[intro music begins] Abolition is for Everybody is a podcast that tackles the sometimes difficult conversations around prison abolition. I’m Ra.
And I’m Crystal. In this season of Abolition is for Everybody, we talk about harm.
What creates it, what recycles it, and how we could find our way to meaningful means of repair.
Just a reminder friends, in this episode, and every episode, we dive into very sensitive issues. This season is frameworked around violence, and though the title of this episode may give you some warning, remember that harm itself tends to create situations of alternate harms. There will probably be other painful topics brought up too. Take care of you.
Uh, well. Hey, Graham. Welcome. It’s nice to have you here.-
Thanks for having me.
-Thanks for making the time. Uhm, and be willing to do this. This season is all about harm, which is super rough to talk about. But, this specific episode is called, Abolition Addresses Robbery. Can you tell us, can you tell our listeners, why you specifically are here?
Sure. So, uh, as you mentioned, my name is Graham Finochio. My pronouns are he, him, his. In 2005, I had been out of prison of DUI parole violation, for 12 days. While I was in prison, I had written to someone who’s close to me, and uh, they wrote me back and told me about a situation where they were hurt. They were beat up and robbed by their boyfriend.-
-Uhm. I’d spent this, the relationship with this person, I’d spent the entire relationship in like a protectorate role. So, I immediately thought, I’m going to get this person. That was the lifestyle that I lived at that time, and uh, so, “I’m going to get this person at some point.” In 12 days, out of this parole violation, I worked all day, I walked into a bar, and lo and behold, this individual was sitting at the bar. Uh, I didn’t know him personally, but I recognize him from pictures she had sent me. Uh, so, I went through the process of figuring out a way to hurt him. Uhm. I, plotted a way to get him outside, had conversations with him, pull him outside. Uhm, and, my co-defendant, which means someone who was arrested with me, ultimately, uh coaxed him into a back alley behind this bar, and I commenced to r-really laying into him and hurting him, pretty severely. I took everything that he owned, off of his person’s. All of his clothes, except for underwear, uh wallet, shoes. Uhm, the cigarette he was smoking, some really like ridiculous, uh like, I was thinking, I thought I was making a point. And, and, so that’s what I did. I made him count backwards from 100, and we ran. I, about three, I went back to my co-defendant’s house, showered. There was blood on me, so I washed the blood off. I, I went to the store to get cigarettes with my co-defendant, thinking it was fine. Uh, the cops in Huntington Beach knew me, so they stopped immediately. Uh, the victim, the survivor, identified me, didn’t identify my co-defendant, and I was taken in for a parole violation. Which they used to do back then. And then I noticed that he was a very quiet person. So, I noticed his lips were moving very fast, and I found out that he was telling the cops everything that took place. Uh, and so I was charged with attempted murder and robbery. And after fighting the case for about two years, a year and eight months, I was offered a plea, I was at jury selection. A plea is copping out. A plea basically means that they are offering you a lesser sentence to get you to sign and plead guilty at that moment. They offered me a 15 year plea. I told my lawyer previously that at any point, I would take 10 or below. Because, I know at a 21 year old person, I-I was involved in gangs, I was a skinhead, I was involved in white supremacist gangs. A 21 year old person of my posture and attitude is going to end up with a life sentence with anything more than 10 years. And, I might end up with it then, just based on the culture of what happens in prison. And I was offered a plea bargain, the 15 years, it was right after I’d selected the first two jurors, or, me and my lawyer had selected the first two jurors. Uh, I very quickly signed, and at that point, I decided like, I’m never gonna go home, it is what it is, I’m just gonna go to prison. I don’t have anything out here anyways, and I made my way to prison. And the plea was for robbery, second degree robbery, 2-11.
Thank you uhm, for sharing all that, and particularly, for uh, defining the words. I think sometimes it’s so easy to uhm- You know, these experiences are so common, once you’ve been incarcerated, that like, they just become as normal of words as the way like people would describe their bedding or, you know, household items. So, uhm, I really, really appreciate that. And it looked like Crystal had a comment. So I’ll-
Graham, you talk a lot about, uhm, you know, the harms that you caused, that particular night. Uhm, and you said that you went through this process of thinking, like how you would hurt this person, if you were to run into them? Uhm, can you share a little bit more about what-what that was like for you and what that’s like for you now, after you know, many, many years of you know, healing and doing the work that you currently do?
Sure. So, that’s an interesting question, because I, uhm, from a very young age visualization has been a tool that I used. I, when I was in a lifestyle where I was doing harm to other people, I could picture in my head exactly what I would want to do and then I would make- take steps so that that would be the result. And still, I mean, I would be dishonest if I said that that doesn’t take place now. If someone cuts me off, some visualization goes off in my head. If I get mad at someone for doing something that I think is, is rude or disrespectful, there’s visualization. And, it was kind of an escape, when I was younger, and I began to use it as a weapon as I got older, if that makes sense?
