Creating Solutions Is About Answering Questions Prisons Never Asked
I was 19 when I went to prison, but prison isn’t what healed me
This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.
The first and only time my name was mentioned in the New York Times was in connection with the 2001 headline “Man Found Guilty in Killings at Muffin Shop in Manhattan.” My name was buried in the sixth paragraph. The headline was meant for my co-defendant, but I was the 19-year-old villainous co-star in a cast of crooks who were hoping there was a savior like Viola Davis’ Anna Keating who could help us get away with (felony) murder. The same year of this headline, Critical Resistance, an organization founded on the politics of abolition, held its second conference in Manhattan.
Critical Resistance was all about abolishing the prison industrial complex, back when only super leftists understood the word “abolition” in a context other than its association with Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth. I wonder what some of the founders of the organization — notables like Angela Davis, Rose Braz, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore — thought about those of us in that New York Times article. My co-defendants and I are the case studies that skeptics of abolition parade out as examples of the impracticality of abolition.
If you abolish the police and prisons, what are you going to do about people like Marlon Peterson? What does accountability look like for him? Are you suggesting that he remain in the community, and possibly (felony) murder more people?
Referring to myself in the third person isn’t my narcissism taking the wheel. It is me, a self-proclaimed abolitionist, asking aloud the questions I ask myself every time I attend a shooting response for a murdered baby, when I hear about a violent weekend in Chicago, and yes, even when I chant in the streets that I want the killers of Breonna Taylor to be arrested.
Abolition is more than a politic evincing an end of prisons and police. Abolition is an action word. It is a daily practice just like meditation, yoga, and veganism. Abolition is questioning ourselves first — why we believe that prison is the only form of justice (outside of the Old Testament axiom of an “eye for an eye”) for people who live in the headlines like I once did. Who taught you that prison was justice for any human? Where did you learn that police equates to public safety? From where did you first hear that vengeance is what healing and accountability looks like in public?
Prisons and police did not always exist. The first American brick-and-mortar prison, the Walnut Street prison, is six months older than the Declaration of Independence. The first modern police force was organized in Boston only in 1838. Slave patrols in the South pre-dated this Northern innovation of police reform, and guess who had no voice in the establishment of either? Black people, Brown people, Indigenous people, and poor Whites. Rich White men dreamt of the idea of an armed group of White men who would protect the property of landowners, catching runaway slaves. In the spirit of reform, liberal Whites, who were also champions of the abolition of slavery, conjured prisons as a form of penance for “unhappy creatures” (as the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons described them). The idea of America coincided with the creation of incarceration.
In this historical moment of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and others becoming involuntary martyrs of this racial revolution, we must also reconsider the conditioned belief that police and prisons are a panacea for the unhappiness demonstrated through everyday violence exhibited in the streets of places like Jackson, Mississippi, Englewood, Chicago & Los Angeles, Indian Country, and Appalachia. Cages and cops for Black and Brown people were imagined without our input before it became our policy. At some point we were persuaded that some of us were innately bad, and required police and prison to correct us.
White male landowners taught us that the most marginalized residents of the United States were bad while conveniently omitting the flaws of the American idea — that democracy can thrive with a few determining what is best for all; that the unhappiness of the poor and Black can be solved by their confinement.
Modern abolition requires that we ask different, better, more difficult, more unpopular questions.
Does incarceration make the community safer?
Will a prison cell address the hurt, loss, and sense of insecurity felt by the real victims of the headline — the people harmed by Marlon & his co-defendants?
Do prisons heal victims of crime?
Do prisons address the root causes of crime generative factors of working class Black people, Brown people, Indigenous people, Asian Pacific Islander people, and poor Whites?
What is the debt that society has to pay to people like Marlon and his co-defendants?
During the three years that my co-defendants and I went back and forth to court, without bail, praying for an Anna Keating to free us, no one but the district attorneys and the NYPD — default co-conspirators of a violent system — were allowed suggestions for our accountability. My attorney, a fidgety Black man from Compton, relayed their options of justice to me. First, it was 40 years, then 35 years to life, then 15, then up to 25, then 12 years. None of the aforementioned questions were asked in court, during my legal visits from my attorney, and not once during the 10 years I eventually served. No one asked about healing, only punishment.
Now, I have already accepted the standard of accountability offered to me. I served my time. My co-defendants are serving their time: 50 years and 45 years. The key to their cells has been thrown away — keys I hope to help recover one day.
Is society better for it? Have we solved the reasons for their unhappiness as 20-year olds who shot up a café? What will 50 years of incarceration prove, other than that vengeance is the preferred elixir of justice?
Have you “fixed” me?
Conversely, I have never given prison credit for who I am today. Educators like Dr. Larry Mamiya and Dr. Nadia Lopez have been sources of happiness and healing for me. People have supported me in growing beyond the trauma of my youth. Not prison. Not the police.
Through people like them, I have been able to realize that abolition is more than closing prisons and ending policing as we know it. It is about the everyday questioning and creation of solutions to the reasons why people are harmed by the few in power who have created policies like redlining and the war on drugs so the police could bother me. It is about closing the prisons and defunding the police. It is mainstreaming and resourcing the imagination of working class and poor Black, Brown, Indigenous, and White people to create community options that value our happiness — those in prisons, jails, and immigrant detention centers, and those walking the streets with and without ankle bracelets.
Gun violence is the visible display of underlying trauma. No baby is born wanting to kill another baby. At some point it is taught by its experiences that harming another is a viable option. I want us to commit to politics that pushes us to believe that a country that is the world’s largest jailer, a world leader in firearm-related deaths, is wholly unhealthy, and is in need of a remedy that prioritizes creating a society not defined by guns, prisons, and police. If a few privileged White people can conjure up an incarceration nation, then let the mass of working class and poor Black, Brown, Indigenous, and White people create a new idea of a nation — one that can lead the world in policies of happiness for many and not just the few.
Abolition must be accepted as a realistic option in the realm of justice if we are to believe in the possibilities of humans to be better than they were yesterday.