Lee: Abolition is for Everybody is a podcast that tackles the sometimes difficult conversations around prison abolition.
Ra: I’m Ra
Taina: And I’m Taina.
Lee: And I’m Lee
Ra: We’re excited to talk about the possibilities and realities of abolition in today’s world with you. Join us for a friendly talk, sometimes with guest experts.
Content warning: Just a reminder, friends, in this episode, and every episode, we talk about very sensitive and often personal issues. Take care of you.
Lee: Let’s do it. How did you get into this work, Taina, and tell us a little bit about your beliefs around abolition.
Taina: Hello. I got involved in abolition work, because I’m directly impacted by the mass incarceration system. When I was a child, my dad was always in and out of jail. My mom has been to jail and so have both of my siblings so I’m the only person in my immediate family, knock on wood, who has not been incarcerated. And then when I was 22, I had a loved one who got arrested and was facing multiple life sentences, and that made this experience that much more real to me. So, in going through his court process, I won’t say trial process because he ended up taking a plea deal like 95% of impacted people do. And you know he ended up being sentenced to 10 years and serving seven years of which I spent, pretty much every weekend in the prison visiting him. It became clearer and clearer to me that the way that we deal with harm in this country is not effective, prisons and jails do not work. And that we have so many other options and we absolutely have the power to implement new, new ways of dealing with harm. But I think something that I also learned, and that I’m excited to talk more about in this episode is the fact that we focus much too much on the individual and are not looking at the system and how the system causes harm and how the system perpetuates the ways in which we harm each other so yeah i think that’s that’s something that led me into this work and led me to start thinking about prison abolition.
Lee: A few things came up for me right now right, and Ra, I don’t know about you, but when Taina was talking, the one thing about the amount of people that actually take plea deals instead of going to trial. The system is just so based upon fear and instilling fear in folks and, you know, people often say that the system is like broken and we both know that it’s not, it’s really designed to oppress people and to break people and to instill fear in folks and it’s working like more than, fine, it’s working really well.
Taina: Yeah, absolutely. That’s where my journey as an abolitionist began was by me like understanding firsthand like how harmful the prison system is and you know really me just having faith like that there has to be something different, there has to be another way that we can deal with it, you know situations in which individuals cause harm. But we also need to acknowledge the ways in which the system is causing like incredible harm, like for myself I have been diagnosed with PTSD, because of my ex husband’s incarceration. So I come to this work because I firmly believe like that we just have to have to do better. The cycles of trauma are ongoing and non stop like the longer and longer we pretend that we can just like reform our way out of the harm that the prison system causes. Yeah, Lee, like that makes me want to know a little bit more about about you and how your journey began.
Lee: Oh, I was just walking by outside, Sebastian said hey, we’re doing a podcast. No, like you, my family members. I’m one of seven kids and all of the boys, I’m the youngest boy, and all of the boys in my family have been incarcerated in prison. And so it’s a cycle that has been going on in my family, for, you know, generations. And growing up I never felt like I was not only not connected to my family, I wasn’t connected to my community. I grew up with a lot of issues surrounding sadness. Not feeling loved or worthy of love, and these led me to seeking attention from those around me, people that were around me were in the mind state of dysfunction. They either were battling their own drug addictions, they were battling their own issues with being in the lower economic status. They were battling issues with relationships. And so I started to model, and I started to see like what was happening around me and I started to embrace it and basically started swimming through it. And I started off with smoking weed and like breaking into like people’s yards and stuff and stealing things in order to have the finances to be able to buy marijuana and one thing, just led to the next and I ended up with a charge of murder robbery at the age of 17 and super scared, didn’t know what I had, didn’t understand the full ramifications of what I had done. But I knew that what I had done was wrong. My father was killed when I was a child and I knew how that felt. And so I started, I just had like a complete meltdown on breakdown. At that point in my life at the age of 17 and vowed that I would never intentionally harm another human being in my life and. (And so we’re getting a call and from CDC, right now.) And so, I wanted to be– pre my crime– I wanted to be like the tough guy and I wanted to be noticed in the tough guy world. And then, after my crime. I went to the opposite, which was counterintuitive to what the system actually promotes. It promotes separatism, it promotes racism. It promotes oppression. It promotes fear and it promotes violence, like within the incarceration system and so I went in there and I was trying to tell people that wanted