What do we mean by abolition?

In this episode we turn to recent news of the deepening impacts of the biggest prison strike in U.S. History, as we look at Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  We also speak with Professor Liat Ben-Moshé on our carceral society and the political imaginary of abolition. We wrap with a phone interview with Chaz, an imprisoned trans woman in Michigan who is fighting for queer and trans prisoners’ liberation.

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Episode Transcript:

Andrés: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio. My name is Andrés. Today we turn to recent news of the deepening impacts of the biggest prison strike in U.S. History, as we look at Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  We also speak with Professor Liat Ben-Moshé on our carceral society and the political imaginary of abolition. We end todays show with a phone interview with Chaz, an imprisoned trans organizer in Michigan who is fighting for queer and trans prisoners’ liberation.


Kaif Syed: I’m Kaif Syed here with a Maria and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan. In this show we amplify the voices of those impacted by mass incarceration and explore ongoing work in our movement to abolish the carceral state — that is: prisons, police, courts as well as racial domination and capitalist exploitation.

a Maria: Rustbelt Abolition Radio seeks to strengthen community collaboration and challenge the idea that putting people in cages and shackling them with electronic devices solves the problems produced by racial capitalism. Let’s expand our ability to struggle against the ways in which the carceral state impacts our daily lives and to create a space where we can both imagine and remake our world anew.

Kaif Syed: What does a world without prisons, police, and property look like? What kind of social relations are engendered when we solve our problems not by dialing the magic number – 911 – but by resolving problems ourselves? These are the kinds of questions that abolitionists ask.

a Maria: Prison abolition is not simply about finally letting go of an old form of solving problems – putting people in cages – abolition also entails reshaping the ways in which we relate with one another in all scales. One of the ways Detroiters are working to relate together is through building community radio.

Kaif Syed: Community radio has the power to amplify social movements and counter the social death sentences imposed on our communities. It affirms that none of us are disposable and that the production of ideas in our homes and streets matters.

a Maria: This radio project relies on a careful ear, an eagerness to learn and be challenged, and the ability to weave together a bigger picture for the benefit of listeners and those whose stories and struggles are being voiced. By providing a platform to share in-depth analysis informed by neighborhood expertise, Rustbelt Abolition Radio underpins self-determination and directly counters the narratives that stifle the needs and dreams of our communities.


a Maria: Now we turn to Alejo Stark, a co-producer of this show and the media spokesperson for Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity, MAPS. It’s a statewide group organizing in solidarity with prisoners against the violence of incarceration, and has propelled mainstream media coverage of the events of last fall’s nationwide prison strike.

Alejo Stark: The September 9, 2016 prisoner uprising in the united states was the largest and most widespread rebellion organized by prisoners in US history. The call to action was made by imprisoned organizers from the Free Alabama Movement in light of the anniversary of the Attica prison riots of September 9, 1971. On the outside, it was supported by organizers with Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee of the IWW. However, the widespread character of the uprising demonstrates the widespread state of the crisis of mass incarceration. In  the state of Michigan, as far as we know, only rebels imprisoned at the Kinross correctional facility joined in the nationwide September 9 uprising. Among many demands, the prisoners demanded higher wages. Laundry workers, at kinross for instance, make $20 a month.

I spoke with Evelyn Sommers, whose husband is incarcerated at Kinross, about the events of September 9.

Evelyn Williams: My name is Evelyn Williams, and I am now the wife of Anthony Bate, and he is a prisoner at the Kinross Correctional Facility.

Alejo Stark: Can you tell us about a call that you made to your husband on September 9 of 2016?

Evelyn Williams: I was planning, that was my weekend I was trying to go up. And you know, he had told me kinda about what was going on, and I might not be able to come. On the 9th, he called me, he’s like “Well they let all the regular visits and things come through, and so we should be ok”. But he did tell me they wouldn’t feed them the normal food, they would only give them a cheese sandwich and a banana, but each one of the meals was a cheese sandwich and three cookies and some milk with the meals. And they wasn’t giving them the regular meals. And so a lot of them were getting upset, because the food service should’ve been feeding them what the scheduled meal was.

