Abolition and Co-optation

Prior to the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a state agent, I was aware of people and organizations that described themselves as abolitionists, but promoted policies and goals that contradicted abolition. One example is Just Leadership USA which called for the building of new cages in New York City boroughs. Abolition is about shrinking the state’s ability and capacity to punish, control, cage and surveil. Abolitionist never support the building of cages. Like many others, JLUSA often claimed to center the leadership of formerly and currently imprisoned people. The truth is these organizations don’t center the leadership of currently or formerly incarcerated people. Hiring us, even placing us in upper administrative positions, doesn’t mean our leadership, concerns or priorities are being centered. What is centered by these organizations is the wishes of their funders. And the formerly incarcerated people they hire must support the line of these funders to stick around.

Since 2020, this situation has become more common. Organizations claiming to be abolitionist attach themselves to formerly or currently imprisoned people and use them to promote reformist goals. Most often, these organizations work in only two areas: litigation and electoral politics. For some reason, they believe elected officials will lead us to freedom. For some reason, they believe the most conservative branch of government, the judiciary, will grant us freedom. Don’t they know that whatever they give they can take away? Don’t they know freedom is not something given? Don’t they know history? Right now, the voting rights that elected officials and the courts granted in the 60s and 70s are being taken away all across the country? We will never obtain freedom begging politicians and judges for it.

These same organizations spend little, if any, energy organizing communities. And let it be known, mobilizing people for rallies and marches isn’t organizing. It’s mobilization. There’s a time and place for mobilization, but what we need is organizing. Like Malcolm X said, and Saidiya Hartman reiterates, we are not outnumbered, we are out organized. We need to be in the communities, connecting with people, listening to them, assisting them in obtaining what they need not only survive, but thrive and do this work. And I am talking about communities on both sides of the walls. If we are going to build a mass movement that demands freedom, that expands the meaning of freedom, that obtains freedom, we have to organize.

These people and organizations that promote legislating our way to freedom distract us from true paths to freedom. We must be vigilant. A person or organization doesn’t have to be abolitionist to be against policing, prisons, racism, sexism, ableism, imperialism, homophobia, transphobia or any other oppression. But when a person or organization claims to be abolitionist, there are expectations. There are principles and ethics that need to be upheld. We cannot allow these people and organizations to co-opt abolition, truncate its vision and distort its call.

Abolition is for and by the people!

Letter from SCI Dallas

I don’t have my property with me. I went to the library today, searching for some text that could nourish me until I received my property or books from comrades. As I perused the shelves, I realized how absent my communities are from what was available. There were no works on abolition, Black queer studies, Black studies, feminism, queer/trans liberation, disability justice or community organizing. I searched by topic and author. I searched specific titles. Nothing. This is how the PIC wants it to be. This is how fascists want it to be. I usually don’t depend upon prisons libraries for reading materials. But what about those who do? Where do they find affirmation? Where do they find sustenance for their spirits?

Moments like this make real the connection between censorship on both sides of the walls. People and their experiences are being erased. People and their concerns are being silenced. I remember the feelings of home and hope when I first encountered Joe Beam’s In The Life. That book gave me life. I was struggling. I felt alone. I felt despondent. One book changed those feelings. One book opened the world to me. In prison, marginalized people cannot find the materials that affirm them, that connect them to the world, that tell us we belong.

As I took in the purposeful absence, the shutting out, of marginalized voices in the prison library, I questioned why people and organizations partner with the state, the biggest purveyor of censorship, and believe they are providing imprisoned people with opportunities for transformation. The state denies imprisoned people the materials we need to grow. The state will never provide or allow materials that call it into question, that encourage critique of racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy or ableism.

This trip to the library encouraged me to dig deeper and find ways to get the materials we need to live, to build community and to effect real transformation.