An escape from what?
So I grew up in uh, Orange County, California. There’s a lot of misconceptions about Orange County. People think, “oh, it’s like the TV show.” It’s not necessarily all like the TV show, just certain parts. And uh, I didn’t grow up in those parts. Uhm, my family, I was raised by my grandmother-
-and my father. My mother was absentee, in and out of the picture. They both were, in and out of prison, addicted to heroin. Uhm, my father was very, very abusive. I experienced a lot of different levels and types of abuse; sexual, physical, emotional, verbal abuse, as a kid. Uh, and my escape was, in my mind. Uh, I wasn’t also very, like social as a kid. I was a small, I was very small kid. Uhm, and I was a white kid, in an area that didn’t have a lot of white kids going to that school. Uh, so I got, you know, called names. I had a lisp, that doesn’t go over well, in school. My grandma was English. And I was raised to, I was taught to talk from her. So I had like a half English accent, I sounded very strange. And so I often didn’t talk,-
-you know, I’d play with my dog or play by myself, and play in my imagination. So, that was the escape that I was looking for.
I hear you talk about the visualization o-of how things played out, and, and I can relate to that, right? And-and, when I was able to really understand what it was, you know, OCP, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, you know, obsession, compulsion and progression. Uhm, I’m interested to know, like, knowing that you have grown up and you have went through this system, how was you able to kind of, you know, break that cycle of thinking with obsession, compulsion, and progression? Uhm, and knowing that is no, is absolutely no resources in, in prison?
It took a long time. And the reason it took a long time was, you know, it often in-involves a choice by the individuals who begin recognizing the harmful behaviors. And as you mentioned, there’s no, there’s no tools in prison. There’s no, prisons aren’t setting up groups and having you take groups or, like agendizing things that you need to do, so you can work on your yourself or mandating therapy. None of those things happen in prison.-
-And I, I would be surprised to find someone who says that that was their experience, in at least California prison, if not all prisons. And so I entered prison thinking, as I mentioned to Ra earlier, I mentioned prison, expecting to stay, you know? I didn’t have a life sentence, but I would do the things that uhm put me in a position to excel within the gang culture inside.-
-Climb the ladder, so to speak. And uh, I would do those things. And I would climb and I would get into a position of power. And I have, you know, whatever, merit, whatever degree of like respect from the-
-people that are around me. Uh, and that took, you know, 12 and a half years multiple shoe terms. I spent eight years within my incarceration, within the shoe or within administrative, segregated housing. Uhm, which is the hole, for folks that don’t know, the hole in the shoe. The shoe is like prison within prison. You’re super secluded, you have, you have uh, like zero access to anything.-
-You have one appliance, you’re shackled, every time you come out your cell.-
-Yes, absolutely. Which heals nothing. There’s zero, like, that doesn’t do anything. It’s a punitive measure that does nothing. Uh, and I spent the majority of my time like that. And I think like the first steps towards transformation came just based on age, you know? At the age of 30, between 30 and like, 33, I started just like not wanting to be aggressive anymore. I was tired, my you know? I- I would get hurt, a lot more easily, because I was older. And also, like, I just didn’t have like the degree, physiologically, like, the degree of testosterone running through my body that I-
-did when I was in my 20s. I didn’t. And I’d already proven myself on so many levels within that culture, that I’m like, “I’m not going to keep fighting for people’s approval for my whole life.” So, part of the step away was that. Uh, that didn’t mean I stepped away from everything. It just meant, like I thought, “Okay, well, I can just be one of the older guys in prison,” you know, “that’ll be fine.” And then I ended up going to this prison in Soledad, which is in Central Valley, called CTF, it was a level two. I’d spent two years, when I got kicked out of the shoe, on a level three and then my points dropped. And I went to a level two and that was Soledad. And I got to tell you, like I hated it there. I hated that prison, because there were so many people talking about good stuff. Like talking about, people talking about causative factors,-
-people talking about healing, like listening to one another, and a, that just wasn’t-
-Absolutely. And like, there was, you know, probably 30 to 40 groups, uh, excluding even like NAAA and educational programs. Uh, and I learned from being there that these are things that the people at the prison had designed, developed and put into play. Not the guards, not the counselors, not the psychologist, the people in the prison, or community based organizations, were putting into motion within this prison. And like I said, I hated it at first, but as I’d walk laps on this huge yard, because Soledad has like massive, the biggest yard in CDCR. It’s massive. I’d walk laps and I’d hear people talking and my ears would perk. And I’d start getting drawn into these conversations, as I met people in my wing and I talked the way, that I had always talked, about who knows who and you know what’s happening over here? What yards are good? What yards aren’t good? Who on the streets did what kind of dirt?-
The normal gossip?