On Saturday the 10th, I was getting ready to go, I was actually waiting for the rental car people to come get me so I could go up there. And he called me in a panic that morning at like 8:15 and was like “Don’t come! The sirens are going off, they’re about to lock us down.”. He couldn’t talk very long because the sirens was going off, and they was making everybody go to their room, locking everything down. I didn’t know what was going on. So it took a week almost before I ever talked to him again. He couldn’t get through the phone, he couldn’t even get through even to talk to an officer there. The lines just said “We’re in an immobilization. Try your call again.”. And that happened for almost a week. I’m just looking at Facebook seeing different posts from the free press and people talking about what was going on and what happened. I don’t know if they were able to hear from somebody that maybe had a contraband phone or something like that, but as people can report, it scared the death out of me because I didn’t know what was going on.

Alejo Stark: So you didn’t hear about your husband for a full week? You called, you heard the sirens, and you had no idea what was going on.

Evelyn Sommers: Not at all. All I’m hearing was the media reports and what I’m seeing on Facebook. All you hear is through them, it’s what you know, where your loved one is, you hear about all of that. The EST agents going in…

Alejo Stark: The emergency response team, yeah.

Evelyn Williams: But you don’t know if they’re ok, or what’s going on.

Alejo Stark: What did you find out afterwards about what had happened? You told us you heard about the sirens that Saturday morning, and the emergency response teams from Paul Egan’s article. What did you find out about what happened afterwards?

Evelyn Williams: When he was finally able to call me, which was the following Thursday or Friday he called like 10:00, 10:15 in the morning, as soon as they let the lockdown off, and he told me everything that had happened about them zip tying the gentlemen, about the guys that tried to peaceably talk to the wardens. The wardens had come out, and had kind of promised them that they would supply some of their demands, take care of everything they were asking. And if they couldn’t, they would go to legislature about it. He said everybody walked away peaceful and fine. He said the warden stepped out of the yard, shut the door.

The guys went about their regular day, thinking they were okay, that they had just came to a common solution. He said before you know it, all these police and tactical guys coming in, zip tying them, pulling guys out the shower, firing pepper spray. The guys in the very back unit, I guess the one that had the most damage, they tried to barricade themselves in. And the guys broke through there, the police officers and things broke through there. He said all the regular unit police, they just all disappeared off the unit. Just out of nowhere, they just all started leaving their posts. He said he knew something was kind of wrong. And then all these armed guards with shotguns came in there, and some of the guys had to sit out there in the rain. Some of them half naked, or even had to use the bathroom on themselves, zip tied outside for 5 or 6 hours.

Alejo Stark: So even though prisoners at Kinross met with the warden and seemed to have come to an agreement, you’re saying that they were still, as they went back peacefully, were repressed by the emergency response team and zip tied and left out in the cold. What do you think about all this, what do you think about this repression?

Evelyn Williams: Well I think it is wrong of course. I think that guys that at no time even when they were marching around the yard that morning, he said it was a peaceful demonstration, and if you look at the reports everything said the guys were just walking around causing no disturbance. They just wanted to see the warden, the warden came. All they wanted to do was get a couple words in against policy, and say that — it’s a force to dehumanize these men. Because even this one gentleman I keep in contact with as well that was moved out, he did nothing. He had no part in this, and they moved him to a level 5, a maximum security prison for no reason. And now when they try and fight the ticket or file a grievance, they always lose. It’s another way to repress and dehumanize these men.

Alejo Stark: And you’ve had a chance to talk with your husband about this afterwards right? What did he think about the situation and the process of dehumanization of prisoners, as you call it?

