Episode 8: Schools, Prisons, and Abolitionist futures

In this episode we explore the parallel ways in which the institutions of prisons and schools work to reproduce our current society, racial capitalism, as well as the challenges and possibilities we face in its transformation.

Imprisoned intellectual Harold “HH” Gonzales tells us about the history of school segregation and the construction of the so-called school to prison pipeline. We also hear from Erica Meiners, who discusses how schools are embedded in carceral regimes, and encourages us to view them through the wider lens of abolitionist struggle. We conclude the episode with imprisoned artist Steven Hibbler, on how the policing and criminalization of Black and Brown youth prefigure the racist carceral logic of our society.

Painting by: Steven Hibbler

Subscribe via iTunes | Subscribe via RSS | Download the MP3

Click here to display the episode transcript.

Episode Transcript:

a Maria: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, I’m a Maria. In today’s episode, Schools, prisons and Abolitionist futures, we explore the parallels by which the institutions of prisons and schools work to reproduce our current society, racial capitalism, and how they illuminate challenges in the rocky passageways toward abolition. We speak with imprisoned intellectual Harold “HH” Gonzales about the history of school segregation and the construction of the so-called school to prison pipeline. We also hear from Erica Meiners, who discusses how schools are embedded in carceral regimes, and encourages us to view them through the wider lens of abolitionist struggle. We conclude the episode with imprisoned artist Steven Hibbler, on how the policing and criminalization of Black and Brown youth prefigure the racist carceral logic of our society. But first, here’s Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.

NEWS HEADLINES

Kaif Syed: On August 10th, Republicans in the US Senate proposed a bill that would greatly ramp up the mass surveillance on the US border. The bill, if passed, would increase Customs and Border Patrol agents, increase the collection and storage of biometric data, and increase the installation and utilization of drones along the border — among a host of other assaults to the dignity of immigrants.

On August 7th, six inmates at a maximum security prison in Tucker, Arkansas, snatched keys from three correctional officers and held those officers for 3 hours. According to the Arkansas Department of Corrections, the inmates had overpowered the officers during a recreational call. The officers were eventually released with minor injuries, and an inmate not involved initially was sent to the hospital. The inmates who overpowered the guards have been sent to a different facility, although their whereabouts are as of yet unknown to the public. This is the second disturbance at this prison this month.

This August is a month of action on behalf of Ky Peterson, an incarcerated black transgender man who, back in the 2011, was arrested in Georgia for killing his rapist in self defense. Ky has been sentenced to 20 years for involuntary manslaughter — ten years more than what the state of Georgia mandates. Although all the evidence, including rape kits, have shown incontrovertible evidence in Ky’s favor, and that Ky should’ve been protected under Georgia’s stand your ground laws, the racist, transphobic system we live in as made Ky a victim multiple times over. Ky is calling for a “write the governor” campaign and petition, from now until the end of 2017, calling for Ky’s release. Please go to freeingky.com, That’s freeingK-Y.com, to participate in this campaign and support Ky Peterson.

INTRODUCTION

a Maria: I’m here with Alejo Stark and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan.

Alejo Stark: In what ways does our current educational system reproduce — rather than solve —  the problems created by racial capitalism? And how do we struggle towards a liberatory school system rather than one which contains and represses us? These are the kinds of questions abolitionists ask.

Alejo Stark: I interviewed abolitionist intellectual Harold “HH” Gonzales, currently imprisoned at Michigan’s Baraga correctional facility, about the ways in which our current educational system isn’t necessarily “broken,” but rather, is working precisely the way it was intended: to reproduce the anti-black and white supremacist capitalist order. HH traces the history of the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” and attempts to chart a way out of it.

HH Gonzales: In the discussion concerning the pipeline from school to prison, we have to go back to the Brown vs The Board of Education 1954 decision on desegregation. You see the psychological effects of prolonged conditioning of either white supremacy or racial equality allows you to see, that this was not a victory for the disenfranchised. It was the beginning of a panicked, propagated journey to mass incarceration. While carceral machinery had its beginnings that predates the 1954 decision, the vision to inspire and accelerate the agenda was made possible by this decision.