to be tough and wanted to be noticed, or at least to stave off the fear that they probably had for themselves using intimidation and violence that I wasn’t a part of that, then so going through the going through the system I started to like, try to figure out who I was as a person right, my morals, my principles. I wanted to learn more about like who I, who I was and who I wanted to be and so that’s how my change started and then I started to look at. After I married my inner education with higher education I started to look at the system as a whole and see how like how it was designed, what it was doing and how it was affecting our community, how it was affecting me and how it was affecting my peers. And so that’s kind of like what brought me to the abolitionist work. There’s always this conversation when you tell somebody that you’re prison abolitionists they’re like, “oh what you just think you’re going to get rid of all prisons, like people shouldn’t be punished for their crimes?”. And I say, well let’s just start to break down some of those terms a little bit right let’s just start to. Let’s start to unpack and unravel, what you’re saying. Punishment versus healing and punishment versus transformative and giving folks the opportunity to be able to unpack what’s on their heart when they don’t believe in prison abolition. But once we start to really have like a discourse or a conversation about it, they realize that they’re more of a prison abolitionists than what they gave themselves credit from for at the at the onset and so I really love having those conversations and being able to talk to people about healing our communities versus continuously harming them. So that’s just like a tidbit I’m sure as we continue to go on and I’ll talk a little bit more about, you know, my incarceration. I was locked up for 25 years so I have a lot of experience about the CDCR and what happens in there and what goes on and like the psychological effects. I not only went through it myself, I also like guided other folks do it, and trying to, like, create a space for them to be as healthy as they possibly could be living in that type of environment. What about you, Ra, I feel like I’ve talked, I think for, like, 67 minutes.
Ra: No, I think that was a very consecutive and, you know, it’s a story, you know, our lives are stories and ultimately abolition is an ideology, which is to say every, every bit of our life story I think folds into this eventual belief and the possibility of a better world. You know, every single piece of our story matters to how we became an abolitionist. For myself, it was almost like the opposite situation from both of y’all. No one I knew had ever been to jail or prison. I’m not sure people in my family knew where our jail was or the difference between jail and prison, any of those things. My teachers– my parents are teachers, and my siblings are all in equivalent types fields, you know, CPA’s and jobs that you really just don’t ask any questions about because they sounds pretty straightforward as to what they do. And you know I served a year and a half in prison, so real short time. And
Lee: That’s ironic that you say “real short time”, like a year and a half, it’s a long time to be separated from your family and your loved ones or community. A lot of things happened during that year and a half.
Ra: A lot of things happened, yeah, I mean a lot of things happen in it in a short period of time but in the respect to how much time people serve within that system, you know, it’s just a blink of an eye, really. But yeah, a lot of things happen to my time. Notably in my case, my husband passed away, a year to the date that I was inside. So when Taina talks about PTSD from being on the outside, like that’s so real, you know, in the prison world, there’s a lot of talk about what it means to be system impacted, and you know if someone who didn’t actually serve time is system impacted. And the thing is the things are like ripples within ripples within ripples, you know, my husband literally died being the person not on the inside, so I know how much it can can weigh on a person, especially a person who I think had a similar disposition to what you were talking about in your youth. And so yeah, it was a rough year and a half, but honestly that didn’t even make me a prison abolitionist. I had done a lot of charitable work before my prison life and then I went inside and saw– it doesn’t take you more than a day to see how badly things are inside and worse, how purposeful that badly run system is– you know, how deliberate, it is. And still I came home thinking that, you know, maybe a reform here, or a reform there. Then one of my friends — I’m a poet as well– they said there was going to be a book reading and Mariame Kaba was going to be there, who I didn’t know, but my friend was excited about and I was like sure. She said you know sometimes she writes about prison stuff, and I was like okay. And of course, anyone who knows Mariame Kaba knows that’s a very reductive synopsis of her body of work which is this extensive foray into the world of prison abolition and all, and abolition of all kinds, the fullest version of that word. Anyway, she was talking about what abolition was I was like okay, I believe that, and of course I believe that and, oh yeah I believe that, I think, when I left, I was like, Oh, I guess I am a prison abolition and I do believe all these things and the resources are there. I know the system doesn’t work. I know people are… I know Community Care works. So yeah, that’s what brought me to abolition.