Evelyn Williams: He’s living it everyday. You know, he talks about it being the modern day slavery, a lot of them don’t have families. They can’t even afford soap and basic things, and then a lot of them come from the inner city, and so it’s an even harder burden on their families to have to go through this and support them and things like that. And it makes somebody who’s already serving sentences, it does not prepare them to come back to the world. I think that’s what his biggest problem is, they don’t do anything to prepare them to come back. So they’re always left at a disadvantage. Even ones who come home and get out are left at a disadvantage. So now society looks at them like a criminal, they can’t get a job, they’re in there with no education, no programs, no anything, and no pay. And it ends up being a revolving door, because now to make money and make things happen, they come back out here and they get into the same lifestyle because a system that’s meant to rehabilitate them has failed them.

Alejo Stark: Well thank you very much for your words Evelyn.

In more recent news, we have heard that the retaliation against organizers and others involved in the Kinross uprising is much worse than is publicly well-known. There are almost 200 prisoners that are staying “in the hole” –that is, in solitary confinement– for up to a year. We stand in solidarity with all of those struggling against the brutality of imprisonment, and want to emphasize that the rebellions did not start in september 9.  In fact, in march and april of 2016, rebels in three michigan facilities demonstrated the great maxim of the Haitian revolution — unity makes strength — by staging hunger strikes in those facilities. Nothing changed between march and september, and nothing has changed since september — except that prisoners are now better organized to struggle against the walls and cages that imprison them.  As such, we think that the rebellions will and should continue.


Kaif Syed: Now we speak with Professor Liat Ben-Moshe about our carceral society and the political imaginary of abolition. But first, a brief clip from Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore on what she means by abolition.


a Maria: Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore is Director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, and Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is a cofounder of many social justice organizations, including California Prison Moratorium Project, Critical Resistance, and the Central California Environmental Justice Network. In her book, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, she examined how political and economic forces produced California’s prison boom. We open this segment with a recording of Dr. Gilmore’s presentation on prison abolition, courtesy of the Connecticut Coalition to Oppose Indefinite Detention.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Alright, I am an abolitionist. Abolition. Abolition is a plot against racial capitalism, which is all capitalism, not just some of it. It is a plot in a narrative sense. It is a plot in which the arc of change is always going resolutely toward freedom. It is a plot in a geographic sense. It is a plot in which we aim to make all space, not just some space, free in two senses. Free in the sense that it cannot be alienated, which is to say sold, by anybody to anybody. And free in the sense of non exclusive, there is no boundary or border that we keep somebody in or keep somebody out. That is abolition, that’s the plot, that’s my plot. It is an internationalist impulse that is part of what many of us call the black radical tradition, which is open for all.


a Maria: If the aim of abolition is to make all space free and non-exclusive, with no boundary or border that would keep somebody in or keep somebody out, how do we reconcile that with a common sense impulse to move people out of prisons and into mental health facilities?

Dr. Liat Ben-Moshe is Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo and a scholar-activist who works in the intersection of prison abolition, anti-psychiatry, de-institutionalization, and disability justice. She is co-editor of Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada. I spoke with Dr. Ben-Moshe about the abolitionary mindset, and asked: what does this mindset lead us to question?

Liat Ben-Moshe: What an abolitionist mindset on prison really does is that it leads us to question really deep profound questions around what do we call innocence, what is harm, what do we do when people harm us, what is safety, why do we feel safe, who’s the “we”? Why do we feel safe under certain conditions and not others? And again, I’m saying who’s the “we”, I think it’s really one of the profound questions here too. Who’s not the “we”, and what are the consequences of that erasure and exclusion? It’s about vulnerability, it’s about care, it’s about so many different questions, so it’s really not about what people think about prison abolition, that it’s about closing prisons. It really crystalizes for us the society in which we live in, the values that it has, and the kind of alternative structures that we want to put in place.

a Maria: Do you think that we can wait for abolition, and how do you respond to the critiques that people lay on an abolitionary mindset?

