(Or How I Found Prison Abolition On My Way to the Continental Breakfast)
by Nate Mckowen |
Author’s note: I’m writing this in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our lives have been turned upside down. We’ve been told that we need to socially isolate ourselves. We’ve been told to limit contact with our friends and family. We must mentally adapt to a new circumstance in which we are surrounded by threat and constantly reminded of our own fragile mortality. The future is uncertain. I know this feeling. I felt this every day during my eight and a half years in prison.
However, what we’re going through in the “free world” is not the same as what incarcerated people are experiencing inside. Out here, I have choices. Here, I can take the necessary precautions to protect myself and my family. Here, I can press my face against my girlfriend’s stomach and talk to my unborn daughter. Here, I can step outside anytime I want and let the sun warm my skin. Here, I have hope.
I think of my friend, Scott, and the threat he faces, locked up in those overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. He’s worried about his family; he has asked me to look after them. Now more than ever, I am reminded of the danger our prison system poses not only for the people inside but for our collective well-being. Crisis makes us realize what’s important. People are important. Not the institutions designed to harm them.
About a year ago, AFSC-Arizona hired me as their media arts intern. I was told my duties would include making graphics, co-producing a podcast, and creating videos and other media. Basically, things I was doing in my free time for fun. Except I’d be doing this in service to my brothers and sisters behind bars.
“And we’ll probably do some traveling to some different conferences and workshops around the country,” said my supervisor, Joe Watson, who’s formerly incarcerated, like me. Joe then smiled, as if to say, Sorry kid, it’s a tough life.
Growing up, I had always dreamed of having a job that allowed me to travel, a job that provided adventure. Exploring new cities, meeting new people, boarding planes and staying in hotels with continental breakfasts – and those little waffles with chocolate chips sprinkled on top. That would be the life, my kid brain said. And here was that life, staring me in the face, only months after being released from prison.
Was this really happening? I held my breath. No sudden movements. I didn’t want to scare this opportunity away. I nodded once.
“Yeah, I think that’ll work.”
It wasn’t long after I began my position that I was introduced to prison abolition. When I asked Joe what it meant, he told me to imagine a world without prisons.
An image flashed through my mind of burning watchtowers, and me and Joe with face masks and Molotov cocktails, holding back a flap of chain-link fencing as all of our friends poured through the gap into freedom. A grim satisfaction accompanied the thought, borne from the residual anger that I had cultivated in prison to combat the feelings of loneliness and uselessness.
If there are no prisons, how do we hold people accountable? How do we keep our communities safe?
And yet, despite spending eight and a half years in prison (or maybe because of it), I really couldn’t imagine a world without prisons. When I went to prison, I felt like I deserved to be punished. I deserved to be there in that place. I felt like a bad person, and everything around me reinforced that idea. I’m not proud to say it, but for a while that became my identity.
That’s how prison works. That’s how it’s designed. We take people who have committed harm, isolate them, and throw them in a twisted environment that harms them in return. And then, we expect them to return to the community as upstanding, ethically-motivated citizens.
I had first-hand experience that showed me our current system doesn’t work. But still, a world without prisons?
The narrative that I grew up with was still ingrained in my subconscious. If we didn’t have prisons, what would we do with the “bad people”? Despite the fact that a lot of those “bad people” were now my friends – just people, who made some bad decisions – I still thought of the world within this false dichotomy of good and evil. I also knew that in the depths of my addiction, I was a danger to myself and others.
So, the question that I needed to answer before I could accept the idea of prison abolition was: If there are no prisons, how do we hold people accountable? How do we keep our communities safe?
Grace Gámez, AFSC-Arizona’s program director for the ReFraming Justice Project, introduced me to the idea of restorative justice.
“Our current system does nothing for community safety because it does nothing to address the harm,” Grace told me. “Trying to fix our system of punishment is like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. Instead of pouring money into these systems that isolate people and that make things worse, we need to be funding community organizations that bring people in, address trauma, and offer healing.”
She ticked off on her fingers: “Belonging. Purpose. Dignity.” Her fingers then folded into her palm. “That’s what creates community safety.”
It sounded good to me. It really did. But as I get older and more pragmatic (having safely tucked away my Molotov cocktails), it sounds like a worse idea to burn down the house before we lay the foundation for something else. My questions – the barriers that kept me from fully envisioning prison abolition – were then: What would a system of restorative justice look like? And how would it work in practice?
From the window of the plane, I looked down on the dusty, desert landscape as it receded beneath me.
My parole officer (PO) said that, as long as I was up to date on all of my parole fees and fines (read: as long as they had their money), I could travel to a conference in Mississippi with Joe. I wondered if my PO would have let me go if he knew that my supervisor had spent 10 years in prison. Or that this conference was centered around deconstructing the very system that employed him. It made me smile when I thought about it. There was still a bit of that residual anger and rebellion coursing through my veins.
