My stepfather liked rings. When I was six, he liked to pick me up by my little arms and swing me around. If I cried, he’d sit me down and ask what was wrong. My mother would yell. He’d buy me whatever I wanted for Christmas. He laughed loudly, fell asleep every time he watched the news and would always wake up when I’d try to change the channel.
He went to prison when I was thirteen. The confusion of going to high school was suddenly mingled with bitter memories – gathering all of his belongings in our home at night and taking them to a parking garage miles away, our house being robbed by his family who wanted our money, the automated voice at the end of the line that said, “You are receiving a collect call from BLANK Correctional Facility.”
If growing up is hard, it only becomes harder when you have to empty your pockets, be searched by guards and then wait for an hour to visit your father. It becomes harder amidst all of my confusing identities. I was a closeted queer in Caribbean family, living a lie as I attempted to untangle my grief. A Texas roadway and a police officer’s flashlight in the passenger window had taken my father away from me. What was I to do about it?
College and life paved a way for me. I found love in organizing to make the spaces around me better, whether it be rallies, panels, roundtables, or a long conversation about black feminism with a friend. My politics allowed me to unravel all the ways I wanted to be human. A few weeks ago I found out that some of my friends were organizing Bend the Bars, a convergence of activists in Columbus, OH intent on supporting the September 9, 2016 prison workers strike.
It wasn’t necessarily that I’d found the convergence. It had found me. My entire reality disallowed me to ignore the harsh punishments and torture that prisoners face. Assata Shakur, in her biography, talks about being targeted as black liberation activist by police, sentenced for a crime she didn’t commit and being tortured by police as she was bed ridden. Bomani Shakur, a political prisoner in Lucasville, OH who was also falsely sentenced by police in connection to the 1993 Lucasville Prison Riot, talks about being beaten within an inch of his life by prison guards, cut off from contact from his family and forced to heal in a cold room. He had to slice open the mattress he was laid on and crawl inside for warmth.
I am not devoid of the reality that the systems we live under are evil.
I also refuse to live in fear for the rest of my humanely existence. So I went to Bend the Bars, scooped up dozens of zines from tables, listened as prisoners called in to talk to us, and learned how I can give support as someone on the outside.
When we talk about prison abolition it is important to expand the narrow framework that we have been taught to view criminality through.
Was I to view the man that had taken me to school, helped me brush my teeth, and who had taught me how to hold my temper as a criminal, a simple illegal immigrant? In her book, “Freedom is A Constant Struggle”, Angela Davis explores how capitalism has lead to the “profitability of punishment” and states, “We also question whether incarcerating individual perpetrators does anymore than reproduce the very violence that the perpetrators have allegedly committed. In other words criminalization allows the problem to persist.” (107).
Was prison the best thing for my father, or the billions of other people that have been incarcerated since the establishment of the prison system? If not, then what do we do?
Bomani Shakur during a phone call from a prison states to us at Bend the Bars, “I am a human being and these people get to decide when I die,”. Is it not the most human thing to want to hug your parent when you are upset, decide your own meals, step outside to see the sun, and to live a life free of punishment based on profit? When we exist in spaces that reaffirm our humanity, something in us shifts. We begin to realize the utter ridiculousness of the violence around us. Bomani is a prime example of this, as is exhibited in his book, “Condemned”.
The true power of Bend the Bars is that allowed people from different walks of life to come together with the simple question, “How can we help prisoners as they oppose their exploitation?”. Since the strike started on September 9 it has involved thousands of prisoners in over “prisoners in over 24 states” . Prisoners in Greece have proclaimed their solidarity with the U.S. born strike. In Alabama, prison officers decided to join the strike by not showing up to second shift.
For me the decision to support prisoners in their demand that their labor be valued is tied to not only my experiences, but the collective experience that is need of a higher consciousness. This can only be done by honest organizing and compassion met with action.