Liat Ben-Moshe: I started to think recently more broadly about the abolitionary mindset through really the lense of not just prison abolition, but we can talk about the abolition of slavery as well, but from my work also on deinstitutionalization. And that taught me a lot of lessons around the critiques that people lay on an abolitionary mindset. So if we take prison abolition as an example, and this is word for word what was said about deinstitutionalization and a lot of it a little bit less than word for word around the abolition of slavery, is that people said it’s not realistic in the current society that we live in. Like this might work really well in Norway or something, but they didn’t say that about slavery, but about prisons and institutions. That the conditions are not ripe right now, so maybe we need to wait a little bit, and people did say that about slavery as well. It’s a good idea right, it’s an ethical idea that we can think about, but not right now. There’s not alternatives in place, people are not ready.

People often say about abolition that it’s only a critique, it’s not prescriptive, it doesn’t offer us anything. That it doesn’t give us specific solutions as to what to do, it only critiques what we have. And so, what I want to say is that this is the beauty of abolition, is all those things. These are not really critiques, because the beauty of abolition to me is that it’s an ethical position. And it’s an ethical position in which the the time is always ripe for. We cannot wait, slaves couldn’t wait right, until the time is right?

People are rotting in institutions and in prisons, and when I say institution by the way I mean mostly these kinds of large scale residential institutions for people with intellectual disabilities. People couldn’t wait for the right time to do that, and unfortunately people did die in these places while waiting for us to do something, and it took a really long time to get rid of that mindset that people with disabilities need to be in these kinds of facilities. And even though right now in the US, there are still a lot of states that have these large scale institutions for people with intellectual disabilities. And psychiatric hospitals, there’s about 13 states in the US right now that don’t have any residential institutions that are large scale for people with intellectual disabilities.

So what happened? We not have people with intellectual disabilities? No, that’s not what happened. We just decided that as a society, as a policy, as a culture, we rid ourselves of this as an option. This is not an option. And so if it’s not an option, what do we do? And that, lo and behold, opened so many opportunities. Because the idea that it wasn’t prescriptive, I mean it’s true, people didn’t know what to do. There were some experts that said this might work, this might work, but ultimately things can only work when you try them out. And you can’t try them out if all the money and all the efforts go into reforming institutions and building more institutions, and making them better, putting more people in them, and so on. And once we got rid of that, we found out about other ways of relating to people.

Now not all of it is successful and not all of it will be successful, and it’s not successful for different people, but on the ground we could never find these things if we’re so committed to other projects of incarceration. And so it really is an either/or kind of situation, so not being prescriptive is actually really useful for an abolitionary praxis. Not being realistic I think is also something that’s said a lot about abolition, like your not realistic. It’s great, I’m with you all the way, as an ethical stance abolition is wonderful. But, you know, it’s not realistic. Of course that’s also not true because prison is not realistic, it’s absolutely not a realistic project. And I think people from the right and the left are starting to critique it for very very different reasons, but especially because of that, that it’s not a sustainable project.

So I think our ideas of what is realistic or not are really tainted by the kind of goals that we have. And I think for abolitionists we see liberation as the goal, and we see see a completely different structure of society as the goal, that we’re not confined by these kinds of critiques. We actually see them as opportunities to make something.

a Maria: Lets talk about the logics of incarceration. Where does incarceration take place, and why is that important?

