On Prison Abolitionism



This interview is an excerpt of the conversation with Nasrin Himada recorded on January 27, 2016, for The Funambulist’s podcast, Archipelago. Nasrin is a Montréal-based writer and curator. Her interdisciplinary research interests focus on the history of Palestinian cinema, art and activism, and the militarization of urban space through prison infrastructure and police surveillance. This conversation about prison abolitionism was important to integrate to this issue whose editorial line is resolutely against any forms of incarceration. The political struggle that argues for non-carceral societies already exists, and through this conversation, Nasrin gives us an introduction to it.

Prison Postcard2

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: In a text that you wrote for Fuse in 2012, you talk about how you have a long tradition of refusing “-isms.” You write tht you never consider yourself as a Marxist or an anarchist, for example, until you came to abolitionism and became an abolitionist. I’m quite sure there are various degrees of knowledge about prison abolitionism among our listeners and myself. Would you mind starting to introduce this idea, and then we’ll discuss things more in detail?

NASRIN HIMADA: Personally, it was always intuitive for me to come to prison abolition because I already felt — along with activists and organizers concerned with the well-being of each other and everybody, in our organizing or in our future idea of what this world would look like — that I couldn’t imagine there would be such a thing as prisons. When I think about incarceration, I really think it’s connected to the root issues we are already fighting against. I already mentioned colonization, but also white supremacy, and class war. I feel the prison system is not separate from these bigger issues already creating power relations on the ground that further cause violence to communities of colour. In the U.S. Black Americans and Hispanics represent the highest populations in prisons. Here, in Canada, it’s Indigenous people and Black Canadians. This is connected to how racial capitalism is structured, organized, and managed. The prison system mirrors the violence of inequality in the spaces outside it that we’re struggling against. For me, abolition felt like an obvious turn because of my concerns and urgencies already rooted in social justice via Palestine.

LL: It seems to be coined within the very term, right? Coming from African American thinkers, the very word “abolition” couldn’t not recall slavery abolition. I suppose this was integrated in a deliberate way within the term.

NH: Angela Davis talks about that in her book, Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003). In it, she maps the history of slavery, criminalization and incarceration in the U.S. She points out that slavery wasn’t completely abolished in the Thirteenth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. If you committed a crime your punishment was enslavement. I would like to quote directly from her, here:

Particularly in the United States race has always played a central role in constructing presumptions of criminality. After the abolition of slavery, former slave states passed new legislation revising the Slave Codes in order to regulate the behavior of free blacks in ways similar to those that had existed during slavery. The new Black Codes proscribed a range of actions-such as vagrancy, absence from work, breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts-that were criminalized only when the person charged was black. With the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, slavery and involuntary servitude were putatively abolished. However, there was a significant exception. In the wording of the amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished ‘except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.’

There is that history there. I also felt that — and Rachel Zellars, an education scholar and transformative justice activist in Montreal, who co-founded Third Eye Collective, talks about this in an interview I did with her this winter. The way she explained transformative justice to me really resonated with how I define prison abolition for myself — transformative justice is connected to the way we want to organize together. Not just organize, but also how we want to be together. She makes that very clear, in the sense of thinking about care in transformative justice practices. What it means to care for one another, to care for one’s community, to care for building community. Transformative justice means finding ways to hold each other accountable not through state-sanctioned means. Not through the courts, not through the police, not through punishment, not through the carceral system.

LL: For people outside of Montreal who would not know Rachel Zellars, the co-founder of the transformative justice group, Third Eye Collective, perhaps we should explain this interview you conducted. In the framework of prison abolitionism, the interview discussed how the idea of holding people accountable appears as a paradox at first. However, in the case of Zellars’s militancy in the context of sexual assaults on Black Canadian women, we can understand little by little how accountability can appear at first glance as a paradox when we’re thinking about prison abolitionism. 25% of the carceral population is made up of Indigenous people, as you said; we understand this is a problem. We understand how societal conditions can lead to easier routes to prison than others. But, on the other hand, we’re also looking at people who commit the worst abuses of power through these sexual assaults. These very people are also involved within the project that prison abolitionism envisions. The response is no longer in the framework of punishment and prisons, but rather in terms of accountability and prevention, right?

NH: Yeah. This makes me think of your question about alternatives in your preparatory email. I think about that a lot, and people ask that often — fair enough, of course — because prison abolition as a concept is hard to grasp. I just want to say that I don’t speak on behalf of anyone else. Personally, I’m not already thinking that there’s something to replace the prison. When I think of prison abolition or transformative justice, I’m not thinking that we need to come up with infrastructures or buildings to replace the prison institution. I’m thinking, first of all, with non-state imaginings, though not necessarily connected to anarchist traditions. I want to make that clear. I don’t know much about anarchism. I am really just thinking about the societies, structures, and ways of organizing in communities that existed, already existed, before this land was colonized. Second, I think a lot about time. As a prison abolitionist and a transformative justice advocate, I know that I am already working within a different timeframe. This work, just plainly speaking, takes time. Because it’s about consistently changing — being-in-transformation — how I live, and how I want to be in the world. These politics are lived politics, and are fundamental to how I desire to live with others. They’re life-changing, not state-changing.