Banned Book Week

Banned Book Week has arrived. It’s a time when the pervasiveness of censorship is highlighted. But is seems that each year, censorship behind the walls is forgotten. Imprisoned people live with censorship 52 weeks a year. We are denied access to knowledge and punished for producing knowledge. Our families and friends must overcome numerous hurdles to send us reading materials. One mistake and the package is denied. It is much easier to obtain drugs, weapons, or sports equipment behind the walls than a book. Why is that? And who benefits from these restrictions?***

Knowledge is power. And prison officials don’t want imprisoned people to have power. When an imprisoned person begins to study and understand the conditions of their life, a seed of change, of transformation, is planted. A learned imprisoned person is an affront to the prison industrial complex. That person understands who the enemy really is. That person understands the power of collectivity. That person connects with those around them and works to change themselves and their environment.***

The prison doesn’t restrict just any materials. It focuses on materials that effect transformation. It focuses on mobilizing texts. It focuses on texts that center the experiences of marginalized folx. These texts provide insight on not only how to survive racial capitalism, but also how to thrive outside of it. This is why political education and those who promote it behind the walls are targeted by prison officials. In every long-term solitary confinement unit you will find some of the most politically aware imprisoned folx. The assault upon knowledge behind the walls is relentless. And the campaign to counter it must be too.***

We need comrades and allies to join us in campaigns that expose the arbitrary censorship decisions by prison officials. We need comrades and allies to join us in actions that challenge these decisions. We need comrades and allies this week and the other 51 weeks too.




from Stevie

Prison isolates. Prison alienates. Prison severs relations. The prison works to keep the imprisoned disconnected from and unaware of events in the community. I have struggled for some time now against censorship in the PA DOC. Prison is censorship. Obtaining books, magazines, and newspapers is a battle. Receiving a newspaper is particularly hard. So much of the news media has moved online and no longer deliver to the rural areas where most PA prisons are located. Fortunately, I have found a way to obtain the Philadelphia Inquirer. I get it late. But I get it.***

I am trying to keep up with what is happening in Philly, anticipating my release soon and my return to Philly. So much has changed in a decade. But some things have stayed the same. I am psychologically preparing for what has changed. That includes the people who are no longer with us. I have lost family and friends while incarcerated. It is one of the worst things that can happen to someone while imprisoned. The sense of powerlessness, guilt and anger can overpower you. When a loved one dies, we are called to the chaplaincy department to receive the death notice. It is a dreaded walk.***

But with the love and support of allies, inside and outside, I have made it through those dark times. What I worry about is the deaths I missed. All the people who have died that I didn’t hear about. Coming home and hearing the news, however long ago the death occurred, will impact me. It will feel like it just happened. How does one prepare for that?***

More than a month ago, I had my sister search online for the last person I was in a relationship with before incarceration. He loved social media so I figured it wouldn’t be hard. But it was. There was nothing. After digging around some more, she discovered why. He died in 2014. Eight years ago! And I just found out. This is the person who helped me through the most devastating loss I ever felt: the death of my father. I will always love and respect him for his love and support. I wish I could have told him how much he meant to me and how I appreciated what he did. For days after learning of his death, I found myself dazing off and thinking about him. There is so much I wish I could have said.***

Tonight, I was catching up on reading newspapers. I finally received a new batch from the end of August/early September. Reading the August 30 issue, The Region section, I came across a story reporting the death of Michael Hinson, Jr. It broke me. Mike Hinson was something special. I met him as a teen. He was one of a cohort of Black gay men in Philly who mentored me. Or tried to mentor me. I didn’t learn to listen until I grew older. They loved me. They modeled care, connection and community. Along with Tyrone Smith and Hal Carter, Mike Hinson impressed upon me the necessity of community. They didn’t just complain about what the Black queer/trans community wasn’t getting. They created what we needed and told us we can take care of each other.***

Mike was a founder of Colours, Inc.. I remember when they met in a conference room on 12th Street. They didn’t have their own space. And what did they do? They invited young queer/trans people of color to share the space and hold our own support group. That is how Forty Acres of Change Youth Group, a Black and brown queer/trans youth group was started in 1994. From the very beginning, Mike felt youth must be heard and served. Mike was a rare one in that he could mix and mingle in the halls of power, and get stuff done, AND he could bump shoulders in the club with the ballroom kids. Not many people could do that.***

He never forgot his roots. He never forgot his communities’ needs. He was a model of a successful Black gay man. When in his presence, you knew and felt he was someone major, a big shot, but he never made anyone feel small or unimportant.***

Mike Hinson was one of the people I desperately wanted to see me doing well upon release. I want to return to Philly, a place where I committed harm and help people, especially my communities, heal. They say you have to plant flowers where you do dirt. I wanted Mike to see the man I have become. I wanted him to know that the lessons he, Tyrone and Hal taught me are finally being put to use. I have changed over the last decade of my life, but the seeds where planted a long time ago by men like Mike, Tyrone and Hal. It’s been almost two weeks since Mike passed. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye or send a message to be read at a funeral or memorial service. What I do have are the lessons from Mike and his example. What I can do is pass them on. I can show the same dedication and concern for my community as he did. I can work to create better opportunities for young people, especially queer/trans POC, like he did.***

