Our Workplace Justice Series: the Abolition of the Prison Industrial Complex
“I’m suggesting that we abolish the social function of prisons” - Angela Davis
Four times a year, the Planting Justice Education team facilitates Workplace Justice trainings, and this time our staff voted to focus on the Abolition of the Prison Industrial Complex, given we work within a prison, a jail, and two juvenile detention facilities. Depending upon what’s allowed by the authorities at each of these facilities, we bring the opportunity for men and women who are incarcerated to practice growing food using permaculture methods, learn more about food justice issues, and implement nutritious culinary recipes using harvests from their gardens, and then we offer job opportunities to people returning home from incarceration with a starting level wage of $17.50/hour. Currently, 11 out of 22 of our staff members have been formerly incarcerated, and we believe our work at Planting Justice directly contributes to reducing the level of mass incarceration - we’ve offered employment to 18 different men returning home from prison, with a zero percent recidivism rate.
And, despite our efforts, the Prison Industrial Complex still operates as a violent beast that is disproportionately stealing and enslaving people of color from our communities. As Angela Davis reminds us, “There is an unbroken line of police violence in the United States that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery, the aftermath of slavery, the development of the Ku Klux Klan. There is so much history of this racist violence that simply to bring one person to justice is not going to disturb the whole racist edifice.” So we learn by studying the way it operates, we grow by sharing our experiences within it, and we make changes in our workplace to undo its manifestations.
We began the morning with a hearty breakfast (thank you Kelly Curry!) and some handouts, including the National Lawyer’s Guild 2015 Resolution Supporting the Abolition of Prisons and some facts on the Prison Industrial Complex, such as:
- The prison population has grown 700% since 1970.
- CA’s prison population: over 200,000 inmates in 2012 = $11 billion/per year
- The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people in Oakland is almost 70%
- 70% of people released from a CA prison go back to prison within one year.
- Black and Latino students represent 70% of those involved in school-related arrests
- 1 in 3 Black men will spend time in prison at some point in their lives
- African Americans are 4 times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with police
With definitions of the Prison Industrial Complex, Abolition, American Slavery, the 13th Amendment, Jim Crow Laws, Racism, White Privilege, and others posted around the room, we wanted to frame the training as an opportunity for our staff to view abolition as a lens to see things that we couldn’t otherwise see about the systems and structures we have in place. After our check-in’s, asking everyone “What’s at stake for you in this issue?”, one of our facilitators, Kelly Curry, introduced a compilation of media and historical images that demonstrate the ways that incarceration is directly linked to the history of slavery in this country. Using a fictitious character she developed of a white slave-owner writing in his diary in reaction to the abolition of slavery, Kelly walked us through these disturbing raw images. The room felt heavy with this truth, and we didn’t turn away from this difficult inheritance. We moved into watching a series of videos that highlight 1) the ways that the police, our government, and people with light skin privilege are too often not held accountable for their crimes or harm to our communities; 2) how women and their children are particularly affected by the Prison Industrial Complex; and 3) the ways that the “school-to-prison pipeline” disproportionately affects young people of color. You can follow the links to view these videos.
Then, as a group, we identified the assumptions our society upholds about prison, policing, and safety by exploring the messages we’ve received through media, family, and throughout history that have shaped our belief systems. Here are some of the reasons we identified why the American public is invested in the Prison Industrial Complex:
- It provides perceived public safety
- Lots of privileged people are removed from the reality of prisons and its effects on families
- We have a patriotic belief in the justice system and that crimes need to be punished
- It provides jobs with good benefits
- Where will people with unmet needs go since we don’t invest in healthcare and other social systems
- It goes hand-in-hand with the war on drugs
- We’re afraid of each other
- We have a fear of being ostracized for our differing beliefs
- Often we feel we don’t have the skills to intervene when harm or violence occurs.
Similarly, we explored other assumptions about why we have police and why people go to prison, and this is where we further identified the ways that these systems serve to intimidate and racially segregate communities as well as discipline and maintain the labor force. Not everyone who breaks the law ends up in prison, but those who can’t afford a good lawyer or pay bail because of economic inequality, those who are living in conditions of poverty and are either desperate or incentivized by our materialistic culture to get involved in illegal activities, those who are innocent but plead guilty under pressure or coercion, those with untreated mental illness, those who are racially profiled, and those who aren’t being appropriately served by our education system because we invest more money into prisons than schools, are all negatively impacted by these systems that claim to “protect and serve” or “to rehabilitate”.
After a break and some snacks and juice to rejuvenate, we broke up into small groups of 3 people each to do a role-playing activity that explores the different experiences and ripple effects of harm. For role #1, imagine that you are at home with your family (including young children) and somebody breaks into your house, threatens you with a gun, and steals a bunch of stuff. Then share with your small group, how do you feel? What do you do? What do you want? For role #2, imagine that your son or your brother robs a house, gets caught, and gets sentenced to 5 years in a prison that is several hours away from where you live. How do you feel? What do you want? What do you do? For role #3, imagine you rob a house at age 15, go to prison for 5 years, and now you’re released. You’re 20 years old, you don’t have a high school degree, and you have a criminal record, so you can’t stay with your family because they’re in public housing. You’re not eligible for food stamps and you can't get anyone to hire
you with your criminal record and lack of job experience. How do you feel? What are your options for meeting your basic needs? What do you do?
