In this episode we focus on the ways women are organizing against gendered violence and mass criminalization — and for a world free of domination. We speak with Mariame Kaba, long-time abolitionist organizer and writer, about her work with groups like Survived and Punished and Project NIA, and the criminalization of women under capitalist heteropatriarchy. We also talk to Adrienne Skye-Roberts from the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), on specific challenges faced by women behind bars. We close today’s show with the voices of two women from from CCWP’s multimedia project, A Living Chance: Storytelling to End Life without Parole and a poem written and read by a writer and artist currently incarcerated at the Women’s Huron Valley prison in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
#FreeBresha illustration by Vivian Shih
Click here to display the episode transcript.
Andrés: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio. My name is Andrés. In today’s episode, “Survival and Resistance”, we focus on the ways women are organizing against gendered violence and mass criminalization — and for a world free of domination. We speak with Mariame Kaba, long-time abolitionist organizer and writer, about her work with groups like Survived and Punished and Project NIA, and the criminalization of women under capitalist heteropatriarchy. We also talk to Adrienne Skye-Roberts from the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) about the specific challenges faced by women behind bars. We close today’s show with the voices of two women from from CCWP’s multimedia project, A Living Chance: Storytelling to End Life without Parole, and a poem written and read by Carmen, a writer and artist currently incarcerated at the Women’s Huron Valley prison in Ypsilanti, Michigan. But first, here’s Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.
Kaif Syed: The Free Bresha campaign has called for a nationwide week of action on April 10th. Bresha was incarcerated last year at the age of 14 for defending herself and her family against the everyday violence perpetrated by her father. Bresha is currently incarcerated in the Trumbull County Ohio juvenile center and is facing an aggravated murder charge.
On March 23rd, after three and a half year long immigration battle, Rasmea Odeh, the 69 year old icon of the Palestinian liberation movement, ended her fight to win justice. Due to slim prospects of a fair trial, Odeh accepted a plea deal that will require her to not serve any more time, but strips her of her US citizenship and her right to remain in the US.
On International Women’s Day, millions of women across the globe joined in a global strike and hundreds shut down main street in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Marchers shouted: “From Palestine to México, all the walls have got to go!” and invoked the name of Aura Rosser, a black woman murdered by Ann Arbor police in November 2014. Here’s a segment from of the speeches:
March Clip: “We fight back against the attacks and the reproductive rights from this current administration. But we must also recognize that full reproductive justice for all is impossible under any president from either major party within the context of our system. We cannot achieve full reproductive justice without dismantling the capitalist imperialist white supremacist heteropatriarchy.”
Kaif Syed: See News from the Street at Rustbeltradio.org for links to these news items, including the Free Bresha Curriculum.
a Maria: I’m a Maria here with Kaif Syed and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan.
Kaif Syed: How do we understand the definition of violent crime when marginalized women are sent to prison, or put under state supervision in response to acts of survival and self defense? These are the kinds of questions we ask as abolitionists.
a Maria: Co-producer Alejo Stark and I recently interviewed Mariame Kaba to discuss the role of the criminal punishment system in the lives of women.
INTERVIEW WITH MARIAME KABA
Mariame Kaba: My name is Mariame Kaba, and I have been working around issues of incarceration and criminalization for many years. My work has been focused on young people in the juvenile justice system. Most recently, I am one of the co-organizers and co-founders of a project called Survived and Punished, that focuses on work around supporting and fighting around the violence. I have been involved with many different kinds of projects, most of them have some connection to anti-criminalization work or supporting this leadership development, or doing stuff around these anti-violence works. So that’s a little bit about me and what I have been involved in over the years.
a Maria: How do we understand mass incarceration when we start with and center women in our analysis?
