Today we’re talking about disability, and Disability Justice. A disabled person is anyone with a non-conforming body or mind, it’s basically assessed on a diagnostic level as someone who has difficulty interacting with the world. Disability Justice rises from the protection of people in that class, and that justice is almost entirely created by them and for them has been a working process for hundreds of years. Disability Justice has been a major force in most massive liberations that we have seen in the last 100 years. And today, we’re talking about how that correlates to abolition. Yeah, I think with this disability episode, because like we’ve mentioned, it’s such a wide ranging topic, one of the things we really want to focus on is how it directly corresponds to institutionalization and prisons, and how we can use the frameworks of Disability Justice to set up abolition work, you know, instead of going too deep into the history of Disability Justice altogether, even though it is fascinating and all connects. But yeah, I think that was the goal.
Yes, I agree.
Yeah, and I think the more that we can get into, like cross collaboration with this process, and having more voices at the table, the better off we’re going to be, because I know that we talk about here at IJ, you know, those that are closest to the issues are closest to the solutions, right? And when I first got like, incarcerated, and I was going through that process, I had a lot of things going on, not only my personal trauma, but also like I was very, like sad or depressed, I didn’t understand the process that was going on, around me because I was at such a young age. Eventually, when I went into a county jail, the first thing they want to do is start to medicate you. You know, there’s, there’s nothing, there’s nothing else there. But they’re just like, here, here’s some medication and so I don’t know how like your experience was Ra, but that was the solution for anything within within the institutional setting. And I saw it, like in a, like a large swath of how they dealt with folks inside was just like, here, here’s medication, or we’re going to isolate you and lock you up and put you in, you know, administrative segregation, where you’re away from everybody else.
Definitely. And they take a lot of people off medication that they’ve been on for a very long time. And then one of the very first parts of the process in prison is assessing your ableism you know, your ability, I guess, I guess. Yeah, you’re able bodied-ness. In order to see what programs you’re best fit for, you know, so the very first thing they do really, even before they fully assess your mental health or well being, or certainly no one, like looks over your case or anything like that, but they just want to know, can you lift things? Can you carry things? Can you you know, can you squat? Can you lift? Yeah, it’s it’s a weird system that that kind of fixates on an abled body, which is particularly ironic when you realize that disabled people are more likely to be arrested, and able bodied people who go into prison are more likely to leave disabled, it’s just like this weird circular spiral thing.
I think one of the things that like really stood out to me when you were talking, Ra is, you know, the system is designed for, like, what can you do for it? Not what can it do for you? And I think that’s the basis of abolition, how can they capitalize off of you? How can they make money off of you? And when you come in, you know, you’re assessed that way, right? We talked, you talked a little bit about them, doing like a screening process of lifting things, moving things and so, it’s really not geared towards any type of like health, and I think it was Reagan, who first shut down a lot of the, the mental health facilities and institutions or whatever it started just like compiling, or putting everybody in prison. You know, while I was in there, it was very sad and disheartening and even overwhelming most of the time about how folks were treated.
I think it’s so important for us to counted out Disability Justice when we’re talking about abolition overall, because so many folks are impacted by having some form of a disability, mental or physical disability. And because the world is not designed for folks who are a little bit different, and we don’t do a good job of caring for folks, they’re more likely to be criminalized for, you know, maybe behaviors that seem like they’re, they’re outside of the norm. So instead of getting treatment or care for, you know, a different ability that they may have, they are criminalized, they get sent to prison. I think the statistics are that about half of folks who are killed by police have some kind of disability, which is a really shocking statistic. I know something that that we also want to talk about is how not only how people with disabilities get caught up in the system, but how prison is also a debilitating experience um, for sure it will have an impact on your mental health likely also have an impact on the mental health of your loved ones like it did for me when I had a loved one inside. But for so many folks also have an impact on your your physical health and your physical ability. So yeah, I’d love to dive into that a little bit more. I mean, I can share for me, having a loved one in prison resulted in me getting a diagnosis of depression and PTSD and I think a lot of times folks will associate PTSD with people who are survivors of war and things like that. Maybe folks might assume that that would happen for the person in prison, but not for their loved ones, but, you know, it really did change my whole life to have someone in prison, the amount of like stigma and shame and judgment that I faced stressed out about finances and am I going to be able to pay to visit this weekend, you know, like constant vigilance with my cell phone, like, I need to always have my cell phone with me in case they’re, they’re calling me and you know, I don’t want to miss their call because I can’t call back and just you know, the the loneliness and the isolation and, you know, the hopelessness that comes with, you know, being separated from somebody who you care about. And then even you know, afterwards even after they were released, I I didn’t think that this is something I would experience I started experiencing like flashbacks, like, I imagined being in the visiting room I imagined, you know, my loved one being taken away by the cops. And it was yeah, just a really traumatizing experience like for me, and I feel like my experiences even still, like so small in the world, especially for folks who have actually been in prison them themselves. So yeah, I think when we’re talking about like, the need to abolish prisons, we also need to be talking about like, the impact that prisons have on our, on our mental health on our, you know, physical well being, and the way that they just exacerbate issues that are already in existence.
