When I entered SCI-Smithfield, I wasn’t an abolitionist. I was what we would call a liberal reformer. I believed all the system needed was a little tweaking and some extra oversight. I, along with many other prisoners at Smithfield, railed against a system, an unidentifiable “they” who had it in for poor, Black and Brown people. But my politics called for change in the system, not a dismantling of it.
People at Smithfield knew me. They knew I studied a lot and was always prepared to take a stand against oppression. I knew the people too. I spent years cultivating friendships with them through my work on various projects like health fairs and educational projects. So when I started studying abolition and sharing knowledge, unmasking the “they” who were destroying us and our communities, people listened. And because my actions and speech were congruent, they kept listening. Soon, I was regularly meeting with a groups of guys and passing out zines and copies of essays.
Word spreads quickly behind the walls. Our group grew and requests for materials did too. Within six months, there were three groups studying abolition and transformative justice. No longer did I need to approach people about the work and pique their interest. Prisoners sought me out and were referred to me by other group members. I didn’t give much thought to how to attract others to abolition. I didn’t have to.
Transferring to SCI-Fayette was a wake up call. I didn’t have years of relationship building to lean upon. I didn’t know the people and they didn’t know me. I didn’t even have all the materials I had at SCI-Smithfield. I couldn’t just run up to people and start talking about penal abolition. I realized I needed to establish relationships with the people first. I needed to understand the condition of the people. What are their needs? What are their concerns? What are they struggling with right now? What are their particular barriers to studying? What work have they done already.
If I had hit the ground running, playing the yards and passing out materials, I wouldn’t have gotten too far. People would have thought: “Who’s this guy? What’s his game?” I was in new territory and respected that. I listened to others. I asked questions. I assisted them in what they were struggling with. Most of all, I was sincere. And people can tell when we are being sincere. I wanted goodness for others. I tried to impart sound advice and I lent a hand. Shortly after getting here and getting the lay of the land through sincere concern for others, people started asking me questions:”What you into? I see you reading. I hear you talking on the phone.”
The groundwork had been laid. Now, people are coming to me and asking questions about penal abolition, activism, and how they can get involved. Our book club has its maximum number of participants. I can’t make copies of zines fast enough to keep up with the demand. I’m loaning books out on Black feminist thought, queer liberation, penal abolition and social justice movements. Things are picking up quickly.
I share these points to underscore the need for abolitionists to take our time and establish relationships with the people we intend to work with. Often, we rush into a community, thinking we have all the answers, that we know what’s best for said community, and began to preach abolition. We don’t take the time to connect with others, to find out what they want, what they are struggling with and what they have been doing in the struggle. This behavior can be off putting and hinder our cause.
When we enter a community with a desire to work sincerely and for all our benefit, we get results. People can tell if we are working with them or on them. My advice is to work on building relationships- build community. Through building community, abolition will be effected. Be a part of where you are. Sincerely. Plant the seeds of genuine concern and care and watch community and abolition flower.