-Yeah, there was no reception. Like these, these older folks that were in like, mostly serving life, that were in the wing with me, we’re, we’re saying like, “now let’s talk about like the why? Let’s talk about what happened, to get you to the point where you think this is important.” And I didn’t realize how much of a shift that was, until I started engaging in conversation with folks like that. Uh, so over the course of two and a half years, I was in that prison for four years. And over the course of two and a half years, I, I began attending a group here, to get out of my cell, because I was on C status. C status is restriction, while you’re on the main line. So it’s like, they take your TV, you have nothing, you’re stuck in your cell when-
-Punishment. And so I, I began, like, get, using groups to get out of my cell. And you know, I’m a social person nowadays. And so I-I started getting engaged in the conversations and really weaning some benefit. Now, that didn’t mean that I was taking necessary steps, it just meant that like, I was starting to learn that the things I was doing, were not, we’re not healthy, we’re not okay, and weren’t helping anybody.
I-I’m really glad you brought up age. That is a big uhm, discussion point in the work we do with abolition, as you know, because, because people do age out of crimes, that is a real, a real thing. And robbery is very often called, caused specifically by, by youth, uhm desperation, being poor-
-and being mentally ill.-
-And when you start really looking at those causative factors, the way we respond to it seems less and less reasonable. I just did it now, I realized, and so did a, a few of us, are, a few of the other hosts. And, but we mentioned what you do now, and why you would know these things. Can you talk a little bit about that?
So, kind of trailing back on the story. At about two and a half years, I started attending a lot of groups, I began attending college, I was, like expanding my mindset, I felt like, uhm, I was rebelling against what the system was designed to do, by doing these things. Like I was, digging into-
-myself, which they tell you to not, you have to always be concerned and be shamed by the stuff that you’ve done before. And uh, that, like I said, I didn’t like step away from everything, I was still political in the yard. I ended up catching this case, which means a new case inside, like a new arrest for drug distribution. And, they took me to the hole, and I’d been attending NA and AA, and that had opened some doors in terms of uh, accountability, like-
-the, the fifth step, basically, the fourth and fifth step are all about accountability. You find the areas where you are harmed, what you felt, then you identify your part. nd through that process-
This is in, in a A Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, right?
-Yes, any 12 STEP program utilizes a similar mechanism.-
-So that accountability measure of the force,-
-uh, an area where you were harmed, the emotions that you felt from that, and uh, then walk you into what is your part in this? I began to realize I had a very active part in a lot, whether it be dishonesty, whether it be, uh like there’s a whole list of different measures that it could have been, and I began to realize that. But, I’ll be it, I went to the hole. And I sat in the hole on a four month shoe term, literally, the shortest shoe term that I’ve ever done. The shortest time and hole hole I’d ever done. An-d I was just destroyed, I was isolated-
-they kept me in a cell by myself. They had me on a teer, where I had no one I could communicate with. And, I just sat in that cell and tore myself apart, with using this four step mechanism. And I say tear myself apart, because quite literally, it felt as if I was-
-ripping, ripping myself apart. It’s not like a clean cut. It’s not a mechanic, like it doesn’t,-
-it doesn’t just it’s a very, very rough shot. So I began unpacking some of the trauma by myself. And I made a resolution that, like, I know the thing, what I’m doing isn’t working.-
-I know that it’s not serving the people that I love, I know that it’s not serving the goals that I actually want in life, which over the two and a half years I had identified. “Uh, so what am I going to do? I’m going to go back to the yard I was on,” which is very hard to make happen. Sometimes they transfer your points of race. “I’m going to step away from the gang culture,” that I was deeply embedded in at that time. “I’m going to do so, on the yard openly, so that other people can see that that is something that’s doable. Uh, and I’m going to attend every group I can. I’m going to reverse the time I lost,” I just began digging in. And it’s the first time that I’ve done something like that for myself. I understand robberies and active harm. Uh, but I think that it’s very important to emphasize that harm ha- harm, like what we do, our actions, are a form of communication. Not just our words, not just our body language,-
Right. The behavior.
-but the things that we do are-
-another form of-
-language. Absolutely. And the language that I’d been living in had just discarded myself as something that was no, that had no value. And in that cell, I began to see-
-that, you know, be, be as it may, that I’m in prison and that I did harm, I have value and I can contribute something. And so I continued that path for the next 18 months, beat the case in court, literally based on uh, the work that I was doing. Like I, they, they said, “Okay, we’re going to dismiss the case, because you’re creating news. You’re doing stuff within this community. And we want to, just dismiss this.” It was, it was phenomenal. Uhm, and I end up going home on February 10th of 2019.
You know, you said something that kind of triggered me that, that I will like to kind of ask you to share on a little bit, is when you talked about, you know, growing up and things that happen in behavior and stuff. And would you, would you say it’s safe to say like a lot of the trauma that you experienced, you have adopted in a, some sort of way to kind of like act that out on others? Especially, like, you know, getting that call and you know, you get that call and you already visualizing, do you think that came from uhm like, you know, some, some of the things that, that you have witnessed?