Yeah, and I think loved ones definitely, definitely suffer the traumas of prison, especially once we’re outside through that reentry process and parole where you become under supervision because you love somebody who is under supervision. It kind of made actually parole a little bit more exhausting to me than than prison was knowing that my mom’s car could be stopped and searched at any given time. And you know, they they raided my house at like, three o’clock in the morning and pulled her out and her night gown and like, yeah, it’s just it’s one of those things where, you know, they apologized, whatnot afterwards, but I’m like, there’s an eight year old girl without shoes on who is dragged out of her house at 3am. Like, you can’t apologize that way. You know, that’s going to do something to the people around you. And then for myself, I left prison physically disabled. Again, a podcast that people can’t see. But most of the time I walk with a cane, it isn’t an everyday thing anymore, thanks to several surgeries. But I went through the fire camp program. In the women’s facilities during the training, the resources aren’t necessarily available to you to effectively and healthily train. So you’re being under fed, the shoes I was exercising with didn’t have the soles attached. The sweat pants and sweatshirts you’re in are ridiculous. And Riverside in the summer months, which is when we were exercising four hours a day. And all of those things contribute. In my case, it was the shoes, I slipped off boxes and dislocated and then fractured my hip, which was left untreated through prison, which eventually led to clots which led to strokes. So it’s it’s been a journey of disability from from prison alone. Yeah, so definitely things like this happen. They are not rare and unusual cases, unfortunately. And I think, yeah, it’s disheartening to know that just being disabled makes you more likely to be in the system again.
Yeah, I mean, the system is just like, it’s really set up for them to continue to, like oppress and take away folks rights. And, you know, we talked about people with disabilities or different abilities, then then other folks, and, you know, going through my experience, personally, I was still trying to just figure out life and I was just trying to figure out like, who I was, and I wasn’t getting great examples from the quote unquote caretakers or the guards or the wards or the administration, because I saw like, the way that they treated not only me but the folks that were around me and you know, any type of disruption out of their social norms of what they wanted or you stepping out of line or crying out for attention or any of that was just met with force and fear and oppression which just Continue to exacerbate you know, the the issues that I was personally dealing with, which was, like you talked about the loneliness, the sadness. And then on the other end of it my family, they just didn’t know, like, what was going on with me they couldn’t. Where was the spark? That, um, you know, the boy that they remembered that that went into that went into the system where that gone the few years before I’d gone in, and then, like, Why wasn’t it being reignited? once once I was in there, but the place was designed for help. And so it was it was a it’s a tough road to walk inside there. And I can only imagine, like Taina was explaining what she went through when when her when her loved one was incarcerated, too. And so, you know, where do we where do we go? Right? How do we how do we start to clean up the mess that has been made? I think is the million dollar question.
Yeah. And I think that’s such a great question right? And that’s along the lines that I was thinking when you were talking was, you know, where does this all start? Some folks know that in another life, I was a teacher so I taught special education for a year. I taught sixth, seventh, and eighth graders who all had different learning disabilities. And I just remember thinking, like, this world is not set up for these kids, I was so afraid, I mean, first of all, they were all students of color, they were all low income, and they, you know, their disability made things difficult for them to operate in the world, they had a hard time counting. So, you know, I could imagine it would be difficult for them to find a job even as a cashier, and you know, counting money and things like that would be a challenge for them. And in the capitalist world that we live in, like everything is like measured by your productivity. So my fear was, they’re not going to be able to find employment, and therefore they’re going to resort to measures that are, you know, probably going to end up with them being incarcerated. And I just think, you know, first of all, like, if we want to, like, just really zoom on my situation, I was a 23 year old person, when I was teaching these 6/7 and eighth graders, I was not much older than most of them, I was not taller than most of them, I think only two of my students were shorter than me. And here I am, like, I’m the person who’s supposed to, like put them on the right path for like success. And, you know, I wasn’t put on the right path for success. I didn’t get enough training to, you know, help them like work through their their disabilities. And I think that that’s just so true with so many, you know, students with so many kids, like they don’t get the the supports and the accommodations that they need in order to be successful in the classroom, if they have learning disabilities. And then, like, there really isn’t space for folks with, you know, different learning styles in the world, in the absence of these supports, you know, folks end up either harming themselves or harming others and getting caught up in this, like, you know, criminal punishment system. And I just, I don’t know, when I think about abolition, I think about a world where we have supports and accommodations for students with learning disabilities, where they’re, you know, the way that they differentiate from the norm is not seen as something negative, but there’s like, a place for them, you know, to exist and to thrive, like in the world, even with their abilities, being different from a lot of other people in society, that there is a path for success and for fulfillment for them. And I just really think that this, this doesn’t exist in the world that we have now, because we focus so much on just, you know, like the after a fact, like if somebody ends up stealing, because, you know, they’re they’re in poverty, okay, now we’re going to send you to prison. But what about like the years or decades before, that led up to a person feeling like this was the only option that they had? I don’t know. That’s just kind of where where my mind goes, when I, when I think we have what you were saying when you were talking about how your family was like, Well, what happened to this young boy, I was also thinking like, well, where, you know, could we have intervene with you as a young boy, so you wouldn’t have ended up in that situation in the first place.
