All our Community’s Voices: Unteaching the Prison Literacy Complex

by Michael Sutcliffe

Education, and particularly literacy, is often held up as a panacea for criminality and the key to prisoners’ reinvented social mobility. Reformers, educators, administrators, and government-funded corporate surveys tell us that if prisoners are educated, their behaviors will change as they learn to “solve their problems” in constructive rather than destructive ways. While much is to be said for the value of education, learning to read and write according to institutionally authorized conventional modes of discourse does little to counter the systems of state-sponsored violence, near-permanent poverty, racism, and devastating economic inequity that propagate the prison industrial complex.

This essay will demonstrate how current applications of prisoner education contribute to a “Prison Literacy Complex” by assuming deficits in the prisoner and positing education as remediation or as therapy. Traditional top-down models of literacy and their “voices-in” pedagogies mask systemic privilege and stratification. Instead, I argue for a “voices-out” pedagogical reframing for community programs in prisons and jails that can further substantive, redistributive social change. By bringing silenced voices and counterhegemonic memories out from behind bars, community efforts can reveal inconsistencies in popular “truths” and inspire the historicized criticism necessary for sustained projects of abolition. While primarily addressed to educators and community organizers working inside, the theoretical reorientation is a broader call for rethinking and reteaching ideological inheritance and community participation.

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Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via Foter.com / CC BY-NC.

“Prison Treated Me Way Better Than You”: Reentry, Perplexity, and the Naturalization of Mass Imprisonment

Renée M. Byrd

In the absence of a critique of the logics at the heart of the prison industrial complex, seemingly progressive trends such as prisoner reentry initiatives will simply bolster racialized state violence. This essay grapples with questions of representation and power, and details how the disposability of imprisoned people is reproduced and renaturalized through carceral practices. Academic accounts continue to be complicit in this process, without a complex theorizing of subjectivity, representation, and state violence. This essay uses interviews with formerly imprisoned people in the Twin Cities to disrupt the way that formerly imprisoned people’s narratives are “mined as rich sources” in pathologizing and voyeuristic ways. Prisoner reentry programs appear progressive on the surface; however, they expand the prison industrial complex through perplexing logics that make it harder for women to navigate toward freedom. I use the notion of perplexity as a rubric for understanding penal logics and subjectivities as they emerged in my interviews with people recently released from Minnesota’s only women’s prison and analyze how they reproduce the vulnerability of people leaving prison. The gender-responsive façade of this unique prison and the surveillance orientation of reentry programs naturalized imprisonment as a solution to social problems in deeply problematic ways.

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Caption This: Police in Pussyhats, White Ladies, and Carceral Psychology Under Trump

Caption this: white ladies hugging Black cops in pussyhats. It goes deeper than the multiculturalist perfection of absorbing a racialized threat as justification for the continued exploitation of those deemed unassimilable. A Black man donning a uniform and a pussyhat at once obscures and reveals the historical relation of the symbols he now sports. This is what an analysis of heteropatriarchal white supremacy must account for, and what carceral psychology cannot. Literally embracing cops illustrates the ongoing investment in police as “benevolent” masters over an abstract notion of safety that criminalizes people of color. A system rooted in racialized social control cannot get an antiracist makeover through a few public dialogues between cops and community members. As Tariq Khan writes, “Heartwarming Barbecues and Hugging Cops Ain’t the Solution.” This obsession with individual acts of peace-making with cops is the liberal face of carceral psychology.

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Political Prisoner Herman Bell Assaulted by Prison Guards

Black Panther Party political prisoner Herman Bell was viciously assaulted by guards at Great Meadow Correctional Facility (Comstock) on September 5, 2017. While being “escorted” by a guard back to his housing unit, a guard struck Herman, age 69, in the face causing his glasses to drop to the floor. He pushed Herman against the wall, Herman stumbled and fell to the ground. The guard then continued viciously hitting and kicking Herman. Very soon about 5 other guards arrived and joined in the violent attack, hitting and kicking Herman all over his body. He was also maced in the eye and face. One of the guards kneed Herman in the chest causing two cracked ribs. At one point, one of the guards took Herman’s head and slammed it very hard into the pavement three times. Herman said when this happened he thought he was at the end of his life.

