Study Groups & Moving Together: An Interview with Stephen Wilson

image credit: Fences, by Rini Templeton, thanks to JustSeeds

Stephen Wilson is a Black queer abolitionist writing, organizing, and building study groups and community behind the wall at SCI-Fayette in Pennsylvania. Ian Alexander is his friend and comrade on the outside. This interview is the first in a series that will be published together as a zine.

Ian Alexander: When and how did you become an abolitionist in your thinking, and how did you become an abolitionist in your practice?

Stephen Wilson: These questions reminded me of some anecdotal advice Mariame Kaba gave organizers first encountering a community or group. She talked about how important it is to be a noticer, to observe what is already there. Often, we enter communities revved up to teach and show and convey. But if we took the time to observe and learn, we would see that there are ideas and practices already in place that are abolitionist, even if the people don’t call them that.

Before I ever read any abolitionist theory, I already had some abolitionist ideas. Before I called my praxis abolitionist, parts of it already was. I have often spoken about how the ballroom community prepared me for this work. It was within that community that ideas about non-disposability and centering the needs of the most vulnerable/impacted were first taught to me. It was within that community that I first learned about mutual aid. We didn’t call ourselves abolitionists, but we were practicing it.

My conscious embrace of abolitionist theory occurred soon after reading issues of The Abolitionist and having conversations with Jason Lydon at Black & Pink. Critical Resistance-New York City sent me lots of materials to read and answered tons of questions. Before this time, I was more of a disillusioned progressive. I knew we could create a better world but was frustrated by the tools and means at our disposal. No matter what we did, the system was changing. Not real change. It never occurred to me that we could do away with the entire system. That the system itself was the problem. Abolitionist theory created new possibilities. It opened new ways of seeing and being. It wasn’t a tough leap for me from progressive to abolitionist.

Practicing abolition is harder, especially behind the walls. Abolition is not supposed to be an individual exercise. It is about community, about connection. And that is what makes it hard in prison. We are conditioned and encouraged to separate, isolate and differentiate.

IA: Could you say a little bit about the difference between “progressive” politics and abolitionist politics?

When I say progressive /reformer, I am referring to a mindset that couldn’t see beyond or outside of the system. A mindset that lacked imagination and viewed the system as necessary to solve our problems. I couldn’t imagine the work, whether it was on educational, public health or social justice issues, being done outside of the system. So I found myself frustrated but constantly pushing for tweaks to make the system more responsive. I couldn’t see that the system was the problem.

Abolition broadened my imagination and helped me to see outside of the box/system. It also restored my faith in us. I believe we can keep each other safe. I believe we can provide for each other. I believe we are enough. I now know that the system was never broken. It was doing what it was meant to do: control, surveil, punish and kill us. No amount of tweaking will change that. Now, I see the need to abolish the system and create new relations. As long as one works within the strictures of the system, that world will be impossible.

IA: What were some of your hurdles, struggles and frustrations early on? How did you overcome those–and how have you still had to fight to overcome them? 

SW: I knew that in order for me to deepen my practice I needed a community. So I began to reach out to others, extending myself. Abolitionists must extend themselves. I passed out literature and formed discussion groups. And none of this would have worked if I hadn’t been really striving to show abolition to others. In prison, we have a saying: “Believe nothing you hear and half of what you see.” So people are looking and they are keeping tabs. Are you really about what you say? Especially when adversity strikes? So practice was necessary. And being in here, in this environment, definitely forced me to deepen my practice.

One of the earliest big hurdles I had to overcome was materials. The prison isn’t going to provide us with radical, transformative materials. I had to find sources to provide us study materials at low or no cost. Reaching out to presses and zine distros enabled me to procure materials. Without materials, there is no study group. This hurdle is often the biggest one for prisoners who want to start a group.

Connected to this issue is the matter of accessibility. So much of what is written isn’t accessible to most prisoners. Sometimes, it is a matter of forum. There are very informative essays, articles, panel discussions and excerpts online. Prisoners cannot access these materials. This barrier keeps us uninformed and out of discussions. Another accessibility issue concerns writing style. Often, there is no way into the text for prisoners. I am reminded of Ruthie Gilmore’s statement about thinking theoretically but writing/speaking practically. She talks about writing like you want to be read. So many people are writing like they don’t want to be understood by the masses. If people need a dictionary or encyclopedia to read your work, they most likely won’t.

To overcome the obtuseness of texts, I found myself “translating” materials for our study groups. The message contained in the texts was beneficial, but I had to explain what the message is to others. Without understanding there is no application. It was frustrating but it made me better. I learned how to create good discussion questions. I learned how to connect the readings to real life situations and encourage application. It made me and the group participants more critical thinkers.

IA: How do you start a study group in a prison?