I think so. Uh, so one of the areas I, I identify in other work that I do, is like targeting patriarchy. Uh, and I think that the patriarchal expectation that was placed on me by my father-
-created a set of tapes in my head that said, I-I have to do this like there is no other way.-
Right. This false belief system.
-Exactly. This is what men do. This is the why, the why is a super like, a box with a hollow bottom, there’s really no clear answer. And I have to do these things. And uh, you know, as a kid who was like, beaten severely, sexually abused, the value, the value that I felt for myself at a young age-
-was non-existent. Uh, and then moving forward, there’s this key point in my life, uh where I was, I came home, I was in a fight with an argument with my dad. He was we- I’d been out of the house for several months, I came home, we get an argument. He lays into me, literally, just smashes my head into an open dishwater, the spikes cut into my face, I run to my room, I grabbed this nerf hockey stick, I hadn’t played hockey one day in my life, don’t even know why I had that hockey stick. And uh I, like I waited by the door, I could hear him barreling down the hallway, I waited by the door, and I swung. Fully intending to not hit him. Fully intending to hit the doorway of the room-
-directly across the hallway, to stop him from coming at me. And I missed. I hit him right in the face. And he looked like, it broke his nose, blood all over the walls, I bailed out my window. I knew my father was gonna kill me, that he’s going to murder-
-me for this. Uh, but I also felt like redemption at that point, which is a strange thing to say. I felt like I had empowered myself through violence. And I use that, continually through the rest of my life to say, “oh, violence is language that I know. It’s simple enough.” And that’s, that’s how I lived the next 25 years of my life, was literally in a, embedded in violent gang activity. I found like, I found my, I felt like I found my manhood, in that moment.-
Which is complete nonsense. But that’s what, because of all the messaging around patriarchal expectations. When I took-
-violent action, I was rewarded with freedom. I was free from the house, I could do what I want. I had a story to tell people to get my-
Right, that respect. That, that false respect.
Right. And I like how you explained that, because you know, it led up to the point of you know, what happened, what happened that night. But more importantly, is something that you said that I would like, like to-to kind of just get a little bit more insight on, is when you talked about like prison and how they don’t have things designed or set up, and it’s up to, you know, the loved ones inside that kind of want to take that initiative to do better. Like, how, how-how has been the transition from knowing like, the limited resourcing that prison gives us, and is absolutely nothing to being able to come home and have that space?
It’s in-, so I still go into prisons to deliver program, uhm, and they are still difficult. I want to point out that like, when we did set up programs in prison, the administration does everything. And this isn’t every, I’m-I feel safe to assume that every prison does this, the administration-
-set barriers and play to stop us from doing so.-
-“You can’t have this space during this time.”-
-“You can only have these”-
-they go. Exactly. And so those restrictions impeded, but I was in the lucky position, and the advantageous position at CTF, to have so many groups that, it was almost as if the administration couldn’t stop it, although they probably very well could. Uhm, and out here, you know, the-the culture has shifted a lot. Uh, there are, there’s more openness to community based response, not as much as I’d like. But there is, within community organizations, group homes, domestic violence organizations. They identify that the system isn’t working as it is, and uh, that it’s lacking something and they believe and I believe that what it’s lacking is that dialogue, that deep,-
-that you and I could have,-
-within a group setting, that everybody has the opportunity to grow from.
Graham, you know, you’re able to trace back what happened that night to your childhood, and now you’re able to identify it, as you know, patriarchy. And, as I was thinking about you coming today, another aspect I’d like to highlight is the systems that you were talking about, and the systems that we have set up uhm, where a lot of people go and you know, commit robberies out of desperation and for survival. I have a loved one who has an addiction, and I know a lot of the times they go out and rob, to feed that addiction. I have a cousin who su-suffers from substance abuse and has schizophrenia. I remember, as I was a young girl, like his father coming to my house all the time, and asking my dad for help. And uh, not that long ago he went and robbed the store, and just like scared everybody in there and uhm, now there’s threatning him to give him uh, 25 to life. And I often, you know, I always think about the times in my childhood that I saw his father come. And I always think about like, what could be done differently? Uhm, you know, we-we never talk about these systems of desperation that we’ve set in place. We were like, “Oh,-
-25 to life? Well, that’s too bad. But he shouldn’t have stolen that store.” You know? But we, we never talked about that before. So I just, I just wanted to highlight those stories as we talk about,-
-you know, how abolition addresses uh, robberies.
Absolutely. And I-I fully agree with what you said. I think uhm, so something I-I don’t think I expanded on earlier, is the fact that I grew up poor. And my experience of life was, there’s the haves and the have nots. I had significant advantage, that I wasn’t seeing at that time, because of my whiteness, uh, but poverty level, certain life experiences, that was not my privilege. And so, I thought that there was just a group of people who had, all the kids at school, that had all the nice stuff, and there was us, my sister, myself, my family. And, at an early age, I was stealing-
-this robbery, that was much less a robbery than a physical-
-act of violence, was not the first time I’d taken someone’s stuff. I-
-had taken stuff because I wanted it. I-
-remember multiple occasions, many occasions in my life where I was like, “I need that, I’ll take it,” and it just became an issue of access. And that’s not to justify my actions. But at a young age, what kind of, what kind of thinking around consequences, consequential thinking, would I have, that would tell me that this is wrong, if I’m getting a payoff from it?-
Right. That gratification from it?
