Prisons, police and punishment through incarceration. Are they with us forever in the land of the free? Sustained campaigns for change are beginning to pay off. At the community level, it turns out that a whole lot of people and places already make peace without cops. Today, we imagine a world without prisons. It may be closer than we think.
Music Featured: “If Everyone Were Blind” by Victor Simonelli and Glenn Sweety G Toby, from the “Shelter From the Streets Compilation” courtesy of West Side and Stellar Records.
- Esteban Kelly, Executive Director, US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and a founder and core trainer with AORTA
- Kenyon Farrow, Senior Editor, TheBody.com, and works with Queers for Economic Justice, Critical Resistance, and FIERCE!
- Kerbie Joseph, Community Organizer, ANSWER (Act Now To Stop War and End Racism) & The Audre Lorde Project
Click here for more on alternatives to policing and prison.
Become a Patron at Patreon. That’s also where you’ll find research materials related to this episode along with links and more on our guests.
Laura Flanders: Prisons, police and punishment through incarceration: are they with us forever in the land of the free? Sustained campaigns for change are beginning to pay off, and at the community level, it turns out that a whole lot of people and places already make peace without cops. Today, we imagine a world beyond prisons. It may be closer than we think. That’s coming up on The Laura Flanders Show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a back seat to the people who are doing it. Welcome.
It is sometimes said that we can’t be what we cannot see, so are we able to imagine a world without jails and prisons? We’ve heard the mind-blowing statistics. The U.S. is the world’s leader in incarceration. We’ve read about the atrocities that continue to take place in prisons and as a result of being imprisoned. There has been some progress, a growing movement to abolish prisons and jails. They call it abolition. But how and where would we even begin to dismantle this enormous so-called prison-industrial complex, and what are the real solutions that encompass the needs of the vast and diverse communities that have already been harmed?
There is so much to think about as it relates to economies, harm, repair, justice, accountability that I’ve asked three people in to come and help me think it through, three individuals who are doing this work on a daily basis: community organizer with the Audre Lorde Project and the ANSWER Coalition, Kerbie Joseph, writer, activist and strategist Kenyon Farrow who’s senior editor of TheBody.com, and Esteban Kelly who is a co-founder of the movement training cooperative AORTA based in Philadelphia, and Executive Director of the U.S. Federation of Worker-Owned Cooperatives. Welcome, all. Thanks for coming in. Great panel of folks. Enormous question, and then maybe people saying, “Abolition, can we just talk about reform?” So, why do we talk? Why do we want to think about abolition? What makes it an important thing to think about and work towards? Who wants to start, Kerbie?
Kerbie Johnson: Well, one, abolition has happened before. In 1865, when slavery was ended, that was an abolitionist act. The problem is that they put a really horrible loophole in the Constitution, that wasn’t written for us on this panel in any way, that says that in case of incarceration, slavery still exists, right? When you live in a system that makes that decision to put in a loophole like that, it’s not only reform that we have to look towards, it’s building our community, but also building it in a way to liberate ourselves from the system in general.
Laura Flanders: You work with some organizations that do exactly this.
Kerbie Johnson: Yeah. So, I am the Safe OUTside the System coordinator at the Audre Lorde project.
Laura Flanders: Safe OUTside the System .
Kerbie Johnson: Yeah, so literally creating ways that we are safe outside of the system that oppresses us.
Laura Flanders: And what does it involve on a daily basis of what you’re doing?
Kerbie Johnson: So, in the work that I do, I teach deescalation. I teach community safety. I do mediation in homes in a way to buffer police involvement in a community that’s already oppressed. The Audre Lorde Project is an organization that focuses on the daily existence of LGBTQ, gender nonconforming folks of color, which already has horrible statistics about homelessness and mental illness and survival crimes, and being caught up in the mass incarceration system in the first place.
Laura Flanders: And you, Esteban? How do you think about this question of abolition, and do you spend much time thinking about it in the course of your economic work?
Esteban Kelly: One of my co-ops is an organization called AORTA, and we do political education. Part of that work involves helping institutions, individuals, community leaders understand possibilities, do that envisioning and even take some of the steps inside of their own work and their own institutions to shift to different and alternative models of justice. Then, I’ve also been doing organizing for over 10 years now with a collective called Philly Stands Up, where we’re similarly trying to expand political education and understanding, and play in that envisioning and imaginary space of envisioning a world without prisons, and doing the mental work and the heart work of what it would take to get there.