When I say we need to think about how to imagine the possible within what seems like the impossible, I am referring to a politics of time. So I have no answers for that question because I don’t find it’s an interesting point to begin with: “What would you do with pedophiles? What would you do with murderers? What would you do with these people who commit extreme acts of violence?” And I don’t know. It’s not something I want to answer, because that’s just working within a timeframe that’s not conducive to the kind of organizing I want to participate in.

I am thinking about how it’s already important to take the steps towards what it would mean to not, for example, involve the police, or the court system in cases of violence that involve close friends. I believe we need to begin by establishing strong community support first. This is Rachel’s point in the interview. To begin by thinking about what it means to care for one another, and to organize around care. So I’m not mapping out a big alternative system. I’m just thinking: first, how do I hold myself accountable? How do I hold myself accountable with my friends, my colleagues, the people I organize with, my bio family, my chosen family? Second, how do I do it on the street? How do I practice abolition in public, in the everyday? I’ve talked about this a lot with a close friend who’s inspired me a lot on issues of prison abolition, and who’s also a member of Third Eye Collective. I told her recently that part of my abolition practice is to be aware in public, to keep my eyes open, and be present in case someone is about to be harmed by the police or others, and if I can, to step in. So there were a few cases where people started physically fighting on the street, once at the market, one time near a metro stop, and I stepped in to make sure that the cops weren’t called and the fight dissipated. That’s just one example. Another is if I see someone being harassed by cops, I stop and take my phone out and stick around to witness if any police violence is about to occur. So it’s thinking about intervention in the instant that helps to support the person in danger right away. Of course, it might be too dangerous for me to step in at times, I don’t know, it hasn’t happened yet. That’s something I always think about in regards to privilege as well — that I read as white, and read as if I belong to a certain class — so it’s much easier for me to be present and assertive in public. There’s also a great article, an important resource for folks who want to think about this further and it’s available online, detailing a list of things you can do before you need to call the cops. It’s called “Feeling the Edge of your Imagination: Finding Ways Not To Call the Cops.”

For me, in any case, I feel it’s important to build a community that you can call for support or back up. For me, you begin there. You begin by creating a real kind of support system that would stand in as an alternative to picking up the phone and calling 9-1-1. That was also the point that Rachel was making. Third Eye Collective began by them just having dinners together all the time, and creating a space that felt safe, open, and close-knit, creating camaraderie and trust. Then you would move from there, in terms of what the next steps are to provide support for women who experience sexual assault. It’s really starting at the base level: of getting together and talking, and committing to that in the long term, and outside of state practices. And not just thinking about what it would mean to replace the prison, because then you’re already thinking carcerally.

LL: That gives me the opportunity to say, I apologize for forming my question this way, especially in the email I sent you to prepare the conversation.

NH: Oh, no apology necessary! It’s a very important question for me to think about because I always want to have a better answer [laughter].

LL: Sure. That’s the first thing that people who think they take you seriously will think about. They say, “yeah, okay, but what do you do with pedophiles or rapists? What do you do with these people once you don’t have prisons anymore?” That’s kind of the logical first question that comes to your mind. As we know well, the first question that comes to your mind is usually not the best one. I think that’s what you mean when you say, that this is already thinking carcerally. It already relates to after the violence, and we should probably be trying to think much more before the conditions gather to bring violence. I suppose that turns the dilemma upside down. It’s an entire brain exercise. I’m just saying, I’m glad because I feel like throughout those email exchanges, text reading, and this conversation in particular, I came to this whole process to think differently about what I called “alternatives.” I think that would be a great thing to convey as well throughout this conversation for anyone who’s intrigued by this concept, isn’t it?

NH: Yeah! There’s a beautiful one-liner from the interview where Rachel says, “You change the world by changing yourself.” Practicing prison abolition in the everyday really starts with you, in terms of how you want to practice being with people you care about. It’s so much about how you love the ones close to you. That’s really the most important thing.

LL: As you mentioned regarding what to do before calling the cops, the immediate consequence of thinking such an anti-carceral concept is to rethink the very function of the police. We don’t want to call the police. We want to call the firefighters. Meaning: we want someone who can intervene in dissolving violence, but we don’t need an addition of violence after violence has been committed.

NH: That’s it. That’s definitely a hard one, too. I had an argument with a friend about it. She asked, “So what are you saying? When my friend’s ex-boyfriend shows up at her door and is threatening to cause violence, she has no other option but to call the police. So she shouldn’t call the police?” And I said, “of course that’s not what I am saying. I would just hope that your friend would have another number to call.” That, for me, is what transformative justice is — building communities so that we have those phone numbers to call someone else to come in and to show up for that moment. Because that is fundamentally dangerous. Of course, you’d want to call the police, there’s no doubt about that. But often when you call the police, like you were just saying, more violence shows up. So it’s very tricky, and that’s why I think it’s important to think about how prison abolition and transformative justice is really connected to community-building. It’s really connected to what it means to build communities that have a strong presence in our lives.