The long conditioned mindset of supremacy was deeply offended at the thought of these inferior people coexisting with their children. So began the machination to circumvent that decision. It was basically simple, gentrification. Gentrification easily took care of the desegregation, and with the legislation that funding would be based on property tax, they literally instituted resegregation and second class schools at the same time. The basic concept of education is to produce first class, productive citizens and thereby a better society. And if that is the case, then the designed system of machinery that is meant to retard the development. To tell the true story of education, most people concentrate on the issues by trying to call attention to  the disparity and that they are not known, when they should be focusing on the true design of the policies behind current educational systems. They are not denying us education, they are designing a different one for us. Remember, scholastics was never intended for us. Through the commodifying of education, it still isn’t. But if this is true, then you ask, what education do they desire for us?

Well basically, the education of the black man in Amerikkka has been debated and talked about from every angle, considering the disproportionate funds, the underpaid teachers and the outdated books, and the overwhelming neglect that is the order of the date in regard to the people that are living the black experience in Amerikkka. I use the phrase “black experience” with a very emphatic connotation that is relevant to this topic specifically. You see, while most use the term black as a nomenclature to likely describe the African phenotype in Amerikkka as if it is no big deal, they are actually accepting and designating the status that causes a stigma to be placed on ourselves and others. This designation equates to the experiences of so called blacks in Amerikkka, and a status or class that through time and consistency along with imagery and politics combined with a disenfranchised mindset, that is consistently enforced simply by phrases in society to show that it doesn’t exist; basically tells the real story of the so called blacks in Amerikkka. You see while the status of the scholastic disproportionately favors the rich and well off who happen to be a majority of so called whites in Amerikkka, let’s not get it twisted. Those living the black experience in Amerikkka are receiving an education desired to produce the sought after contributions engineered for that study. They are being educated to become fuel for the machine of this prison industrial complex. The sad, simple psychological program for those living the black experience in Amerikkka have accepted that prison is a part of the so called black’s life in Amerikkka. And it has become cultural and it’s relevant. It’s culture because it’s taught wittingly or unwittingly from the earliest beginnings of comprehension.

Let me see if I can get you to visualize this concept. The soul of Amerikkka is so deeply ingratiated in racism or white power, that the protection of the status is innately in so called white Amerikkka. The fact is proven by how easily Trump was able to manipulate the electoral college using the “Let’s Make Amerikkka Great Again” rhetoric. Which really meant “Let’s Make Amerikkka White Power Again”. But just as ingratiated as the concept of white rule is in white Amerikkka, so too is the concept of a design to oppress those living the black experience in Amerikkka in the souls of so called blacks in Amerikkka. The propagation of both concepts have been independent of disastrous effects, creating psychosis harmful to both, but for very different reasons. For those living the black experience, it is the underlying foundation of our education. It more than not leads graduation to the prison industrial complex. So those living the black experience in Amerikkka suddenly are forced, willingly or unwillingly, to raise their children to rage against the machine. To become revolutionaries in the fight for liberation, to not trust The Man, that the world they live in is geared against them. And with the imagery, tone, and the figure of seeing concrete consistent evidence to the contrary, they unwittingly move on to the next grade. While they still may not comprehend completely, they feel the pain of the procession. They watch black youth get gunned down disproportionately by what they view as a form of government, then acquitted or protected by another. It sends a message, it teaches and educates a desired curriculum. That of no matter what you do, we don’t value your life to the point where it merits humane consideration. That says hey, don’t believe the hype. Black president propaganda to the contrary, we will never let you rise to the level of equal.

This message is emphatically driven home by the lack of change. They hear hate crimes, they hear the message that they will be severely punished, and then sadly overlooked when it comes to the killing of their kind. This being the case, the black youth then develop some polarized vision. One that is strict in its interpretation, one that even in the face of a historical landpoint like a black president, they know that it doesn’t mean anything in regards to the soul of this nation. So in this fierce perception, the black youth dreams and hopes are to get rich, and money equals respect. And even if the soul of Amerikkka seems determined to prevent my ascension to the level of equal, well at least we’ll make them pretend they do, and surely it will form a protection for me and mine. Here he passes to the next grade. So now we have a black youth educated to believe in the pursuit of the almighty dollar as a means of becoming equal. And as tragic as that concept is, for the majority of the black youth, it’s the one hope they have to be seen as equals. Seriously take a moment to really comprehend the sadness of that plight.

