by Ash Silang
The position of a prison abolitionist organiser seems a peculiar one, especially for one outside, who has never done time in prison.
While often rooted in empathy, solidarity, and a struggle for human rights, abolitionist praxis is limited by ideological and physical distance from people in prison. The maintenance of outside organiser identities as non-aggressors and as non-perpetrators of harm maintains and perpetuates the distance from comrades inside prisons.
Abolitionists have a responsibility to lead an attitudinal shift about harms that we individually cause, in order to destigmatize harm and thereby shorten our ideological distance to people in prison. Destigmatizing harm and flattening designations of guilt, confronting negative interpersonal dynamics, and engaging in immediate material solidarity at prison sites and sites of resistance, all work to shorten – and eventually end – ideological distinctions and physical distance between those outside and those in prison.
Through terror and torture inflicted upon minds and bodies of the confined, prison rebels firmly root dissent against the prison system from their full-body experience that intuits and informs: no human being should be caged.
The working class fight against deplorable conditions has resulted in many fronts of massive social crisis often intersecting with the struggle against prisons. These struggles have culminated in widespread but oft-suppressed prison strikes, uprisings, rebellions, and riots over the past several years, most recently August 21 − September 9, 2018.
I am writing as someone who supports and participates in collective organising in prisoner-led initiatives through the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC). We study the prison and abolition movements and engage in critical struggle towards abolition. I have never done time myself, but I have experienced the hardship and insecurity of having immediate family members inside. Like most of the people I’ve personally met on the outside who have been incarcerated, they did something drug-related and served time ranging from a few months to a few years, in state prisons, county jails, and mental health and substance abuse treatment facilities.
Some of the ex-prisoners I met have admitted to committing harm. Some have to grapple with accountability towards those they’ve harmed, just to survive in the “free world” under capitalism once again, while also simultaneously trying to locate healing for themselves.
Several ex-prisoners, through all the complexities of their internal processes, are revolutionaries and abolitionists on the outside. I am privileged to know folks who are devoted to the movement for working class power, and possessed of an exemplary drive. I’ve found that several of these folks are bluntly honest about why they have been in prison, how they were caught, and the courts’ process to be found “guilty.” Prisoners, current and former, have to carry the weight of this designation “guilty” for a long time, and they sometimes are transparent, announcing their past “crimes” in public settings. This can work to destigmatize remedies of “crime” but doesn’t present more pathways to getting closer to comrades in prison.
Through IWOC, I’ve also met and worked with several people who are currently in prison. Most of the people I’ve met are inside a prison this very moment. Through correspondence and conversation, many of the people I know inside are identified as being within a historically marginalized classification, or a state-mandated classification of “gang” affiliation. I haven’t met anyone who has been granted privilege, economic access, or the social standing seemingly necessary to avoid being caged.
Personally, I have not asked many folks about their charges, convictions, and what guilt they might carry. “Crime” seems to be an artificial and arbitrary classification, and the designation is more often based on skin colour, the system of racism, family relations, neighbourhood, lack of economic access, and level of educational access afforded to each individual. Despite my position that “crime” is a state maintained social construct and not necessarily an actual indicator of harm, many prisoners I know have committed very harmful acts and have been convicted of “crimes” based on the actual harm done. Some people in prison have told me the crimes for which they have been convicted. At times, it is emotionally difficult for me to process this information about the harm caused. Yet I feel a responsibility to maintain connection, as human empathy and political solidarity dictates.
People in prison have been found “guilty” by the state, though all carry guilt because all have committed unaccounted harm.
Unlike people who are inside and who have been in prison, I am rarely forced to announce the worst things that I have personally done. While I won’t necessarily start going around announcing heinous shit I’ve done with zero context, this tension must be examined at an individual and interpersonal level, as well as through organisations of abolitionists.
At times, harm does occur within our organisation, often occurring with a gendered dynamic. Through IWOC’s Gender Equity Committee, we attempt to address gender-based oppression and examine intricacies of intersectional dynamics in order to remedy harm and restore mutual recognition of personhood between the aggressor and the person who experienced harm. We seek to extend interpersonal dynamic analysis to comrades inside, to both improve relations and shorten the distance between inside-outside comradeships.
A possible way the internal dynamic analysis could lend to attitudinal shifts is in an examination of the historical way prisons have been used to subjugate and strip personhood. The state mechanises social control by reducing a person to a citizen, systematically disenfranchising by removing one’s ability to survive under capitalism, then removing that citizenship through intervention of the prison state.
How do inherent biases and privileges among us as outside organisers also work to reduce personhood of those inside, and how do we challenge that? What is the chance that people outside can truly identify with people inside prison, when so many intersecting privileges and oppressive dynamics exist within the inside-outside comradeship? While we collectively struggle, we must confront underlying negative tendencies that cause harm, to create a foundation on which to ingrain our own individual and collective accountability.
Currently, much of the collective struggle is delayed by snail mail. There are numerous barriers between my pen and the piece of paper in the recipient’s hand. When I write to people in prison, I imagine my eyes attached to an invisible balloon. This balloon floats above my head to all the things I surround myself with, to all the places I can go, with varied textures and sounds and stimuli. The balloon travels some distance, over increasingly harsh, then barren, then toxic landscapes, then towards the grey, angular prison, over gates, through concrete barriers, over a cell, into it. Floating over a human in a box. A place where identity is stripped from one’s exterior form. Where all the richness and textures and variations must exist solely in the imaginations of the people there, only to be expressed in forms the state deems acceptable and allowed.
One way we combat the mutual alienation of distance is by travelling to these sites of terror and torture. At the local jail, IWOC does as much immediate material support as we can. We share immediate comforts of hot food (usually pizza) and cigarettes with folks who have just been released, and give rides to the nearest train station.
We meet people who have been inside the jail for ridiculous reasons. Traffic violations, small substance possession, decade-old warrants, the crime of homelessness, or other petty acts of harm. If an attitudinal shift occurs regarding harm and accountability, punishment for petty acts becomes less acceptable to society, and we therefore shorten the ideological and physical distance to our comrades inside.
Efforts towards emancipation aren’t reducible to just getting out from behind bars, wire, fence, and concrete. We must shorten the distance between inside-outside engagement to mutually elevate the capacities of organisers inside and out, to continue, hand in hand, for a world without prisons.
Ash Silang is an organiser with IWOC Oakland.
Artwork by Melanie Cervantes