Liat Ben-Moshe: Incarceration happens not just in spaces behind bars. So for instance, and we know this for a lot of people with disabilities especially intellectual and psychiatric disabilities which are sort of more invisible types of disabilities, there are more forms of incarceration that are more like nursing homes or institutions or psych wards. Places we don’t really think of as carceral spaces but they’re incarcerated there nonetheless. And so if we only think about prisons, we don’t think about those spaces. And the reason that it’s important, especially for activism, is because then when we talk about how we need to abolish or even reform prison spaces, we often think about things like “oh what we can do is open psych wards or make sure people are not in prison, but maybe they’re in nursing homes”. And with people with disabilities, they’re telling us there, they see themselves as incarcerated in those spaces so those are not in any way progressive moves on our part, to get rid of one space and then open another space that’s just as carceral or encased in carceral logics.

a Maria: You take seriously the notion of the carceral archipelago presented by French social theorist Michel Foucault. This concept encourages us to consider the control of public space and the disciplining of society through means such as surveillance and checkpoints, and illuminates why it is important to think about the carceral –rather than just the prison– when advancing abolition.

Liat Ben-Moshe: I think the other thing that’s really important, is that it moves us from thinking about things with walls to more thinking about the logics of incarceration. So what does it mean to live in a carceral state? And that’s not just those people that are over there behind bars. And I think thinking about the carceral archipelago and carceral logics really frees us from those binaries, so that it’s not just those people that we’re trying to free — you know, kind of like a savior complex — but it’s really about what is my role within the carceral state? How am I embedded within the prison industrial complex, for example, and other carceral sites?


a Maria: Now we turn to the struggle of those who are queer and trans and incarcerated at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, where they are routinely sexually harassed and demeaned by correctional officers. Sexual harassment of prisoners is a violation of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. When some of the prisoners filed grievances against officers for the illegal behavior, they experienced further mistreatment and retaliation, with officers ganging up against them in coordinated efforts to retaliate against the grievances. “We may be caged, but we’re not animals,” said trans inmate Chaz. Chaz was an activist inside the Jackson facility until being recently transferred to Carson City, Michigan. A former nurse, she hopes to be a public speaker when she is released. We talked with her about what it’s like to be a trans activist “on the inside”.

Prison Phone Line: This call is from a corrections facility and is subject to monitoring and recording. Thank you for using GTL.

Chaz: We are caged, but we are not animals. And being an activist in prison, it enriches me, you know? It empowers me and it makes me feel like I am not alone and I have a voice, especially when you meet other activists on the inside and the outside that will fight for you, and not just that, but fight with you. That’s mostly important because for so many years I felt like I was just alone, like I didn’t have any voice, wasn’t nobody listening, wasn’t nobody willing to fight. You know, like everybody here tough, like I’m a gangbanger, I’m this, but nobody actually willing to go to the Hole and fight. And I just refused to lay down. So being an activist, for me it’s made me more self confident, it has healed a lot of my past wounds and hurts, it made me focus on what’s important. So being an activist for me on the inside has been really amazing, because it makes me feel like I’m still a human being and I have a purpose in life.


Andrés: In the spirit of liberation and abolition, this week we commemorate the 212th anniversary of the Haitian Revolution — the most successful slave uprising in history. The slaves of St. Domingue, now Haiti, rose up against their French masters, expelling them from the island and striking a blow against slavery, colonialism, imperialism and racial capitalism. As Afro-Trinidadian marxist intellectual and socialist militant CLR James wrote in his history of the Haitian Revolution titled The Black Jacobins, quote: In 1789 the French bourgeoisie was the most powerful economic force in France, and the slave-trade and the colonies were the basis of its wealth and power. End quote.  CLR James thereby ties capitalist accumulation and slavery — as interlocking and overlapping modes of production and demonstrating that capitalism was always already racial. In other words, the economic success of the French bourgeoisie was founded on the exploitation of the Black workers in Saint Domingue. As such, the struggle for the abolition of slavery, for human liberation, is also the struggle for the abolition of capitalism. It is in this way that we invoke the long history and spirit of abolition and call forth the words of CLR James in The Black Jacobins: The rich are only defeated when running for their lives. Today the struggle toward an abolitionist future — for a world without capitalist exploitation and racial domination — a world without prisons, private property, and police continues.


Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. Check out our website at w-w-w-dot-rustbeltradio-dot-org. This was show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio Team: Andrés, a Maria, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark.