Smile Politely

An interview with James Kilgore

James Kilgore, research scholar at the Center of African Studies at the University of Illinois; activist-organizer with Build Programs Not Jails and First Followers; and author of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, has recently penned an article for Truthout entitled, “Mass Incarceration in the Cornfields: Shattered Families and Racial Profiling in Small-town America,” an article about jailing in Champaign County.

Below is an interview with James to get his thoughts about mass incarceration in general, and particularly, mass incarceration in our town.

Smile Politely: What impact will a Trump presidency have on mass incarceration?

James Kilgore: Trump has promised to be the “law and order President” and seems intent on keeping his promises. He has already shown that he intends to lock up and deport more immigrants than even Obama who set the record for deportations. But I am a little hesitant to predict that Trump will embark on massive prison building. In fact, his budget document indicates that he will slash nearly a billion dollars from the projected prison building budget, although he is adding more funds for immigration enforcement.  Already the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, which is made up of more than 175 police officials and prosecutors, including Charlie Beck, Los Angeles’s police chief; Cyrus R. Vance Jr., Manhattan’s district attorney; and William J. Bratton, the former police chief in New York and Los Angeles, have come out with a lengthy report urging a rollback on mass incarceration. Plus, the real decision making about prison building and sentencing take place at the state level where a reform agenda has considerable traction even in conservative states. Our own Illinois is an example. Our ultra-conservative governor still is sticking to his plan to reduce the prison population. So we might just see Trump going for a few spectacular busts of “major” drug dealers and backing off from locking up hundreds of thousands more people. Of course, the truth is that with this man in power, we never quite know what to expect next.

SP: You have worked with Build Programs Not Jails for over 5 years now, successfully diverting Champaign County from expanding the Satellite Jail;… what has surprised you the most during this long campaign?

Kilgore: The biggest surprise has been that virtually no one apart from law enforcement and a few county officials wants to build new jail cells. In five years of going to county board meetings, we have had hundreds of people come and speak out against the jail but not more than a handful from the public (if that many) have come to support the jail. Also, over the five years, a big surprise has been how public opinion has consolidated. Five years ago very few people had heard about jail building plans. Now seemingly everyone knows about it and just about everyone believes there are better ways to spend taxpayer dollars.

SP: Do you believe the Sheriff’s plan to build more jail cells has been taken off the table?

Kilgore: Absolutely not. I think the present efforts to sell off the nursing home are part of an effort to raise capital for jail building. Across the country Sheriffs and law enforcement generally keep pressing to build new jails. The difference is that now they re-package their products presenting them as mental health projects or gender responsive facilities instead of continuing to beat the dead drum of public safety.

SP: Why shouldn’t Champaign County build more jail cells?

Kilgore: Quite simply, jails don’t solve problems, they create misery, magnify hatred and division in the community. We need to find ways to spend money that bring people together, that offer opportunity to the poor in this county, especially Black people who make up more than two-thirds of the jail population but just 13% of the county population. Schools, mental health facilities, detox centers, housing for people coming home from prison, homeless shelters all of these are much better ways to spend money and build community than growing the jail capacity.

SP: Do you believe Americans are programmed to accept the crime-cop-prosecution-prison narrative?

Kilgore: Before Trump, I think that narrative was in deep trouble. But he and Jeff Sessions and all those other law and order hounds in Washington will likely revitalize it in some quarters. We have to keep pushing back, keep derailing any attempt to grow prisons and jails and to promote alternative sets of facts about rising crime rates when in fact crime has been on a downward spiral for the last two decades.

SP: Do you believe prisons cure violence?

Kilgore: Absolutely not. Prisons are bastions of violence, promoters of violence. I spent six and a half years in prison and witnessed violence almost every day, lived with the fear of violence almost every day. There is violence from guards visited on the population, there is violence among the population-often prompted by white supremacy, and then there is the general violence of locking people in cages all day. That is also a form of violence which doesn’t immediately draw blood but over time hemorrhages the spirit.

SP: What are the alternatives to jailing when it comes to crimes of violence?

Kilgore: It depends on the situation and who is the perpetrator. If youth are involved in violence we need to find ways to provide them with education and opportunity to steer them away from violence. The local government has to be willing to set aside resources to do this. In most communities, the powers that be don’t want to set aside money for programs, but without programs that embody principles like restorative and transformative justice we will just continue with the cycle of violence. The key to constructing alternatives to crimes of violence is the need to believe that people can change and finding ways to facilitate that change. The fact is, someone who has committed a murder is one of the least likely people, according to statistics, to commit another crime. People mature, people learn and if we provided them a pathway to a different kind of life while they were in prison, they wouldn’t end up back in prison.

SP: Illinois houses over 44,000 prisoners statewide. How many of those people behind bars could be let go tomorrow to start a second chance?

Kilgore: I don’t think anyone could give an exact number. Besides, the key to decarceration, that is reducing prison populations, is more than just opening gates. We do need to open the gates and close down many facilities but we also need to reallocate the resources that went to corrections into the community. At present when someone is released from IDOC, they get $10 and a bus ticket. That is not freedom. That is a set up to fail, a set up to live a life of perpetual misery. And with the closure of shelters, what do we expect people to do when they come home?

SP: You’ve chronicled the business side of the imprisonment industry, tell us about the fines and fees levied in a typical criminal case in Champaign County and some of the companies that profit from jailing.

Kilgore: In most counties across the country, people who get involved in a criminal case have to pay a set of fees regardless of whether they are found guilty or not. Champaign is no exception. People will be hit with fees like $75 circuit clerk fee, $25 each for court security and court finance, $20 for state’s attorney fee. Then there are the document storage fees ($15), the automation fee (also $15). If they have to take your DNA sample, that is $250. If you are put on probation you have to pay $25 a month. And on it goes. What has happened is that county governments have come to count on these fees to pay the salaries of their employees. This came out in Ferguson but it is going on almost everywhere. Ultimately it means if the police don’t arrest enough people, there won’t be enough revenue to pay the workers. So in the case of these fees, it is the local government workers who rake in the money.