Taina: You know, Ra, listening to you talk is bringing up a lot of things for me and it’s also making me realize that I think my journey to abolition might have started a lot earlier than I had originally thought it did. So I initially when I first heard the term abolition you know framed as prison abolition. I think that I was, you know, alongside a lot of the skeptics now who were like “so what are we going to do just get rid of police and prisons.” And, you know, it’s a podcast so folks can’t see me but I’m a woman of color. I’m Afro Puerto Rican woman and I grew up in like a very low income community, both of my parents were addicted to drugs and alcohol, we were very poor, we spent a good amount of my childhood and adolescence, you know, homeless living in motels. And I witnessed an incredible amount of violence. My home was not a safe place when I was a child. And to this day, you know, like, a lot of those issues are still true. My mom overdosed five years ago, and is in a coma now. So you know these things are still like very much a reality for me. But I think the first time in my conscious memory of recognizing that the system of prison and police doesn’t work, was probably when I was 12. We were living in a motel and I don’t know where my dad was, my dad would just disappear sometimes, and my mom and I were getting into like a heated argument. She was drunk, she was high, and I did not feel safe. So I called the police, on my mom, at the age of 12, and I said you know like “help us you know I don’t know where my dad is, my mom is in a state where she, you know, where she’s threatening violence against us, help us,” and the police came to the hotel and they didn’t do anything. They were just like, oh well you know we don’t even have any evidence that you know anything illegal is happening and I definitely didn’t want my mom to go to jail. But I just didn’t know what else do at the age of 12. I just wanted us to feel safe. And you know I was never made aware of any like social services. I would think that the police would be like hey a 12 year old kid just call the cops on their mom maybe we should intervene, but that didn’t happen. There was never any intervention that wasn’t associated with the police or incarceration for my family. I was never offered like therapy or, you know, anything, anything that could have potentially helped us like heal from the very traumatic things that we were going through. So I spent a lot of my life just kind of watching you know my parents cause like real harm against me and my siblings and, you know, I grew up just thinking like, yeah, like they should, you know be held accountable for what they’re doing. But I didn’t want them to go to jail. I watched my dad go in and out of jail and nothing ever got better when he came home. My dad actually did end up getting sober, but it was after he spent a good amount of time in a rehab center. And he told me that the only reason that he was able to get sober was because I supported him at the age of 14 like I would write him letters and tell him like, you know dad, I love you and I want you to get sober. So it wasn’t so much even, you know, it wasn’t incarceration, it wasn’t even like the institution of the rehab facility, it was it was support, it was like hope, it was something to look forward to that helped him get sober. So then as I got older like that was a lesson that I really took with me is that like we really only are able to heal when we have the support that we need, and prisons are the absolute opposite of support, like, Lee, you spoke to isolation and when folks are removed from their families, are removed from their communities, they’re removed from everything that they need to feel like, you know, maybe there’s a sliver of hope and they can do something different. So I think that is something that slowly, you know started to make me realize like Oh, yes, we do have terrible things that are happening in our communities, but prison is not the solution. Prison is not only is it not the solution, it makes it worse. It exacerbates harm. And what we actually need are like services in the community and also just you know ways of being able to show up for one another thing that’s something that that I’m really excited to talk about more, you know, especially for folks who may be listening who are thinking like okay you know, kind of on the fence with this abolition thing. I’m really looking forward to listening to the two of you dive into what it means to be an abolitionist and what alternative services we can have that can truly make our community safer. So yeah, Lee, I’m wondering, you know, what you think about about this topic and if you want to share a little bit more about, I don’t know, what did you first think of when you heard the word abolition.
