Reinforcing the prison-industrial complex is not “philanthropy” (EDITORIAL)

Screenshot of Instagram
Screenshot of Instagram, search phrase: "#vcuagd"
Screenshot from Instagram
screenshot from Instagram, search phrase: “#vcuagd”

Staff Editorial

VCU’s Alpha Gamma Delta sorority chapter’s red, yellow and green lettering flooded the Compass and Instagram with cheery smiles, painted posters of handcuffs and girls dressed in cop/prisoner attire last Wednesday.

The big idea here, aside from a gross display of juxtaposing privilege, was apparently not a new one. AGD’s “Jail ‘n’ Bail” bake sale fundraiser for the Alpha Gamma Delta Foundation and Juvenile Diabetes Foundation is apparently an annual staple in the sorority’s philanthropic efforts.

Screenshot by Instagram
Screenshot by Instagram, search phrase: “#vcuagd”

“GET PUMPED RAMS today is the day!!!” reads one AGD member’s Instagram caption promoting the sorority’s event. “Come by the compass from 12:30-3:30 to support AGD’s annual jail and bail!! All money donated to bail your frands out of AGD jail (hehe) goes towards the alpha gamma delta foundation & juvenile diabetes research foundation AND the organization who wins will get $300 towards their philanthropy AND there’ll be food AND raffles AND ITS A BEAUTIFUL DAAAAY so ya win-win ayooo SO COME HANG FOR A LIL OR JUST STOP BY ~today~ IN THE ~compass~ !!! Can’t wait to see all you Rams.” The post concludes with a red, yellow and green heart emojis.

This student’s flippant disregard for why this fundraiser is hurtful is likely unintentional — but ignorance has never been an excuse for brazen disrespect. And for those of us on campus who noticed this particular spectacle and know the pains of incarceration in any capacity — this fundraiser, and all who participated in it, were profiting by belittling others’ pain.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s “Bulletin on Prisoners in 2014,” released in September 2015, more than 1.5 million prisoners were held in state and federal correctional facilities in 2014. Of these, 1,508,600 individuals were sentenced to more than one year in prison; 106,200 were women.

Why would anybody get “pumped” to participate in a fundraiser that exploits the existence of the more than 1.5 million Americans in the state and federal system?

36,982 of those men, women and youth are incarcerated in Virginia alone. That’s more inmates than there are students on both the Monroe Park and MCV campuses combined — and just because those 36,982 men, women and youth weren’t there to set the record straight with you, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be too “pumped” about this fundraiser.

They’re probably not too pumped that, once released, they have lost their right to vote — and therefore have no stake in the democratic process outlined by the Constitution that deems us citizens.

They’re probably not too pumped that every one in five people will be homeless shortly after their re-entry into society.

They’re probably not too pumped if they don’t have someone who can put money on their books so they can receive vital medications, doctors visits, commissary, basic hygiene products or phone calls.

They’re probably not too pumped even if they DO have someone who can put money on their books, but has to pay between $2 and $26 for 20 minutes of static, garbled and recorded conversations during a collect-call.

The women are probably not too pumped about awaiting bail or their hearing date or are serving their sentence and have to pay around $4 for eight poorly-made pads when they’re on their period, in addition to paying around $3 a day in rent.

They’re probably also not too pumped about the possibility of losing family members, or giving birth, while institutionalized and never leaving the confines of their cages to say hello or goodbye.

The kids who landed in juvie instead of alternatives like in-school suspension or a rehabilitation program are probably not too pumped that a gaggle of girls, privileged enough to attend an institution of higher education, are parading around the Compass in inmate and cop outfits while they wear the same white cotton underwear day after day inside lock-up.

Ladies, this is not “Orange is the New Black.” Playing dress-up without being properly educated (or having even heard of) the prison-industrial complex does not make you the next badass Ruby Rose wannabe. It’s not cute, sexy, exciting or supportive of anything except your inflated social media ego. It doesn’t make you “bad.”

It makes you shamefully ignorant to the conditions of others that you’ve been groomed to ignore because they do not affect you.

But just because others’ circumstances or lives narratives don’t affect you doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for how you project your privilege upon others. It does not excuse you from contributing to the humorless cruelty of a system that exploits women (your age, or younger), men and people of color who can’t afford an attorney who whips to court in a Benz.

People of color, particularly African Americans, are overrepresented at each stage of the Virginia criminal justice system. In Virginia, African Americans comprise roughly 20 percent of the adult population. In the justice system, they comprise 47.4 percent of all arrests and 60.8 percent of state prison inmates — for every white person incarcerated in Virginia, six African Americans are behind bars. As a result of the figures above, 20.4 percent of African American Virginians have lost the right to vote, isolating them from their communities and civic participation.

In July of this year, three black inmates died within 72 hours of one another at the new Richmond City “Justice Center.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch said the lawyer for Zachary Tuggle, one of the late inmates, said his client was suffering from repeated seizures and was not getting medication to help him.

