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July 1, 2013

What is the Prison Industrial Complex?

by balexisd


Just so we’re all on the same page, my name is Bianca Diaz and my project involves interviewing parents who have been incarcerated and the children they were forced to leave behind. With the photos and interviews I collect, I will create a children’s book that will attempt to speak to the emotions and struggles that incarcerated parents and their families are facing. It is my hope that this book will provide these families with a way to begin the conversation about a very difficult time in their lives. It is also imperative for me to find a way that teachers and students can have access to this book to promote understanding and open discussion.

Later this week I will have my first meeting with my project leader, Mariame Kaba of Project NIA. Until then, this post will be an update on the workshops I have been attending for the past three weeks about the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). These workshops are held in the Jane Adams Hull House Museum and are lead by members of Project NIA and the PIC Teaching Collective. Here is a schedule of topics for each week:

  1. June 15th: PIC 101
  2. June 22nd: Intro Part 2–History 
  3. June 29th: Cycles of Incarceration
  4. July 13th: Immigration and the PIC
  5. July 20th: Youth and the PIC
  6. July 27th: Gender and the PIC
  7. August 3rd: Restorative and Transformative Justice
  8. August 10th: Visualizing a World Without Prisons

During week 1, Chez Rumph lead the group in introductions. There were close to 30 of us, and we went around the table, stating our names, preferred gender pronouns, and what brought us to the workshop. I was amazed at how many different interests and goals everyone had, and at the variety of age groups represented. It felt great to sit in a room full of people who were so passionate and deeply connected to the work they were doing. At the core of it all, I felt in the group a passionate belief that things can change if people can imagine something better and work for it.

After introductions, we created a mind map where the entire group tried to think about who the PIC affects. The results were eye opening. As a group we also edited a definition of the PIC which was written by Critical Resistance.


A mind map showing just how pervasive the prison system is in our societies.

“The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” – Critical Resistance

Once we created the mind map, we thought about how we each fit into the system. We asked the questions, how do I personally benefit from this system? Where are my points of leverage? How can I start making changes? To myself I wondered, what can I do as an artist?

We were presented with a lot of statistics, facts, and maps as well. These statistics highlighted the increasing rate at which women are being incarcerated, the disproportionate number of black males and people of color in prison compared to those who are white, and the incredible fact that though the US is home to only 5% of the world’s population, we are home to 25% of the world’s prison population. These were shocking and depressing, but failed to paint a picture for me of the real people behind the numbers.

Unfortunately I had to miss week 2 to attend a weekend residency lead by the Chicago Artist Coalition, but yesterday at meeting number 3 I was able to put a face to those statistics. The highlight of this week was the panel that Mariame and Chez invited to speak to our group.

On the panel:

N’Dana Carter – an organizer for the Chicago Mental Health Movement and the Heal Chicago Campaign, which is a platform created to “stop violence in Chicago at its roots by making sure all residents have the sources, conditions and resources to heal.”

Marlin Chamberlain – a former prisoner now working with FORCE (Fighting to Overcome Records and Create Equality), a Chicago based organization which just recently was able to pass HB3061, a house bill which works to seal the criminal records of certain people who have proven to be law abiding and deserving of the relief.

Johnny Walker – traveling educator and former prisoner of Tamms correctional center, a supermax prison in Illinois.

Darrel Cannon – supervisor at Cease Fire in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago, where he works through street-level outreach to stop the violence and shootings in the neighborhood. Former prisoner of Tamms correctional center.

Each panelist shared with us their perspective of how the PIC has affected their communities, their families, and their lives. N’Dana spoke about the loss of 6 public mental health clinics in the Woodlawn neighborhood, some of which served entire families. She talked about the unfair expectations held concerning a prisoner’s “re-entry” into society. While incarcerated prisoners do not receive an education, are not paid for their labor, and are not taught useful skills. They are tortured through isolation, sensory depravation, and physically by guards, Tamms being one of the worst offenders. More often than not, these prisoners came from places with limited to no resources to begin with. What are they re-entering? How are they supposed to feed their families and provide if they can’t get a job because of their record?

It was eye opening and humbling to listen to the powerful words of everyone on this panel. Marlin, Johnny and Darrel tried to explain to us the physical and mental toll that isolation takes. Isolation creates stress, deterioration, and denies a person the right to interact with their children. It does not create a person who is “rehabilitated”. It exacerbates and creates mental illness. It is inhumane. It is torture.

Together we discussed strategies for creating change. The biggest lesson I took with me is that it is the power of people who care uniting that has made an impact in this fight, and in any fight. It is about teaching each other, sharing knowledge within our own circles, passing things on by word of mouth. Walking in unity, we can create the power to create change.

At the end of this day that was not without tears, we sat in a circle for our weekly checkout, wherein everyone in the group chooses one word or phrase to express how they’re feeling. Mine was charged with responsibility. The day ended on a positive, beautiful note with some words of inspiration from Mariame Kaba.

How do you keep the fight in you? How do you maintain your energy when everything seems stacked against you?

Have a vision for yourself, and fully enjoy your triumphs.

I will end this post with the best advice I’ve heard in a long time: “If you’re gonna fail, fail HUGE.” – Mariame Kaba

Until next week,


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