-Absolutely. And at, so, at that point, I wasn’t thinking about what it would cost me if I got caught, which I did many times, I was thinking around the payoff of having it right, then.-
-the fact that I had something, that I wouldn’t have been able to obtain otherwise.
I talked a little bit on the podcast before about how I was uhm, raised really differently than a lot of people in this uhm community. Certainly very differently for most formerly incarcerated people in that, we were on the side of the halves. And a couple things that struck me in your story was, uhm, early on, you said that the cop knew you, and just the level of over policing that takes in a neighborhood for a single cop to recognize really, anyone, and-
-the areas that they go is just indicative of another, another trauma that your life was facing every single day, you know? Just knowing that you were being patrolled, just for living really. And uhm, and then also Crystal mentioned your visualization technique, which in communities of halves, I should say, they uhm, that’s a- that’s a huge asset, you know? And in children, that is something that would have been found out, selected, taught to do exactly what you do now, which is lead and heal, because those are the skills necessary to take someone from an idea to a possibility. And uhm, I wanted to bring those up, because those are the types of resources we could be providing. And those are the types of direct actions we could take that might minimize uhm, that type of situation. And also because, there are resources in those communities, we often think about abolition is like providing resources towards that community. But there’s so much that those communities can bring to us, like it brought us you, right? So like, that’s, that’s like a huge asset that came from this community, that we as a society have uhm, I guess, forsaken under the label of what Crystal called, systems of desperation. And uhm, I just think that should be said, that you came out of there anyway.
I like, I like the way that you framed that and, like, just as patriarchy and toxic masculinity over simplified masculinity, and they make it seem like it’s these four things or three things and, and one result, emotional-
-isness. The same thing happens with harm. Uh, we utilize punishment, it oversimplifies justice, it oversimplifies, “oh, this person hurt someone, they need to be hurt,”-
-“we’re gonna take them, lock them away, ship them to some re-remote place, have guns on them, take all their liberties. And the arbitrary amount of time, is what will fix this; 15 years, 25 years, 40 years 150 that will fix this, because they’re healing. The people who are harmed that, they are healing. And they have an opportunity to make a different decision.”-
-But the amount of shame, that goes into that process from court, all the way through for the person, almost negates the opportunity of healing, right?-
-So many times in my life, I’ve allowed the tapes that are playing in my head, from things that I’ve been told about myself, to steer. And it, it takes, doesn’t, it wasn’t something that wasn’t, that’s happened to now better, like it’s still something I work through today. Also, the survivors are offered zero healing. There is zero that is provided by the state, for folks who are harmed. And that’s a really interesting point, because I paid 55% of every dollar that one of my books to those survivors, and they ain’t getting a thing.
Mhm. Zero support. Right. Right now I like, I like how you touched on something that I want to kind of kind of, kind of expand on as well, is when you talk about, you know, somebody that, that, that is going through the system, right, going through the county jails, and it’s even more like violence and different things, is even more perpetuated, right? Especially if you are involved in any kind of lifestyle that’s related to-
-gang culture. You know?
I think what takes place, the reason that gang culture is so prevalent in prison isn’t just because, because people who are in gangs are getting arrested. It’s a leveling, they take everything from this group of people, when you get off the bus, they divide you by race, they divide you potentially by age or by region, they house you with people of the same uh, cultural background, and the same age group, that’s the standard that they hold for that. And everybody’s leveled, at a level of nothingness,, because you have almost zero access to anything. So, they group you with people who you identify as. And if you’re a gang member, you’re like, how can I make this shitty ass situation better? I’m gonna have some stuff. So I’m going to sell drugs, I’m going to make sure that nobody can harm me, because it’s very aggressive environment. So-
-I’m going to harm first, I’ll get off-
-first simple as that-
-or even robberies right? Even robberies, that, that still takes place from, from just-
Oh, for sure.
-between the haves and the have nots, right? which is another-
-example of it’s perpetuated, and how come this is continuing to happen and continue to be this separation, you know?
For sure, and CDCR has, they’ve taken measures recently, and I think they’re following blueprints from other states, but like an NDPF model, which is basically programming yards. Yards where you can go, and program, and there’s no gang activity. Versus general population yards or s&y yards, where there is still gang activity, and there might not be as many programs. Uh, and I think it’s very important to address the fact that reforming the culture of prison doesn’t solve anything. Violence still takes place on these yards. Uh, aggression still takes place. Uh, it’s not really solving anything, as much as is just dividing people further uh, and making CDCR look fluffy and nice, and that’s not really the case. If you were to take all of the harm, that happens to a person who’s incarcerated, out of prison, the guards, the guns, the weapons, the cells, the restriction of property, the distance from home, if you took all of that out, you’d have a treatment center or a mental health facility. All of that, all of that taken out, you don’t have prisons at all anymore.
