Envisioning Prison Abolition: Stories, Visions and Reflections
“The ability to imagine a world that is different than the present is the beginning of any movement for change: to be able to communicate the world one imagines to others and have it feel possible is the power of narrative.”
(“Telling Our Own Story: The Role of Narrative in Racial Healing” Kellog Foundation).
What prison holds you?
For my incarcerated brothers and sisters, the answer is obvious: Cell 217 in the ad seg block at Warren, for example, for my friend Sean Swain. For my brothers and sisters in the free-er world, it may be the prison of unhealed trauma, a job you hate that you know harms people but you don’t quit because you need to pay the rent, laws you obey even though you know they’re wrong, an abusive relationship, doing the wrong thing because it’s what the employee handbook says to do. The prison of poverty, the prison of hate, the prison of racism – they are all interwoven.
I want you to take a deep breath, clear your mind, and imagine a world without prisons. What does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it sound like? How does it taste on your tongue? How does it feel on your skin?
For me, it looks like a world where everyone is fed good nutritious food and food is never wasted. Everyone has a place to call home. All people have access to education, transportation, and health care. People migrate from one place to another freely. It smells like the air right after a gentle, summer rain. No matter how hard you try, the acrid smell of fear is nowhere to be found. It sounds like people sharing stories, crying, laughing, healing and working to better each other so our communities can be safe. It tastes like a dinner where all my friends are at the table. It feels like a loved one’s kiss on my cheek; a long hug; a fuzzy blanket, diving into warm, inviting water.
Your image may be different. Perhaps it’s every prison in the world simultaneously burning (hopefully without anyone in it). Each of us will have our own vision, our own story, our own reflection. One of the asks I have for you in this piece is to commit to holding in your mind a vision of a world without any prisons, every day, until we make it a reality. Maybe you can only hold that image for 30 seconds at first. That’s okay. The more you do it, the easier it will be. Perhaps pick a specific time and set a reminder. Ask yourself a different question each day. What would zoos look like in a world without prisons? What would mental health care look like in a world without prisons? What would conflict resolution look like in a world without prisons?
Why do this? Because before we can build something, we have to hold it in our minds. In your mind, hold this vision of a world sans prisons. Hug it. Kiss it. Tuck it in at night and tell it a bedtime story. Daydream about it in that boring meeting. Hold it in your mind so strongly that it becomes more real than your solitary confinement cell. Fantasize about it in the most minute detail, like you would if it were a different kind of fantasy.
There are, of course, important questions to be answered:
· How will we resolve conflicts without courts and judges?
· What will we do with people who are dangerous? Rapists? Murderers? Child molesters?
· How do we get from here to there?
Let’s take these questions one at a time
How will we resolve conflicts without courts and judges?
Instead of focusing on the big picture, I want you to focus on your part in it. Is there someone with whom you have a conflict right now? A co-worker, an ex, a child? Focus on that conflict. Bring back the vision of a world without prisons you had earlier, and visualize this conflict in that world. How could you approach this conflict without calling HR, the police, or another authority figure? What would be the outcome you would want from that process?
Blow up the police station in your mind. Forget 9-1-1 except to call the fire department or an ambulance (unless you live in a community where there are other options for those services). Stop thinking in terms of calling an authority or even “I’m going to get him!”. What would bring you peace, healing, even joy springing from this conflict? I’m asking you to imagine it. What would that look like? A little while later, I’m going to share with you what that would look like for me.
Bring back the image of the world without prisons in your mind. This time, bring in a conflict where you were the person who harmed someone. None of us is perfect, we’ve all done it. In a world without prisons, how would you like that wrong you committed to be resolved?
The world you’ve just visualized is a world without police, courts, and judges. See?
What about rapists? Murderers? Child molesters?
Let me come at this question in a different way: do prisons make people less dangerous? In a word, no. If people become calmer, more thoughtful, better at processing their emotions in prison, it is by accident – despite prison – not because of it. I am thinking of a friend – a beautiful, gentle soul, decades in to a stint on a murder he did not commit. His sister has dialed me in to the call so we can talk, and he is yelling at her. He doesn’t even realize how he sounds. Prisoners come out, and they are worse for it. I am thinking of a time I was woken up out of sound sleep for unasked for and unwanted sexual contact by a former prisoner. (This has actually happened with two different people.) Did prison teach them to negotiate consent? Of course not. Who says please before pepper spraying someone? Makes sure everyone is in agreement before stomping someone in the head and knocking teeth out or gashing their scalp, or worse? Prison is about compliance. No one can spend any time in such a place and not internalize those hated behaviors, no matter how saintly.
I wouldn’t send my rapists to prison. I didn’t then, out of fear. I wouldn’t now, because it would accomplish nothing. It would not make me safer, it would not make my community safer. Prison rapes are a daily reality in this country, and not always at the hands of correctional officers. What would I like? I would like every rapist to heal. I would like to know no other woman will ever have parts of a night missing because someone drugged her. I would like to know no other woman will walk down the street on her 27th birthday, see a 16 old girl, and think “how could he have done that to me?” I want them so healed they spend the rest of their lives telling their story as cautionary tales, but most importantly, teaching enthusiastic consent practices. That can and will end rape. Prison can’t.
We need healing. I do not want gulags by any other name. I am not interested in “resorts” or “hospitals” that are run like prisons. I want a world without prisons, and I want you to help me build it.
Bring to mind someone you hate. Or someone who really hurt you. What was so hurtful about what they did?
What would be the best way to heal them? What would be the best way to heal you from what they did to you? What would that look like? Smell like? How would it feel? Hold that in your mind.