Now as you see the established educational system that we must remember was never meant for him, a perception clearly enforced by the aforementioned disproportionality of dreams being destroyed, his hope now is basically reduced to three categories. Athlete, rapper/singer, or baller. For those who may not be ebonically inclined, the baller is someone who got rich off of selling drugs. And here is where the black youth passes off to his engineered high school. No matter his age, when he reaches this stage of development he is preparing for his designed college education. Now these categories being a required class, the youth now believes through a clearly engineered perception, that he must choose one. And with so many people trying the athlete/rapper/singer route, and the percentage of those who make it being so low, he has been educated to believe he only has one option. And here I will show you a unique profession, for this youth now has reached a mind state that it’s not just about being rich. He is not disillusioned, he knows that there is a high probability that he will get caught. But his life has led him to a point where that is an acceptable outcome. He now also sees himself as a revolutionary to a degree, in the sense that he knows that his current path will lead to a conflict with the governing body. But knows now also that this was the desired design his whole life, to have to struggle for equality, to have his options limited to the point where they became leading. To pursue riches to have a measure of protection, just to have a semblance of being equal. And in that pursuit, in whatever category he chooses, inevitably comes into conflict with the police. So he can receive his degree, a number that will forever make him a part of the prison industrial complex. He has now reached the college designed for him, where his designed careers impressed in his psyche.

You can read more about that in a piece I wrote, entitled “Let’s Make Man in Our Image”, and part two to it in another piece entitled “The New Willie Lynch Era”. Where they explain the final steps in the educating of so called black men in Amerikkka. Some may believe I’m being too extreme in my thinking on this matter, but I’m not on the outside looking in, I’m on the inside looking out. I’ve been a part of all the designed educational programs for black youth, from foster care to boy’s homes, and finally the prison industrial complex. And wondering how, with all the attention gained by police shootings, with the clear racist agenda pouring from our current leadership, with all the intellectual minds discussing the issues of black lives and how they matter, how can right under our noses this current education system be allowed to flourish? In order to destroy the machine that is the prison industrial complex, we must destroy its machinations. And they are disguised behind the real education of those who are living the black experience in Amerikkka. Experienced moods, experienced increased though patterns which make belief systems that cumulatively produce a man. Control the experiences, and you produce whatever kind of man you desire. We must influence the experiences of our youth, even as society remains tainted by a megalomaniac. Our youth must consistently, clearly, and dominantly experience a shroud of protection against the desired form of education that those afraid of him are trying to force on him, so that his courage be increased to dare to do wondrous things. Thank you for allowing me to share my views and opinions on this issue, I hope I inspire just one more person to join in the fight to end this carceral machinery that is the prison industrial complex. Thank you.

ERICA MEINERS

a Maria: Co-producer Andrés spoke with Erica Meiners, Professor at Northeastern Illinois University and co-founder of Sister Jean Hughes Adult High School, an alternative high school for people who have been incarcerated. She’s the author of Right to be hostile: schools, prisons, and the making of public enemies, and For the Children: Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State. Erica opens by describing a moment in which she began to move from a “Schools not Prisons” line of political argument towards a more expansive critique of carcerality: one that doesn’t rely on conventional notions of childhood and innocence.

Erica Meiners:  As somebody who was deeply impacted by communities, teachers, parents, young folk, organizing to make schools more just. You know, getting police out of schools, getting disciplinary policies changed. There was a point where I was at yet another educate not carcerate, counselors not cops, books not bars rally, and looking around and chanting I’m sure. Holding a sign I’m sure. It struck me that there was something missing, there was some kind of a piece that was needed, there was something missing in the work. And moreso, more deeply in the analysis. That it seemed to me that we were lifting up in our work, our books not bars work, our counselors not cops work, we were lifting up the sort of person to be privileged was the student. Was the young person who was in school, the child as a proxy.

And it made me feel kind of nervous and uncomfortable, particularly as someone who works at a high school for people who were coming out of prisons and jails that are 30. Also for people who are serving long time sentences or death by incarceration at a maximum security prison, who are in their 40s and also want to learn. And I felt like while I was at the books not bars rally that was privileging the child, sometimes directly sometimes indirectly, made me really think critically about how those campaigns for liberation for young people, those movements against the school to prison pipeline actually reinforced a logic. Sometimes explicitly and sometimes less explicitly, that would actually do harm to some of the other movements that I’m a part of. If we’re saying children are worth saving, then what about people who have done harm that are 33, or 44? What about public universities with secondary education for working class people? Don’t those folks deserve access to free tuition and lifelong learning opportunities?

Andrés: In 2000 you helped start an alternative high school for people who were formerly incarcerated. Can you talk about how the project started and what the school does?