It’s a, a culture of violence. And you put people in that culture of violence, and of course, that, that exists still. I think, uhm, obviously, I’m speaking to the women’s prisons experience, and I know our breakup of gangs is kind of fundamentally different than how it uh, shows up in men’s prisons. But, one thing that struck me early on is, uhm, in my time, was that I kind of felt like, people clung so strongly to their gang culture, because it was a culture. Which is something you’re allowed to keep, you know, they take everything else away from you, and you’re allowed to keep this one community. And yes, it’s a community where the language is violence. But that violence is born out of a understood need for things and understood respect and valuing of certain people. Like even when you were telling your story, you were talking about how uh, you were like a protective figure in someone’s life. And I found that a lot with the women I knew, who were in gangs, that they were the protector in people’s lives. And so this community provided them language and tools for that. And we never, we never supplant that with anything different. And I think, in prisons, and this kind of like, brings us to like, what we’re trying to address in the season, which is like, what, what heals us in prison? And of course, you know, it’s not the prison, but it is those communities. And, I wanted to know, if you had any thoughts, on how those communities form or how we could do them outside of this, like forced environment?
I think uh, one thing we could do, we do within our work, just addressing language. Instead of asking what’s wrong with that person, ask what happened to that person? I think that’s a very powerful shift in language. Uh, because as I said, like actions are communication, is a form of communication. Our behavior is a form of communication. So what is this person saying, when they do this? Uhm-
-And I think that that (inaudible), the first time I felt human was in, in the groups that I was in, in the prison I was at. And every time I left those groups, this is why I did six hours of groups a day, plus college, plus the work that they require you to do is because,-
-Yeah, I was hungry for someone to just listen and hear, like I wanted to be heard. And through that I learned to hear other people. And through that, I built a community of people that hold each other accountable, who are still my friends today, that are out of prison for the most part, that are still my friends today. Uhm, and so I think just hearing people, hearing what they say and asking yourself, what are they really communicating through this action? Or through these aggressive undertones? Or overtones?
What were you communicating? Uh, Graham? I don’t know if that’s too much of a deeper, heavy question. But uhm, looking back uhm, at your young self, like wha-what do you think you were communicating? Maybe that night, or you know?
I was communicating insecurity, deep, embedded insecurities and fears, and not being enough. And, I’ve literally, I have, at a young age, I, you know, I’d set rules on my frigerator I, “these are my chores. Grandma. Dad. These are the things I have to do.” I wanted some sort of structure in my life, because I was free to-
-do what I wanted. And I never got that. I got in a fight in second grade, my first fight in school and uh, I was suspended. My dad, got me in the car, smacked me very, very hard in the face. It was quiet, very quiet car ride home. We turned the corner. The first thing he says is, “did you win?” And that put an emphasis on fact that like, if I’m not winning, I’m losing.-
-Like, I’m going to have to win, because I don’t have the tools, I don’t have access to the things I need. I’m going to win, however I can, with what I’ve got.
Yeah. And then you learned that, maybe like harming someone and getting away with it, or maybe not getting away with it, that one time, was winning.
Yeah. And I, I think more, it was less about the actions that compromise my, my value scale. By this point, at 21 years old, my value scale was just based on acceptance. All the while telling myself like, “I don’t, I’m a free person. I don’t give a crap, what this person thinks to me. I’m an individual, I do what I want.” But I lived 25 years seeking other people’s acceptance through this transactional lens, like, “what you can do for me, makes you of value to me, and so I’ll be close to you.” And it was, it was de-, it was very dehumanizing for me, and it took a lot to realize that.
You know, Graham, that’s one thing that, you know, as I got into this abolition work, that I think about often, is how to get folks to think about the why? Like, the why be- behind the behavior, what is that person trying to communicate with us, you know, with the-the harm that they may be causing. Uhm, there’s this one story that I read that, that stuck with me, uhm, with the mail that I read, that uhm, he talked about struggling a lot in life and going and robbing, you know, some bread or some money off of a, the-the cashier in the front and how he was caught. And that was like his second or third strike, I believe. And he was, he’s in prison now for the rest of his life. And for over, you know, some cash in the register and a loaf of bread. And, every time I think about that story, uhm, and my eight year old nephew, I remember one time, he overheard me telling that story to my sister. And he just was in complete disbelief that this person was spending the rest of his life in prison, because he was hungry enough to go steal some bread, and some money from, from the cash uh-register. And, that’s one thing that I often think about, in communicating with my loved ones or with non-abolitionists, in, in my, my world is uhm, thinking about the why? Like, what is this person communicating with us? Like, this person was hungry, and he stole some bread,-
-and now he’s in prison for the rest of his life, you know, going through even more trauma and more harm and being away from, from his family.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s very, that’s severe. And, I think that like, the public as a whole, especially non-abolitionist folks are told, like, this is the solution, this is what we’ve got.-
-They’re never really, they don’t discuss the money that goes into that system.-
-They don’t just discuss the statistics, where the recidivism rate, anywhere between 60 and 80 percent. Which is, if you take 10 people, that have been in prison, line them up on the wall, six to eight of those people are going back based on numbers.-
-So it’s not working. And I think that people just think, or rather don’t think, maybe it’s, it’s about not really having, not really having any desire to think about that uncomfortable subject, of like, “hey, this shi-, this thing we’re putting billions of dollars into doesn’t work. Like it’s not serving the purpose that it’s telling us it’s serving.”