Mariame Kaba: For me, the frame that is most useful is to think about mass criminalization over centering mass incarceration. That is important because most people will who are criminalized don’t actually end up behind bars or locked up. But there are many ways that people are drawn into the larger project of the criminal punishment system. That has to do with being arrested, and that has to do with maybe a short term detention, that has to do with a lot steps that don’t necessarily lead to any sort of significant incarceration or any at all. That may lead to probation or surveillance or other kinds [of criminalization] throughout the course of their lives. That is important because women, for the most part, are a smaller number in general of folks who are involved in the criminal punishment system, and certainly of people who are incarcerated. So if you think about this as mass criminalization, when you see women in a different way, you can actually see the role the criminal punishment system has in their lives. It brings up issues with parenting in a different way because we live in a society that is very much still where the people who are responsible for the kind of day to day child rearing are often women. And, in our society in particular, people who are targeted in incarceration are often poor and people of color. But when one child rearing partner finds themselves in the system – over 60% of the people who are incarcerated in women’s prisons are moms and so you have a situation there where there’s a removal of a mother who’s often been the primary caretaker of the children, and it is so traumatic on the families, puts the family even more into serious poverty, because not just her childbearing, but also being a single mother providing economically is ripped from the family so that has all kinds of impact on the community outside on the other side of the world.
Alejo Stark: When you talk about mass criminalization, which extends the prison walls into our neighborhoods through surveillance and social control, how does this impact marginalized women, particularly those who are criminalized for their survival mechanisms? Can you talk a little about the Marissa Alexander and the corollaries between the Movement for Black Lives and the No Selves to Defend Project?
Mariame Kaba: The criminalization of survival and self defense also has long roots, that is not something that is new, particularly when we look at the experiences of people that identify as women of color and poor. The trajectory is often women that end up in the criminal system criminalized. We have to understand the violence and trauma that they experienced prior to incarceration, so numbers are that between 70% and 90% of all of women who end up incarcerated have had the experience of domestic violence or sexual violence in their lives, and so that says a lot about the role that plays in making people more susceptible to finding themselves caught up in the criminal punishment system. There is the example of Marissa Alexander, a mother of three who, in 2010, nine days after she had her third child, was attacked in her home by her then estranged husband who had a lot history abusing her and also every other woman he had ever been with. He admitted that himself. She fired one shot to warn him off, a shot that did not harm anybody, and that got lodged in a wall in part of her house. And she ended up convicted after only a twelve minute deliberation by the jury. She was found guilty of aggravated assault and illegal firing of a weapon, three counts at that. She was charged against this 1020 law in Florida which talks about the fact that, if you do illegally discharge your weapon, you’re subject to a mandatory minimum of 20 years. So when she was found guilty, the prosecutors decided to opt for the minimum,and that’s what she got as her sentence. I started the Chicago alliance to work alongside and in support of the national mobilization committee to raise money and awareness, and to support her family while she was fighting through her trials and tribulation. She ended up having her case overturned in 2013 on a technicality; she got a new trial and, before she actually set to go to trial, she took a plea deal, which ended up being the time she had served plus an extra 65 days in jail, and then a probation of two years where she would have to have electronic monitoring and house arrest for those two years. Just this past year in 2017, at end of January, Marissa finished her two year electronic monitoring house arrest for her probationary sentence, and now she is “free,” even though she still has felony records, which is problematic for many different kinds of reasons. We have to think about the collateral consequences of criminalization and how that basically keeps you in a second pass system even when you supposedly are free and done your time. So that’s one example of how self defense is often criminalized, particularly the self defense of black women and women of color
a Maria: I was wondering if you could speak on carceral feminism. Victoria Law defined that an approach that sees increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to violence against women. What are the problems of a pro-criminalization approach to addressing violence, and how are marginalized women organizing to radically undermine this good victim vs. non-victim criminal dichotomy?
Mariame Kaba: First and foremost, most people who are targeted by the system are poor, gender non-conforming, and people of color. These people don’t have access to these systems. Those systems were not set up in the first place to “protect” them. Those systems have actually worked to harm them already, so there’s increasing suspicion of turning to those systems for “help” when it’s needed. But carceral feminism doesn’t consider the fact that those systems are not set up to help everybody equally. Those systems are often adversarial and very much harmful to [marginalized] communities, so those communities don’t get the same benefits as middle class white women. And so that’s a way to think about the way carceral feminism doesn’t take everybody into account, when the focus is on using the [carceral] apparatus to actually solve problems. It is kind of like a weird self fulfilling prophecy of the system not being there for you. You do what you need to survive, and then you become criminalized by that very system you couldn’t turn to in the first place, and you’re caught in this hard world cycle of inability to actually be free and to have an opportunity to be free of violence. Another issue is that when you’re in a position where you’re already marginalized, it isn’t just that system is going to harm you in some kind of way; it’s that it is very difficult to sometimes see yourself as even worthy of “protection”- you’re very much limited in terms of the tools that you have at your disposal. So you’re much more likely to take matters into your own hands and, that itself, because you’re not considered as somebody who has a self worth defending, puts you right in the middle of being criminalized by that system. So you mentioned the dichotomy between “perfect” and “non-perfect” victims, “violent” and “nonviolent” survivors – we don’t make any distinctions. People who are defending their lives are considered violent offenders. So we’re not going to make that dichotomy between those who use violence and those who don’t, because actually that’s not helpful, and it does not tell you much about what it is that people are facing and dealing with.
