Feature: A Report from the Inside
Ton, a student and activist, was released last spring after ten years incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York State’s only maximum security women’s prison. Ton and Lyra talked about the rise of prison abolition as theory and practice, Ton’s feelings about her time spent inside, and how currently and formerly incarcerated people are often excluded from these conversations. This interview has been edited and condensed.
L: Right off the bat—what do you think about the prison abolition movement? You said that it was surprising to see how popular it had become as an idea.
T: It’s good that [it’s] actually on anybody’s radar, but it’s easy to feel like people are doing it now because it’s hot. When I hear something about prison reform, you know what I hear? I hear that you already know you’re gonna lock them up, so let’s try to make their lives a little more comfortable once you’re in there. To stop the cycle you’re not gonna do it with prison reform.
L: How would you intervene in the cycle?
T: I really want to tell you about my friend who has a young son on the outside. Even though now she’s home and trying to do everything to make up for [having been gone]—to say I’m here, I’m not gonna leave you again—but he’s just so traumatized. When moms or dads or both are incarcerated that leads young adults to do things that are not necessarily legal or socially correct. And incarcerating them then just continues that cycle.
So that’s what I’m saying–prison destroys families. It destroys generations. I really don’t want to hear about changing prisons, I want to talk about how we stop ripping families apart.
L: How do we do that? How do we stop ripping families apart?
T: I would really look more into prosecutors and judges because the most important thing to them is their conviction rate. That starts a domino effect that starts a cycle of negativity, law breaking, broken families. The first thing to look into is what is really the importance of crime conviction for the prosecutor or the judge.
L: Are there any other ways you would intervene in the cycle?
T: For the first 4.5 years I was locked up I spent a lot of time fighting, smoking, selling weed, trying to get money. And I know that when people are taken away from their mothers, fathers, for whatever reason, they only go to what they know. Now I don’t have my parents but I did have my brothers and sisters to take care of, so I needed to make money. People don’t understand that there’s more than one way to make money. That all comes with education. When you have a formal education and go to school, they not only teach you the formal societal education, but also time management, the importance of so many things, self-worth, self-esteem… But don’t get me wrong, school is just a superstructure. It’s an institution just like prison. What I’m really talking about is learning.
L: In the activist and academic circles you’re in, do you wish that people talked about prison abolition differently? What are they misunderstanding?
T: I had never read a book before prison but now I read 30-40 books a year. I never would have known the things about history and African-American culture if I were not trapped in this situation.
But don’t get me wrong. Prisons are not built to rehabilitate people. They’re not. It is made to break people. Even little things, like the officers who took away my workout privileges every day even though that was the only thing that kept me going.
L: Can you imagine a world without prisons? What would it be like?
T: My honest opinion is that I can’t...So many other institutions are like it—they’re all tied together. The only difference between prison and school is that when you’re in prison you can’t go home. If you really think about it: people are in charge of you, and they can punish you. You have to do this at a certain time and there are all these rules about what you can and can’t do. And when you come back into society, you have more rules, you have parole.
L: What about a restorative justice model?
T: If your first reaction isn’t just to throw them in a cell then that’s progress to me.
L: Is there anything else you want to tell us?
T: Prison reform should not be the first thing that you think about—that should be the last. I wanna talk about better education before we talk about anything else. I wanna talk about breaking the cycle that rips apart families.
Editor’s note: A transformative justice model turns away from reform and strives towards the cycle-breaking that Ton describes. Mia Mingus writes that “State responses to violence reproduce violence and often traumatize those who are exposed to them, especially oppressed communities who are already targeted by the state… Transformative justice recognizes that we must transform the conditions which help to create acts of violence or make them possible. Often this includes transforming harmful oppressive dynamics, our relationships to each other, and our communities at large.”