A lot of that actually starts with zooming in on a smaller scale, because we can’t magnify and amplify all the problems. It’s not just a structural issue that prisons are an institution. It actually is a question of relationship, of even conceptually, what do we see as harm and what do we see as a response to addressing harm or trauma? Let alone recovering from it. And what do we do with the humanity of the people, which turns out is everybody, who has caused harm? Not that it’s all proportionally the same harm or as grave, but we all have been perpetrators of harm in one way or another. So, starting to actually shift and recenter is a point of departure for looking at this work in a really applied way. Then beyond the political education work, a lot of what we did in Philly Stands Up is worked very directly on a volunteer basis around sexual assault situations.
Specifically, our collective was designed to work directly with people who caused harm in instances of sexual assault in our own backyards and our own grassroots community. So, this was not nonprofit work. It was not funded work, but really working in communities of color, in queer communities and political communities to hold people accountable. It’s not like we started that work with a whole bunch of training. At the time, none of us were licensed in anything, any counseling or any of that work. But actually, by just slowing down with integrity and taking the time to meet people where they’re at and accompany them in a journey, it turned out that it taught us a lot of lessons. That ended up being what we rebroadcast to other grassroots community organizers in some of the lessons that can be extrapolated for how we move toward transformative justice work.
Laura Flanders: Kenyon, what’s your point of departure for this?
Kenyon Farrow: Yeah, I think, you know, when the question about, “Why focus on abolition as opposed to reform?” I think that we often kind of get stuck at the question of prison abolition or jail, so we think about just the physical kind of like building where people are imprisoned. I often tell people I’m actually interested in prison-industrial complex abolition, which takes us to a broader kind of perspective, which I think some of the other panelists are getting at, to think about really what is the world in which we’ve constructed through which punishment and punitive measures drive daily life in so many ways? So, I think not just about what happens to the person who, you know, gets arrested and goes through that system, but I also think about the people who for which, you know, get suspended in public schools, right? Or who get expelled in schools.
I think about when public benefits, like food stamps or other welfare benefits get taken away for a drug offense or, you know, having to do mandatory drug testing for those things. I think when I think about a world without prisons, I’m also thinking about a world through which we don’t resort to punishment and punitive measures for either things that we have constructed as “crime”, quote-unquote, or things that but really are about some division around sort of harms that are real and some things that are completely kind of constructed and imagined as harm by the state.
Laura Flanders: Hm. You worked for a long time with Queers for Economic Justice, among other groups.
Kenyon Farrow: Yes.
Laura Flanders: Who were you working with and how did you see this play out in that community?
Kenyon Farrow: Sure. So, I was the former executive director of Queers for Economic Justice, as you know. I mean, I think the way we saw it, doing that work with poor and low-income folks, mostly in the New York City shelter system, and then with other queer and transgender folks who needed public benefits were sort of the two pillars of our local organizing work. One of the ways in which Queers for Economic Justice got started was because of the kind of impacts on particularly queer women after the Welfare Reform Act of the mid-nineties in the Clinton administration. So, people started to see in New York City more queer women entering the New York City shelter system. These are folks who are mostly queer folks who were working in the nonprofit system of social services. They were seeing all these women come into the shelter system because of the provisions in the Welfare Reform Act that demanded that a father had to be named on a birth certificate in order for the family to get benefits.
So, if you had queer women who were in relationships together who were raising children, oftentimes the non-biological parent would be afraid once the case manager came to the house that the kids were going to be taken away if it was discovered that the father wasn’t there or that there wasn’t. So, they just would go into the shelter system so that the family could keep the benefits. That to me is the prison-industrial complex, right? At work in a way that is not just about the prison itself. I think for us as an organization, when QEJ was still around, was really thinking about how do we think about the ways in which the social safety net system kind of perpetuates forms of harm and depriving people of things that they need through various punitive measures?