This is, I think, when we started putting together this episode, where we started to struggle, because this is where, like, Disability Justice history comes so significantly into play, you know? One, just remembering how new the nation’s understanding of disability is, you know, the Americans with Disability Act is 30 years old. I’m older than it. And so, it’s, it’s very, very new and we still haven’t worked out problems within that system. You know, like if you’re on SSI, you’re limited in what you can make, you can’t hold a regular job. You can’t get married because then that person becomes your caretaker and you’re no longer eligible for those benefits. So that’s the reality of like, where we live right now and today 2021 If you just rewind not too far, we didn’t abolish the ugly laws till 1974, which is like basically a law that said, if you disrupt our like visual space with scars, disability, mutations, anything like that you’re arrested and put in jail. And it only really went away, because a lawyer argued that you would have to, like, define this person as ugly in order to convict them. And people realize just how ridiculous it was. And it kind of went away there, but 1974 was not that long ago. You know, these are all very recent things. So when we talk about prison, not having a space for disability in schools, not having a space for disability, it’s really the world that doesn’t have a space for disability. Which brings us back to Disability Justice, and how leaders in that world have created so many systems of care that now when we start talking about abolition, like a lot of these systems are really translatable. Like Mia Mingus has something called pod mapping, where you consciously come up with resources in your life that you would go to if you had been harmed, or if you had created or caused harm and you like sit down, you make a real list of people in your life who, who will hold you accountable, or who will assist you, as well as resources. And I think that’s one of those things that like every everybody could do, and it would show us how many gaps there are in our social services and local services and things like that, like, who would you really go to if you did something that was a problem? You know, and how would you resolve that? That was our history lesson for the day.
Yeah. No, I love it, though because look, it it opens up so many other like opportunities for us to, like, just examine ourselves look within to be able to kind of change the things that that are around us like, and I know those are difficult lists to make, I know when I was going through, you know, my, my battle with my addiction to marijuana, when I was a younger kid, you know, through the 12-steps, you, you start to go through these, these processes of writing down the the people that you have harmed, the things that you’ve believed, and had, and I think I’ve read somewhere about, you know, to start with abolition, you know, you got to start with your abolition of your thoughts and your ways of thinking or the ways that you’re showing up in your community. And how do we kind of adjust that into our, you know, maybe our implicit bias, biases or biases against, you know, the folks that are different from us, and our frustrations or short sightedness, or even my being impatient with folks. And I think that’s, that’s a really good place to kind of start to, to really unpack how I show up in my community and how I show up in my world and what I can do to, to change that and make it better and being incarcerated. And in going through that system. Like my empathy, like went off the rails where I would have moments where it literally would just bring tears to my eyes to see how folks were were treated in even by us that were in there by the incarcerated folks and how they treated treated people differently because it was something that was so ingrained, I think in in our communities and how we were brought up to, to capitalize off of the differences of folks instead of to, you know, highlight them and then to uplift them. And for me, that’s where it really started to change is I started to, like adopt the the lifestyle and the way of thinking of uplifting the folks that were around me and not necessarily like the the crabs in the bucket type mentality where I was pulling folks down, then it really was a one of those 180 degree changes that I think that helped me personally. And, you know, we talk about how our society and it’s our communities aren’t really set up for that and you know, there’s pockets of it, obviously, we’re talking about it, right, there’s pockets of it, and how do we continue to grow? And to highlight those, those pockets of folks that recognize that and that want to uplift their fellow community members, regardless of the differences.
Yeah, I love that Lee, and when you were talking, it made me think about in our own, like, abolitionist organizing, like, how are we ensuring that we’re not like, replicating systems of ableism? And how are we working to make sure that we are inclusive of everyone, and it’s, it’s hard, you know, something that that we started doing recently thanks to Ra like with our staff meetings is now we turn on the captions if that’s, you know, easier for for some folks on the team and there’s just you know, so many things I feel like that we could be doing more of, um, that some folks like already do a really great job of like providing ASL interpretation for their events and things like that. If you have an in person event, like making sure that, you know, there are ramps if you know people have mobility issues, I’m even thinking of our office where we have a really weird elevator situation. And we, you know, like most folks have to take the stairs and that’s not great for everyone. So yeah, it’s also calling me to, to be more conscious of, you know, what are, like our own blind spots in doing this work? And you know, how can we, you know, like you were talking about, like shifting your mindset and made me think about shifting my own mindset and trying to be more aware of like, you know, which folks would find this difficult to participate in because we don’t have the accommodations that we need to make everybody feel welcome. So yeah, that’s just what was coming to my mind and talk in thinking through. Yeah, what it what it means to be seeing ourselves as an abolitionist to be doing this work. And, you know, we can, it’s true, like, the system’s definitely needs to change, the systems are messing up in a real way, but I think that there’s also things that we can be doing on an individual level to make more accommodations for folks, or, you know, to your point, right, to make accommodations for ourselves and set up our, our pods and make sure that, you know, we are in situations where we feel supported and uplifted for, you know, whatever it is that we may be going through.
