We walk back and forth in a jail cell everyday – it’s called your doorways
and Metal chairs in the emergency room
waiting to be seen…
excerpt from the PoorHouse to the JailHouse by Tiny
“Prison abolition is different than penal abolition — we don’t just want to get rid of the structures, we want to get rid of the whole system that functions to destroy people,” said Ashanti Alston, Black Panther and penal abolitionist.
POOR Magazine had the blessing of listening to Ashanti and so many more freedom fighters at the 17th International Conference on Penal Abolition held in New Bedford, Mass — aka stolen Wampanoag territory, home to some of the first undocumented immigrants (pilgrims), and the ancestors of many stolen bodies, from enslaved peoples to Northern European medicine women. Suffice it to say the cries from the ancestors can be heard here. Loudly. And I laid down prayers every day.
The conference, bumpered with the work of Black-led healing circle, Harriet’s Apothecary and the prayer of First Nations Wampanoag elders, was filled to the brim with theory seminars such as Exorcising White Supremacy, Abolitionist Horizons, and Failed Encounters with Solidarity, alongside voices from the other side of the plantation walls being read by poets and community organizers form across Turtle Island with liberation voices like Ashanti’s calling for deep inclusion from plantation prison scholars in our movements.
At POOR Magazine, we work to make sure our incarcerated, unhoused, and criminalized voices are not only included but leading movements. We are impacted by poverty scholarship, and this theme began at the opening plenary with Janetta Johnson, who called for incarcerated peoples to be included as life coaches and leaders in this penal abolishment movement
“We need to support trans and non-trans incarcerated peoples inside and outside with all the support we can give them. They have deep lived knowledge, they could act as life coaches for people on the outside,” said Johnson in the opening plenary, with Monica James and Woods Ervin speaking together in a beautiful circle.
Ashanti continued, “This is why it’s so important to include people inside in the building of a movement — to help us stay focused on this side. Today there is so much potential to take this movement to another level. My challenge is for you to take on the work of the freedom of people who have been inside for 30, 40 or 50 years.”
“We need to help Ana Belen Montez, a Puerto Rican political prisoner,” Jose Soler, a union organizer from Boston who brought up Anna Belen as a call to action for the audience. PNN spoke to him later and he explained that Anna needs our support to get the same kind of attention as Oscar Lopez Rivera and like him now has Jan Sassier as a lawyer to fight her case.
As well, the conference highlighted the struggle of trans peoples of color across Mama Earth. From Argentina to the US, Trans people of color in and outside the plantation walls are harassed, criminalized, and killed. Many of the letters from folks inside that were read throughout the conference articulated this abuse and the need for more support.
Black Panther, POOR Magazine reporter, poverty scholar, and organizer with Coalition on Homelessness Bilal Ali noted that “11,794 citations were issued to unhoused folks for the sole act of being unhoused in 2014 alone. They spend more money criminalizing us than housing us.” Bilal went on to list the endless white supremacist, anti-poor people-laws put in place since the colonizers stole this land.
As Bilal laid out the facts of the constant criminalization of us poor folks from the powerful Punishing the Poorest report by the Coalition on Homelessness, I reflected on my ideas (that I presented in my workshop) that us unhoused peoples are political prisoners outside the razor wire plantation walls.
I am the daughter of a disabled, unhoused, single, Afro-Boricua mama raised and tortured in foster homes and orphanages, trying to survive in the American hamster wheel, trying to overcome, heal, live until she couldn’t handle one more little murder of the soul, us ending up years on the street unhoused and criminalized for the sole act of not having access to a roof, eventually landing me in jail for three months for the sole act of being unhoused. Personal is political, she would say. Our political is personal. Our imprisonment is political. Houselessness isn’t a crime. Being so tortured in your heart and soul that you can barely function, that you can barely stop from screaming, that you can’t work, pay rent, hold down plantation jobs, or sell your body, your soul or your mind, isn’t a crime, it’s the result of the violence and sickness of life in this post-colonized Babylon. On either side of the razor wire fences.
“The underground cells were the same size and functioned the same as the current Secured Housing Units.” One of the powerful organizers of ICOPA, Viviane Saleh – Hanna showed us imagery of a frightening place called Patience, Ghana where enslaved peoples were incarcerated, while she spoke at one of the workshops laying out the deep architectural and actual connections to the multi-billion-dollar industry of chattel slavery and the current multi-billion-dollar industry of plantation prisons.
After these powerful four days of penal abolition and resistance in this Wampanoag territory that was home to Frederick Douglass’ home and one of the sites of the underground railroad, a closing speech was spoken by beautiful, fabulous sis-star Monica James who articulated some of the tensions felt by poverty and incarceration youth scholars, who along with a few poverty scholar adults like myself and Leroy, were at the conference speaking our truths. This was a testimony to the work of the penal abolition movement away form only an academic exercise into a truly impacted people-led movement. Her words were felt and our stories were uplifted and exactly why the voices of poverty scholars must not only be included but lead the work to destroy the institutions built to incarcerate and profit off us that is about us, never without us.
We walk back and forth in a jailhouse everyday -it’s called your doorways
Metal chairs in the emergency room
waiting to be seen…
its main street outside the razor wire plantation in a cell called houselessness and poverty
Teetering on a colonized definition of safety
from scofflaws to stop and risk laws
we can barely survive one day without the violence of hate and poLice brutality
me daughter of a houseless, single mama –
sleeping on street corners, cars and not really public parks in this stolen indigenous territory
it’s enough to drive anyone completely craz-eee
it took my mama –
unable to unhinge from that deep well of trauma
So what’s the answer –
you don’t want to see me
You would like to walk down the street cloaked in your amerikkklan lie that doesn’t include me
Yes we are political prisoners –
outside the razor wire plantations
us po folks are NEVER free
not free from our mind demons
the abuse we can’t get out our mind no matter the quantity of psycho-pharma-cology
I hold my mama in this space
rolling over her torture
“My life is political
my prison is personal,” she would always say
My struggle/ our struggle is poetry
and I can’t escape these walls inside my mind
I can’t ever be free
No Matter what
I can’t ever be free