“(Tuggle) said he needed his medication to stop the seizures, and he wasn’t getting it,” said local lawyer James A. Bullard.

Watch the WDBJ7 video interview with two of the family members of the men who passed. Then ask yourself if pretending to be an inmate is philanthropic.

Before the most recent string of July deaths at the new “Justice Center,” the old Richmond City Jail facility routinely held 1,300 to 1,500 inmates even though it was built to accommodate 880. The old jail also was the subject of multiple lawsuits filed by inmates who were injured or family members of inmates who died of heat exposure or other alleged inhumane conditions while in custody.

Earlier this year, the city settled for $2.99 million in a lawsuit filed by a former inmate who suffered a heat stroke in 2012 in the old city jail’s medical tier, where temperatures were recorded at 108 degrees.

In a July 2012 Richmond Times-Dispatch article, an expert on medical care at the nation’s jails and prisons said the death rate for the inmates at the overheated and chronically overcrowded old city jail was 2.5 times higher than the average annual death rate at jails of similar size across the country from 2000 through 2007.

The Times-Dispatch also reported that from 2007 to 2012, the average number of Richmond jail deaths per year increased, even as average death rates across the nation declined, according to an analysis by Dr. Marc Stern, a former medical director for prisons in Washington state.

Sixty people died in the custody of the old Richmond jail from 2000 through July 29, 2012. Most of the deaths were from “natural” causes, like Zachary Tuggle’s epileptic seizure.

Screenshot of Instagram
Screenshot of Instagram, search phrase: “#vcuagd”

“Cuff me, jail me, make ’em bail me #vcuagd yay philanthropy,” reads another AGD Instagram caption that highlights the tagline for the event, further showcasing a blatant disregard for what any of those three things actually feel like.

Is it philanthropic to get handcuffed too tight before being beaten after chunks of flesh from your face are left on the pavement — like University of Virginia Honor student Martese Johnson last school year? Was it philanthropic of Tuggle, or Shawn Samuel or Javon Antoine Morris to lose their lives inside a cage as their families grappled with loss and the sheriff’s office issued vague statements? Is it philanthropic to anxiously await a bond or bail — that for many, is out of the realm of possibility due to expense?

Greek life’s focus on philanthropy is an admirable one. But when the theme of a philanthropic event makes light of a mass incarceration epidemic that’s clasped this country for decades and affects large portions of our city, it distracts from the cause.

AGD must reconsider the theme for this event in the coming year. Perhaps, too, AGD should consider donating to, not mocking, those disenfranchised and abused by the prison-industrial complex.

Read AGD’s official media response here.

61 Comments

  1. As a quick reference to the news clip I put up, This article has a clear bias as the editor and her boyfriend were involved in drug related felony charges over the summer.

  2. This seems ill-informed and poorly written. Incarceration does not mean that you lost your rights as a citizen. If you catch a felony charge you can't vote, but you don't lose your inherent citizenship rights. Honestly, votes don't really do much these days (outside of the local level) in this country where lobbyists push whatever agenda has the least blowback and the most profit. Also kind of finding the stats/math a touch questionable. How is it that African Americans comprise 60% of incarcerated individuals, but there are 6x more AA individuals locked up for every Caucasian? According to your stats there are 37,544 inmates in Virginia. 60% makes 22,526 African American inmates. If there is only 1 white inmate for every 6 of those, you are telling us that there are 3,754 white inmates in the state. There's just no way that the other 30% of inmates are non-African American and non-white. Also it's charity, questionable "Greek" charity, but they donate what they make, just be happy it didn't have a theme that was actually controversial.

  3. This article is insanely irresponsible and unfair to many Greek members. Jail-n-Bail is a popular fundraising campaign run by MANY legitimate orginizations, institutions, and schools. It's embarrassing to slam members of the Greek community with hateful allegations about our experiences while also bashing a hard-working organization for simply trying to do some good for others. I'm emailing the editor (who I regretfully think wrote this piece), as well as the faculty director of student media.

  4. Really you could argue over the exact math or statistics all day, and the numbers are going to be wrong all day as far as not being exact.

    However, it doesn't take more than a couple minutes of research to know that there is a HUGE racial divide in this context. It doesn't take more than a couple minutes visiting a prison or jail to witness it first-hand, either. And the problem is not with any people or race in general, the problem is with the system, period. So I don't think it's very productive in this case to nit-pick the numbers.

    So yes, the theme is controversial. That said, they are doing their thing and making a game of fund-raising. Do I personally like that they, and apparently Relay for Life, are doing this? Absolutely not, I think it's in bad taste. But I'd say let them do their thing, and I'd just personally prefer not to associate with them. They could easily just be naive about the issue. And if they raise a lot of money, well I suppose that's good and they did it without actually doing harm, other than to offend a certain amount of people for a couple weeks. I think that as a social piece, this is a very good, poignant write-up.

