In July 2017 more than 200 people from across the globe met for four days in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was once home to abolitionist Frederick Douglass and a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Meeting intentionally in a place with such historical significance to the abolition movement, conferees came together to learn more about the relationship between the carceral state and struggles against colonialism and slavery.
Past meetings of the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA 17) have been held in Nigeria, Ireland and Ecuador, bringing critical abolitionist leaders to these countries during politically potent moments as a part of abolitionist political intervention. Recognizing the leadership of those most deeply impacted by the penal system, they came together to clarify why prison abolition is so critical right now and what can be done with this knowledge.
What Is Penal Abolition?
For years, noted political activist Angela Davis has argued in many of her writings that “the prison system in the United States more closely resembles a new form of slavery than a criminal justice system.” She consistently challenges the belief that “caging and controlling people makes us safe.” In fact, since 2000, “The increased use of incarceration accounted for nearly zero percent of the overall reduction in crime,” according to a recent report by the Vera Institute, entitled “The Prison Paradox: More Incarceration Will Not Make Us Safer.” The report also underscores the structural racism in which incarceration is grounded, adding, “Incarceration will increase crime in states and communities with already high incarceration rates.”
Recognizing that prison does not reduce violence, many organizations and abolitionists advocate community accountability practices as an alternative to the punishment system, utilizing networks of friends, families, church groups, neighborhoods or workplace associates to provide safety to the community and ways of healing harm.
In her Penal Abolitionist dictionary, activist-scholar Viviane Saleh-Hanna of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, writes, “Penal abolition recognizes that to abolish prisons is not necessarily sufficient in abolishing penal oppression. The real problem is the penal mindset which allows the prison to exist…. The goal is to understand how the prison and other penal institutions (police, courts, probation, parole) are legitimized; the prison is the end result of what really needs to be questioned, revealed, and abolished.”
Transgender Women Lead the Way
Two trans women who have survived the violence of solitary confinement kicked off one of the plenary sessions at the recent conference in New Bedford with a conversation about their fights against policing and incarceration. One dynamic participant was Monica James, a member of the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois and the new national organizer for Black and Pink, a collective of LGBTQ prisoners and “free world” allies. The other was Janetta Johnson, the executive director of the Bay Area Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice Project), which works to create a united front in the struggle for survival and freedom.
This fight is particularly intense for trans women of color. A 2015 article in the Guardian pointed out, “According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly one in six transgender people experience life behind bars. The ratio rises to one in five trans women and a staggering half of all trans women who are black.”
Johnson said that when she was incarcerated, she interviewed every trans person she met. “Even in solitary confinement, you are not safe,” she said, speaking of what transgender prisoners face behind bars. James concurred, saying she faced “daily torture” as a trans woman. James was housed in a men’s prison, made to cut her hair, forced to dress in a way that was not consistent with her identity, and told by prison guards that she was “obviously not a woman.”
“It’s important to note that the act of misgendering always comes before a physical attack,” wrote Johnson in a report called “We Too Belong.” “While there is much discussion about violence toward trans folks on an individual level,” she added, “looking at the system is important.”
Both Johnson and James began organizing behind bars and, despite facing consistent barriers, did not give up, dedicating themselves to continuing their work when they exited prison.
James recently worked on a Black and Pink Chicago gathering held this past August 4-6, bringing together formerly incarcerated LGBTQ and/or HIV-positive people for community building and healing opportunities. She and Johnson both agreed that finding resources for trans men and women exiting prison is a crucial challenge to face
Highlights From the Conference
While I only attended a fraction of the workshops, discussions and events offered at ICOPA 17, the sessions were varied and deeply rooted in abolitionist theory.
Michael Brown, who co-founded the Writer’s Block Poetry and Art Group at Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven, Michigan, co-presented his session with incarcerated writers. They developed and articulated an active collaboration on “the politics of erasure.” Incarcerated writers and artists appeared on screen, on the phone and on tape, as they sought to become seen and heard through their art.
For example, at the same moment that Steven Hibbler’s art and poetry appeared on screen, Hibbler called in to the conference. Brown said Hibbler had been incarcerated since age 18 for a crime he did not commit. He showed the participants an article that clearly spelled out Hibbler’s innocence while Hibbler answered questions about his work. Hibbler’s art revolves around redefining masculinity and understanding how gender can contribute to violence. He leads a class in prison now.
Other incarcerated men and women were featured prominently in this session and across the board at ICOPA 17. In “Ballots Over Bars: The History of Prisoners’ Voting Rights in Massachusetts,” activists Rachel Corey and Elly Kalfus engaged participants in an interactive experience to understand the history of criminal disenfranchisement and presented comments from currently incarcerated men. They emphasized that MCI-Norfolk prisoner Derrick Washington was one of the inspirations for the session because in 2012, he founded the Emancipation Initiative, a movement to bring awareness of the parallels of life-without-parole to slavery, i.e., being property of the state.
Prisoners such as Matteo (whose comments are pictured below) expressed many reasons why regaining voting rights is important to them. Currently only Vermont and Maine allow incarcerated people to vote from inside prison. Workshop facilitators also directed participants to the Emancipation Initiative website and explained how, in the next election, those on the outside might consider donating their vote to those on the inside through the Ballots Behind Bars project.
Many participants at the conference took part in “A Guided Journey Through Time,” a walk through New Bedford led by Rufai Shardow, who has been written about extensively in New Bedford’s local press. Shardow, raised in Ghana and a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, immersed visitors in New Bedford’s rich history, teaching them more about the sites of resistance and anti-slavery organizing in the city.
Healing justice plays a role in the practice of abolition, and Harriet’s Apothecary, an intergenerational healing village, provided two healing spaces at the conference. Healers Adaku Utah, Kiyan Williams and Naimah Efia Johnson shared with the group, “Healing justice is about ritual, interdependence and sustaining practices.” Art exhibits were featured prominently in conference rooms and attendees were treated to Afro yoga, hip hop performances and spoken word poetry. Lacresha Berry presented a special one-woman show about the life of Harriet Tubman.
Lisa Marie Alatorre described her work at a San Francisco-based homeless shelter, where she is piloting a restorative justice program that has what she called “abolitionist potential.” Alatorre spoke of the “shelter to prison pipeline” that occurs in shelters if police are allowed to be the ones to solve problems among residents. She discussed how having an advisory council of staff and shelter residents, using the circle process for all issues in the community, and giving staff non-punitive tools to use will definitely reduce police involvement.
Alatorre gave an example of a healing circle at a shelter. “Imagine,” she said, “if someone’s cell phone goes missing, and then another one in the same week disappears. Tension will bubble up. Then we use a restorative justice circle where the focus is not on finding a culprit, but on creating a sense that stealing is not what we want to create a safe community.” In circles, Alatorre explained, everyone answers these questions: “What happened? How did it make me feel? What was my responsibility in this?” — instead of just discussing factual information. Alatorre added, “Clients are then excited to talk about healing and trauma. They see that they are community-building in adverse housing settings.”
The closing affirmation to the conference was from Donna Edmonds Mitchell, the steward of the Perry Clan Homestead of the Watuppa Reservation in Fall River, Massachusetts. She reminded all to walk with a new and renewed way of living life.
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