Practicing abolition is hard, especially behind the walls. Yesterday, I witnessed an argument between two prisoners, one of them a friend. When the other prisoner walked away, I asked my friend if he was okay. He told me that the other prisoner was pressuring him to have sex. I figured that much. The guy is known for predatory behavior. My friend was in debt and the guy claimed to have paid it. He hadn’t. My friend, feeling threatened, returned to his cell to make a shank. I knew I had to intercede. But what should I do?
I didn’t want to involve the police. They won’t make things better. Their answer is solitary confinement. Even if the guy were moved to another block, he would continue his behavior there. Something had to be done. I gathered two friends and discussed options. We decided to confront him and not involve the police. Surprisingly, he didn’t deny his actions. But he really believed it was okay to force another person to have sex with him if they owed him money. When I told him I knew he hadn’t paid the debt, he feigned ignorance. He knew his plot was foiled and left my friend alone. But still, I was disturbed.
He was a juvenile lifer who was recently re-sentenced to a term that makes him parole eligible in less than two years. I fear that if allowed out today, he would harm someone. He’s not doing the work to transform himself, to prepare himself for release. But it’s not all his fault. Transformation must be self-motivated, but support is necessary. The corrections dept. doesn’t equip prisoners with the materials or skills to effect transformation. The programming here is based on a theory that all our problems are based on our thoughts. We didn’t think up the neglect and abandonment that destroyed our neighborhoods. We didn’t think up unemployment, sub-quality schools and health care either.
Also, the skills promoted by these programs are punished by officers. Assertiveness is considered disrespect. Reinforcement is nonexistence. We are exerting lots of effort to challenge and dismantle the PIC. But how do we transform a system without transforming the people in the system? Political education behind the walls is needed. Interpersonal skills development is necessary too. I was angry with the prisoner who was oppressing my friend, but I felt compassion for him also. He has been locked away since age 16 in a violent and oppressive environment. In less than two years, he could be released. Because he has never been given the materials, skills and opportunities to effect transformation, he is likely to harm someone upon release.
As abolitionists, we work to transform society. But society is composed of people, including the formerly incarcerated. What are we doing to assist prisoners’ transformation? Where are our efforts to provide support and guidance? Are we depending upon the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) to provide support? Any chance the prisoner who was oppressing my friend will be transformed upon release and positively contribute to his family and community is predicated upon the work we do and support we provide behind the walls.
Being an abolitionist behind the walls is hard. It requires courage and mental agility. It takes patience and resourcefulness. Defusing situations and conflict resolution are part of the job. But it’s the beginning. Enabling prisoners to learn, grow and develop new ways of seeing themselves, their communities and the world is the real groundwork. Will you help?
Stephen Wilson (he/they) is a Black queer incarcerated abolitionist organizer imprisoned at SCI-Fayette. He is a founding member of Dreaming Freedom | Practicing Abolition and is originally from Philadelphia, PA. You can follow his and his comrades’ work on their blog and on Twitter at @agitateorganize and @studyabolition.