As I said before, without materials there is no study group. So it is important that we find sources for materials. That is step one. Sometimes, you already know what you are looking for. You may want to study Black liberation struggles. So you contact a zine distro or press and request materials relevant to the topic. Other items, you don’t have a particular topic so you can request a catalogue from a distros that covers many topics. I would suggest ordering a catalogue.

It is important to talk to participants or potential participants about what they are interested in studying. Even if one feels some other topic is more important, it is important to start where the people are. So even though I feel patriarchy is a topic everyone inside needs to study and tackle, I didn’t start there. I had to get people interested in and acclimated to study. That meant meeting them where they are. Prison issues and racism are easy entry points to studying. From these topics, one can springboard to other issues.

Starting a study group means spending some money. Even if you get the zines for free, you have to pay for copies. In PA, we aren’t allowed to receive multiple copies of any publication in the mail. So people cannot send a prisoner two copies of any book, journal or zine at one time. This means I usually received one copy of a text. I had to make lots of copies for the groups. That costs. Then, there are supplies. Martin Sostre opened a bookstore in Buffalo. He wanted it to be a learning site for people, especially the youth. And it was. He made it easy for them to learn. He provided a space. He provided the materials. All at no cost. So they kept coming back. I had to do the same thing. I had to cover all costs for the groups. That means composition books, pens, pencils, folders and paper costs had to be covered. And as the groups grew, so did the costs. But the upside is that the groups grew. We made studying easier for the people so that is what they did.

IA: What is the role of outside support in all this?

SW: Outside support is critical to maintaining study groups. We need material support as well as guidance regarding how to handle group dynamics issues. We were/are fortunate to have a strong support circle that provides both for us. Without them, we couldn’t do this work.

IA: What are your goals going into a new study group? How do you inspire interest in new and potential comrades?

SW: Choosing study materials is a combination of assessing where the people are and the particular needs of the environment. Choosing materials for a group of people who are already readers and who like to hold discussions is very different from choosing materials for people who haven’t been exposed to such activities. Likewise, there may be particular issues at a site that make studying certain topics more important and relevant. Here , at SCI-Fayette, which is built on a toxic site, materials on environmental racism and environmental justice resonate with prisoners. This topic may be the gateway for many prisoners to studying other issues. The point is that the choice of study materials is always connected to where the people are and what is happening there.

IA: What role have teaching and mentorship played in this process for you?

SW: In the beginning, I did assume a leadership role. But it wasn’t leadership in the sense of making decisions for everyone or having authority over others. It was leadership that was grounded in responsibility. I felt responsible for the groups. I had a commitment to nurture and grow them. I knew I needed help and readily reached out for it. Also, I tried to get people involved and taking responsibility for tasks. I wanted them to own the groups. Then they would care about them.

It is important to cultivate leadership inside. At any moment, any of us can be transferred. So it is important to plant seeds and tend to them while you can. This is one area we need to do lots of work on inside. We have to work harder to create a network of people inside who can create and sustain study groups.

IA: What makes a good abolitionist teacher?

SW: Being a noticer is important. We have to notice who is doing what and how. At Smithfield, I had spent years cultivating relationships and a reputation for sincere concern for others. This made it easier for me when I began groups. People already knew and trusted me. When I came to Fayette, I didn’t have that history. There were people here who knew me from Smithfield and there vouching for me helped tremendously. But I spent time noticing who was doing what. I noticed who was in the dayroom reading. I listened to conversations. And people watched me too. A few guys came up to me and told me they overheard my conversations on the phone. I had been talking with other abolitionists. What they heard piqued their interests. They also saw what I was doing. Mutual aid is major inside. Nothing speaks like action. They saw me practicing abolition. They saw me practicing mutual aid. They saw me practicing solidarity. These acts opened the people’s hearts to me. I can honestly say that I have received just as much respect and love from prisoners here that I did at Smithfield. I know that this mutual love and respect is built on knowing and being present for each other.

IA: How do you start to build relationships with new people on your block?

SW: There is nothing like face to face organizing. To be there, in the trenches, with others, struggling and organizing together builds bonds of trust and care. There are people behind these walls whom I have organized with that I will always feel a deep connection to. We are in the belly of the beast. And when others stand with you inside of this place, it creates something special between you.

To organize inside, you have to be a people person. You cannot be shy. You have to notice things. There have been times when I hear young prisoners talking about something and I listen for a while. Then, I ask questions. Asking questions is a great way to enter a conversation. Interjecting with a statement is risky. Making declarations, especially when they contrast the participants stance, can lead to arguments and accusations of not minding one’s own business. But when you ask questions, especially those requesting more info or clarification, it allows the young prisoner to be heard and express his/her views. This doesn’t happen too often for them inside. It seems everyone wants to tell them what to do and think, but who is listening to them? I do. And because I do, they listen to me.