Alejo Stark: Can you briefly tell us, what does abolition means to you, and how specifically are you organizing toward and animated by a commitment to the abolitionist horizon?
Mariame Kaba: To me, abolition is a project of dismantling the systems of policing and government surveillance and incarceration, or at least working to change the conditions that allow for those institutions to exist, and making those obsolete. And, it is a project on building a different world – a world that does not rely on policing and imprisonment and government surveillance to address harm. It is also a real intervention, and trying to end premature dismissal of an abolitionist project. A lot of the way that we think of things that are “nonviolent” are constructed by the state as such, but maybe actually in fact violent, and a lot of the stuff that are [constructed as] violent are actually not. And, I would say we should confront these issues of violence; we should talk about the violence of the state, and not let that become subsumed in the conversation. We have to talk about the fact that a lot of those people who are using violence were violated themselves and are survivors, and sometimes that just sticks with them – the violence in their lives. We have to talk about how we’re going to build structures that don’t create more survivors and victims on the outside, before people even end up criminalized and incarcerated in the first place. I don’t think you solve this issue by creating more violence, which is what has been said – more violence to supposedly end violence just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. For me, that’s why I am involved in projects that do use these accountability and transformative justice ideas and approaches to reject new harm. I think it’s the only way we’re actually going to get at some purchase about these issues of violence in our communities, and we act proactively to address it ourselves. Because otherwise we are gonna leave it to the long arm of the state to address, and that is only going to bring more violence into our lives.
a Maria: Thank you for taking the time.
Mariame Kaba: Thanks, take care.
CCWP SEGMENT: INTERVIEW WITH ADRIENNE SKYE-ROBERTS
Alejo Stark: Co producer David Langstaff spoke to Adrienne Skye-Roberts from the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), an abolitionist organization, comprised of members both inside and outside of prison, that challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, trans people, and communities of color by the carceral state. They explore the gendered and racialized dimensions of mass incarceration, the way incarcerated women are organizing for survival and toward liberation, and the creative forms of solidarity that have emerged between those inside and outside of prison walls.
Adrienne Skye-Roberts: My name is Adrienne Skye-Roberts and and I’m a long time volunteer of CCWP – last month was my sixth year anniversary. CCWP, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, was started by people inside the prisons – in Chowchilla – in the mid 90s when the governor of California was Pete Wilson. And, together, organizers inside prison and organizers outside prison sued Pete Wilson and the state of California, rightfully claiming that the health care in prison was so bad it was cruel and unusual punishment. And, the organizers inside ended up winning that lawsuit, so it was a really historic moment in the 90s and in the prisoners’ rights movement in California. And, yet, nothing changed inside. But what that moment did do was catalyze this organization to organize against conditions inside, against the prison system in general, and for people’s freedom and dignity, from both inside prison and outside prison.
David Langstaff: Could you briefly describe California Coalition for Women Prisoners as an organization?
Adrienne Skye-Roberts: So we are a grassroots prison abolition organization, and our membership is on both sides of the walls. And, we take our leadership from people who are organizing inside prison. We do a lot. We have a two-person paid staff. Out of our principles, we only hire and pay people who are formerly incarcerated or directly impacted by incarceration, and the rest of us are all volunteers. CCWP has about five prison visiting teams, and we visit the two California state prisons for women every six to eight weeks. We have a speakers’ bureau which features formerly incarcerated people and prison survivors who speak at different events and universities and tell their stories. We are working on the Life Without Parole Storytelling Project, which is called A Living Chance. We are also doing support in the prison, California Institution for Women, east of Los Angeles, where there have been a number of suicides. And, we have a newsletter that has been around for almost twenty years called The Fire Inside, and that features the writing of people in California’s prisons for women, as well as legal information, and some art and poetry. That’s more or less what we are doing right now.