I will hold onto the memories and example of Mike Hinson, Jr.. In the article reporting his death, the header read “An activist ‘superhero’ is remembered.” Mike didn’t consider himself a superhero. He was just doing what needed to be done. That is why he was a rare one. Rest in Peace, Mike Hinson.***



Black August

I had plans. I intended to have the group read and review materials on the history of struggle behind the walls. I wanted people to connect to and use these histories to map new terrains of struggle and to create new strategies. I copied zines. I copied articles and essays. I created discussion questions. I was prepared. Then life happened.

From the very first session, the participants wanted to discuss violence, gun violence particularly. They spoke of their experiences and their frustration with the “solutions” they read or heard in the mainstream media. These are people who know about gun violence, as people who have harmed and experienced harm. I listened. What I thought was a one-off conversation became our focus for Black August. The group spent the month reading texts like Danielle Sered’s Until We Reckon and learning about accountability and transformative justice. They want to learn more and see themselves as people capable of creating solutions to problems in their communities.

The discussions we had have taught me so much. I did a lot of listening this month. My role was more of a connector this month. The discussions were organic. They went where the people needed them to go. I have written before about the need to become noticers, to be observant. As organizers, we often come to communities or organizations with our own plans. We think we know what the people need and want. What this month taught me was how to listen better, to listen deeply. It taught me to let go and let the process unfold organically. It taught me that we must be flexible and willing to adjust our roles in the work.

As the month winds down, the work is just getting started. The group is excited and is hoping to reach out to allies and organizations doing anti-violence work. They are interested in curricula and how we can replicate these programs inside. There are no programs inside that are trauma-informed. There are no programs that focus on healing justice.

We intend to change that. People inside need healing. As Danielle Sered wrote: Almost no one’s entry point into violence was committing it. Everyone in the group has experienced and witnessed violence. They are closest to the problem. They are also closest to the solution. They want to heal. But the DOC will never provide the tools or materials for them to do so. This is where outside allies are needed. We need our allies to help us learn more and to connect us to people and organizations that can help us heal. In turn, we intend to pay it forward inside and outside of these walls.

I have never gone into Black August more prepared to study and discuss the work. But when my plans were upended, I realized something greater was taking place: the group was organically discovering what they needed. Being open, being flexible, being attentive has enabled me to see more clearly that people inside know what they need and want to heal and grow. We just need more people to support us and listen to us.




by Stephen Wilson

In February 2021, I was in solitary confinement, awaiting transfer, from SCI Fayette. Shortly before my transfer, I discovered that two guards, Rankin and Cavalleri, had trashed all of the books and paperwork that had been in my property, including ten years of journaling. I complained to the lieutenant, who investigated and found that I wasn’t the only person whose property had been destroyed. The guards were removed from the property handlers post.***

On March 10, 2021, I filed a grievance about the destruction of my property. That same day, I was transferred to SCI Camp Hill. On March 11, 2021, I received a confiscated mail form from Camp Hill’s mailroom. I was told I couldn’t receive PDFs via Smart Communications, the company the PA DOC contracts with to handle imprisoned people’s mail. This assertion was untrue. I had been receiving PDFs via Smart for years.***

I grieved the matter. Over the next few weeks, I received over 60 confiscation forms. The reasons given were all absurd. The real issue was my exercising my First Amendment right to file a grievance. I was being retaliated against. Retaliation is widespread behind the walls. It stops many imprisoned folks from fighting oppressive policies and practices. I understand their fears. But if we don’t fight, nothing will change. Actually, things get worse.***

From March until June, I continued to receive forms that stated “copyright infringement” as the rationale. The mailroom held that prisoners are not allowed to receive any materials with a copyright. When told that their stance effectively barred imprisoned people from reading anything published, they still refused to budge.***

On June 3, 2021, the Executive Deputy Secretary, Tabb Bickell, issued a memo clarifying the copyright issue. This memo was a response to the almost 100 grievances I had filed. In the memo, EDS Bickell clearly stated that as long as the material wasn’t an obviously copied chapter of a book, imprisoned people were allowed

to have it. I thought I had won.***

The EDS’s memo only enraged the mailroom. For two months, most of my mail was sent to another prisoner. His cellmate told me about it on the walk. They lived on another block. The person even argued with the guards about why he was receiving someone else’s mail. He had received letters, books, magazines, pictures, articles and even JPAY receipts in my name. I wrote the superintendent who had a unit manager investigate my claim. The unit manager, Mr. Miller, verified my claim. Still, I haven’t received any of that mail or been compensated for it.***