Lee: You know I feel like it was built up as a, like a rebellious belief, right, like if somebody that was an abolitionist was somebody that was rebelling against social norms. And I feel, since I’ve been able to kind of like really internalize it, that if you are somebody that is kind, caring and empathetic you’re an abolitionist, because those are the key tenants to what it means to be an abolitionist is you want the best for folks, and you want them to become their best self. You know, at the back end of my email. I have “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” And I completely strive everyday to live to that, um, decree. Because for so long I feel like the person with the biggest microphone or the person with the loudest voice, or the strongest hand are the ones that have kind of dictated what happens in our communities and in our society, and the very system that has encased itself in this armor of protection, not only with taxes but with fear and in with like the growth of this beast, and if we want to use the term– who’s sitting in the belly of the beast right. It’s the people that are actually being encaged. And so, I feel if you’re somebody that is against abolition, you’re actually imprisoning yourself because you’re not opening yourself up to another way of thinking. Another way of looking at societal harms. I know when the abolitionist movement for the ending of prisons first came about, it was somewhere in the 80s when they had like the war on drugs and the world on crime, right, there was like this super thing where they were using terms like super predators. And in that, that type of descriptions to instill fear within our community that you know crimes were on the rise and people needed to be locked away and kept away from their family members and their loved ones in their community. But they didn’t say it that way, right, they said that: Johnny did bad Johnny is bad, right, and Johnny needs to be away from everyone else that has not done bad. And so, coming into like the term of being an abolitionist or somebody that believes in in prison abolition, like you said, Taina, I’m really looking forward to it just unpacking these in a personal experience, in other people’s testimonies and their narratives, but also bringing in the history of where prisons come from, where transformative justice comes from, where the prospect of being able to heal the folks that that are suffering from any type of mental illness or any type of false ideologies, or things don’t ring true for them, to be able to kind of like– let’s put all of this on the table. I think is the most important thing. It isn’t me against you. It isn’t you against me, or society. It’s about trying to come up with solutions– practical, real world solutions– that have a proven history of working, and ones that do not work, and how we can change the ones that don’t work into something that does work. And so that’s kind of like when I first came into abolition, or I started to hear about the term or the word, that it was villainized. And so I, too, automatically put my defenses up, I put my guards up to it because I didn’t want to be like the rebel– rebelling against society. What about you, Ra.
Ra: I think, similarly, you know the word abolition comes into conversation as, to your point, a rebellious thought. But when you start breaking down abolition into its tiniest and most active forms, you realize that we we practice it, inherently, all the time. Children practice it, people in safe positions practice it. The communities I grew up in that were safe, that never had police come through, when something happens in our neighborhood when somebody to your example Johnny, when Johnny did bad, we fixed it. You know, we went to Johnny’s house, and we thought about Johnny’s life, and we decided as a local community what we could do better. And if anyone brought up calling the police, we would all be like “Hey, no need to escalate this” It was never really an option because it didn’t need to be — we knew we could call– we weren’t the type of neighborhood that police officers terrorized traditionally so we were safe in that. But despite that we still knew– what tools do they possibly have, you know? So in that situation, let’s say, Johnny stole something from a neighbor. That neighbor would go talk to Johnny’s family, you know, and they would figure that out because the police only have one tool. And if you don’t want that tool to be used, what good is it, you know, so it’s like calling a plumber. Johnny still from his neighbor and we’re going to call the plumber, well, the plumber only has a certain set of tools. So unless this is going to help that, unless Johnny stole the toilet, you know this is not going to help us. That’s sort of the way our communities work. And that’s, that’s how communities work when they get to be safe, when they have the resources they need, when the teacher and the doctor and the lawyer live in that neighborhood. You know, children practice abolition, you know they practice the smallest form of not involving large institutions at every turn. They they learned the name of their neighbors, they ask the kid next to them for a pencil, they bring extra pencils because they know somebody in class doesn’t have them. And it’s sort of like a, a very inherent humanity that we have that we are told doesn’t scale. And that’s ultimately the practical problem that’s put to us we say– well sure you can learn the names of all your neighbors, but how do you scale that across the country. And one of the things that made abolition make sense to me on a larger scale was, again, that presentation by Mariame Kaba where she just explained, we already do that. The only difference is, is that those organizations that are set up to help us scale it are shut down at every turn, you know, they’re made to go through hoops, and they are regularly policed. And so all of these things step in the way of our own efforts to care for ourselves, our own efforts to bring extra pencils to class and check in on Johnny. And so what we mostly need to do to start is, you know, for me, because I know there’s a lot of different takes on abolition– a lot of people focus on their corner and go hard and mine tends to be ending mass incarceration. Because I think that’s taking away a major tool of the police. So, that inherently defunds their power, you know, more importantly than their money, it defunds the most important, and only real tool of terror they have. And so I put my energy on that. But along the journey of course I’ve met so many other abolitionists who are houselessness advocates and Black liberation advocates and education advocates, and they feel that their wa also, also does it. And I really think it does, because when you work towards liberation, no matter which pathway you’re going, we all eventually end up at the same place where we take care of each other. We do right by ourselves. That’s abolition.