Yeah, when, when we made the the crab metaphor I was thinking about, there’s a meme about how, yes, crabs will pull each other down to try to get out of the bucket, but like, who put them in the bucket? Why is there a bucket, like, let’s talk about the bucket, you know? Let’s talk about that system, that kind of puts us in a position where we, where we default to that, you know, even in this, I mean, we’re, we’re in yet another time where disabled people are kind of under attack with COVID, and all of this stuff going on where I mean, I’ve just stopped listening to the news, because every fourth sentence is how, how does it really matter if I die, you know? Like, she was already sick, you know, she was already, you know, and you have to hear these things all the time. I’m in a pretty good mental place, but I have a lot of friends who are still struggling with diagnosis and struggling with pain. And I just think like, this can’t be good for your mental health either to just have people be so reckless with your life so consistently. And I know there are nuances too, you know, not being vaccinated and not being masked, but like, there’s a very real, measurable reality to, to vaccinations for, like disabled people where it’s just, it’s less effective so I really count on the people around me taking care of themselves, you know, and social justice movements, you know, we need on site people to do things. But at the same time, we also need to acknowledge that as being all together in person during these times is, is rough for the disabled people in our community, we either step back, or and, you know, we don’t get to be involved. Or we take a chance on our actual lives. You know, it’s just, you know, to your point, like, it’s just, how do you there’s no perfect way, you know, it’s a lot, a lot of it is still new, a lot of these disabilities are just getting names, and a lot of people struggle with even calling themselves disabled, you know, because of ableism for so many years and acknowledging things like I have a cane, so people are like, pretty straightforward, disabled. But I’m also, you know, chronically ill, you can’t see that. But it’s, it’s actually more disabling than a slight limp. Yeah, I don’t know. We’re still struggling with so many things. I think that’s an important part of the conversation to just remind people that like, really, no one’s doing it perfectly. We’re all just trying to keep it in mind all the time, you know, and think about that bucket as much as possible. Yeah,
It’s okay not to know the answers, right? And it’s okay not to like have all the solutions. And it’s okay to make mistakes. What’s not okay is to hold ourself not responsible and accountable for those mistakes that we make along the way, or not acknowledging the mishaps that we may have in our dealings with our community members. And so, I think that’s a huge, huge point to have, of what we’re talking about, and how the history of all of this came about and how we’re showing up and how the institutions are showing up. And, you know, the transparency, not only within ourselves, but within our institutions in being able to say, okay, like, we don’t have all this solutions, but we do know that there has been some afflictions or there’s been some missteps or there’s been some mistakes or there’s been some outright, like disregard for folks and let’s hold one another accountable and and responsible. More than importantly, like hold yourself accountable and responsible and I think that’s how we move to make those pods bigger and bigger and bigger to be where everybody is, is having the say so, their opinion, their thoughts, their experiences, all of that being relevant to the conversation and ultimately to the development of what we’re trying to create in a healthy and safe community.
Right. I think, often when someone identifies as an abolitionist, the first question that comes up is, well, then what do you do instead of police and prisons? And I like to look at abolition as, like a consistently evolving framework. Abolition is just kind of like the humility of acknowledging that the system that we have is not working, and we may not have all of the answers, but we know that what we need is more care and that can look different in different situations. But specifically, in thinking about Disability Justice, I was really moved by what you were saying, Ra how, you know, folks might not even identify with having a disability or being disabled because of all of the stigma. So I like to envision a world in which we all have, like, more compassion for ourselves, and we have more compassion for one another. And we can, you know, say, without shame, like, I’m disabled, and, you know, in this way, but you know, to go back to your definition of disabled, that just means that you deviate from the the quote, unquote, norm, it’s not inherently, you know, a bad thing. It’s just as society we have certain norms that are established. And if you have a deviation, either physically, or you know, mentally or your learning style, it means that you have a disability, and that’s okay, where we’re all different. And yeah, I think abolition like really calls us to being more empathetic, and, you know, not just wanting to punish people, or, you know, try it. I don’t know, like, shame them out of their their differences. But really, evolution invites us all to embrace differences, to make accommodations on an individual or on a systemic level for folks with differing, you know, mental and physical abilities. Yeah, I don’t know. I would like to see us get there eventually. But I know that it’s going to take a lot of work, like we’ve been so socialized to be judgmental, to see things that are that deviate from the norm as inherently negative things. Yeah, I just think Disability Justice is, you know, we’ve got to change policy and all the things and put different mechanisms in place to care for folks. But I really think it also has a lot to do with us like reframing how we see disability, how we see ourselves how we see folks around us,
yeah, and acknowledging that we all benefit from these tools, you know, when people who are not directly impacted by the carceral system, hear about abolishing prisons, they don’t necessarily automatically feel like they’ll benefit from it. And they feel like it’ll cost more than and give. And I think like, during this pandemic, we’ve seen, we’ve seen the entire world benefit from things that disability advocates fought for zooms and captions and ways to communicate from home and ways to communicate with sound podcasting equipment, you know, so much of this stuff sources from people who can’t leave their house for whatever reason, or can’t function in the world in a in a way that’s beneficial to them, or the world around them necessarily. Yeah, given the opportunity, these things help a lot of people, you know, like, I need captions to follow along, if there’s multiple people that the strokes have seen to that, and so do other neurological differences I have, but a lot of people just find it easier to follow along with captions, you know, there’s not like, a dramatic reason for it. It’s just, you know, it’s nice to see the word on the screen. Okay, um, people. Yeah, so, I mean, these accessibility tools are really for all of us, you know, and letting go of these things is for all of us, and just being aware of like, the things that we accept, because it’s towards disabled people, like in a, on an off podcast conversation, we talked about prop 17, and voting rights, and how one of the few exclusions is people who were found unfit by a court. And it just feels really normal, you know, that just doesn’t, doesn’t stand out as an absurd or unfair thing, because we’re so accustomed to the court being like, this person shouldn’t actually have rights, you know, they’re not the same as us. And it’s just become so commonplace that it’s hard to even like, recognizing it is definitely the first step.