Erica Meiners: It’s almost 20 years now, a bunch of us who’d been to a county jail, and got escorted out of there for a range of reasons. Consultation with folks who were inside who were trying to figure out what we could do to be of use, to quote the poet Marge Piercy. 50% of the people inside prisons don’t have a high school diploma or a GED, and one of the significant barriers towards economic or academic mobility is the lack of that piece of paper. And folks want access to that. Also folks want access to learning for their families, everybody wants access to learning. It rocked my world, changed my world.

So we started a high school program on the west side of Chicago in a church basement, and folks come to the program through word of mouth, about 30 to 40 people have the opportunity there to earn a high school diploma every year. We could award many more of those, we have many people who be in the program. We kept it little, we kept the program small, and rich and meaningful and one on one. In part, because what we find that that’s people want and need. And that we need more of these kinds of little initiatives, not just a really big version of this one project. Folks take classes at night, and are coming out directly out of prisons and jails in some cases. Some people are working in what I like to call the professional prisoner reentry industry, and want to change jobs or go back to college, or the same reasons that anybody goes back to school.

And I’ll just come back to this point about being a stronger abolitionist, that for me that work continues to sharpen my awareness and understanding of the ways in which incarceration in the United States, policing and punishment is a racial project. 80% of the students in our classes and our staff and faculty who are formerly incarcerated are African American. And looking at the ways in which the consequences of incarceration certainly do not end when people are released from prisons and jails. And the ways in which other practices, other state practices like child and welfare services like policing, are also part of this ongoing collateral consequences of being locked up. And also that the ways in which people’s families, communities, neighborhoods, are really conscripted and a part of the prison industrial complex. An abolitionist analysis helps us to connect all these bases when I do this work.

Andrés: Can you talk about the movement that’s grown around this metaphor, “the school-to-prison pipeline”, and how an abolitionist analysis pushes us to see more broadly?

Erica Meiners: I think it’s always important to acknowledge where the movement came from, and the people that did the work. And that often it’s the folks that are the most impacted that are building the analysis needed in the moment, and building the movement. So for this I just want to start out by listing out communities of color, young people, parents in particular, that were just sick and tired of watching young folks of color being offended in an elementary school. So I think that that analysis came largely out of those movements, of seeing this relationship between criminalization and communities of color, and education.

So I think that that term “school to prison pipeline”, which still I think has a lot of traction as a metaphor as a organizing, galvanizing image. It comes from those kinds of contexts. But having said that, I think it’s really important when Obama and Arne Duncan, our previous Secretary of Education, start using that language to kind of say “ok we’ve lost something here”. Is this really helping us get more towards liberation, or is this really giving the state more tools to manage us and control us? And so I think that stepping back and having an abolitionist analysis is really key, an abolitionist analysis reminds us a couple of things. One, that education has always been a part of the prison industrial complex in the United States, education has always been a part of thwarting and assisting populations toward the employment available after full unemployment. Education has always been a racial project, from the residential boarding schools, to the segregated schools, to today. Education has always been about creating particular kinds of norms around gender and sexuality. So I think that an abolitionist analysis allows us to place public schooling in this wider trajectory.

I think it’s also important to remind ourselves that education has kind of a liberatory history as well, it kind of has a radical abolitionist trajectory as well. In addition to kind of historicizing and thinking historically about the kinds of ways in which education has been used to criminalize and manage populations, I think an abolitionist analysis also is key, because it reminds us that schools are not separate from communities. And that doing things like fixing school disciplinary policies (which is important), or getting cops out of schools (which is important), are making sure that curriculums in schools in schools and people who teach in schools actually have some resemblance and connection to the young people and the communities they represent in the classroom. That’s important. But that’s not enough, and we can’t really just carve off schools as somehow separated from the ways in which policing happens in black and brown communities in the United States. Or the ways in which resources are allocated in state against public schools, so that whiter and wealthier communities get many more resources than low income black and brown communities. So I think an abolitionist analysis is really pushing us to say, of course changing these policies in schools and campaigns around that matter, but let’s use a liberatory logic in those campaigns. We must also make sure that we’re not in those campaigns somehow fixing the child, the student, and the school as somehow better, important, more somehow neutral types of spaces than the very communities that parents and the neighborhoods that surround those schools. So we also need to stop and get these school light surveillance cameras out of our neighborhoods. We also need to make sure that neighborhoods aren’t food deserts, employment deserts, art deserts. We need to make sure that the parents of young people in our schools aren’t working full time jobs that are punishing, with no living wage. And part of an abolitionist analysis reminds us that the wider lense to this carceral logic, this carceral regime in schools are embedded in that, and they’re an important site of struggle.