Also, being open to feedback and criticism is important. Be human. Don’t try to come off as a know it all or like you have all your shit together. When I found out that Maroon was here in the infirmary, I was looking for a way to connect to him. I knew the barbers go to the infirmary to cut hair. When I went to the barbershop, I struck up a conversation with a baber and asked him if he knew Maroon. He didn’t, but he knew whom I was talking about. He had seen him. I gave the barber some materials, including Maroons’s The Dragon vs. The Hydra essay. I told him to send my love to Maroon the next time he went to the infirmary to cut hair. I also told him how I wished I could spend time talking to Maroon about his work. That was enough to spark the barber’s interest.

The next time I went to the barbershop, the barber excitedly told me how he had spoken to Maroon a number of times since our last appointment. He told me how they discussed the essay too. I was so jealous! But what stuck with him the most, and this is according to his own words, was how Maroon remained humble. He was amazed that this elder who had spent so much time in the trenches still felt he has so much to learn and still needs to grow. The barber told me he expected this elder to act like he had it all together, all figured out. But he didn’t. The barber told me how Maroon inspired him to always study, keep learning and keep growing.

The point is that we, organizers and activists, our behaviors and attitudes, are determining factors in how far and wide abolition can go. This is why the internal work of abolition is so important. That’s why the presence aspect of abolition is key to expanding the awareness and the possibilities of abolition. As I said before, prisoners believe nothing they hear and half of what they see. We have to make that half count. To riff off a Lisa Nichols quotation I read years ago: Abolition is not just what you feel or what you say. It is what you do. So what are you doing?

IA: How has COVID-19 impacted your work? 

SW: COVID19 affected our ability to meet face to face as much as we would like to. But it didn’t stop us from studying. We issue composition notebooks to everyone. We provide copies of the reading materials and discussion questions. Participants can submit their answer by writing in their comp books and turning them in for feedback. We are able to comment on each other’s answers and leave our own comments.

It became much more like the inside/outside study groups we have in which we read and discuss materials with outside allies. The point is that study never stopped. Moreover, I found that there was an uptick in interest. With the prison’s normal operations shuttered, people are looking for other things to do. The normal distractions, TV and tablets, become boring quickly. I have been disseminating lots more materials since the viral outbreak.

IA: How do you inspire long term interest and growth in new, old, and potential comrades?

SW: Really it has never been about them trusting me because they haven’t heard of abolition. It is about getting them to trust themselves and their communities to handle harm without calling the cops. Part of our task is convincing people that we have within us the resources to handle harm. We can make us safe. For so long, people have been told only the cops can make us safe. Only prisons can keep us from being harmed. People are starting to see that cops don’t produce safety. All of the police violence captured on camera is making people question the supposed link between cops and safety. We need to do more to get people to see that prisons don’t produce safety either. Because the quotidian violence of prisons is mostly hidden from the public this task becomes harder than showing that cops don’t make us safer. One of the biggest obstacles in abolitionist organizing behind the walls is convincing people that we can keep each other safe.

IA: You have told me a lot about the importance of history, and seeing yourself as part of a tradition. Could you talk a bit about that? 

SW: If we don’t know the movement history, if we don’t know the elders and what they have accomplished, we will find ourselves stuck in old problems, spinning our wheels, and attempting to enact failed solutions. I love studying movement history and elder bios. I find inspiration. I find strategies and tactics I can adopt or adapt. I find confirmation. And that’s important too. Sometimes, we wonder if what we are doing is worth it. Reading movement history and elder biographies convinces me that it is. There have been times when I have faced repression from prison officials and began to feel depressed. During those times, I reflect upon what so many others have endured and my spirit is comforted and emboldened. Reading about people like Martin Sostre, who was wrongly arrested and sentenced to nine years because he educated the people, keeps my head up during these periods of repression. Many of our elders have been physically, mentally and emotionally abused, but they remained strong. History becomes a living tool.

Oppression breeds resistance. And often, resistance breeds more oppression. It is a dialectical relationship. Behind these walls, oppression can take many forms: solitary confinement, physical assault, constant shakedowns, constant transfers (diesel therapy), destruction of property, denial of parole and even frame-up on new charges. The administration will employ many different measures to effect compliance. They don’t want us to learn anything that will keep us from coming back to prison. They don’t want us to learn anything that will enable us to benefit our communities. I have said before: a learned prisoner is an affront to the PIC.

IA: So beyond study, what about struggle? How do you decide when to really jump into action, and when to wait something out? 

SW: How do I decide when something is worth it? Is it the right thing to do? That is the question. I don’t tend to think about what the administration will do to me personally. Because the tactics I use aren’t those that will give the administration grounds to oppress us, tactics that knowingly subject others to possible harm by officers, my main issue is doing what is right and alleviating oppressive conditions. Recently, I have been thinking about developing a criteria regarding when we implement action plans.