  5. On another note, what's up with this website (at least on mobile)? The homepage is just a string of bad code and there doesn't seem to be any way to navigate other than "Previous" or "Next" article. Y'all may want to look at that

  6. Now we just need to get that damn gaming club. I mean they're pretending to murder people which is just horrible.

    I heard about this game called GTA which allows you to rape women over the internet. Can you believe that?! We need to ban that ASAP.

    We should ban them from campus. That's the logical thing to do. Campus shouldn't be a place to express ideas and do charity. It should be a place where I don't ever get my views challenged or my feelings hurt.

  7. It sounds like the writer is pretty upset about the current state of jails in VA and the prison system in the US. Instead of attempting to attack a well-established and completely socially-acceptable fundraising event with this pathetic attempt at journalism, perhaps your efforts would be better focused on creating and then using this forum to gain support for a fundraising event that raises awareness of the issues mentioned. Otherwise, you're just another social justice warrior irresponsibly using this journalistic platform to blindly push your agenda, regardless of how factually inaccurate and poorly thought-out your argument. Do something, instead of hiding behind your pulpit.

  8. This writer is an idiot. Nobody is offended by this…well I guess the writer is so I can't say nobody. Do you know how many organizations, not just Greek, hold similar events?

  9. You can go about something with the best of intentions and still do it in a way that is ignorant and offensive. No one is calling these people out for being philanthropic. That rules, and they should continue their efforts, just not like this. Please take the time to actually delve a little deeper and understand the implications behind the facts and statisitics the author of this piece shares. When you realize how fundementally flawed the prison system is in this country you will have a much easier time understanding why the overly casual and cutesy attitude of this fundraising drive is innapropriate and offensive to those whose lives have been scarred by its utter folly. Maybe it's easy to look at this article and dismiss it as being reactionary, from someone who has some kind of beef with Greek life and culture, but that's really not what's happening here. This is about empathy, education, respect, and perspective. If you want to learn more check out:

    http://www.prisonpolicy.org/

    http://www.performingstatistics.org/

    http://www.innocenceproject.org/

  10. A really nice and informed article. I hadn't realized events like those would cause such a divide but it does make sense. Obviously, I'm sure the group didn't realize the implications of what they were doing, but hopefully they'll be able to see something like this and come up with some more wonderful fundraising ideas that don't mock or undermine other people.

  11. I also think it is sad that so many of the comments on this thread are just a weak attack at the executive editor of this newspaper. This was a staff editorial, and thus, representitive of the opinion of the staff at large. Personal attacks on an individual only make your argument look weak. Some things are just not cute. Rape is not cute. Pedophillia is not cute. And the prison industrial complex is not cute. It should not be treated as such. Kudos to the CT staff for an eye opening article!

  12. Teri, the editor or entire staff's personal attacks towards the women of AGD in calling them ignorant and groomed to ignore those whose lives don't affect us seems like a pretty weak personal attack as well. If they can't handle the criticism, they should have chosen their words more carefully, especially when trying to reach the very audience they offend. That being said, I don't condone personal attacks on what the editor may be involved in outside of this story. The prison-industrial complex is not cute, as you say. I don't believe this fundraiser ever said it was. It was just a common way to raise money that is fun for those who participate. It did not force anyone to participate. Sometimes, if things are not light-hearted, the general public unfortunately will not participate or donate. This fundraiser is performed by multiple organizations, schools, businesses, even multiple PTAs and school faculties across the country and beyond. Sometimes a fundraiser is JUST a fundraiser. It's ridiculous anyone is being attacked over that. I'd say if those who feel so strongly about this topic and feel that others are so ignorant, perhaps you guys need to come together, educate the public in a non-offensive way, and find an acceptable way to fundraise to donate money in helping to find solutions to this issue.

  13. Jahnahma-Hassa Peinassa, sometimes if organizations don't make "a game of fund-raising," they will raise zero funds. That being said, the sorority was not raising funds for jails, the penitentiary system, or any entity having to do with this issue. It was not making "a game of those things. It was for juvenile diabetes research. The women of AGD may have seemed ignorant about the issues this article arises simply because these issues were never a part of the dialogue of the fundraiser. This article is what was in bad taste, not the fundraiser. It's bad taste to stereotype and attack a group of women without asking for their comment or explanation. I'm sure if someone generalized a group you are a part of as ignorant, a "gaggle of girls," projecting your privilege when trying to raise money for others, or called you "ignorant to those whose lives don't affect" you, you would not call that write up "poignant."

  14. If people think bullying the writer is going to help the Greek system look good at VCU, it doesn't. It was an OPINION piece in case that's been forgotten. If the people involved are proud of the money they raised then why is everyone involved acting so sensitve? Levae the editor's personal life out of it if you really want your point to get across. I'm not saying I agree with either side for the record, but being an adult bully isn't getting anyone anywhere in 2015.

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