Somewhere down there in the desert we flew over was the Florence prison complex. As I looked down, I remembered being on the yard years ago, looking up as planes soared overhead, wondering if I would ever get to fly on a plane again.
I felt guilty. My friend Scott, somewhere inside that prison complex below, wouldn’t get out for another 42 years. He used to joke with me that, if he got out, I’d have to change his diapers for him.
“Yeah, right,” I’d tell him. “I’ll just let you sit in it.” We’d laugh.
The conference in Mississippi was called MUMI – Making and Unmaking Mass Incarceration. And as Garret Felber said in the commencement speech, the conference would be unapologetically abolitionist.
At first, I felt really out of place. It was fascinating learning about the history of prison and why it doesn’t work, but here were all these Ivy League graduates talking about abolition. And I remember thinking: You can tell these people have never been to prison.
It wasn’t until that night, at a poetry reading in downtown Oxford, that I finally heard something that resonated with me from someone I knew had been to prison.
Reginald Dwayne Betts was reading from his award-winning, critically-acclaimed book of poetry, Felon. Not only is Dwayne a poet, a lawyer, Yale Law School graduate, and an advocate for reform, but he, too, did eight and a half years inside.
I’ve noticed that, ironically, those who have the hardest time wrapping their heads around prison abolition are those who have been to prison. Dwayne included.
He paused before reading another one of his poems to share an anecdote. A woman, Dwayne said, had asked him why he would write a first-person poem about rape if he hadn’t raped anyone. He wrote the poem, he said, because he didn’t have all the answers, but he wanted to raise the questions.
“Despite me believing [in abolition], I still don’t ever want someone to believe I did certain things,” he said. “So, abolition and this whole idea of who should and shouldn’t be incarcerated and how we deal with harm is something that troubles me, because I don’t have any answers.”
Like Dwayne said, we start by asking the difficult questions. And one of the questions that I myself had been struggling with: In a world without prisons how do we address harm? Joe tried to put it in perspective for me.
“Prison abolition isn’t about tearing down the prisons tomorrow,” he said. “It’s about working toward a world in which we’re not afraid to live without them.”
Grace told me that it starts with reframing our justice system – from one that focuses on punishment to one that is centered in healing for both those who have been harmed, as well as those who have committed harm.
In San Francisco, there’s a good example of this. It’s a group of community members that reach out to people involved in gun violence. Not only the victim but the shooter, as well. And the police are not involved. The Oakland United Coalition goes to both parties and says, effectively, “We’re here for you, whatever you need, just put away the guns.” This sort of community action has reduced gun violence far more effectively than prison ever could.
Here in Tucson, we have Flowers & Bullets Collective, which started as a community garden to combat food insecurity and create some beauty in Barrio Centro, one of Tucson’s most-heavily surveilled barrios.
Since 2012, Flowers & Bullets has grown into something bigger. Community members come to help with the garden. They nurture the plants and produce fresh vegetables for the neighborhood. There is new strength in Barrio Centro that has brought them all closer together. And it wasn’t an outside agency or an all-knowing nonprofit that led the way. Flowers & Bullets was created by the people who live there and know what they need.
It’s community-building like this that will lead to a world where we don’t need prisons.
Like Dwayne Betts, I don’t have all the answers, either. Often, I’m still hung up on the practical details of a world without prisons.
What do we do when someone’s gone off the deep end? Kicking in doors, robbing the elderly, and throwing Molotov cocktails? What do we do then? What’s the practical solution? Do we ask them nicely to stop and then offer therapy?
This is the point where prison abolition falls apart for most people, this is where the fear takes over. Fear builds prisons. Fear is why we have the highest incarceration rate in the world. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the US houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Arizona has the fifth-highest rate of incarceration in the nation.
It’s so much easier to push people away, out of sight, and imagine that we are helping them than to invest in a world that brings people in and addresses harm. It will take courage and compassion to realize that world.
My internship over the past year has — “changed my life” is such a cliche. Rather, it’s made different my way of being.
Since the first day I walked into this office and was welcomed with hugs, I felt like I belonged. When speaking with lawmakers at the state capitol to convince them of the need for real change in Arizona, I stood alongside AFSC-Arizona with dignity. When given the opportunity to use my talent and passion in service to others, I found purpose.
Today, I not only imagine a world without prisons; I am dedicated and committed to working towards it.
Also, I flew on planes and made little waffles with chocolate chips sprinkled on top.
Nate Mckowen is a graduate of the New York Film Academy and owner of Updraft Productions.