Taina: Yeah, thank you so much Ra, I was just reflecting on, you know, how you had shared that your childhood experience was, you know, different from mine and Lees in the sense that you had access to resources and also your neighborhood was not one that was over policed. And it just made me think about something that I see people write about quite often is the sense that communities are not safer when they have more police, they’re safer when they have more resources. So that’s something that I think really is like at the core of the conversation around abolition, like we are universally agreeing as abolitionists that what we do not need is more punishment and trauma, and to continue cycles of violence and harm, and what we do need is just to, to care for one another, that’s on the individual like community level but the state also should be providing like a, you want to talk about systems, we should be providing like a system of care. But something else that I would really like you all to touch on, you know I know a lot of folks are probably listening to this and are saying like yeah but it’s still really tough for me to get on the train because of you know x y or z reason. So I think you know maybe we could talk about like what were like some of the struggles for us to begin to identify as abolitionists and you know maybe what helped get us over the hurdle. I’ll say for me: I didn’t always associate abolitionists with people who are interested in policy change. I thought that, you know, either you had reform, or you had abolition and there wasn’t really like any space in between, and, you know, I’m a person who is very passionate about policy change. I’ve worked for the legislature in the past, I’ve worked for several nonprofits, as a policy advocate. And, you know, I believe like firmly that we actually needed to change rules and laws in order to bring people home from prison and make our community safer, so I saw abolitionists something different than that. But that was not right. And you know that that slowly came on to me is that there’s a difference between, you know, reform and like tinkering with the system and, you know, policy changes that are abolitionist. You know, I believe that an abolitionist policy is something that is taking power or resources away from the systems of punishment and putting them back into the communities. Abolitionists understand, you know I think to a point you made earlier, Ra, is that the system is not broken, it’s operating exactly the way that it should, that it was intended to, and we need to change the system, we need to abolish the system, get rid of it, throw the whole thing away and create something new, create something that is rooted in community care, create something to take us to takes the focus off of the individual and puts it back on to the community as a whole, so I think once I started to realize that abolition does include policy change which I think is relevant to us having this conversation as you know staff members of Initiate Justice which is of course a policy organization. Yes, we can be abolitionists, and we could push for abolitionist policy changes that actually help us get where we want to be. But yeah, I’m curious, Lee, if you can think of– what were some of the things that caused you to struggle with the concept of identifying as an abolitionist.
Lee: I continuously live in a state of struggle. That’s because I’m always learning new things and I’m the type of person that is always curious. Right, I want to learn and do more. And so one of the things is is like when you start to talk about abolition. It’s like the extreme that people like automatically go to– like, they put a wall up, right– and they build that wall and they’re like, “Nope, not gonna do it. I’m not going to go down that route. I’m not even going to talk about it. Like if people do wrong there needs to be some type of some type of intervention.” And then you know I get to start to have that talk about, okay what does intervention look like, who should go to prison, like you’re talking about, what about the rapists and murderers right like you go to that automatic extreme and you’re like, well do you know how many people that are actually incarcerated are in there for those crimes.