David Langstaff: What does abolition mean to you? And, how do you see CCWP’s politics and organizing as animated by a commitment to a vision of abolition? And conversely, what lessons do you think organizing as, with, and for incarcerated women has to offer the broader movement for abolition?
Adrienne Skye-Roberts: So one of the things that I find to be really unique about CCWP’s organizing, that I think has everything to do with an abolitionist politic…CCWP is very much a family. It is very familial. There are very strong, very long lasting relationships amongst members inside and outside, and it is the kind of organization where, for myself, it’s like this is just life now. It’s not work or something detached from my everyday life. This is just life and this is my community of people. And, to me that is abolitionist, because it is speaking against a lot of patriarchal norms, and it is getting outside of some capitalist structures and also heteropatriarchal structures of family, and [creating] communities of care. And, I think abolition is about reorganizing power and reorganizing power structures. And, with CCWP the people who are at the center of our organization, and the center of our movement, are women and people of color who are often poor and who are incarcerated. And, that is a restructuring of power and that’s a restructuring of whose voices are the loudest, and whose leadership is honored, centering the people who these capitalist punitive structures are marginalizing.
David Langstaff: Can you speak to the ways intimate and gendered violence and trauma are weaponized by the carceral state and the various ways women are resisting both inside and outside, whether through coalitions such as Survived and Punished, or projects such as Life Without Parole and A Living Chance?
Adrienne Skye-Roberts: I have never met anyone in a women’s prison who is not a survivor of abuse. Whether it is childhood abuse, childhood sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, human trafficking, etc., etc. It is absolutely the thing that connects everyone I have ever met who has done time. In California, if you were a survivor of intimate partner battery or domestic violence, any evidence of your abuse was not allowed in the courtroom prior to 1996. So, if you were on trial for killing your abusive partner in an act of self defense of yourself, or you and your children, or you were in an abusive relationship and you happened to be present, or you were coerced into being present at the time when your abusive partner killed someone or harmed someone, that evidence of your abuse and your abusive relationship was deemed irrelevant [in court]. So there are many survivors sitting in prison who never had a chance to tell their full story. That is one of the most obvious ways that the system relies on gender violence and relies on patriarchy and misogyny, and racialized violence as well – because these are majority women of color – in order to incarcerate more and more people.
There are so many ways that people are resisting from inside, and have been resisting from inside since incarceration first began. Some of the most obvious ways are through education, outreach, and awareness around cycles of abuse, and specifically around intimate partner battery, since so many people inside have had that direct experience. So many people do legal support for each other inside. There are a lot of what would be considered jailhouse lawyers – people who are self educated around the law – and they write writs for people, they support people prior to their board hearings, they are supporting people writing their commutation applications to Governor Brown. And, then, with CCWP, we are connecting with all the organizers inside and bringing their work out.
David Langstaff: Staying with this line of thought, in what ways does CCWP’s analysis, politics, and vision depart from the mainstream movement against domestic violence? Particularly with regard that the latter’s reliance upon increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as putative mechanisms of prevention and redress, a tendency that abolitionist queer feminists of color, in particular, have critiqued as a kind of “carceral feminism.”
Adrienne Skye-Roberts: What I have heard over and over again from incarcerated survivors is that they’re now in an abusive relationship with the state. So the same tactics and the same abusive patterns and abusive cycles that were present in their relationships, often with their co-defendants or their abusers, their parents, their husbands, whomever; on the outside those very same tactics and cycles are being enacted upon them by the state, by the agents of the state, and they’re in an endless cycle of manipulation and control.
David Langstaff: Can you speak about CCWP’s multimedia project, A Living Chance?