Yeah. There’s a few of us who have been engaging in something like voter registration outreach. You know, this podcast is recorded shortly before the September 14 recall election. And, you know, we’ve been trying to get folks who are on parole who Otherwise impacted by incarceration to register to vote. And when we talk through the eligibility, we say, hey, as long as you’re a US citizen, and a resident of California 18 or older, and not found mentally incompetent by a court, you can vote. And every time you know, I explain it to people, because it’s the facts, and I’m just trying to give them like accurate information. But it’s like the the words like stick in my throat every time I have to explain that to folks. And sometimes people just kind of look at me and but a couple folks, I’ve actually asked like, Well, what does that mean that I’ve been found mentally incompetent? And I’m like, that is a great question. Like, I really am curious, like, what is the criteria? At what point is the court decide that you are not mentally fit to exercise your right to vote in a democracy? Yeah, the the ways that like ableism are so like, I was sometimes like really casual, like, you know, just casually weaved throughout our policies and everything. But yeah, in doing that work around, around voting rights, restoration, that is something that has consistently come up, like we do have to tell people, but if you’ve been found mentally incompetent by a court, you can’t vote. And I don’t know what that means that I don’t think this is right. But this, this is what the law says,
being found mentally incompetent by the court is one of those things like I mean, Britney Spears has cases all over the news and TV right now. But guardianship laws have been a major issue for the disability community for a long time, we’ve been talking about it for a long time, wake up, because so far back, like most of these things, you know, because most of the time to be found mentally unfit, it’s someone in your life who says, I promise you, they aren’t, you know, and so for a long time, like, husbands were putting their wives in mental institutions, because, you know, they didn’t want to have kids or they wanted to have a job, or they, you know, they had all these things that we consider just mentally unfit. And we’ve sort of like, you know, moved away from allowing that, but not so much, it is still a possible process for someone who has more power and privilege than you to find you mentally unfit, because that’s kind of how the system works, you know, the better lawyers can go there and explain the reasons why you aren’t. And if they make a compelling case to one judge, it’s very hard to undo. It’s kind of a tangle at that point. Yeah, it’s just such a weird, weird caveat. I mean, even when slavery ended, disabled, black Americans were, were totally just kept in their, their imprisonments, you know, because the idea was like, what are they going to do, if they’re free, you know, he doesn’t have a leg, he doesn’t have you know, he’s autistic, she’s blind. And so this person who at least gives giving them a home, in air quotes, is a better place for them. So like, even these massive Liberation’s still excluded disabled people. And that’s why I mean, that’s why these care systems that they have in place that we have in place are so valuable to the abolitionist movement, because they’re built around non policing, and they’re built around, you know, not being able to trust legislators not being able to trust anything except your community first.
I always feel like, even just the silence that we just had right now is so important, right? Just to kind of sit with, with what we’re talking about and kind of how it like resonates from within. You know, I think about like, what, Ra, you were just sharing, talking about, you know, the different ways that we communicate now and how we’re being like cognizant of others in a different way. And, you know, it goes back to what I was talking about, like self reflection, and, you know, self accountability. During this COVID pandemic, you know, we saw a lot of folks that were that were suffering even more, because of COVID and it was a lot of the folks that were incarcerated. And, you know, they already have been either diagnosed by mental professionals as somebody that is either like schizophrenic, or they’re, you know, chronic depression or, you know, high anxiety, like, all of these different aspects and then to be like, isolated and kept away from their family members and not told, like, the up to date, like facts that were that were happening around them. And then we start to talk about, like, our nursing homes, and how the folks in there were, like, you know, under they were the hardest hit through COVID because of the because of the lack of, like care that they had around them. And, as I like, start to think more and more about this or had thought about this and in the past it’s it’s like, it’s heavy. Like there’s no, there’s no way for me to describe it other than, you know, it’s, it’s really heavy. It makes me thankful for for what I do have, but it also makes me a little bit, you know, upset and frustrated with myself that I’m not doing more, you know? How more how much more can I just show up for for my fellow human beings and making sure that they’re like being properly, you know, cared for during this moment.
