While so much of the work around abolition concerns stopping the harms of prison systems that profit off of the criminalization, caging, and theft of labor from Black and brown people, incarcerated folks are finding creative ways to contribute to larger systems of culture and knowledge—both inside of prisons and beyond their walls.
Artists and scholars have always had to forge their own intellectual pathways while incarcerated. That process crafts a certain level of intellectual rigor free from the alienation and inaccessibility that often accompanies traditional academic training.
Learning directly from those caught in the crosshairs of the prison industrial complex is necessary to challenge political structures and address the ongoing harms propagated under the guise of law and order.
Here's a spotlight on some of our favorite thinkers, activists, and writers whose writings and experience with the criminal justice system continue to evolve our ways of thinking.
New Orleans native Albert Woodfox is a brilliant scholar, memorialist, organizer, and Black Panther. One of the Angola 3, Woodfox endured 44 years and 10 months imprisoned in solitary confinement—the longest consecutive period of solitary confinement in U.S. history.
His sentence to solitary confinement resulted from the fact that Woodfox and his comrades were known Black Panthers organizing, teaching, and mobilizing inside the walls of Angola State Prison. So when a guard was killed, prison officials framed the Angola 3 so that they could punish and quell Black political dissidence.
"I just loved the boldness of the Party; African American men and women standing up knowing what the repercussions could be and deciding to take control of their lives, take control of the lives of the Black community, and resist oppression, economic exploitation, and exclusion of Black people."
Only in 2016 was Woodfox finally cleared and released. By then his and others' advocacy and protesting had led to significant improvements in the treatment of people in solitary confinement.
Since his release, Woodfox has spoken extensively about his experience for all manner of audiences. He's even featured on a British music album, alongside names like Stormzy and Idris Elba, on a track called "What's the cost of freedom?"
Organizer, abolitionist, and Scalawag contributing editor Zaina was over the moon when he agreed to an interview with her, calling it the "highlight of her tenure at Scalawag."
What is significant about Woodfox's work is his insistence on the unwavering individual and collective commitment to social change.
"[P]eople have to see social struggle as a way of life, not an event… [not like] you get to a certain plateau or you achieve certain things and everything is over. There will always be challenges in civil society, so when you make a commitment to social struggle it has to be a lifetime commitment, not just for a particular person, but for humanity as a whole."
Read: Solitary, Woodfox's award-winning memoir
Attend: A conversation between Woodfox and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka
In 2016, Scalawag began its relationship with Lyle May, a writer incarcerated on North Carolina's death row. It is entirely possible to have a regular contributor on death row; it just takes patience from both the reporter and editor, but the resulting impact is well worth it.
Scalawag Race & Place editor Danielle on working with Lyle May: "In the four years I've worked with Lyle May, a writer incarcerated on North Carolina's death row, we've only seen each other behind thick glass and spoken by phone. On a Friday afternoon, after walking through metal detectors and passing the dress code and the wall display of Central Prison t-shirts for sale, I walk into the tiny cell where we're allowed to speak for two hours, and immediately he grins and tells me something weird that happened to him that week. Our visits and calls are delightful and interesting and also sad as hell."
Over the last four years, May has written eight stories for Scalawag, working directly with our editors through regular calls, visits, and letters. His 2018 essay on anti-death penalty policy, "Life without parole is 'silent execution'", is still one of our best-circulating articles, and is taught in courses on criminal justice reform at UNC, and a writing seminar at Duke.
See also: Lyle May, Beyond the Wall: "A couple of guards muttered incredulous comments about the cost of an ambulance while I stared at the splint, trying to keep my face neutral. Rattling in my head like a pair of carelessly tossed dice were two words: outside hospital. Then one: outside. Through the haze of oxycodone, I focused on the waves of pain instead of what "outside" meant, but this failed as a long-forgotten beacon lanced through it all. Outside. Outside. Outside."
The insights provided by incarcerated correspondents like May are critical because too often media and journalists take the police record and state transcripts at face value without doing due diligence. May has paid the price personally for writing articles on policy issues and prison abuses. For publishing unfavorable reports with Scalawag, he's had privileges revoked and even been denied access to educational classes necessary for the completion of his degree. Nevertheless May continues advocating for the freedom of the press within prisons. The public has a right to know.
Read: May's memoir Waiting for the Last Train
May serves as an outspoken voice for sentencing and parole reform and higher education in prisons. Beyond writing for Scalawag, May has gone on to give university lectures and write for outlets like Inside Higher Ed. Most recently he appeared in an interview with CNN's medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta about the impacts of COVID-19 in prisons. Through his writing, May is able to advocate for and shed light on not just his experience but the experiences of the thousands of people thrown into cages by the state.
See also: Jacob Davis, Whether Fences or Not: "I need to know Nashville better because I love people there. We desire a shared context which the system tries to deny us in order to satisfy those who want prisoners to die a social death, to disappear and to stay disappeared."
Guggenheim fellow, author of four books including the recently released and critically-acclaimed Felon, Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and essayist who brings his experience as a teenager sentenced to 9 years in a maximum security prison and his experience as a public defender to bear on the conversation around mass incarceration and its octopic effects.
Scalawag Arts & Soul editor Alysia: "Betts and I overlapped during our time at Yale, and though we did not know each other well, poetry circles—no matter where you go—are indeed quite small. I remember pouring over his second collection in graduate school and being struck by the way he wove legal language in with a no-punches-pulled vernacular, sometimes breaking the rigidities of syntax in order to really express a thing. One with little patience for PC language and neoliberal signifiers, Betts makes no allegiances to systems, benevolent or compromised. I remember his commitment to truthtelling in a keep-it-100 Facebook post he wrote about how Howard Law School had retracted his acceptance after finding out he had a felony record. He later went on to Yale Law."
Read: Bastards of the Reagan Era, Betts' journey from prison to law school
Betts' work is not limited to the page or the courtroom. His collaboration The Redaction with another New Haven local, famous visual artist Titus Kaphar, whose tar-dipped icons of incarcerated Black men appear on the cover of Felon, recently debuted at MoMA PS1. From his website, "Drawing inspiration and source material from lawsuits filed by the Civil Rights Corps (CRC) on behalf of people incarcerated because of an inability to pay court fines and fees, The Redaction features poetry by Betts in combination with Kaphar's etched portraits of incarcerated individuals."
From our archives:
We Knew Where The Power Was: Interviews with members of the North Carolina Prisoners' Labor Union.
'If free people are not allowed to have unions, how are prisoners to have unions?' Robbie Purner, NCPLU organizer who worked diligently to support incarcerated worker resistance and became the union's lead union organizer on the outside.
'Prisoners' organizations were thought to be dangerous.' Chuck Eppinette, arrested for draft resistance, made preparations to unionize inmates behind bars.
'A voice locked up is not a voice unheard!' Jim Grant and two other Black men were accused of setting fire to a riding stable near Charlotte. While protesters marched in the streets for his release, Grant continued to agitate for change on the cell block as a union organizer.
Leroy Mann, former Scalawag contributor and resident of death row in Raleigh's Central Prison, where he is a witness to the injustice of capital punishment. He is the author of a memoir and an unpublished novel titled Concrete Seeds, and he has blogged at Word to the Masses for more than six years.
Hugs—An American family structure: "When someone tells you, 'I'll be by your side forever,' then they just stop writing or visiting… It's like being in love and having your heart broken; it hurts! I've developed a thick skin because I don't like getting hurt."
Three shifts of an 11th hour: "[T]hird shift—when prisoners stand still and prison officers work late into the night—is the state's designated time for the compulsory transcendence of a soul."