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Shifting Carceral Landscapes: Decarceration and the Reconfiguration of White Supremacy

by Colleen Hackett and Ben Turk

This essay explores the changing contours of white supremacy in the United States, and in particular its relationship to systems of control and confinement. Many critics have illuminated the ways that racial control is inherent to and embedded within the penal system. In light of some of the federal- and state-level reforms that claim to incarcerate less and use more “alternative,” community-based sanctions, we interrogate the ways that white racial interests continue to be secured across the carceral landscape, thus granting official politics limited space to entertain negligible decarceration policies. In this preliminary survey of the carceral landscape, we critique several white-dominant social institutions that work together to confine and control communities of color outside of the prison walls, while reproducing varying forms of racial caste. We incorporate historical understandings of racialization and colonization, as well as contemporary concepts and observations from academia and beyond to highlight the extent of this entrenchment. It is our hope that this survey will address the shape of racialized control in the United States that must be considered when addressing just one of its manifestations—the prison state.

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Abolition Collective letter of support for Jalil Muntaqim

The Abolition Collective expresses its support and solidarity with Jalil Muntaqim, Political Prisoners, and the right of incarcerated people to engage in popular education. Jalil has been politically active since his incarceration. Most recently, he was punished for teaching an administratively sanctioned Black History class in Attica Prison, and was transported to a supermax prison where he was held in solitary confinement for four months.

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Revolution and Restorative Justice: An Anarchist Perspective

Increasingly critics of mass incarceration are confident that restorative justice is an alternative that will slowly replace or reform the state’s monopoly on “justice.” It is particularly of restorative justice as an “alternative” to state retribution that I remain skeptical. To my eyes, restorative justice has within it no revolutionary power remotely sufficient to undo the embedded ideology of retribution, nor does it bear any promise of truly challenging the material power of the state and the prison industrial complex. Restorative justice is a powerful, therapeutic practice that creates healing for individuals and exposes the stark failure of the state’s rehabilitative enterprise. However, we must cease to see it as a structural alternative that will take the place of incarceration. Though it is a useful tool for undermining the retributive narrative of the state, it is insufficient to meet the challenges of ever-encroaching state legality and mass incarceration.

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Abolish Border Imperialism! – Seeking Proposals for a Convergence

Call for Proposals:

Abolish Border Imperialism!

a weekend convergence for working towards abolition and decolonization

October 6-8, 2017 – Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota

Resurgent border imperialism is producing a new round of repressions, deportations, and bans. It is emboldening white fascism and militarizing walls. From the reservation to the city, Indigenous peoples, immigrants, women, workers, queer and trans folks, Black and brown communities are facing criminalization, exploitation, deportation, incarceration, harassment, and violence. The organizing collective of Abolition: a journal of insurgent politics invites your proposals for a multi-faceted, multi-group convergence in the Twin Cities this fall!

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From the Vaughn Prison Uprising: “For a Safer, More Secure, and More Humane Prison”

An open letter to Warden Parker of Vaughn Correctional Center:
“We, as inmates, know that when we are incarcerated, we lose certain “civil” rights. What we do not lose and what should not be taken away from us are our “human” rights. Under no circumstances should we be treated as less than human beings, nor shall we be expected to settle for such treatment.”

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Abuse Thrives on Silence: The #VaughnRebellion in Context

– by Kim Wilson –

The #VaughnRebellion cannot be disconnected from the broader struggle against extra-judicial police killings of Black people in the United States. Freedom from abuse from corrections officers and other prison staff is part of the same struggle to end police violence.

The #VaughnRebellion read thusly, is also a direct response to unjust federal policies that are likely to influence the conditions within state prisons in Delaware and around the country. At a time when the federal government has targeted vulnerable groups of people in this country, the #VaughnRebellion should be seen as a signal that solidarity includes solidarity with incarcerated people.

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Diluting Radical History: Blood in the Water and the Politics of Erasure

In this incisive critique, Orisanmi Burton argues that Heather Ann Thompson’s acclaimed book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising and Its Legacy actively undermines the significance of the rebellion by erasing racial violence from the normal routines of prison life, ignoring key aspects of the rebels’ critique of prisons, and distorting their radical abolitionist politics.

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America’s Electoral Apartheid: 30-40 million US residents excluded from voting

– by Konstantin Kilibarda –
A key component of an apartheid system is the ability to disenfranchise those populations that may tip the political scales. Currently in the United States there are between 30-40 million residents (including millions of US citizens) who remain systematically disenfranchised. The fact that the disenfranchised are primarily racialized or poor, underlines Charles W. Mills’ contention that America’s democracy continues to be premised on a hierarchically structured ‘racial contract.’ Below I’ve compiled a short list of groups in the US who can’t vote, despite living, loving, caring, participating, and working everyday in communities and neighborhoods throughout the country.

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