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“Abolition Cannot Wait”: Exonerated Author Outlines Human Cost of Incarceration

If people were aware of what was being done in the name of justice, in their name, they wouldn’t sit or stand for it.

Part of the Series

When incarcerated writer Lacino Hamilton was exonerated and released from the Michigan prison system in 2020, he credited Truthout’s ongoing coverage of his plight for spurring the movement that ended his 26 years of wrongful incarceration for a crime that he never committed. Now Hamilton has recently published a collection of letters he wrote during his time in prison, In Spite of the Consequences: Prison Letters on Exoneration, Abolition, and Freedom. Hamilton’s editor at Broadleaf Books, Lisa Kloskin, spoke to Hamilton about why the letters in the book are important — both to him personally and to the future of abolition.

Lisa Kloskin: You wrote and sent thousands of letters during your incarceration. Why are the letters selected for this book so significant? Can you explain the process of selecting what letters to include in this book? What was it like revisiting your writing and words?

Lacino Hamilton: As a group, the letters in my book outline the human cost of incarceration, and why abolition cannot wait. Any cell I occupied was routinely tossed and writings of all kinds were seized, often stolen. So when it came time to select letters for this book, I was left with what the prison did not destroy.

Revisiting the letters brought up a lot of pain and anger about my experience, but I wanted to share these letters because, as a group, they outline the human cost of incarceration, and why abolition cannot wait.

In this letter you wrote, “I still believe that if people were aware of what is being done in the name of justice, in their name, they wouldn’t sit or stand for it.” How did you maintain that sense of hope while writing these letters?

I didn’t experience hope in the way that word is generally understood — wishful thinking. I became a student of history, which is replete with examples [of] how continued struggle can bring about change. So I continued to struggle.

In Spite of the Consequences: Prison Letters on Exoneration, Abolition, and Freedom - by Lacino Hamilton - book cover with typwriter and orange background with handwriting

What impact do you hope your book has on the ongoing abolition conversation?

I hope the book helps to further transform the prison movement into a human rights movement, as well as helps us all to perceive more clearly both a reason and the means for further struggle.

What follows is an excerpt from chapter 2 of Hamilton’s book, In Spite of the Consequences: Prison Letters on Exoneration, Abolition, and Freedom. Professors reached out to Hamilton after seeing his published writing. This is a letter addressed to a professor in Riverside, California, who became Hamilton’s pen pal while he was incarcerated.

Dear Professor James A.,

Since there is no constitutional right for prisoners to criticize or bring public attention to policies and practices that harm us, the prison has taken action against me. I called into an Ohio radio station and articulated the need to create more educational and employment programs for gang members: transformation through education. The prison labeled me a gang member. They followed that up with designating me a member of a security threat group (STG). Transferred me to a maximum security prison. And no telling how long I will be in solitary confinement.

I put in several law library requests. From what I gather, prison officials do not have to provide procedural safeguards when labeling or designating us members of an STG. So the fact that I am not a gang member means absolutely nothing. According to the United States Supreme Court, the Constitution does not require an STG designation be preceded by due process protections. No opportunity for rebuttal. If prison officials say I am a member of an STG, it looks less like they want me to shut the fuck up and more like they are taking action against a dangerous prisoner.

You are right, I can take this to court, but courts have held that when prisoners “claim” retaliation we must prove that but for the retaliation, the adverse action would not have occurred. So first I will have to prove I’m not a gang member? Just how do I do that? Ask gang members to go on record and say they have nothing to do with me? That’s the first burden I’d have to overcome. The prison is aware of that. That’s why I was labeled STG first.

I cannot think of why a stricter standard of proof of causation should apply for us than for prison staff. Prison staff put on their pants one leg at a time like the rest of us. And they lie like anyone else. We have less freedom of speech than a free person, but less should not mean zero. When we are victims of retaliation for the exercises of what free speech we do have, we should have the same right to a remedy as our free counterparts.

The consequences for designation as a STG are only two noncontact visits per month of one hour each. No leisure time activities. A minimum of two cell searches per week. Out-of-cell movement cannot exceed a total of one hour per day. Ineligible for food packages. Restricted from sending electronic messages. Restricted to five telephone calls per week of fifteen minutes each. Unable to be classified to work or self-help programming. And since other prisoners can be classified STG for “associating” with me, I’m actually restricted from talking to anyone. The opportunity to just stand around in the company of other prisoners has been taken away.

I was told that if I do not agree with what’s been done, I could file a grievance. Let me tell you about grievances in prison. Grievances filed through an official procedure are constitutionally protected, even though there is no constitutional requirement that prisons have a grievance system, or that they follow its procedures if they do have one, or that they issue decisions that fairly resolve our problems. Doesn’t that sound contradictory?

Actually, grievances were only effective when prison riots and violence against guards were the order of the day. Prison staff would listen and seek peaceful resolutions to prisoner problems back then. But when gun towers, tasers, and special response teams (the prison version of SWAT) became the order of the day, official grievance procedures became obsolete. Official prison policy became “might makes right.”

The question remains why prison officials would go to such lengths to prevent me from expressing my opinion that educational, vocational, and counseling programs would decrease violence and increase chances for successfully cutting into the nation’s 70 percent recidivism rate? STG designation is being used as a cover to shut down independent voices.

When someone is released from prison, officials notify local law enforcement in the community. This can result in my name being added to some homeland security threat lists, no-fly lists, and other lists I have no business being on for my belief that education can transform lives.

I’m not giving up (many have). I still believe that if people were aware of what is being done in the name of justice, in their name, they wouldn’t sit or stand for it. I believe they’d roll out with us. Will you help me share this with others? I really do believe in the power of people and the politics people address.


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