For our next activity, we looked at the amount of money budgeted in the city of Oakland, Alameda County, and the state of California that goes towards the Prison Industrial Complex. Through her research, one of our facilitators, Nicole Deane, found that $400,000,000 per year is spent on the Oakland Police Department, which is almost 60% of Oakland’s overall budget. Alameda County is slated to receive $54,000,000 to expand Santa Rita Jail with a new “mental health” unit. And the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is spending $65,000 per year per inmate. All this doesn’t even include the money that our cities, private businesses, and the general public spends on other methods of surveillance and security, such as anti-violence programs like “Ceasefire”, preparedness and response programs like “Urban Shield”, the Domain Awareness Center at the Oakland port, neighborhood watch groups, home alarms, sex offender registration, broken window policing, private security, school officers, BART police, housing authority police, military grade weapons, drones, body cameras, and gang injunctions. We noticed most or all of these methods are violent, racist, patriarchal, technology-driven, top-down approaches that promote and perpetuate fear, vengeance, and punishment.
Then we imagined alternative strategies in which we could direct even a portion of that money to keep people safe and address harm. We talked about housing, medical attention, mental health, job training programs, job creation, a universal basic income, childcare and early childhood education, youth development trainings, conflict resolution and mediation trainings, emergency response and crisis intervention trainings, drug treatment, nutritious food, positive reinforcement and celebrating people’s efforts and achievements. We noticed that all these are investments in people, in building community resources, in love,care, and support.
Following that activity, we were fortunate to have a presentation by members of Critical Resistance’s Oakland Power Project Anti-Policing Health Workers Cohort. First, they brought an understanding of what abolition looks like using the concept of fugitivity (in the past: the Underground Railroad Campaign; currently: any program or political projects that work to get people from under police, incarceration or surveillance within the context of decarceration and/or decriminalization; and possible demands: the immediate release of all non-violent prisoners, release all violent prisoners in five years, etc) and the concept of maroonage (spaces, formations, organizations, and projects that stand separately and act in opposition to the Prison Industrial Complex), sourced from Anti-Blackness: Theories for Abolition by Jasson Perez, Black Youth Project National Co-Chair.
The facilitators from Oakland Power Project asked us what happens when the police are the first to respond to a health related emergency and what social factors influence their response? Using an example of a bicycle accident, they walked us through tips for safely approaching and dealing with the scene. This included:
- Recognizing the amount of risk we’re taking on
- Deep breathing and grounding ourselves
- Knowing what our skill and comfort levels are
- If the person is conscious, asking how they want us to respond
- Getting the person’s consent before touching them
- Call out to others surrounding the area, such as “we’re not calling the cops/911”, “does anyone have any experience with this?”, and/or “is anyone close to this person?”
- Assigning roles to those who are responding, such as a lead/bottom liner, a community de-escalator who can let community members know that the situation is being addressed, and a police liaison if/when the police do show up.
Given our limited time compared to the Oakland Power Project’s much more detailed training (which provides time to practice a series of assessments that determine the severity of this type of scene), we moved on to understanding what to expect when you call 911, when emergency services arrive, and if you take someone to the hospital or a clinic. It’s important to note that for people who are undocumented, have a criminal record, a warrant out for their arrest, are at risk of being racially profiled, have a disability, or aren’t gender normative, calling the police can have a detrimental impact on the course of their lives, which is most likely not the experience of more privileged bystanders. Overall, it was helpful to explore this alternative strategy for dealing with a health accident and learning some of the skills we can personally develop to interrupt policing in our community. A huge thank you to Oakland Power Project members Alejandra Cano, Alisia Bell, and Ray Himmelman for sharing this knowledge with us!
Finally, it was lunchtime and we were blessed to have a meal made by Carolina Abolio of Miss Arepitas from the Phat Beets Kitchen Incubators Program! We highly recommend you try this tasty Venezuelan dish!
After lunch, we moved into our fishbowl activity with some guided questions that help to integrate and implement what we learned during the training into our workplace. We set up two circles of chairs: the inner circle of four chairs is meant to give people an opportunity to speak and be heard by the outer circle of chairs where people remain silent, observing and listening to the knowledge and experience of those who are sitting in the inner circle. This particular fishbowl was meant to center the voices and perspectives of our staff members who have transitioned home after years of incarceration. The guided questions included:
- How do the assumptions that we have identified together around the Prison Industrial Complex show up in the way we relate to one another?
- What changes do we need to make in our own thinking about control, accountability, and punishment to resist the mentality of the Prison Industrial Complex?
- How can we support each other to challenge those assumptions of the Prison Industrial Complex and find a different way to solve problems?
- How do we take what we’ve learned today and incorporate it into our work?
- What skills and training do we need to resist the Prison Industrial Complex?
- What are the ways that you see our work resisting the Prison Industrial Complex?
Here are some of the outcomes, hopes, and lessons this activity brought forth:
- Let’s form a group of people in re-entry at Planting Justice to support each other and document our work and successes
- Let’s tell our stories through media
- Let’s recognize the ways that the Prison Industrial Complex messes people up
- Let’s heal our wounds and practice rituals that release trauma/pain/violence and reconnects with spirit
- Let’s identify safe and healthy outlets in our community
- Let’s create our own solutions - no one is going to give it to us
- Let’s honor our struggles and express our gratitude to each other
- Let’s get grounded, stay focused, and eliminate distractions from our work
- Let’s stick together, stay connected, and build unity
- Let’s be patient with each other, listen and communicate more, don’t make assumptions about each other, be understanding and considerate, and give eachother love and care
- Let’s have people in re-entry be mentors and solution providers, especially with our youth
- Let’s spend more time with Tylen (one of our youth who has been in our programming since he was 9 years old and is now in high school)
- Let’s be family to each other
- Let’s help each other with basic needs - housing, food, health
- Let’s recognize our collective power
We closed our training by circling up, arms around each other, acknowledging how hard this work is, how committed we are for the long haul, honoring the efforts of those who have struggled before us, and then we listened to a song by Frank Ocean called “Together”.