Getting a Finger on the Pulse with Emily Harris

CURB Emily Harris

Interview by Dick Price on Justice Not Jails from November 17th, 2014.

Now that Prop 47 has passed and a new Sheriff will soon be walking the beat in Los Angeles County, we thought we’d engage Emily Harris, the statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, which has been battling so hard to push California and, in particular, Los Angeles County out of its “build more cages” mentality.

Working out of CURB’s Oakland office, Emily brings experience working with women in prison throughroles in Free Battered WomenCalifornia Coalition for Women Prisoners, and the Prison Creative Arts Project. She holds a Master’s of Social Work with a focus on policy and community organizing, and a BA in Psychology and German from the University of Michigan.

At CURB, Emily communicates a bird’s eye view of the coalition’s work and well-being, coordinates workgroup activities, represents the coalition before allies, and ensures overall cohesion and strategic movement within CURB.

This weekend, she took time from her busy schedule to answer a few of our questions.

Dick Price: Now that Proposition 47 has passed, your organization has joined others in expressing at least some reservations about its implementation and chances for success. Can you summarize those concerns?

Emily Harris: If implemented effectively, Prop 47 will significantly reduce the prison population, which we wholeheartedly support. We are grateful both that thousands of people who are currently in jail will be free, and that those who have relevant sentences in the future will spend significantly less time in cages, and some will never go to jail at all. At the same time, we are concerned about where the predicted $150-$250 million in annual savings from this measure will go.

First, the majority of funds (65%) will go to the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) for grants to “public agencies providing mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment to reduce recidivism of people in the justice system.” Sounds good, right? Until you realize that the BSCC is the same board that funnels hundreds of millions of dollars to construct new prisons and jails throughout the state, and that in the last few years, many of those jails have been pitched as “mental health treatment facilities.”

The Board is overwhelmingly composed of different types of cops, which should be our first red flag. (It includes Secretary of the California Department of Corrections Jeffery Beard, along with three Sheriffs, two Chief Probation Officers and one Chief of Police.) It’s not shocking when that group of people thinks that the best way to invest in mental health treatment is to build shiny new jails. Sheriff’s aren’t social service providers, and it is dangerous to pretend they are. But unless there is significant community pressure, the Prop 47 funds being directed through this board will likely facilitate the broadening of law enforcement-controlled “diversions.” This wouldn’t shrink the system, but would actually expand it.

CURB wants substance abuse, mental health, and job training programs to be funded in the community. While we believe everyone in prison or jail should get access to programming, we don’t think that requires building more jails—if anything it requires letting more people go. We need to divert many more people and a lot more money away from prisons and jails. Going to jail should not be a prerequisite for getting access to social programs.

Similarly, a quarter of the savings from Prop 47 is directed to the Department of Education to “reduce truancy” and support “at-risk students” or “victims of crime.” Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, the Director of Dignity and Power Now, reminds us that we need to “make sure that the school allocation money will fund counselors and restorative justice practices, not school police, surveillance cameras, or high-power weapons as we’ve seen in the past, especially in L.A.” Following through on the promise of “education not incarceration” means funding smaller class sizes and social workers, so we must watch this money carefully.

Lastly, the public relations campaign for this proposition may have done more damage than good in the long term. The campaign essentially promised that most people would stay in prison, and used fear-mongering about people who are inside on serious charges. If you weren’t listening closely enough, you may have mistaken them for the opposition. We need to stop pretending that prisons solve the violence in our communities, or we’ll never actually end that harm or end mass incarceration. We have to shift the focus towards aggressive parole and sentencing reforms for everyone, while building non law enforcement controlled services and institutions that support healthy, strong communities.

CURB Emily HarrisDick Price: You and CURB have been in the forefront of the battle against building even more prisons in prison-rich California and against expanding LA County’s huge jail system. What’s next for those efforts and what needs to be done?

Emily Harris: The fight against prison and jail expansion is far from over. With the majority of counties looking to expand their jails we will continue to focus a lot of attention on LA. We know what ends up happening with LA’s jails will have a bellweather effect on the rest of the state and the nation. LA groups have been working tirelessly to make sure that people are able to access treatment, housing, and programs in the community, not in jail. DA Jackie Lacey and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas have responded and are committed to reducing the number of people with mental health issues by developing diversion efforts. We are working to make sure that this plan is comprehensive and expanded so that it impacts a larger portion of people, especially people in women’s jails, people of color, and lower income folks.

We know that one of the most effective ways to stop expansion is to turn off the faucet of expansion dollars that is coming from Sacramento! We are anticipating that Governor Brown might get convinced by LA County to help bankroll the $2.3 million dollar jail expansion. Our members and allies who have been doing a great job delegitimizing LA County’s call for new mega jails are gearing up to bring that message to the Legislature, particularly to all of our newly elected Senators and Assembly Members.

Dick Price: You’ve worked tirelessly on prison-reform issues, both at CURB and at organizations before that, for a long time. Oftentimes people who get into this kind of work have some kind of deep personal connection to the issues. Can you say something about this in your case?

