When Soledad State prison made it to the national news cycle, after the release of “This Is Life With Lisa Ling” a documentary produced by Lisa Ling about how incarcerated people were able to raise an unprecedented amount of money ($30,000) to pay the tuition for a young Black kid named Sy Green to attend the prestigious Palma High, a private school located just a few miles from the prison – I felt some type of way. I felt some type of way not because what we accomplished wasn’t great; or that it didn’t give me joy to see my friend “Jay” – Jason Bryant – having a conversation on the Kelly Clarkson Show with Kelly herself, Lisa Ling, and Shemar Moore, about incarcerated men being vulnerable defying the normative societal expectation, and being the very embodiment of integrity; or that I wasn’t grateful that Lisa Ling decided out of all the prisons in this carceral nation to do a story about Soledad (every time we crossed paths while she and her team were here filming, my admiration of her work induced a star-strucked nervousness that only allowed me to convey a childish “hello!”) But I felt some type of way because this was only part of the story of what it means to be an incarcerated person at Soledad; the way these segments framed their stories about this documentary effectively erased the real-life experiences of a large portion of incarcerated people at this very prison; experiences which although weren’t covered in the documentary, but were undoubtedly present in its subtext.
“That’s fucked up, bruh!” One person who wishes to remain anonymous told me “they were on national TV talking about Shemar Moore’s father being a Black Panther, and his experiences with the prison system, and no one mentioned that at the same prison which was at the center of the documentary being discussed, y’all were up in here being brutalized for supposed connections to the Black Panthers.” I definitely shared similar sentiments, and made the same observations. However, I made other observations as well.
As I sat in my cell listening to Shemar Moore talk about his proximate experiences with the criminal legal system through his father – a former Black Panther – I thought to myself, this would be the perfect opportunity for someone to educate the public about California prison systems anti-Black racist policies that allow its officers to target Black people – often violently – for simply possessing literature about the Black Panthers, or even for possessing a photograph of the Black Panther symbol, Huey P. Newton, or any other historical Black figure from the civil rights era. I listened to the entire segment hoping that someone would make the connection; but nothing was said. As I sat there reflecting, I realized that nothing could be said because those who were a part of the conversation on the Kelly Clarkson Show – like the wider public – are unaware that, although the Black Panther Party is viewed by the greater society as having been a necessary part of our collective history, Californias prison system considers them – and any other expression of Black cultural identity – as evidence of ones membership in a Security Threat Group (STG).
This is not an excuse, but it does explain part of the problem in organizing around prison abolition; there is an information gap. Had those present been informed about California’s, (and America at large) long history and current reality of anti- Black racism, it could have been a powerful moment in pointing out how ironic it was to be having a conversation about the Black Panthers on national television in connection with pro-social activities taking place at Soledad, while at the same time – at Soledad – incarcerated Black people we’re being criminalized for simply possessing literature about the Black Panthers; some of the same people who donated and went canvasing Soledad State Prison cell-by-cell soliciting donations; the same people who were featured in the documentary donating their entire checks to do what little they could to help tip the proverbial scale in the favor of a young kid who reminded them of themselves once upon a time. These same philanthropic souls that were being praised on national television, were being demonized behind closed doors.
What is sad is, as has always been the case throughout history, that even after being made aware of the problems with placese such as Soledad, very few people will be courageous enough to speak out against this corrupt system. There is a fear that has always coexisted with systems of white supremacy that is directly connected to reform, which is that due to the nature of reform (which was elaborated on in part one of this series), individuals and organizations become ingrained into the systems and are afraid to speak out against them in fear of losing some type of position or privilege provided by the system which it has become a part of.
This was pointed out by Audre Lorde in her comments at the Personal and Political panel at NYU where she said that this perceived privilege or position does not situate one to be able to bring about lasting change. The only way to bring about lasting change, she says, it to learn “how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those other identified as outside the structures, in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the masters tools will never dismantle the masters house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
So in the next two parts of this series, we are going to dig into what this actually looks like as it concerns prison abolition, through the historical lense of Californias prison system in general, and Soledad State Prison in particular.
We are going to explore the origins of our racialized views about prisons, criminality and Black people. We live in a society where Black people who commit crime are viewed as being perpetually criminal, and therefore deserving of perpetual punishment – extralegal or otherwise. We hear it often when someone is a victim of police brutality or otherwise mistreated, they often explain “I was treated like a criminal” or “I didn’t even commit a crime” or they ask the officer “did I commit a crime?” Implying that abuse and brutality are the expected and accepted forms of punishment for those who commit crime. And who in our society is seen as a representative of criminality more than incarcerated Black people? Where did these beliefs come from?