Abolition Behind the Walls

An incarcerated writer takes on the challenge of working to end prisons

By Stephen Wilson
Art By Daniel Chang Christensen

Content warning: this article discusses traumatic experiences, including sexual assault.

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 eligible for parole in less than two years. I fear that if allowed out today, he may repeat his behavior. He is not doing the work to transform himself, to prepare himself for release. But it is not all his fault.

Transformation must be self-motivated, but formal and informal support is also necessary. The Corrections Department 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. But, 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. Support is nonexistent.

Abolitionists are exerting a lot of effort to challenge and dismantle the prison-industrial complex (PIC). Abolitionists use the term to describe “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” But, how do we transform a system and the people living in it? Political education behind prison walls is needed. Developing interpersonal skills is necessary, too.

I was angry with the prisoner who was oppressing my friend, but I also felt compassion for him. 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 personal and interpersonal transformation, it is possible for him to continue his behavior upon release.

As abolitionists, we work to transform society by dismantling institutions like the prison. But society is not only composed of institutions, it’s also composed of individuals who have been transformed by those institutions. Where are our efforts to support and guide the formerly incarcerated? Are we depending upon the 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 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 is only 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 us?

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