Emily Harris: Growing up, I had lots of questions about violence, accountability, safety, and what it meant to be a good neighbor. My childhood best friend grew up in a very abusive home and went to juvie after he started acting out. I remember thinking, “Oh good, when he gets back he’ll be better.” In reality, when he came back he was harder, angrier, more distant. Trying to understand this childhood experience led me to get involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan. During my years at PCAP, I had a series of experiences in my personal life while simultaneously facilitating creative workshops in prisons that made me look at violence, systematic oppression, and the role of prisons in a new way.

During this time my younger brother was frequently being targeted by the cops—being pulled over, arrested, and drug-tested all the time. Each week, as I’d enter the grounds at Maxey Boys Training School (a maximum security prison for teenage boys) to facilitate a workshop, I was reminded that if my brother wasn’t white or affluent that his chances of going to prison like the young men I was performing plays with would have been much higher. The reality of who goes to prison and why became more and more clear to me.

My last three and a half years in Michigan, I participated in a weekly poetry workshop called Sisters With Unique Minds at Huron Valley Women’s Prison. It was there that I met some of my life-long mentors. Together we wrote poetry, gossiped, laughed, cried and wrote about our lives. In 2007, my last year in the workshop, we had two powerful poetry readings “Behind these Solitary Walls: A Symphony of Life” and “Echoes of A Million Women.” The writing we did for those performances was exposed and bold. We dug deep to tell stories about addiction, violent men in our lives, disappointment, fear and how members of the group creatively resisted conditions in prison.

CURB Emily HarrisThe more time I spent going inside, the angrier my writing about prisons became. The women in the group began to push me to walk the talk – to move away from writing poems and figure out how to get people back to their children, families and communities. I don’t think the group expected that challenge would take me to California, but later that year I took a job at Free Battered Women/California Coalition for Women Prisoners (a CURB member org) in San Francisco to learn how to get domestic violence survivors out of prison.

Dick Price: Prop 47 passed. A limited Ban the Box passed in LA. More DAs are turning to split sentencing. LA County’s new sheriff has publicly supported more diversion for mental health and substance abuse treatment outside the jail system. Does this trend go deep enough, fast enough for you? Is some more fundamental change in order?

Emily Harris: All of these important gains that are pushing us away from a lock-em up mentality are the result of years and years of organizing. However they are only the tip of the iceberg. The numbers speak for themselves; last week there were 135,890 people locked up in our state prisons. The majority are very, very far from their families and communities, especially the 8,661 who are imprisoned in out-of-state in prisons in Arizona, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. Over 3,800 people are isolated in long-term solitary confinement; the average time prisoners spend in these security housing units is 7.5 years. This doesn’t even include the nearly 7,000 people who currently spend months in “short-term” administrative segregation.

For years now our leadership has been pushing off responsibility for addressing the torture and deadly conditions in our prisons. As people across California were celebrating the passage of Prop 47, the supposedly progressive Attorney General Kamala D. Harris’ office was arguing against reducing sentences for those who participate in rehab or education programs because the California Department of Corrections would “lose an important labor pool.” It is shameful to not release people back to their communities because we need their labor in prison kitchens, janitorial, and groundskeeping crews to keep our prisons running. This example just goes to show how much more work is ahead.

We must claim our victories, while simultaneously being careful not to be satisfied with nibbling around the edges. Our jailers are having a harder time keeping the torture that is prison away from the awareness of the general public. Even though people are locked away far away from the public eye, the images of people living triple bunked in gyms and classrooms, stories of thousands of prisoners going on hunger strike, the photos of men beaten by LA deputies, the tales of women being illegally sterilized in Chowchilla, prisoners dying from Valley Fever—all of these stories are seeping out and adding to the growing consciousness of the general public. Much more fundamental change is in order, and requires that we continue to build momentum and pressure on discussion-makers while expanding the capacity of communities targeted most directly by imprisonment to lead the charge.

Dick Price: It would seem that November 4th’s election put more people in office in states and in Congress who are likely to espouse “Tough on Crime” rhetoric, rather than anything approaching “Smart on Crime.” Do you think the country’s current pissy mood will affect criminal justice reform efforts in the long term?

Emily Harris: The sweeping wins by conservative candidates across the country are alarming and I imagine will be a setback for the real change we need. The growing power of the Republican Party should serve as a reminder for us to be wary of groups like “Right on Crime.”

As the movement against mass incarceration gains momentum, we need to be very cautious of the types of co-optation that we are seeing from conservatives and moderates who want to spend less money on prisons but don’t actually care about people’s freedom and wellbeing—especially when we are talking about poor communities of color.

dick-price-hatWe need dramatic investments in affordable housing, living-wage jobs, and services for healing and recovery, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color. Conservatives primary motivation in reducing prison spending is to shrink government. We are trying to get the government to distribute our resources more equitably and to stop using prison as the primary response to poverty and social harm.

Dick Price, Editor

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