Out of sight, out of mind, right?-
-And you’re, you’re told, “You’re safer! This person, who stole this loaf of bread, shouldn’t have stolen and you’re safer, by him being away in prison for 25 years.”
Part of that is just like, not doing the cultural work, right? Like, uhm, what are the values of this country? Are things more important than people? You know, these are questions that people just don’t ask themselves. And we see that a lot currently in the media with all these like rising, uhm in air quotes, because our listeners can’t see me. Yes, there are so many situations where things are being like stolen from stores, and they’re in the,-
-they’re blown into these articles that include raising criminal charges across the board undoing a lot of the, the like the real work we’ve done. This space to, to get people home sooner, to get them the resources they need. And ultimately what that messaging is, when you, when you vote that way, abolitionist or not, you’re saying that things are more important than people.-
-And is that a value you really want to hold? You know. And I don’t, I don’t know if like, you can speak to like, when you were youth, you said there was a lot of like smaller robberies that you may or may not have gotten caught on. Like, did you have that sense, growing up, that things were like one of the most important things to have?
Absolutely, absolutely. Because I mean, if you take from someone else, the emphasis is made through the punishment you receive. You know, in, in fourth grade I took, I don’t know if y’all remember in school, they had the photos, the pictures that they took every year and they come-
-in a manila envelope thing and they’d have the pictures. So back then, credit cards existed, but pe- parents were putting money in those envelopes. So I walked by the school office with this kid uh, that I was going to school with, it was after hours and the little sliding window of the school office is open. I didn’t get to take pictures that year. I didn’t have money for pictures. And I saw these pictures, and I grabbed them out the window, and took the money. And the wrath that they brought down on me for doing it, I was expelled, I was sent to a different school. Uh, and really what I think I was communicating is that I was hurt that I didn’t have those pictures,-
-definitely that, taking that money from, I bought a whole bunch of stuff from Sanrio for two girls that I liked, they were my class. And, that was what I did with the money. It wasn’t even for me, but I wanted to be able to do that. And I didn’t have the access to it.
And their solution was, let’s expel him and move him schools and move him away from all of his friends. Which is, you know, it’s similar to what happens now, where there are systems that we create, in which people find themselves needing to rob uhm, in order to survive, or, you know, do what they have to do. And then, when they get caught, we punish them for it. It’s like we set them up, and then they’re out here trying to survive, and it’s just like, punitive, “you’re going to prison now.” Uhm, it just, it doesn’t make sense.
Yeah. Doesn’t at all. Yeah, it doesn’t at all.
Yeah, I was just going to add uhm to-to what you sharing with that story, because I mean, that, that takes another look, a deeper look, should I say, about uh, you know, what, what do we have in place? Right? An-and me answering that question and kind of just using it, using your scenario, which I can identify with, because I remember, you know, doing some stuff and robbing, and that’s me saying, “Hey, I don’t have access.” And instead of like, you know, me getting suspended, and then I’m coming home and you know, getting spanked and whoopins for it. Right? It should have been, you know, “you shouldn’t be stealing, you shouldn’t be doing this, but how about we try to give you some type of assignment? So you can be able to work for it.”, than to say, “Hey, you know, since you stole this, we’re going to expel, you you’re going to get whooped. And, you know, this is how we do punishment.” Like I-I think that’s why we do need to have things in place, and I mean, what do, what would you say of what do we have in place?