This new way of thinking occurred to me after a recent incident. We are not under normal operations. So our time out of cell has been curtailed. We are being let out 35-40 people at a time. We are given limited time to shower, make phone calls, use the kiosks and exercise. Certain officers purposely allow us out late and put us in early. This creates problems for us and between us as we try to stay in contact with family and friends and stay clean. I attempted to address this issue with the unit manager. I thought we had come to a solution. But an officer did exactly what we discussed shouldn’t happen in front of the unit manager. And the unit manager refused to do anything. Instead, he wrote a false misconduct against me to get me removed from the block. And it didn’t end there. The next day, my comrade was placed in solidarity for emailing people informing them of what happened to me. Their solution is simple: whoever is complaining, remove them. And it works to produce a chilling effect upon others.

I began to think about how we could approach this official tactic. What counter-tactic would work? One thing I learned, and Maroon wrote about this many years ago, is that we need to develop hydras and not dragons. There is only so much space in solitary. They cannot lock us all up. Moving together is always much more powerful than moving alone. The incident made me think about deep organizing and assessing just how much strength we have and how much actual support. The deeper the support, the more likely the success and defense against official repression.

Personally, I have a great support team. Their support enables me to keep going. This is why I stress connections across the walls. While I have faced repression here, they are beginning to understand that they cannot harm me without consequences. People care. People will agitate. The administration knows if we have support or not. That knowledge shapes their actions.

IA: So the struggle leads you back to study. How do you help others bring those two aspects of the work together?

SW: Generally, going into any study situation, my goal is to convey meaningful knowledge. I want people to learn things that will enable them to better understand the world and empower them to change it. Specifically, I do an assessment before determining what text we will study. I try to figure out what participants already know about certain topics. I try to understand the different ways participants learn. This can only happen if I build relationships with potential participants first. My point is that study circles need to be participant-focused. Often, facilitators focus on the syllabus and getting through the texts. The focus needs to be on those in the group and facilitating understanding and application. If we get through a text and the participants having extracted anything meaningful, something they can apply to their lives, I feel we haven’t succeeded.

Out there, you have to talk prisons up. Not so inside. Prison is our environment, our world. So everyone inside has an opinion about prisons and policing. I don’t have to create interest in these topics. It is already there. What I try to do is get people to see these issues differently. And many are willing to take another look. One good way to get started is by doing definitional work. Getting people to think about how they define certain terms is really about getting them to think about how they view the world. Two of our first definitions to explore are community and safety. How people define these terms is important. And often, we find that people change their definitions after study.

IA: How do you combat reactionary tendencies, patriarchal behavior, homophobia and transphobia, misogyny, anti-Blackness, ableism, and other forms of chauvinism and anti-solidarity thinking and behavior?

SW: Prison is a hyper masculine environment. Patriarchal thinking, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism are rampant behind the walls. The only way to handle these oppressive behaviors is to confront them straight up when they manifest. I do so by questioning the person’s motive. We have sports teams inside. Often, teams are created through a draft process. The coaches often don’t know whom they are drafting until it’s over. During one volleyball season, a coach selected an openly queer prisoner. He didn’t know it until the first game. He didn’t start the prisoner until late in the first game. That is when he realized the queer prisoner was a great volleyball player. Players on his bench balked at playing with the queer prisoner and began to make homophobic comments. I walked over and asked them if they felt they were better players than him. They knew they weren’t. I asked them if they thought they would become gay if he played on the team with them. They vehemently denied this. So what is the problem? They were there to win a game. The best player on their team happened to be queer. So what. When confronted with their bigotry, most prisoners, being unable to defend it, pipe down. When enough of us do this, things will change. And they need to. Homophobia, transphobia, and ableism are prejudices that are still acceptable in our society.

IA: How have you navigated the guards?

SW: Most officers stay out of the way. They see us studying and leave us alone. They walk by and spy on us, but they don’t try to break us up. They allow us to pass out materials on the block. From the officer’s perspective, our studying is a good thing. We are quiet and less likely to get into trouble, especially the kind of trouble that would require more work from them. It is the upper administration that is antagonistic toward study groups. They see us building influence and they don’t like it. They are the ones who create obstacles to study, not the front line officers.

At Smithfield, we were able to do more because the administration actively recruited us to create positive outlets for prisoners. Fayette is very different. 180 degrees different. We do more work on our own. But I find that Fayette has created, through its oppressive acts, a hunger for knowledge among the prisoners. The organic desire is greater here.

IA: Why do you go through all of this, comrade? 

SW: All I am doing is passing along the goodness that has been given to me to make the world better.

Author: Dreaming Freedom Practicing Abolition

> network of self-organized prison study groups at SCI-FAYETTE > consolidating networks of resistance across the PA DOC system

One thought on “Study Groups & Moving Together: An Interview with Stephen Wilson”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s