Sometimes, a crisis can become an impetus, a reason to do what should have been done a long time ago. At the onset of COVID19 in the United States, many of us in the penal abolition movement realized we lacked the means to keep each other informed and to stay connected. We needed a way everyone, imprisoned folk and their outside allies, could connect and learn. While lots of information is available online, prisoners cannot access it. We cannot participate in social media like those outside the walls. We need print publications to stay informed and connected to those outside. We need print publications to participate in conversations about prisons, policing, incarceration and strategies that actually produce safety and justice.
As Rachel Herzing said, “I think there is what I would call an over reliance on social media which has meant that a lot of people are just left out… There are many people living in cages who don’t have access to social media. And even those who do, they might not have access to it in the same real time that people living outside cages do… So there are potentially millions of people who don’t have a voice in the conversation.”
Print publications facilitate the flow of information between imprisoned folk and between imprisoned and their outside allies. It’s important that we are part of the conversation, that we dialogue with each other and our supporters. Such dialogues are central to our organizing strategies and ultimate goal. Print publications enable us to have collective dialogues about what we want our movement to be about and to create space for everyone seeking liberation. Print publications collapse the distance between us.
These cages were constructed to divide and isolate. We cannot tear them down alone. We have to create spaces where we can come together and learn, study, discuss, debate, strategize and assess. Mariame Kaba said, “I don’t think you can work on your own. There’s definitely no way to dismantle the systems we’re trying to dismantle on our own. That’s first and foremost.” We need each other to learn, to grow, to win. Audre Lorde said, “Without community, there is no liberation.”
We have to build forward together, as imprisoned folk, formerly imprisoned folk, families and friends of imprisoned and formerly imprisoned folk, allies, accomplices and supporters. We need spaces to develop different perspectives and educate each other. We need to have conversations, but they must be inclusive. So much of what is written about prisons, policing and incarceration is inaccessible to prisoners. It is riddled with so much jargon that there is no way for most prisoners to enter the texts. It wasn’t written with imprisoned folk in mind.
We need material that is understandable and compelling. We need works that speak directly to those most impacted and their daily problems. That work can be intellectually rigorous, well-researched, and still accessible to mass audiences. We need print publications. Without them, we cannot learn, change or connect. Before we can dismantle the system and bring about a world without cages, we must learn to build with each other right where we are.
Prison is a place of separation, alienation and division. Administrators and officers often play off prisoners’ differences to keep us separated. Sadly, many of us fall for the divide and conquer tactic. It takes work and study to be able to recognize the set of practices used by the state to maintain control. It takes work and study to be able to understand, disrupt and dismantle the PIC. We need political education. Political education will provide us with useful tools of analysis. By study, I am referring to what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write about in their book “The Undercommons”: ” Study is the relation to other people that happens when we’re building something of our own, or at least something that isn’t planned for or provided in the institution. ”
That something that isn’t being provided is political education: the knowledge that helps a person to understand the whys and hows of their life. It is consciousness-raising knowledge that once obtained empowers one to change one’s life and one’s world. It is important that we understand power and how it has been and is being used against us. It is imperative that we learn to see the world in newly critical and imaginative ways. Like Frank Wilderson said, “It’s a revolutionary idea just to create the space to deal with this stuff.”
It’s work. It will require time, energy and patience. We have a lot to unlearn. Robin D G Kelley said, “People don’t come to the movement intellectual blank slates, but loaded down with cultural and ideological baggage molded by their race, class, gender, work, community, religion, history, upbringing and collective memory.” The work we do, the studying, teaching, advocating and attempts at institutional change, expose and chip away the lies that prop up and undergird oppressive systems. Our learning and teaching are intentional interventions in the systems the PIC depends upon to survive.
Frank Wilderson said, “We must provide ourselves with an ‘intramural context’ in which we can discuss our issues.” It is my hope and intention that In The Belly is that intramural context. It is my hope that through its pages we connect with each other and build a stronger, more inclusive movement. It is my hope that in it we will have constructive dialogues and conversations about who we are and what we want. It is my hope that In The Belly challenges us to broaden our definitions of justice, community and freedom. I hope its pages provide us with tools we can use to grow study groups across this world, inside and outside the walls. I hope its pages provide us the sustenance to keep moving forward together.
“Freedom is a habit.” Kuwasi Balagoon
Stephen Wilson (he/him) is a currently imprisoned, Black, queer writer, activist and student. For over two decades, he was active in the Ballroom community and work as an HIV-prevention specialist and community organizer. His work and practice inherit teachings from prison abolition, transformative and racial justice, Black feminist theory, and gender and queer liberation. Specifically, he works to end cycles of poverty and incarceration that have plagued his community. He works to expose and dismantle the prison-industrial complex and to build a world in which we deal with harm without caging or exiling other people. Write Stevie at: Stephen Wilson LB8480; SCI Fayette PO Box 33028 St. Petersburg FL 33733