I mean, at this point, you know, I-I’m not super clear on like in elementary school, I think at this point, more and more, divesting from police, police organizations and prisons, and the harm that takes place within those. And investing in community based organizations, has helped some communities. Not to the degree that it could, nowhere near the degree that it could. They have domestic violence classes, they are a probably, it’s evidence based curriculum, but it’s probably the most bland and unuseful tool that you could come up with. The same with DUI classes, everything along those lines. I think uhm, like an in-person connection, is required. Meaning, like, we identify, we have areas of identification, you and I Adam, and we have areas where we don’t identify.-
-And in levels of harm when, both of us have a, a common ground standing on.-
-having us in community together to work through that stuff and identify where the harmful behavior comes from, is needed. And that isn’t what we get right now. That’s not what’s happening right now. But it is, it’s a much more common sense approach. Abolition is a much more common sense approach to the humanity of everyone around us.-
-We just, we take that, that objectification approach,-
– this was inhuman, after they do this. This is, after I stole that stuff from the school, I was the kid who breaks into the school from that point on,-
-that was always a stigma-
-that I had. After I ca-went to prison, I was always the convict, or the former inmate, or-
-the former criminal.-
Labeling. Right. Thank you. Thank you for, for answering that. Uh, I-I’d just like to ask, you know, reflecting on everything that’s been said, that you discussed today, uhm, do you think it’s something you may want to add on to or something that, that you, we have missed or something you might want to, might want to reflect on?
I don’t know if it’s something that was missed, or that I didn’t, I probably talked at length about this subject. But I think it’s important, I really want to emphasize the fact that prisons are doing exactly what they’re intended to do, and it’s not working for the purpose that they are telling us. And what I mean by that is, it houses and warehouses people, gets them to do the work for them, gets them to feel less human about themselves. If I could give you a list of the stuff that God has told me about me, my person when they don’t even know anything about me except my sci fi, I’ll add that to the tapes I got as a kid. By the time I came out of prison, like everything was stacked against me, the likelihood of me going home was slim to none, right? Because even if I wanted to go home, I didn’t believe that I was worthy of going home that I would do good that I could do anything in life except what I’ve been doing before. And that’s all from the voices of other people, which in my insecurity, I needed that approval, I needed that acceptance from other people, even if it’s some stupid guard on a wing, like, tell me that I’m coming back to Dad parole, that’s some terrible stuff to do to a person.
Right, very harmful verbal, verbal abuse, like is one, of the one of the key things that takes place in prison on a everyday basis. I mean, even with somebody just getting mail, you know, and they say, they may say your last name and say, “Oh, you finally got a letter today.” Like, that can be hurtful to somebody-
-that may not get mail. So harm is always caused. And, you know, thank you. Thank you for sharing that. And-and pointing that out, you know.
To end us with a little bit of hope, Graham, uhm, what is one tangible action that our listeners can take away from, from this episode?
One tangible, tangible action is I think the shift in language that I spoke of earlier, I think is super important. Instead of saying, instead of using these labels, “monster”, “criminal”, all of these terrible things that people call it. Like, identify folks as humans, and then ask what happened to them to lead to this? Uh, it does, it leads to a degree of empathy, on a personal level, that, that can heal. That can heal in the long term, that can build community. If I was to say something you could do communily, it would be talk to your neighbors, communicate with your neighbors. Like, who doesn’t talk to their, like no, in my experience, when I was growing up, I didn’t talk to my neighbors, I didn’t know the community I lived in, and I felt completely isolated.-
-Communicating with your neighbors, and the people around you, learning uh-what their needs are, learning how you can support one another, allows you to build the community that prison and policing takes from us. It allows you to care about people outside of your immediate sphere.
-And I really like what you said Graham, about using people centered language. And what you said earlier today, uhm my tiny, tangible thing for our listeners would be to think of the why, and like you said Graham, think of what is that person trying to tell us with the behavior, the action, that is happening? So, instead of, you know, thinking right away, away of like the harm, and what’s happening, think-think of the why? Think of the, the human. Uhm, look at it, like an input-empathetic perspective.
I think, I think for me, it will-will have to be hearing, right? As I was listening to your story, I-I noticed how you spoke about, you know, being heard, when you was able to get around uhm a community that gave you that space, right? And being able to be heard and being able to speak right, was you was able to release, uhm, what you was feeling, what you have kind of been bottling up, but you was able to kind of get some type of help and insight on where you can start to, to come, become better, you know what I’m saying? And I think, that goes along right, with what would you saying, you know, being uhm in community. You know, knowing your neighbors, you know, being able to have that open door policy, as they call it, being able to speak and communicate, you know?
Uh, that’s totally, that’s totally true. Uhm, and it’s unusual to know your neighbors, in most neighborhoods now. You know, I’m, I’m always the odd one out, when I come over with phone numbers and cookies. But, uhm, I think it’s important part of my self work. Uhm, I guess my tiny thing would be to just spend a couple minutes examining your cultures. Uhm, cultures aren’t just things that exist-
-on their own in a silo. They’re things that are built, by the people in them, and if there’s something that you can do to make your culture a little kinder, [outro music begins] a little more patient, and a little bit more prepared for the world that they’re going to meet, I think, then that’s a worthwhile a couple of minutes.
This isn’t the full story of the full humans involved in these experiences, or every complete community or person who has gone through experiences that parallel. We have walked this gently, so as not to diminish the story, but to highlight and amplify the hearts involved. For a safe discussion that goes further in a larger , but more community based space, please join us at Abolition Corner. For more information visit, InitiateJustice.org/AbolitionCorner [outro music continues]