Adrienne Skye-Roberts: A Living Chance, the full name; A Living Chance: Storytelling to End Life without Parole. CCWP has always visited people sentenced to life without parole. So it has always been an issue that we have been aware of and engaged with, and have relationships with people serving that sentence. Because it is considered, and is, such an extreme sentence, it is almost never a part of any organizing platforms or political campaigns within the prison reform movement or prisoners rights movements. So people inside were like, it is really time that we start paying attention to this. And through our conversations we figured, who better to educate the public about life without parole than the people who are serving that sentence themselves. So we started a storytelling project that has been ongoing now for three years. It started with people writing us and organizing inside to come up with questions that they wanted to ask about the sentence – about hope, about survival, about life before prison, what they want for their lives beyond prison. And then they would send us stories outside. Then we would arrange visits to go meet them in person, if we did not already know them, and actually record their voices and record their stories, and learn more about them.
David Langstaff: So, thanks so much for coming to our show Adrienne. It has been great to have you.
Adrienne Skye-Roberts: Thank you, David.
EXCERPTS FROM A LIVING CHANCE
David Langstaff: We now turn to two clips from the California Coalition for Women Prisoners’ multimedia project; A Living Chance, Storytelling to End Life without Parole. MC and Kelly speak about their experiences as women sentenced to life without parole, state violence, and the ways women are resisting inside.
MC: It really concerns me. There’s been so much abuse of power we have been watching on the TV with the killing of young black males – and, of course, that extends to brown people, transgender people, people in low income communities. The fact that the abuse of power is condoned, is sanctioned, and there is no consequence for the abuse of power is scary for us. Because we already live in such an isolated world. Our walls are opaque; they are solid brick walls with razor wire on the top. Cameras and media are not allowed in. Even for me to have this attorney room visit today, it had to be approved way in advance. There is a recording device, but there could be no cameras brought in. And, at any point the recording device can be confiscated; they can listen to what was recorded. We have no sense of safety in here. So when police officers, state sanctioned violence, is allowed to occur at the level of murder on the streets, believe that we are going to suffer those consequences behind these bars. But no one is going to be able to record it, no one is going to be able to talk about it. There is going to be no proof that it happened. The proof and evidence is going to disappear.
Kelly: Well, the ways I organize in here to try and help myself and others is – I am part of a committee called the juvenile offender committee. And we really focus on anyone twenty one and younger at the time of their crime. Because we know that coming in here at a young age – it is different to grow up in here. So, we offer them workshops, we offer them tools, mentoring. Anything like that to try and give advice so that they don’t make the same mistakes that we did.
Kaif: Today we end off with a poem written and read by Karmyn, a writer and artist currently incarcerated at the women’s Huron Valley prison in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Karmyn: They suffocate beneath hypothetical honor, novel youth, thoughts and vigor. Downtrodden miscreants and misled gospel wine. Lovable arsenic, frivolous race. With wall-eyed optimism and aromatic guises, credible varmints create saddened ships. Floating in a flush of narcotic vitality that horrors stack and send pulsating bassinets and maggot righteousness. Prejudice and perverse they exasperatedly glorify baseless white washed justice forged and vetted in wickedness yawning indolent and thoughtful. Facing moral existence and stagnant comfort they amass inept impregnable admissions foaming atrocities inflicting intrinsic reproach and robust laceration. The ocelate tries instance or havoc. This vagrant force trickle egoism, issuing force from impetuous prowess when muzzled. Muzzles. But not me, malevolent. Long with maladaptors and carnal hoodwink. He grasps, inflating, impulsive, inofficious agglomeration of this ingenious ass uttering indigenous animosity. Circling, lurching, they seesaw and they surge, yearning despair, finding threat. Whose inside their peppery compartments, sprouting forth crotchety humorism. Assimilating grotesque presence and imputing depositories that deteriorate and damage on defenders. Solicitors of substantial avidity, ravenous and elocution covet pulpits to wash intemperate absurdity. Perpetuating flaccid ingenuity and poultry fortitude admitting dissolution they divulged a disputable facilitation and eloquent delirium with compulsory reprisal but besetting any prior a fact systemically preceding pretentious pendulum that swing admissive. Swang and strangle, bruise and subdue. Causeless in their incisions immersed in the bay of grasses same feeble virginized gasses to persuade, confound, and antagonize indignation. They, the prosecution fragment lives and castrate freedom.
Thanks for tuning in. Check out our website at http://www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio team: Andrés, a Maria, David Langstaff, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.