Laura Flanders: So, you’re talking about the queer communities, largely queer people of color, but not exclusively. I think of two things, one which is we are in an era where we’re also surfacing concern and attention to the brutality that this community also experiences in the incarceration system but also out of it. So Kerbie, how do you think about justice in that context? I mean we have, I don’t want to say an epidemic of violence specifically against, you know, trans black women.
Kerbie Johnson: .
Laura Flanders: But you could say that we are experiencing a new degree of awareness of how much violence there is against a population that’s had very little voice or been given very little amplification for their voices. And there are people that say, “Wait a minute, before we have abolition, we have to have justice, you know? We need to have people sort of accounting for being … At the moment they’ve been going with impunity.
Kerbie Johnson: Yeah.
Laura Flanders: Certain people have not had any rights yet.
Kerbie Johnson: I think sometimes when we talk about mass incarceration, abolition, we don’t think that all these things are supposed to work in tandem. I think it’s very important to have that analysis together because we live in a system that works together every day to find different ways to oppress our communities that are already at the bottom of the barrel. When you mentioned justice, I think about Layleen Xtravaganza, who died at Rikers Island a few weeks ago, because COs refused to help her in any way while she was dying in her cell.
Laura Flanders: So, it’s an Afro-Latina trans woman who died in solitary.
Kerbie Johnson: Yep.
Laura Flanders: Owing $500 cash bail.
Kerbie Johnson: Yep. It’s so interesting, because there’s people who say, “Well, you know, we have a cash bail reform that’s going to come into effect in 2020.” Well, what does that mean for people like Layleen, who are dying every day, who are getting misgendered, who are being put into the wrong facilities in these prisons to face multiple layers of abuse from other inmates, from other COs, from the state?
No New Jails is actually a campaign that … I’m one of the organizers of it that’s looking at it in that way of like, we need to be working to transform our society and there’s resources there that can do that. That would be justice, that the resources that comes from our tax dollars be used, to be put into our communities so our people are not going to jail for survival programs or what the system labels as violence, which is I think another thing to face, too. Whose definition of violence are we looking at and who’s being defined as violent?
Laura Flanders: But just to be a pedant on this for a second, I mean, she died incarcerated and that’s one problem.
Kerbie Johnson: Yes.
Laura Flanders: There have been a lot of trans people and others dying in the streets because of violence committed against them.
Kerbie Johnson: Yeah.
Laura Flanders: What about those people?
Kerbie Johnson: So, what we have is the system at work in terms of indoctrinating us to be very backwards, to hate ourselves and to have no resource in survival to blame it on people who look like them or people who aren’t like them. I think when you were talking about this cultural shift, even if abolition had been … We were discussing this, actually. Even if abolition happens tomorrow, even if we have all the material resources that we need to survive as a community, as a people across this nation, the richest country in the world, there’s still a mental oppression that we will have to face and have to deal with. That’s what our communities deal with every day, that people who look like you, who can be an elder, who can be a single mother, who can be somebody in your classroom can look at you and unleash violence against you, whether it be verbal, mental or physical.
Then so be in a system where it tells you that the only thing you can do is call 911 to deal with that issue instead of bringing people in to maybe mediate that issue, instead of bringing people in to do political education to reframe people’s mind.
Laura Flanders: In addition to the punitive, we also have the separate and distance.
Kerbie Johnson: Yeah.
Laura Flanders: How are you dealing with that? Because what you’re talking about, Esteban, in your example, you’re saying, “Okay, we have the harmed and the harmer, and everyone actually probably has been harmed. We need to stay in the room together, or in the community, or in the town, or in the building, or in the family, or in the workplace. What if we didn’t have the option of just banishing?”
Esteban Kelly: Right.
Kerbie Johnson: Yeah.
Laura Flanders: What happens? How do you address that?
Esteban Kelly: Well, it’s about moving closer, right? As opposed to distancing and pushing away, which is what the current punitive systems are set up to do. It’s not addressing the problem. It’s reducing the problem to a person, not to an act or their behavior or something that happened, but it’s totalizing it into the person embodying it and then removing them from the community. So, what we’re doing is actually the opposite. It’s drawing them in and moving closer. What’s actually important is that these need to be community responses, cause it can’t actually be up to a survivor to step in and be like, “Let me move closer to the person who caused harm.” Absolutely not.