Here is my example of that today:
Shay, if you are reading this, I forgive you. I forgive you because forgiveness is an act of the will, and my will is strong. I forgive you because it is the only way I could walk out of the prison of my exact memory of your bedroom: the white, starched, button down shirt hung on the firearm; the wooden stock of peeking out; the two White Rain Coconut conditioner bottles next to the shampoo bottle in your shower. I don’t know if someone hurt you when you were 16, too. I didn’t think I was, but I was a child. Even if I could have consented to sex, I told you that without a condom was a never. I told you to stop and you didn’t. The next time, I went along with it because I thought it was the only way I could get you out of my life. My memory is that I was on the ceiling, floating above my body and looking down the entire time. Do you still have the copy of Little Earthquakes I had borrowed and you sent our friend to come get from me and return to you? How could you have done that to me and been a Tori Amos fan?
I want you to heal. I want you to read that paragraph to a psychologist and say, “my work here isn’t done until I can make sense of why I did that to her, and what I need to change so I never do it again.” When you’re healed, I want you to spend as much time as I had to spend healing myself teaching others about enthusiastic consent and what they need to do so that no other person will have to go through what I went through. I don’t hate you. I hate what you did to me. I hate how what you did to me continues to reverberate through my life, twenty years later. I hate that when you got ahold of me online to apologize, you had listed bands I had seen the week before as your favorites – we were both at that Trail of Dead show, and finding that out after the fact made me scared to go see downtown to see a show for years. I don’t want to be scared of you anymore. I want you to heal, and help others. That’s what I want from you, and no prison in the world can give that to me.
What does writing that feel like? A weight lifted from my chest. My throat loosening. It feels strong, and calm. It smells like pus, drained from my body. It tastes like peppermint after vomiting.
In a word, it feels like freedom.
What’s the best place for him, and others like him, to heal? I don’t know, we haven’t built it yet. The closest my mind can come to holding that place right now is a monastery on a mountain. The air is fresh; the food is wholesome. His room is clean, and safe. He has autonomy and say in how his community is administered. He is treated with respect, kindness and compassion. He spends a lot of time meditating, healing and learning. It is far away from me, but there are no wires, no towers, no guns, no cages. He could leave that community to go to a different therapeutic community. Or, if another community believes him to be healed, he could go live there and teach others what he’s learned.
How do we get from here to there?
We can’t just burn down the prisons and let the crops rot in the field. We should definitely do these things. We just can’t stop there. If we do, we will rebuild those prisons we burned down the very next day.
“I have thought a lot about the motto, ‘Fire To The Prisons’ […]. In the direct sense, I embrace the fiery rage and implicit abolitionism that the phrase embodies. I think that immensely powerful sense of dignified rage is critical to remaining grounded and potent. However, I have also come to consider deeper significances. There is the fire of knowledge: we must flood the prisons with knowledge. But there is, most importantly of all, the fire of love. We must flood the prisons with love! The fire of love! A love for humanity! We must never reduce people to mere statistics or ideological categories or the erasure involved in dogma” – Connor Stevens
We must humanize prisoners. For those of us on the outside, that means getting as many people as we can to write prisoners. Do solitary confinement demonstrations, and get passers-by to write postcards to prisoners. For those of us on the inside, that means genuinely relating to our pen pals as people. Tell your stories of life before and during incarceration, your hopes, dreams and aspirations for life after. We all need to believe with every fiber of our being that no human being is disposable. No exceptions. We need to tell stories which reflect this basic truth. We need to love: dangerously, systematically, tactically. Fall in love across the razor wire, and recognize it for what it is: a revolutionary act which denies the differences between us and instead embraces our common humanity. Flood the wires between us with so much love that they crush beneath the weight.
What I am asking is not a mere wishing. I am asking you to gather all your power, and every day, in thought, word, or deed, to do something towards abolishing prisons.
“There's a needle. It moves. Like an old school radio dial. 87.1 is a totalitarian prison state. 107.9 is a prison-less society. Every station in between represent steps required to move forward. What are those steps? Where are we on the dial? This can be figured out. Studying the history of slavery in the US & abroad should provide a roadmap. Or looking at governments where prison is not such a major factor. What are they doing that we are not? Figure out the steps, then you can actually work on taking them. One at a time.” - James Dzelajlija
Take one step today to abolish prisons. Meditate on what a world without prisons would look like. Write a postcard. Write a letter. Visit someone. Unapologetically kiss them, even if it gets you written up. Make a phone call on behalf of a prisoner being retaliated against for resisting. Make a phone call to someone outside the razor wire you haven’t called in a while. Reach out and connect with someone. Tell your story with your whole heart. Dream dangerous dreams of freedom. Like a tiger, pace in your cage, and remember who you are.
Take another step tomorrow. Take another step the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after THAT. Not just today, on August 21st, 2018, or until September 9th. Today, tomorrow, and every day thereafter until we have eradicated this social evil from every corner of the planet. If you can’t take a physical step on a certain day, reflect on what you have done the days before and how to make it more effective. Even if it’s for 30 seconds, hold that image of a world without prisons in your mind.
We must all work together. I have never been incarcerated. But until all my friends, including those mentioned in this piece, can sit at my kitchen table; until I am not afraid of ending up in a cage; I am not free.
“We don’t want bigger cages or longer leashes. We want freedom.” – Jeremy Hammond
“We don’t want California King Beds and milk and honey coming out of the sink. We want freedom.” – Zulu of the Free Alabama Movement