You know, if I could shift the conversation a little bit, but something that’s coming up for me as we’re having this conversation are the ways that I feel that prisons and even like rehabilitative programming within prisons kind of like, reinforces like, the stigmas of disability, and, and I’d really like to hear, you know, y’all two experiences since you’ve been in prison. But as someone who is just like, observing someone in prison, and like, kind of hearing from them, like the self help groups that they were going through, a lot of the groups like, really re-emphasize personal responsibility. So there’s really not a lot of space to say, okay, well, maybe, you know, I had PTSD, or maybe you know, I have trauma, or I had, you know, a learning disability and this is why I struggled in school, and this is why I made XYZ decision. I didn’t have access to, you know, certain supportive services, and this is why I made the choices that I did. I feel like in prisons, like you’re just constantly told by the cops, by everybody around you like that you’re just a terrible human being who made bad decisions snd there’s really not space to talk about, like any conditions, or any, like, physical, mental, emotional issues that they may have, you know, played a role in it. And I’ve even watched, like, so many folks come home and really struggle with re entry and like having, like, compassion for other folks in their lives, because they’re just like, you know, this, this idea of like, grit is like, really reinforced. And in prisons, in my opinion, which is, like, you know, what will, you just need to get over it, and you just need to move through it, you made this mistake, this is why you’re in this situation, and then just, you know, move on. So, yeah, I’d really like to hear like, your thoughts on on the different ways that being in prison, like really reinforces ableism and takes away any space that you have to talk about having a disability.
I mean, at a at a basic level, even just how prisons work is is, you know, most prisons are kind of self sustaining the people incarcerated are the ones who mow the lawn and pave the sidewalks and you take care of the fires and EMT services and everything. And yet they are, you know, billion dollar industries for for various organizations, even the non private prisons, obviously, still create a lot of profit for other companies and that’s done through the workforce of the people inside the slave labor of the people inside. And because of that, you know, the very first thing they do is, assess your physical abilities, your heart and your blood pressure, and your, you know, your size and all of that. So, right from the get there are benefits to just being able bodied, you know, just being in the fire camp program, right makes you eligible for better credits and better options and things like that. And then having a disability that requires care requires like, separation, isolation, and prison is a lonely experience, even if you’re in gen pop, you know, it’s it’s a lonely experience, even when you’re surrounded by people. When you’re closed up in a tiny room it’s, it’s even worse. So yeah, just on that level alone, it definitely encourages it, but, but I do agree there’s a mentality to that kind of tries to distract collective care as much as possible. And yeah, I don’t, I don’t really know. I don’t have an answer or thought it’s just something that’s so prevalent, prevalent, everything you were saying about, like, you know, get through it, and whatnot. I’m like, this is all just sounds exactly, like what I heard inside.
Yeah, no, we have this thing while we’re inside, we call it the 10 year wall, with folks that are incarcerated. And, and that’s really what it is, it’s almost like Kubler Ross’s, you know, the five stages of grief, you know, in in the the process that we go through, inside and folks hit the 10 years, and they either go, most of the time, they either go one way or another they develop the grit and they developed like the the fortitude that they’re going to survive this no matter what, or they go the opposite way and feel like the you know, that the sky is falling, and that everything is doomed and that, you know, there’s there’s no like recourse for for them to be able to get the care that is that is needed. And, you know, when we’re talking about the, you know, selfless, like responsibility it is it’s ingrained in us like we were wrong, our behaviors were wrong. The things that we were doing were wrong, and you are now being punished for your wrongness of being indifferent or not, not conforming to the social norms and the systems that are kind of set up within the social norms of, of how you can interact with the folks that are around you. And so, as I was going through like a bunch of these, this personal transformation and self reflection, you know, there was a missing element in there in the institution that I was that I was in, and that was having, like a community of care. And so we started developing them ourselves within the guild tags, you know, they’re called inmate led activity groups, I think is is the acronym of what it’s taught activity groups, or something like that, I think and leisure and so we started creating these spaces without staff, to where we could like, literally talk about these things that we were going through, and how we were affected by our upbringings by our role modeling by our like, socialization, with the communities that we lived in. And, you know, this would be a much deeper talk, if we started to talk about all of the intersections of how folks of color grew up in their communities, or how folks of other like color, whether you’re a Spanish Latinx, whatever the case may be of how you grew up in, you know, the ghetto, or the barrio, or the suburbs, or in how you were treated by your caretakers, or your community members. And all of these things lend to the development and the maturation of who you are as a person based upon your experiences, right? And so we would talk about these things and, and it isn’t all like self flagellation, where we’re beating ourselves up, because we’re bad people or we’re wrong, we start to acknowledge how the things that are around us, also contributed to the way that we thought in the way that we the way that we were treated, or how we treated other people, and how we we interacted with other folks. And so the system, it doesn’t like, obviously, it took me it was me and a small group of people, it took us a lot of work, to be able to go to administration to be able to even develop these classes to have the space to be able to do this, and they didn’t necessarily support it or want it. But it was also the pendulum swinging, where they added VR to the backend of CDC, right. And so we started like using their words or their definitions to our benefit, and talking about how important it was for rehabilitation and how the board wanted you to be able to become Sufi masters of you know, near personal, like life and experiences and your inner development. And so, you know, it took a took a lot of work. And we were like, basically, you know, thrown into the deep end, not knowing how to swim through the psychological issues, and just trying to figure it out based upon the books that we were reading and the education that we was getting. But more than that, you know, we just kept it from a center. And what I mean by that is we just our soul in our hearts of developing that empathy and strengthening that empathy and developing grit and resiliency within that empathy, in love and showing up for one another. And, and just given given folks the space to be able to kind of unpack it. And we didn’t have all of the answers, and we still don’t have all of the answers. But we did have the one answer and that was giving people the ability to express their voices.