But there are also private companies that profit from jails. The big profiteers are the construction companies that get the contracts to build these places. A relatively small expansion project in Champaign county was priced at about $32 million. No wonder construction companies want to get in on the action. But there are also services that jails need that are often a big source of revenue-food service, healthcare, clothing and the like. This why they call it the prison-industrial complex. It is about locking people up to allegedly solve social problems like homelessness or mental health but it is also a source of big bucks for some people as well. I always find it hard to accept the humanity of someone who makes their living by designing cages or operating systems of cages to put food on their table.

SP: How does Champaign County compare to other places with regards to racial disparity in our criminal justice system?

Kilgore: Unfortunately, we are one of the worst in the country, as I mentioned before. The disparity is truly shocking in this liberal, university town it is a travesty to see the wealth of the U of I and its global connections sit side by side with total neglect of the community that is literally across the street.

SP: Do you have any working theories as to why Champaign County jails and prosecutes so many African Americans?

Kilgore: A few factors contribute but I think the decision to concentrate the War on Drugs on the North End instead of on campus where the largest concentration of illegal substances resides plays a big part. We have a Racial Justice Task Force that is currently looking into this but I am confident they will find that there is discrimination at every step of the process-from racial profiling in traffic stops to decisions about how to charge people based on race, to level of bail, access to attorneys, plea bargains, sentencing, you name it. Of course, no one is going to come out and say “I am going to recommend an extra ten years on your sentence because you are Black.” Institutional racism is more subtle than that. But I am confident that when that Task Force gets done crunching their numbers they will find the outcomes will look very much like there was a system of Jim Crow in place. This is Illinois, where 58% of the prison population is Black but only 15% of the population is. There is a particular form of anti-Black racism in the Midwest which the powers that be want to deny.  That’s why we keep fighting. These evils must be exposed and eliminated.

SP: What are some of the difficulties people with convictions face when they are released from prison? Is the job market particularly bad for people coming home from prison?

Kilgore: Let’s be honest — few people want to hire a “felon.” There are a hundred reasons employers will offer, mostly based on fear. They will go after children, they are violent, they will burn down your house, steal your jewelry-whatever. There is a long menu of stereotypes, take your pick if you are an employer looking for a reason not to hire someone with a background. But as a part of First Followers we have been going out and talking to employers trying to convince them to open their minds and their doors. It is slow motion. Some employers will agree to it in the meeting but when they get that live body in front of them, the tune changes. But there are a handful of enlightened employers and we hope our efforts and those of other people in the community will gradually re-shape the way everyone thinks about crime and “criminals.” A person is not their worst act; a person may not even be guilty of the act they did time for. We really need a whole new mindset about crime, criminals and race before people with a felony conviction are going to see anything like a level playing field in the job market. We will keep working at that but it won’t change all that soon.

SP: In your recent article for Truthout, you were very critical of the University of Illinois’ complacency with local mass incarceration. What could the university be doing to alleviate crime and poverty in Champaign County?

Kilgore: My goodness, it is hard to know where to start with that issue. In reality, it is not just their apathy about mass incarceration, but their failure to engage with the lower income sectors of the community in many ways. And of course that lower income sector is disproportionately Black. I am trying to think of a campaign the U of I has done to provide resources and access to the community. They pull in millions in research dollars every year but two blocks from campus, people can’t pay their light bills. We see these new luxury apartment buildings going up all over town and the homeless shelters are closing. The university could put a community benefits clause in all their contracts, forcing providers to contribute to the community. The U of I is the biggest consumer in this community. They could put all kinds of conditions on the firms they contract with-a 1% fee to scholarships for students of color, a 1% fee for low income housing, a 1% fee for reentry. Businesses in Champaign-Urbana won’t turn away from the U of I. It is their gold mine.

Education is another good example of the university’s failure to connect to the community. There has been a crisis of low Black graduation rates in the local high schools for years and the U of I has a world class college of education. But do they apply their resources to solve these local problems? Do they send an army of tutors or trainee teachers into the schools to offer after school classes, Saturday schools? Do they even recruit students of color from the local community? They don’t make any effort. They want to seal off the privileged students of the U of I and make sure the local population doesn’t encroach on the sacred territory of the campus. Too much encroachment means the parents of Napierville and Shaumburg will start sending their children elsewhere.

SP: Has the Trump presidency mobilized more people to want to get involved?

Kilgore: Well, that is one positive thing the Trump election has done-galvanized people to want to act, to fight for social justice. The women’s rally here drew 5,000 people,  the rally at Crystal Lake Park drew several hundred. Local activist groups like Build Programs, Not Jails are experiencing a spike in interest and attendance. Similarly, the other project I work with, FirstFollowers Reentry Program, is getting lots more support. People are angry, fearful, agitated and ready to resist. We just need to make sure that we can find ways to resist that are effective.

SP: Where should people go if they want to get involved?

Kilgore: I work with Build Programs, Not Jails and FirstFollowers. Build Programs focuses on stopping jail building and promoting alternatives to incarceration. FirstFollowers deals with supporting people coming home from prison. We have websites. People can find us. But there are other important local groups as well-the Immigration Forum, Black Lives Matter, Education Justice Project, Books to Prisoners-all of these have websites with contact details. Rep. Carol Ammons has lots of involvement from people in the community in pushing for criminal justice reform in the state legislature. This is a small community but there are lots of things going on to build a resistance movement to the status quo.

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