So, if we take those people aside and just talk about the other ones that have suffered from drug addiction or that have suffered from poverty, and we start to talk about them. Do they also need to be, you know, with the rapists and murderers? Do you need to put them in that category, in that box? And so really starting to delve into it and in kind of separate the terms. I’m of this accord, if I can start to get you, like, you don’t need to necessarily right now be on the abolition train, but let’s get on the same track right. Let’s start heading in the same direction. And I believe the cause and the way of life will lead you down that track to where you’re boarding that train of abolition. And so if we can start to dismantle or divert, let’s be divertionist!– I think I just made that word up– Let’s divert some of the funds, let’s divert some of the resources that are in the in prison industrial complex and start investing them into our communities and into our children and into our our home lives in order to make life happy, or more fun or more palatable or whatever the case may be that led folks to depression, to crime or to drug use, or whatever it is, if we start to lessen those reasons, those foundational causative factors that led to that. It’s all going to lead to the abolition of prisons. All of it. And so this is where like I think a lot of people struggle where they say, you’re either with us or against this. I’m of the accord of like you could just be with me on some things, and I can support you on that and you can support me on that because ultimately it’s going to lead to prison abolition and that’s, that’s kind of how I feel, but there are some, you know, deal breakers and some barriers where I just can’t get down with, but I’m sure we’ll discuss that more and more as we kind of bring on our guests and bring the other folks into the fold.
I feel like we’re in like this circle where it goes Taina, Lee, Ra.
Ra: (laughs) Like the game of Uno!
Lee: Like the game of Uno. But that’s definitely like some of the struggles that I’ve had with folks is, you know, there’s that term where we use this a lot at Initiate Justice, the people that are closest to the problem, or closest to the issues, are also closest to the solutions. Right. And so once we really start to bring people to the table that are closest to the problems and closest to the issues, we’re going to find the solutions, as we go along. And that’s not to say that we have the solution to everything, because it’s all kind of trial and error, from the onset of our lives, whether it’s learning to walk or learning to drive or us learning, you know what field we want to be in. It’s all trial and error with with how we kind of get to the places where we want to go. In addition to that, I also feel like as we embark upon this train ride and folks, start to get on, get on the train with us, that we will all end up in a better place than where we first boarded the train. If that is just in the simple measure of treating people with kindness, caring for people, and having an empathetic approach to how they first boarded the train, or the tracks that they traveled in order to get to the train.
Taina: Well I hope after listening to, you know, the three of us discuss like what our journey has been like folks can understand that like any part of the journey that you’re on is like okay and asking questions is, okay. Feeling the need to have more information is okay, that’s completely normal and that’s how we all should be making our decisions on, you know, based on the facts. But I would encourage folks to, you know, come into these conversations which can be difficult with an open mind, with an open heart. And, you know, maybe coming in with a bit of self awareness and recognizing that you know we’ve been socialized to believe that police and prisons are the only form of accountability or that punishment overall as a concept is the best form of accountability. So I would really invite folks to come into the space with, you know, their listening ears, their open hearts and really be open to new ideas. I think it makes a lot of sense that people want to feel safe. I know, for myself I want to feel safe. When I was a child I wanted to feel safe, from the real violent and scary conditions that were occurring in my household. But I think you know it’s time for us as a society, it’s overdue, for us to recognize that our current punishment criminal legal system is an epic failure, and we can tap into our radical imaginations and envision something better. But not just envision it, but we can be supporting policies and we can be supporting the shifting of resources away from punishment and into community care.
Ra: You’ve been listening to Abolition is for Everybody sponsored by Initiate Justice. Make sure to follow us @abolitionIs_ on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, for regular updates support, please rate and comment wherever you listen to your podcast. Those five star rating help other people find their way to us. So thank you. You can also join us Abolition Corner on the fourth Tuesday of every month to further your exploration of abolition in a small group. To learn more, please visit InitiateJustice.org/Abolition-Corner.