LL: So far, we have talked about this interview with Rachel Zellars. The other text you kindly sent me to prepare this conversation was a text you wrote for the magazine FUSE about the collaborative artwork between Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace. In that case, it more describes work that is done, in part, from directly within the carceral system. Could you maybe tell us about this specific artwork and your conversation with Jackie Sumell?

NH: I met Jackie, I think, in 2009. She was kind enough to meet with me and talk about her project with Herman Wallace, “The House That Herman Built,” who was one of the Angola Three. He passed away in 2013. He got diagnosed with cancer, was on his deathbed, and three days before he died he was finally released. Herman had spent over 40 years in solitary confinement. The Angola Three was a much talked-about case. They started a Black Panthers chapter inside prison, were organizing and advocating for prisoners’ rights in Angola, in Louisiana. Basically, the three of them — Herman Wallace, Alfred Woodfox and Robert King — were imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit. A guard died during some fight, they got blamed for it and were put in solitary. A lot of what gets talked about is how they were targeted for their political organizing inside the prison. They were trying to change the conditions that they and their fellow prisoners were living in. Eventually, one of them, Robert King, got out. He started to tour different places to talk about the case of the Angola Three, and then Jackie heard him speak when she was in San Francisco completing school there. She decided to start writing to Herman and Alfred, and they started writing to each other regularly. At some point, she realized that Herman had been moved to something called “the dungeon,” which is worse than solitary. His writing started to deteriorate, and she started to notice that he was getting extremely depressed. She was doing her MFA and got assigned this project to talk to a professor about their dream house, or something like this. And she was like, this is ridiculous, but maybe I could ask Herman what his dream house would look like. She thought maybe that would help him in his situation, which was very dire at that time. So she consulted with his advocates, his lawyers, and his family to see if that was an okay thing to ask. They said yes, that they should try anything at this point. Then she wrote him and asked him this question: “What kind of a house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell dream of?” At first, he was reluctant. But eventually they really got into it. Much of their correspondence was how Herman imagined building this dream house. The project became very influential. A lot of people got involved in helping Herman translate this dream to reality. For example, designers made a CAD video that showcases a maquette of the house, and gives a tour of the inside and outside of the house, with Robert narrating from Herman’s letters. There are even blueprints. Jackie started to exhibit the project in art galleries, which she then used as a platform to talk about Herman’s situation in solitary. So it got a lot of attention, and it was through collaborative art that this situation with Herman and the Angola Three was made even more public. It got a lot of press and the media started discussing solitary confinement in the U.S. The project highlighted the severe violence of solitary confinement in America, and made that information more accessible to the broader public. What was interesting about it for me was that Jackie was using her skills as an artist to really initiate this collaboration. It wasn’t your usual go-to advocacy or activism. It was by imagining, and working toward actually building this house that conversations around solitary confinement were being made public.

LL: It seems we’re talking about houses, and maybe we can conclude this conversation by talking about the architecture of those carceral environments without, again, going into specifics. Architects understand how they would systematically refuse any sort of contribution to carceral facilities. We have this pledge that Raphael Sperry has been leading to get architects to promise never to design solitary confinement cells or death row facilities. Somehow, there’s a relatively good understanding within the architectural community that such forms of design would clearly be participating in something they don’t want to have anything to do with, even though they would not necessarily describe themselves as abolitionists. What this discussion triggers for me is not so much related to prisons, but related to everything else. In that case, why aren’t architects adapting that same refusal to, say, a bank or a factory?

NH: I think Raphael Sperry talks about that. His campaign is about encouraging American architects to refuse to build spaces like solitary confinement prisons or apparatuses for capital punishment, and to make this obligatory as part of their licensing mandate. One of the things I think he’s saying through this initiative is to get us to think about what would be important to design and not design. He talks about how architects need to focus more on designing schools, hospitals, clinics, community centers, and public spaces rather than spaces of confinement. This makes me think about how infrastructure is built into spaces, how certain decisions condition the effects of those spaces, and how funds are allocated to get those spaces built. I think Sperry’s whole initiative is adding to that conversation on where people live affects how people live, and the well-being of a community. He’s encouraging architects to think about what’s at stake in their practice. Why not focus on designing more community centers for youth, health clinics, schools, and recreation facilities rather than prisons? What would it mean to move away from building carceral spaces? And that doesn’t mean to just stop designing prisons. But how can our cities be designed so they are more accessible and more public, rather than creating carceral spaces of surveillance and security that condition how people are allowed to move, or manage how people move in a space.

Transcript by Amrit Trewn (2016) / Find the rest of this conversation online in “Introduction to Prison Abolitionism.”