most copied buildings in the young United States . . . as part of a controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through ‘confinement in solitude with labor’.” This model was soon replicated nationwide.

Today, do you think that the practices of forced prison labor (recognized as legal slavery by the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution) and solitary confinement have any beneficial effects on the spiritual growth of people in prison? How has your outlook on this question been influenced by what you witnessed first-hand, working as a Chaplain at Maine’s maximum security state prison?

SM: Dehumanization is the most debilitating punishment that can be imposed on another human being. Prisoners are no exception. I can imagine a situation where prisoners are used for the crudest labor but are valued as human beings – treated fairly and consistently. On the other hand, I can imagine another situation where you have numbers of entrepreneurs in a prison who are making very good money but are working under conditions of arbitrary patronage and favoritism. Slavery does not always have to do with how much money you make. It may be possible to learn something of the value of human life even in the harshest of conditions.

I found at Maine State Prison that the biggest impediment to spiritual growth was idleness and lack of respect in work, in life and in interrelationships. Earn the right to clean the toilets, if you will, or to pick cotton, or to work in the kitchen, but know that you are respected for earning that right and will be respected for the kind of job you do and not because you are somebody’s “kid.” Know that you are valued as a human being and that the administration is always looking for a spark of hope to kindle.

I am reading In The Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau. It is interesting that the cotton picking “slavery” at Angola seems to get far less space than the sexual slavery that stays beneath the radar of the administration and destroys human dignity.

A3N: The Maine State Legislature recently passed a bill that focused on the use of solitary confinement in Maine’s prisons. Initially, the bill sought to limit the use of solitary confinement, but The Free Press has reported that it was “seriously amended” to only call for more scrutiny of how solitary confinement is used. What do you think will be the impact of the bill?

SM: As a former Maine State Legislator, I was very involved with this bill and was the only former prison staff member to give testimony. The Committee ignored our plea for transparency and accountability and, instead, continued its blind, loyal support of the Department of Corrections, the very institution it has been entrusted to oversee.

It is incorrect to view this bill as having been “seriously amended.” The bill was killed with kindness by turning it into a resolve for the Department to study itself. A resolve is what a legislative committee does to kill a bill when it fears public uprising if it votes “ought not to pass.” Legislative resolves are akin to patents with claims so narrow that you would not infringe on them if you copied the design but changed the color. They are not worth the paper they are written on.

Sadly for this case, the resolve showed a failure of courage on the part of committee members on both sides of the aisle. The House and Senate chairs failed their constituents and the State of Maine.

The good news is that with the upcoming legislative session to begin in January, 2011, and with the election of a new Governor, there will be a bevy of new prison bills to debate. I have personally spoken to 6 gubernatorial candidates about the conditions at the Department of Corrections and the Maine prison system and expect that the next Governor will be far better informed than previously. Further good news is that the prison administration immediately began to implement some of the advances contained in the bill. This, after having expended their energies defending their previous policies, indicates that they are aware of the battle ahead.

Prisoners who “were not supposed to be there” were put back into population. Solitary confinement residents can now earn privileges such as up to 4 hours daily outside their cells, normal prison garb instead of orange jump suits, TV’s and radios, and contact visits. Sadly, there has not yet been a disposition with regard to those mentally ill prisoners held in solitary.

A3N: From the perspective of someone who has worked inside a prison as well as in the Maine State House of Representatives, why do you think that a stronger version of the bill was unable to be passed? Why did government officials and prison authorities oppose it?

SM: Corrections administrators in Maine have successfully sold the public on the falsehood that nobody understands what they are up against. From the Commissioner on down, with occasional exceptions, you have people who have come up through the guard system rather than professionals trained to be innovative in solving the larger problem of the waste of human life. The Governor and legislative committee members, convinced that they did not understand people convicted of crimes, consistently bowed to the wisdom of the “old boy network.”

I recently intervened in a law suit by a former guard against the State of Maine for the purpose of unsealing a deposition that offers a damning picture of the inside politics of Maine State Prison. I was successful in doing so and have studied it in its entirety. The closest I can come to describing it is that it ought to be subject to a RICO (federal racketeering) investigation. Over the next week or so, I expect to issue a public report. It is a fear-based culture that adheres to secrecy at the expense of both staff and prisoners. While there is very little skill in managing people, what distinguishes prison management the most and is most endearing to politicians is the ability to circle the wagons to put out fires.

The legislative committee of oversight has become an echo chamber for the Department of Corrections. It exhibits the height of denial and laziness to fail to listen to professionals who have put their personal reputations on the line in the pursuit of truth. Why would they listen to such people when it is their pattern of behavior to sacrifice their own integrity in the pursuit of political gain?

We are not done…This bill was the best thing to come along for prison reform in the history of the State for it showed the Department as the tired old system it is – a 19th Century culture housed in a 21st Century box…We will prevail, God willing, and we will see a day when our Corrections house is cleaned from top to bottom...

A3N: Any closing thoughts?

SM: The Eastern State Penitentiary was torn down, I believe, in 1973…Most of the prisons in the U.S. today, however, retain the Eastern State, 19th Century Quaker culture that punishment builds character. It has survived through a system of patronage and nepotism – getting rid of good staff people in favor of the corrupt. The high tech boxes that we today call prisons are designed to manage mass movement rather than to build community and self respect, with punishment being arbitrary, inconsistent and capricious in most cases, extended out of sheer boredom.

Prison staff believes and promotes the belief that they have dangerous jobs…I ran some statistics on jobs in the US…Prison guards hardly surface…At the top are commercial fishing and logging industries, both prominent in Maine but rarely heard to complain about danger…It might interest the readers to know that a prison guard has a lower death rate than do licensed drivers – lower than 21 per 100,000 population.

Studies prove that re-entry programs begun in the inside and carried over to the outside will cut recidivism rates by as much as 75%. Why, then, are we not implementing those programs? I believe it is because Corrections is protecting itself as a growth industry. It is only when the public begins to realize it is being fleeced, will it demand change. Meanwhile, we the people continue to elect arrogant obstructionists to public office in protection of the status quo.

--Angola 3 News is a new project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.