Throughout the summer and fall, the mailroom continued to confiscate my mail, claiming copyright issues. And I continued to grieve it. On November 24, 2021, PA DOC’s Central Office overturned the confiscations and stated that the mailroom had been misinterpreting DOC policy and the EDS’s memo all along. I thought I had won, again.***

Not one piece of the confiscated mail was given to me. Moreover, I began to receive mail that was postmarked two months prior. They had been holding my mail. When I grieved this, I was told that this withholding of my mail didn’t personally affect me. I am serious. They said that. In writing.***

As the one year mark of this struggle approached, I found myself back at square one. My mail was being confiscated again (copyright), my mail was being given to other imprisoned people, books and magazines disappeared. The mailroom does what it wants. There is no accountability. No DOC “discovers” abuse on its own. It takes outside pressure to get DOCs to change and address violations.***

This mailroom has attempted to block all abolitionist materials. Anything mentioning the Black Panthers is tagged as a threat (security threat group). If the word revolution appears in the title, it is banned. Even Toni Morrison has been banned here. They have gone as far to deny me my own work. Why? It is published. Copyright, remember?

There is an all out assault in political education at this prison. We are not fighting DOC policies. We are fighting Camp Hill practices. The positions the staff take here are not found in DOC policies. This is one way they are able to hide the censorship practices from the public. People looking inside via published policies cannot see the quotidian oppressive practices we endure.

Many of you are familiar with this situation. You have had mail you sent to me confiscated. There is nothing left to do but file a civil action. I have exhausted all administrative remedies. Camp Hill’s mailroom does what it wants to. Without outside intervention, there will be no changes. In order to file a civil action, I need your help. I need to raise funds for representation, copying and mailing costs. I have filed over 200 grievances. This is a matter of censorship. This is a matter of political education behind the walls. This is a matter of staying connecting across the walls. Your help would be greatly appreciated. Any assistance or guidance is helpful.



On “Freedom Reads”

by Stephen Wilson

I recently saw an advertisement/announcement about Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Freedom Reads Project. I am truly disappointed. They state: “Recognizing the hunger for more books in prison and the community-building potential of libraries, we are collaborating with the leaders of the Departments of Corrections to bring Freedom Libraries I to multiple prison in every state in this country and Puerto Rico.”

This is one reason why I say formerly incarcerated is not a substitute for currently incarcerated. It is clear that Betts has forgotten why there is a hunger for more books in prison in the first place: censorship by the same people he is now collaborating with. He has forgotten that collectivity, community-building, is criminalized behind the walls. Prison administrators do not want prisoners to feel like they are part of any community. The purpose of prison is to isolate and alienate.

Betts should have created connections with prisoners in every state in this country and Puerto Rico. They would have told him what they want to read. They would have expressed their needs. Instead, he is depending upon prison staff to tell him prisoners’ needs. They will decide who gets access to books and when. They will decide what can be read. That’s freedom?

We know that censorship is widespread behind the walls. The very prison I am housed at has banned Toni Morrison! Nondistribution is also used by prison staff to make sure we don’t have access to books. Some jurisdictions have 10 book limits. Or softback only. Some prisoners, especially those in the hole, are outright denied access to libraries. Working to eliminate these onerous practices would get us closer to freedom.***

Betts’s intention is good. I don’t doubt that. But his method is wrong. He has given the departments of corrections another good public image story. That’s all. This project doesn’t move any of us closer to freedom. In the long run, it will most likely be used against prisoners. Let prisoners decide what we want to read. Give us access to information so we can dream our own freedom. Collaborate with us on educational programming. These things will get us all closer to freedom.

We also know the difference between freedom and escapism. Prison administrators wholeheartedly promote escapism. This is why we have PlayStations and Xboxes here. This is why the library is full of fantasy science fiction. This is why it is easier to get a ball (basketball, baseball, handball, etc.) than it is to get a book. We know some texts are mobilizing and others aren’t. Does Betts actually believe prison administrators are going to allow mobilizing texts inside? Does he believe prison administrators will allow George Jackson or Assata inside? Has he been formerly incarcerated so long now that he has forgotten what these guard and staff are like?