But they also need to be connected to all these other webs, which can kind of seem daunting sometimes, but I like to think about it as a comrade says it as a whack a mole game. It’s really important to fight the bad policies when it comes up in schools, but equally important is to be challenging the underlying logic that makes that bad policy possible. Otherwise, you’re just doing the whack a mole thing all the time, which I think we need to be doing site specific or specific kinds of campaigns that work. But as we’re doing that, as we’re trying to get the cops out of schools, not that cops in our neighborhoods are any better. It’s not that the neighborhood around that school isn’t also hyper racialized in policing practices in that neighborhood. So we can’t do everything at one time, but we want to be intentional in our school specific campaigns that we’re not saying, this child this middle schooler has somehow merits resources. We should be organizing for a safer school for this middle school because middle schoolers are so important and wonderful. So are their parents, so is their aunt who doesn’t have kids.

So we need to be being smarter and more intentional in our campaigns and the underlying logic, so people get that bad policies can be dismantled, but we can also build community and coalitions along the way. And we can also make it physical and challenge the logic, which are usually racialized in class, the logics that are making that policy possible. I am super excited for this radio show and for its capacity to create radical imaginary abolitionist practices across the US and beyond.

EPILOGUE

Alejo Stark: We close with Steven Hibbler, a writer and artist currently imprisoned at the Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven, Michigan. Steve talks about repressive school environments, and discusses the ways in which selective criminalization is internalized by Black and Brown children who experience disproportionate contact with the police.

Steven Hibbler: I went to a school that, as soon as we walked in we had metal detectors, you know. We had armed security guards standing at the door, we had people just shaking us down and patting us down and things of that nature. Things I was used to, not knowing that this was working on my subconscious. It prepared me for going through the same process in prison. I think environment shapes us all. I think because the children go to school in a place, in an environment that is similar to prison, then their behavior is going to reflect that type of environment. I think it hinders or plays on that person’s behavior or their perception of reality. And by Michigan having the zero tolerance policies, you get expelled, suspended for minor offenses. This is ridiculous. I think that sends a child immediately to come straight to prison.

As you know, the criminal justice system is disproportionately blacks and latinos that are being funneled through this system. And as you can see, Michigan’s expulsion policies has targeted African Americans and latinos the most. Where there’s a white school and a black school, you create the same offenses in a classroom, although the white student’s parents might get called the black students get expelled or suspended for a long period of time. When you’re dealing with individuals who, with children whose self esteem is already low, who grew up in impoverished communities where classrooms are overcrowded and underfunded schools these things plays a big part. Go figure, huh? These schools really play a big part. So our main question was, when these children are funneled through the system, let’s say the child is going through the juvenile justice system. And the juvenile justice system isn’t filled up with programs to help the child with the underlying behavioral problems, the juvenile justice system is just set up to (somewhat just like the prison system) warehouse students and send them right back to society worse than they was before they went through the juvenile justice system. And a lot of the time, it traumatizes them. You know the things that go on in here are unfathomable to the public. Reality is reality.

We go through statistics that black boys have contact with the police just walking down the street, so this also shows that some children begin their journey down the cradle to prison pipeline even before their birth. Especially if you have a boy born with brown skin on his face, that increases the chances for you to deal with the police. I could be walking down the street, police walk by and a degree of suspicion is already cast on me because of my brown skin. That’s contact. I’m thinking in my mind, is this normal? If I’m riding in my car, young black boys  have this protocol already made up in their head. If you ride more than two individuals in the car, three people in the car, the first thing we said when police came up behind us is don’t turn around. Because we know immediately they’re gonna pull us directly over. Sometimes they’ll pull up to the side of us and they’ll just see, if there’s more than two black guys in the car they’re gonna pull us over. So that’s contact.

All these things play on the individual’s psychic till all these get normalized in the mind of young black men, so we internalize these interactions and basically criminalize ourselves. So with this our behavior, which is our mind in our environment structures our thinking, and our thinking dictates our actions, and our actions create our experiences. And ultimately our experiences construct our reality. So our reality becomes like, wow you mean to tell me I’m a criminal, so I’ve got to act this behavior out with this title that’s been placed upon me. In reality, a lot of times people just want the same opportunities as anyone else when we walk down the street, or when we interact. We need to ask ourselves the question, how does our educational system contribute to mass incarceration?     

CREDITS

Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. Check out our website at w-w-w-dot-rustbeltradio-dot-o-r-g. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: Andrés, a Maria, David Langstaff, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.