So, it’s not about like a middle school peer mediation model, although there’s a lot of lessons from that, and in fact, I draw on some of the peer mediation training that I got when I was 12 in doing this work. It’s actually ways that the community can step up to be an intermediary, to take on that work, to be the ones who surround and move closer, not just to the person who caused harm, but also all of the attention that needs to go toward the healing to the person, to the community of survivors and the people who’ve been harmed, who also need attention. They need love, they need care.
Laura Flanders: Are we learning anything, for example, from immigrant populations who are very aware that the state is not going to help them? I’m thinking of undocumented people who dare not call the police. That’s just one population. There are many others represented at this table. Are we learning from those communities how to address this in an interesting way?
Kenyon Farrow: I mean, I could take this from my own life. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio in a housing project in the ’80s, right? At, you know, height of the crack era. Generally speaking, people did not call the cops, right? For any reason. There were definitely situations that happened that were intercommunity violence. My mother would take in women who were being abused by their male partners in the community, and we had some times the woman and two or three other kids of the women who were in our house for sometimes a couple of weeks at a time. My stepfather, my uncles, other men in the community sometimes went to that man’s house, right? To then like, respond, you know?
Kerbie Johnson: We’re going to talk.
Kenyon Farrow: Yeah. Right, we’re going to talk about, you know, what happened or whatever or would step in. So, I saw very early examples of people being able to, as much as they could, try to kind of manage those sort of dynamics. I also think I would say too, just part of the mass incarceration itself and that system helped perpetuate the kind of isolation that people feel in communities. When you’ve started to kind of arrest so many people and you create such levels of instability so then people in communities don’t know each other anymore in ways that they did, so then the response to call the police seems like a logical response because those communities themselves had been so fractured by the actual mass incarceration itself …
Laura Flanders: So, maybe that goes back to your original point, which was we’ve had these solutions before and we had them for a long time.
Kerbie Johnson: Yeah. Before it was called transformative justice, it was the Black Panthers doing it. Before the Panthers were doing it, it was Lenape people that the New York City land is completely built on. These are very old strategies that have been used. Before police were able to walk the beat for fugitive slave acts, people were finding ways to live together collectively and deal with the hard situations and not dispose of community members, but look at people as human beings whereas the system doesn’t. It doesn’t look at us as human beings at all. We are numbers that can be funneled in and out.
Laura Flanders: This speaks to the conditions in which we are all operating, living, finding ourselves, and it seems that on this question the conditions are kind of changing. One example I look at recently is the Queens district attorney race here in New York where a out, queer, self-described socialist ran on what she herself called a decarceral platform. Here she is, Tiffany Cabán, running for DA in Queens.
Tiffany Cabán: We are running on a bold, not just progressive, decarceral platform. This is about healing, this is about safety. Most of all, this means that if someone does end up in our criminal justice system, that when they get out, they have the tools and that they are not put in a position where they feel that they are forced back in again. We are challenging entrenched political interests, and we knew it would be a hard fight, but we have the community on our side.
Speaker 6: Yeah. Yeah!
Tiffany Cabán: We have community members who not only want but are ready to demand real reform here in Queens, ready to demand a District Attorney’s office that works for them.
Speaker 6: Yeah.
Tiffany Cabán: Community members who believe that we don’t have to sacrifice public safety for equity.
Speaker 6: Nope.
Speaker 7: Yeah.
Tiffany Cabán: Community members who aren’t going to buy into the old-school fear-mongering of our black and brown communities that only serve the status quo.
Speaker 7: Yes, mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tiffany Cabán: Over the past six months, we have built the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most diverse coalition of hardworking folks that a borough-wide race has ever seen .
Speaker 6: . Oh, yeah!
Laura Flanders: So, that is what happened in a Queens borough DA race. At the primary level, Tiffany Cabán looks set to be the next DA. She was endorsed by two people running for president plus the New York Times. I mean, this isn’t the revolution, but it is speaking to changed conditions. Esteban, what are your thoughts?