Right. And I think that’s such an important thing that abolition tries to like dismantle is this like punishment, centered narrative, you know, right now, or punishment centered system says that the only thing that matters is personal responsibility. The only thing that matters is the choices that you made. And we don’t talk about, you know, the the ecosystem and how like, none of these things happen in a vacuum. So, to be clear, like, as abolitionists, we’re not saying personal responsibility doesn’t matter. And you can make whatever terrible choices you want to make without any consequences. But what we’re saying is that it’s both right. It’s not either, or it’s both and, and what the system’s responsibility is, is to create conditions in which people aren’t forced to make decisions that are harmful. We give as many opportunities as possible for people to be happy. So people, for people to thrive and be healthy and make decisions that are not going to harm themselves or others around them. But of course, we’re humans, and we will still make mistakes, and some people will still continue to cause harm. And we talk about what those consequences are and what that accountability looks like. What we know for a fact is that throwing someone in a concrete cage for a certain amount of years and isolating them and you know, punishing their family and a community that is not an effective way of preventing harm or, you know, stopping harm from happening again. That is just an effective way to further debilitate. People and entire communities. So, yeah, I think, yeah, we’ve we’ve just got it all wrong. You know, we’re not seeing folks for their full humanity and the different abilities that, you know, physical, mental, emotional that they may have. We’re just punishing folks right now. And yeah, when, when we talk about abolition, we mean like, okay, you know, how do we shift towards care, compassion, empathy? How do we ensure the folks have support that they need? So that’s kind of where, where I’m going with this right now is, yeah, this conversation has really helped me reflect on all of the different ways that, you know, disability intersects into our punishment system, and you know, what abolition looks like, is not seeing disability as something that needs to be punished, or something that lowers your inherent value as a human, it’s something that just really reveals how much we as a society need to grow and be more inclusive.
Education too, you know, it’s one of those things where just being aware of, and I know, this goes hand in hand with ableism, you know, people don’t want to talk about their disabilities, because they feel like they’ll be judged or not welcome. You know, I’m lucky I work for, I work for ij. So I could just say, I can’t follow along, I need captions. And, and people just turn the captions on, you know, it was not that big of a deal. It wasn’t a conversation, I didn’t have to go to HR, it was like, just, we’re just gonna switch the captions on, we added it to our notes document, we made a change, I say I want to go to the office, and everyone just pods up, coordinates so that I can get on that elevator and get inside and Michelle crawls under the desk to plug my laptop in. It’s a it’s a team effort. But a lot of people you know, don’t want to ask because they aren’t necessarily in a in an organization that would support that or value it and it may, you know, end up leading to judgments and things along the lines. And but because of that, you don’t necessarily get the education of what it looks like, you know, what does? What does a disabled body need? You know, it’s hard, it’s kind of a riddle for someone who is able bodied. It’s, it’s hard to imagine a world that isn’t your world, it’s hard to imagine a neurological landscape that isn’t the one you were born with and so without that communication, it’s very difficult. You know, I think of the little boy who was killed by police, Elijah, and his autism being basically the reason, you know? They didn’t understand what was happening, and obviously, that plus the millions of problems with policing that lead to that sort of empowerment, and, you know, but just like, what would awareness of what it looks like, have done to alleviate that situation? What would education do to alleviate these things, you know, to make them non issues, you know, how do we get that education?
