When we basebuild around prison abolition, the base we build is not deciding between inside versus outside of prison. It is not always a matter of whether you have been incarcerated or not to be engaged in the work although that context is still valuable when determining your role in it. I am conscious of the privileges I carry when entering this space, but I understand the situation is so dire and urgent that I want to do something, that I want to seize the opportunities I have to discuss and organize around what is going on.
Our transgender family is greatly impacted by the carceral state, and solidarity with them is needed. Nearly one in six transgender people—and one in two Black transgender people—has been incarcerated at some point in their lives according to Lamda Legal. As long as prisons walls stand, we know abolition is our only option to free our trans sisters, siblings, and brothers.
However, we cannot decide what each individual incarcerated person needs which is why direct correspondence is critical. Although we understand that correspondence alone does not necessarily equal liberation, we understand how deliberately the carceral system separates people, including overwhelmingly our trans family. Letters can provide a connection to the outside world especially for trans people who may have already been disconnected from many others prior to their incarceration.
Prior to founding the Prison Project, I established correspondence with Comrade Alyssa, an incarcerated Black trans woman at a state men’s prison in Maryland. Alyssa Victoria Hope was a huge inspiration for this project as she aims to build a greater movement, and it is important to name and highlight her experiences as a part of this project. In a letter dated August 2018, she wrote: “I am person who struggles with PTSD from being raped and beaten, and from seeing my comrades murdered at the hands of the fascist pigs and the corrupt AmeriKKKan government. I have not forgotten the feeling of being beaten with phone books, water sprayed on me from a fire hose, biting from fascist pig dogs and guns put in my mouth, with threats of death. But I will not complain because this is what I sign myself up for when I decide to fight for the rights of the people. This is my life and I accept it, but people in society, please don’t let me suffer for nothing. Fight for your rights as a people and tell the government that you had enough.”
Prisoner solidarity was critical to the LGBTQ liberation movement following the Stonewall Resistance. Johnson, alongside Sylvia Rivera, founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.). In her famous 1973 speech at the Christopher Street Festival (what is known as “Pride”), Rivera cried, “Y’all better quiet down. I’ve been trying to get up here all day for your gay brothers and your gay sisters in jail that write me every motherfucking week and ask for your help and you all don’t do a goddamn thing for them.” 50 years later, many in the LGBT so-called “community” have failed to pay homage to Pride’s roots based on the revolutionary work of Johnson, Rivera and other trans people of color.
With that, I want to take the time to tell a story on behalf of Stevie, an incarcerated Black queer writer, activist and student, in their words:
I want to share with you the story of what happened to my sister-friend, a beautiful, trans woman of color who was housed at SCI-Smithfield, a men’s prison in central Pennsylvania. I share this story to illuminate the necessity of employing an intersectional analysis in the work we do and centering the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalized. My sister-friend, Precious, advocated for queer and trans folk in here. She was instrumental in producing major changes at SCI-Smithfield. She earned parole and the PA DOC decided to send her to a halfway-house. These sites are sex-segregated. Precious complained to the administrators about these arrangements. She feared for her safety and felt that she wouldn’t be able to successfully reenter society from this site. No one listened. As she suspected, she was harassed and threatened at the halfway house. Given a choice between her safety and violating the terms of her parole, Precious chose to be safe and left the halfway house. Months later, she was re-arrested and has since returned to prison. Straight, cisgender men don’t have to deal with what Precious went through. Many people in the prison movement fail to see how the totalizing detention of prisoner as straight, able-bodied men erases the lived experiences of so many other prisoners, especially queer of trans people… This erasure means the solutions won’t address our problems. To not repeat this tragedy, we must center trans lives when crafting solutions.”
Three takeaways from this conversation Stevie stressed include:
- Prison and policing serve the same purpose for straight and queer and trans folk: control—but queer and trans folks’ experiences with policing and prisons are often very different from those of cisgender heterosexual (cishet) folk. We need to keep this in mind when thinking about the impact of policing and prisons.
- When we push for reforms without considering the impact on marginalized communities we may end up exacerbating the problem for said communities. Many people are pushing for prisoners to be moved to halfway houses without considering how placement in a sex-segregated environment would affect trans folk.
- Throughout the carceral continuum, queer and trans folk face heightened surveillance and control. Prison is a racialized and gendered site of violence. Halfway houses, probation, and parole are too. Those of us who do not fit the norm face increased threats of harm from staff, officers and other prisoners. The only way to create safety for queer and trans prisoners is to get them out of prison and keep them out.
So how can we engage in abolitionist praxis as socialists? The Prison Project utilizes phone zaps, letter writing campaigns, letter writing workshops, fundraising, and study group centering abolitionist texts and revolutionary history. We also engage in supporting members within our organization who face arrest—because sometimes the very incarcerated people we take action for are already members of our organization.
It will be difficult for Philly Socialists, as long as it exists outside of prison walls, to bridge the divide to incarcerated people, but it can be minimized through pen pal relationships, mailing out radical literature, fundraising for commissary accounts, inviting and including returning citizens, and more. In the end, prison walls will be torn down by incarcerated people themselves, and one of our tasks, as socialists, can be to foster meaningful relationships with people behind bars.
Abolitionist work means exploring restorative, transformative, and healing justice. It means exploring what feminist accountability looks like for community members harm us, accountability that is not rooted in the criminal punishment system, does not rely on those harmed to hold the perpetrator accountable, and allows for the perpetrator to engage in the healing process in order to go beyond rehabilitation. It means exploring how we have all contributed to harm, in some shape or form, to our community members, and even our loved ones and how we grapple with holding ourselves accountable to harms that have may never been addressed due to structural advantages. It means considering what a socialist society will look like for our communities and how we envision and include ourselves in it.
Socialists today can continue the abolitionist work previous generations started. It could be as simple as sending our first letter to someone behind bars. For some of us, who have had a personal experience with policing and incarceration, it can mean asking for support. “We need your support,” Stevie stressed. “We need connections with the outside world. We need your hands in helping us tear down these walls and build a world that doesn’t use cages and exile to deal with harm.”
This essay is based off a presentation on abolitionist organizing given at the 2019 Socialist Feminist Convergence organized by the Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Socialist Feminist Working Group.
Philly Socialists is a multi-tendency organization made up of anarchists, socialists, communists, and other anti-capitalists. We organize through basebuilding or building a base of working-class people in Philadelphia. We do this through several community-oriented projects, such as the community garden, ESL classes, and the Philadelphia Partisan.
The Philly Socialists Prison Project is a group of people who want to learn more about prison abolition and fight the epidemic that is incarceration. Not mass incarceration—incarceration period. We not only want to envision a world without prisons, but want to start building that vision today, alongside abolitionist work that has been ongoing by the Attica uprising, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, INCITE!, Miss Major, Emma Goldman, CeCe McDonald, Janetta Johnson, and many others. We want to explore what restorative, transformative, and healing justice not only looks like for our communities but ourselves. The project is currently on hiatus but will be back and running by summer or fall 2019—stay tuned!