Esteban Kelly: It absolutely is, and we were able to I think push that forward a little bit in my community in Philadelphia, where we had DA Larry Krasner elected, and that came from movement. That came from a longstanding campaign from groups like Decarcerate PA, Put People First! Even some of the organizations that I was talking about that were connected to these smaller, completely below the radar, unfunded, unincorporated initiatives, projects and even just community relationships like we’ve been talking about that had been pushing a different kind of politics for how we address harm, justice, and even the the epidemic and the phenomenon of all of the problems, all the ripples of violence from the criminal legal system, from police violence for, in our case, one of the poorest large cities in the United States.
So, that coalition of coming together, because this was a multiracial coalition, this work doesn’t move forward otherwise, of bringing together straight people, LGBTQ people, black and brown people, long and in lock step with progressive white folks, doing this, organizing and understanding that in order for our communities to be sustainable, we got to all come together and push forward and center a completely different kind of politics. And it does happen at that primary level of like, who are the candidates who were running? And vetting and finding a candidate in the kind of profile that Larry Krasner put forward. I mean, it was someone who had been defending our communities for decades and decades, and to actually say, “This is the person that we want in this type of role,” was instructive. Then we started to see different versions of that happen all around the country. So, I’m definitely inspired by what’s happened .
Laura Flanders: Hm. I imagine. Tiffany had the support and you saw in the clip there from Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. She talked about a decarceral platform. What do you think is a decarceral platform, and what are you looking to see, Kerbie?
Kerbie Johnson: I’m just laughing. I’m sorry. I giggled because I’m just thinking about de Blasio’s plan of building four new jails and closing down Rikers in 10 years when he’s not in office, and claiming that that’s decarceration when you’re building 6,000 new cells for people to be in. I think is very important that she has a platform to bring up some of the things that we’ve been organizing for for a very long time, but I think on a very micro level that the work that I know I focus on is literally building with community members piece by piece to actually teach them what about abolition is, what decarceration can be, and what plans politicians who are in our favor are actually putting into order.
There are people in our community who don’t know who this person is, right? There are people in our community who don’t know what we’re talking about because of language, because of being so hit by repression that they can’t even think straight to have a conversation, even though their lives are political, their existence is a political existence. I know for us, when we think about how to move this work forward, we’re thinking about teaching people how to be that community safety, teaching people this is how we deescalate. Part of the Safe Neighborhood Campaign that our program runs is literally teaching businesses deescalation if something happens in their stores, or teaching shelters deescalation was something happens with their youth, or teaching schools how to deescalate instead of calling the police that’s already in the hallway to come in and arrest the youth, so police don’t interfere to arrest any more people.
Laura Flanders: Yeah. Kenyon, we often ask people on this show, what’s the story the future will tell of this moment?
Kenyon Farrow: I think we’re at sort of a crossroads, so I think it will depend on where things go. My fear is that at this moment that there will be a potential coaptation of our movements and our language, so that we hear people talk about abolition, but the details of which are actually just about sort of moving the pieces around so that there’s still some form of kind of physical state control, right?
Kerbie Johnson: , yeah.
Kenyon Farrow: Whether it’s more people on house arrest or these other kinds of technologies. But I’m hopeful in thinking that as much as folks like my co-panelists, who are doing that work in communities, that once people begin to really kind of experience what a real sort of abolitionist politic and kind of new society can look like in their own lives, no amount of spin that a politician could put out could move them towards something that gets us away from that.
Kerbie Johnson: Yeah.
Laura Flanders: Hm, Kerbie?
Kerbie Johnson: I think it’s very important that we focus on really building people power. I think one of the things that we experience as people is feeling that we can’t do anything. What can we do when a system feels bigger than you are? And really work on the fact that the system is actually afraid of people coming together. The work that she did in building her coalition, that is work that is feared by folks who want to maintain their power and maintain the status quo that she was speaking about.
Laura Flanders: Last 10 seconds to you, Esteban.
Esteban Kelly: I think transformation needs to be systemic and it needs to be interlocking, right? So, centering politics of prison abolition means that we’re actually changing everything about our economic lives, our social relationships, emotional intelligence, all the ways that we become interdependent, that’s how we transform both institutions at a large scale in our society and at the very micro level, our relationships with one another.
Laura Flanders: Perfect last word. Thank you all. You’ve started the ball rolling on what I think will be a continuing conversation. You’re watching the Laura Flanders show. Go to our website and get more information about all of these guests and some of the research materials that we have drawn on for today’s show. Thanks for watching.