Human Rights Lab Update

Last Fall, the Pozen Center launched the Human Rights Lab, a new initiative under the leadership of Alice Kim, Director of Human Rights Practice. The Lab actively engages students and community in human rights work addressing racialized policing and mass incarceration.  

To introduce the Lab, we were thrilled to welcome students, faculty, staff and community members to our new space at our open house last October. Later in the month, the Lab celebrated the release of a new anthology, The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences, Working Toward Freedom, edited by Alice Kim, Erica R. Meiners, Audrey Petty, Jill Petty, Beth E. Richie, and Sarah Ross. Moderated by Professor Cathy Cohen, co-editor Beth Richie and contributors Kathy Boudin, Patrick Pursely, and Janae Bonsu joined Kim to discuss the devastating effects of life in long term incarceration and moving beyond the punishment paradigm to re-thinking safety and justice.  

To bring the voices of people who are incarcerated into the room, Kim read an excerpt from Raul Dorado’s essay, “Prison Is Not Just a Place:”  

Behind these walls we form concrete bonds of brotherhood….Time binds us as appeal after appeal for freedom is struck down by panels of black-robed judges slamming their gavels with the same conviction that the reaper swings his scythe….The parallels of the slave trade and contemporary mass incarceration are much too similar to coincidental….The years of our life fuel this industry of mass incarceration. Am I a slave? If I concede that that I am a slave, then I admit to thinks I am not yet ready to admit to---for instance, that I no longer belong to myself. 

Kim explained that “his words get at the heart of our book, especially when he talks about things he may not yet be ready to admit to. This book foregrounds the voices and issues that are being left out of the national conversation about mass incarceration –– issues that many of us may not yet be ready to talk about – but that so desperately need to be talked about. We challenge ourselves to think about what it would mean to live in a world without prisons. We ask how we can all live in relationship to one another with dignity and how we can create real safety in our communities. And we insist that we are all worthy of care and compassion – including those facing long-term sentences.” 


 Beth Richie discussed how  “abolitionist feminist practice is not just about emptying cages, it’s about…providing people with the resources they need to live a life long-term.” She stressed that the organizing work of prison abolition is done overwhelming by Black and Brown women, and that “one of the political interventions [of the anthology] is to…capture the brilliance of the people who are doing the long-term, both inside and out.”  

To make plain the challenges he has faced in his own life, Patrick Pursely, who was released from prison on bond after twenty-four years of incarceration, shared, “I’m fifty-three years old. Since I was 14, I’ve only been free on year.” In his essay in The Long Term, “The Lil’ Paralegal Who Could and the Birth of a New Law,” he describes how he helped introduce new legislation making new ballistics testing available in Illinois.  Once this legislation became law in in Illinois, Patrick’s legal team was able “to order the gun I had been chasing for the last fifteen years.” The results of the new test did not connect the gun to the murder, and Patrick won a new trial.  

Kathy Boudin highlighted the impact of mass incarceration on: “When we think about the carceral state, we have to think about the women inside and the women outside, who are holding up their communities, sending packages, dealing with the school-to-prison pipeline.” She also cautioned against a narrow view of decarceration as prison reform, “In New York, we reduced from having 75,000 people in prison to 50,000 people, and yet the conditions behind bars are worse than ever.” 

For Janae Bonsu, a black, queer lens offers a praxis for liberation that leaves no one behind. She explained that it means “Going to the margins, to those who are living their lives in the margins of the margins, and bringing them into the center.” And it means fighting for things like “how our public funds are spent” because “our people are suffering right now. In cages, out of cages. For that reason, we cannot just set our sights on the end goal.”  

Alice Kim closed with a takeaway from the discussion, that when doing organizing work, we need to consider the people inside and people who are formerly incarcerated.  

In line with  this directive, the Lab held several other events last quarter: lunch time events with #NoCopAcademy, a group of activists fighting against the $95 million police academy that the city of Chicago intends to establish in West Garfield Park, and Chicago Community Bond Fund, an organization that raises money to pay bail for people charged with crimes in Cook County and advocates for the abolition of money bond. The Lab ended the quarter with a quilting circle led by Rachel Wallis, a textile artist and educator, where participants helped to sew quilts designed by women incarcerated in Cook County Jail. 

This Winter, the Lab will host a conversation with Ronald Kitchen about his new memoir, My Midnight Years: Surviving Jon Burge and Death Row on Tuesday, January 29.