Yeah, and that you sharing Elijah’s story Ra makes me think about a story that I really don’t share too often about my brother. So, my brother has a disability, he has a condition that’s similar to epilepsy, but it’s not absolute epilepsy, but he has seizures every so often, and they’re unpredictable. Almost two years ago now, he had a seizure while he was driving, he crashed into a parked car and when the police arrived on the scene, he was still, you know, dealing with the after effects of his seizure. And they assumed that he was under the influence and my brother is a large, while he’s my little brother, I still see him as a boy, but he’s a man. My brother’s a large man, he’s dark skin and you know, so they perceived him as you know, drunk or some kind of threat, and they beat him up, they slammed his face into the concrete, and, you know, he had like a huge, you know, like abrasion on his face. And when I contacted the hospital and found out what happened, you know, when they, when they brought him to the hospital, they, they gave him some medication to basically induce a coma, because they didn’t know what was going on with him and just made all these assumptions about him as being you know, a man of color. And I’m just like, man, these systems failed us in so many ways. Like one, my brother wasn’t supposed to be driving because of his condition, but he didn’t have another way to get to work so he was driving to work because this was, you know, the tough decisions that capitalism makes us make, you know, the police, why are the police people who show up at a scene, you know, for a car accident? Like, maybe, you know, maybe someone else could have been there to provide more care, but of course, they’re they’re not trained to recognize signs of a seizure or anything, but even the hospital staff, you know, they just listened to what the police told them. And they were like, okay, you know, this person’s under the influence, we’re gonna put them into a coma and figure out how to deal with this later and then he ended up facing like, criminal charges later on that we had to, you know, navigate. And I’m just like, man, here is another example of like, someone with a disability, put in a tough situation in the first place. And then when they made, you know, a decision to drive, which was probably not a safe decision, we’re criminalized for the consequences of those actions. So yeah, that’s just, you know, just like one story and like, to reflect like, this bigger issue that we have is that we’re just really failing to accommodate folks with disabilities in our society. Sorry, that felt like a rant like a ramble, but I was just thinking about that one.
I think it’s relevant and it’s just, it was sad. I think the silence was a moment of sad.
Right? Like, damn, that was, yeah, things shouldn’t have gone down that way.
No, not at any point in that story should it have continued that way. Oh, man.
Yeah and in for me, like, it was, like, just the, like, dealing with the stuff of like, being embarrassed about it, or, you know, we talked about a little bit about, like, shame. And I know, I’ve, and I’ll probably butcher her quote, Brene Brown, but she said something along the lines like shame is like a fungus, we can only survive in the darkness, right? Till we bring these things to light and we have like an empathy, an empathetic ear, or an understanding year towards folks that are that are going through their, their issues. And just the only way to, like, get rid of it is not only to bring it to light, but to wash it over with like love and in empathy and having that understanding with with folks. And so when we talk about education, that’s what it really is, is just continuing to, like learn from from one another, not only in our education, but higher education, you know, bringing more awareness to the topic and to the conversation, when we’re having it with other folks. And when we see it, call it, you know, to be able to name it in to not necessarily catch judgment, when folks that are making the mistakes, and in not, like super aware about what they’re doing, but to have that conversation with them and talk to them about the impact and the harm that they’re causing, not only individually, but systemically. And I think that’s where it really kind of steps in and is looking for laws and Bill changes. And systemically that’s where that’s where this bigger machine is kind of operating from and also the folks that are in that bigger machine than simply people that senators to be able to kind of educate and be able to speak out to them about how it personally affects folks and how it affects their community and to educate and enlighten them because they may be myopic in their own dealings with the laws or you know how this kind of fits into the, what is already established. And to be able to have that conversation with them to try to sway them or at least to you know, make them aware of how it is impacting the folks in there’s other ways to, to operate within this, the system that we don’t need to, you know, have this Disability Justice kind of manifesting and continuing to grow within our within our laws and within our system. So I think that’s like hugely important, what we’ve been kind of talking about what Ra mentioned, about how IJ stepped up and you know, doing closed captions, it’s not a big deal. Like, the more people that we can get included in these these topics in the development of our neighborhoods, in our society, I think the better off we’re going to be,
I would encourage folks to, you know, to try and let go of a little bit of that shame and if you have a physical disability, a mental disability, and mental illness of any form. Yeah, do what you can to like step into that and be okay with that, like, personally, I’m feeling called to, you know, talk about my depression and a little bit more and ask for what I need a little bit more, because some days, I just don’t want to talk to anyone, I just want a couple hours to just sit around and be sad and that’s just what I need at that moment. So I would encourage folks to step into that a little bit more at the self level, but also like bigger at the policy level. You know, what can we be doing to encourage legislators to see folks with different abilities. We worked earlier this year on AB 292 which among other things, would have made credit earning equal for people who couldn’t go to fire camp because of you know, the any physical impairments that they may have and that part got amended out. The legislature didn’t, you know, want to want to deal with that and I don’t think they would see it that way, but that was totally ablest to not offer the same credit earning opportunity for people who physically may not be able to go to fire camp, but meet all the other eligibility requirements, so, yeah, I would encourage us to be more kind to ourselves and encourage, you know, anyone in a position of power to be more aware and make brave decisions to include folks with disabilities.
Yeah, so I guess, you know, if we had to leave someone with a message, it would just be to just pay attention, you know, look at, look at the requirements of eligibility that leave out disabled people. Look at the places you visit, and think, how would this be different if sound hurt me? If light hurt me? If it hurt to walk upstairs? If I was in pain every second of every day, how different would this job be and what could someone do to alleviate that even just a little bit? And what can we do to make it make an environment where people feel okay, acknowledging that they are disabled, and feel okay explaining it to the people around them, so that that education can start to build? What can we do to learn from these disability advocates who have been fighting for so long and through every liberation have to uniquely lead their own fights because they’re consistently left out? And you know, what can we do? What can we learn from that? What words can we pick up? What structures can we pick up? What responsibilities should we be holding on to and how can we integrate that directly into our liberation and not forget it?
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