Stevie Wilson on Organizing Abolitionist Study Group in Pennsylvania Prison

Published November 22, 2019

Abolition

The following is a selection from a transcript of a podcast interview with Black and queer abolitionist writer Stevie Wilson. Stevie is being held captive by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and was recently released from solitary confinement. He speaks about the importance of abolitionist study, as a space of common encounter that undermines the hold that the carceral state has on our lives, both inside and outside prison walls.


So we know that you recently got released from, from solitary, I believe on October 17. Right?

Yeah, I got transferred from Smithfield and I’m now at SCI Fayette. Um, you know, sometimes when you’re an ally behind the walls… Sometimes means more than being an ally, being an accomplice actually. And, uh, it was a situation where a prisoner was attacked by two guards and, I kinda had an accident that we did online and the administrators found out about the accident. I was behind it and so they, uh, they moved to get me out of the way and kind of bury me in the hole. But thankfully because of the support that I had outside, it applied pressure on them and they got me out of the hole, but they transferred me to another prison. So now I’m — I was three and a half hours with my family. Now I’m six hours with my family, about 40 minutes South of Pittsburgh.

Wow. So this is basically in direct retaliation against organizing on the inside, right?

Definitely. It’s something that’s to be expected though. When you do this type of work behind the walls, it’s not about being an ally. You will become an accomplice and so whatever that person is doing they’re going to try do to you also. So I knew at one point they were trying to bury the young man in the hole because when they attack us, they try to flip it and say, you know, we attacked them. So they’ll bury them from six to nine months in the hole. And because we were successful in getting them out of the hole until a safer prison, you know, I became a target after that he was gone. And so, uh, I was able to go bother them and I did once again because of the people like Critical Resistance. I was able to come out of the hole, I did about two months battling with these people. We were able to come out of the hole and um, and, and be placed at Fayette now. So… but the work doesn’t stop. The work doesn’t stop you know?

Yeah. Do you have a sense that this is also an indirect attack on the sort of self organized abolitionist study groups inside as well?

Yeah. I think, I think…well, I’m gonna tell you something: That prison was a little different where many of the groups that we were doing were actually taking the place of programs that they had actually discontinued, right? So there was a lack of programming there. So we were putting together the transformative justice group and it was something that they liked, they gave us space for it. They gave us space for it you know, um, and what’s happening in Pennsylvania is because of the, the rehabilitation programs have been gutted. The educational programs have been gutted. There has been a space opened up for prisoners to initiate groups, right? Um, and so we did it at Smithfield, you know, and I’m here at Fayette, it’s kind of the same thing now, you know, where people don’t have anything to do when the prison wants them to do something, you know. So once again, there is an opening for us here.

So tell us a little bit more about the abolitionist study group inside that you helped run. Can you tell us more about what y’all do?

Well, the first one we called 9-9-71, obviously in reference to Attica and it was a general abolitionist study group. We started with something like “Are Prisons Obsolete?” By Angela Davis and what we do is we do a chapter reading and then we would come back and we have discussion questions. We focus a lot on definitions because this is the first time many people were hearing about abolition. You know, when you think of a world without prisons, they thought we were crazy. You know, the first thing out of their mouths, “what are we going to do with the murderers and rapists and things like that?” And so we had to really talk about basic definitions and things like safety and community and things like that. So that was the largest group because it was more generalized. We also had a group called Circle Up, which is a transformative justice group, most of those men there were under the age of 25, about 23 young men. And they were doing a program called Circle Up and it was talking about transformative justice. How we apply, inside the prison in and our families and our communities. SAS was a Queer Aboltiionist group… That group we started because it was sometimes difficult to talk about those types of issues in 9-9-71. So we had a group that went through “Captive Genders” and queer injustice and works like this from an abolitionist perspective. And then we also had book clubs… that has been taken over by Haymarket books now. So here at Fayette we are going to be doing it and Haymarket books will be providing the books for us. So we’re happy to have that program still continue.

That’s awesome. I mean, can you tell us more about the importance of studying for you? It seems like it’s pretty much part of the programming, which is not a good thing that you’re saying, but also it’s also part of sort of abolitionists studying …together with folks inside…

Actually the first thing is to understand that many people in prison don’t have a strong academic background, right? We didn’t have very good experiences in school. And so what I found was that it was easier to copy out chapters of books and to work through them together. Especially thinking about about definitions, thinking about how this activist work applies to your particular life, your experiences. Zines were really big for us because it was more intimidating to give someone a book that 200-300 pages long — if they read this, they probably wouldn’t pick it up. But if I gave someone a zine and it was three or four pages long, they could take a week and read that and we’ll come back and we discuss it. So I tell you, the zines play a major role in the work inside the prison also because even for me to disseminate zines and books, it’s less costly and the administration doesn’t see it.

If I went to the yard and tried to give out ten books, I wouldn’t make it. But if I have ten zines there, I can give them out, you see? So part of it also is knowing the inside of here because, remember this much: learned prisoners are an affront to the PIC. Okay? So you have to do things on a sly, on the slip sometimes, so these came in handy, really handy here. So it was a lot of meeting with people. It was about definitions. It was about meeting people where they are… All sorts of other things too, you know? Some people don’t read well, so we had to sit in groups and read but they can express their experiences, they can talk about their experiences. So I think it was important. I think one thing that’s very surprising to me is that you have to explain that prisons are unnecessary to prisoners.

That was the thing that was most surprising to me because we’re sitting here every day. We realized how this doesn’t work, but people think there’s no alternative to this, you know, and as soon as you show there is alternative to this. It really is. And you see it every day. So abolition is not something that is something far, far away. Actually, some of it is here today, but everybody doesn’t get, everyone doesn’t get a chance to be a part of that process. You know, you understand what I’m saying when I say that?

There’s a way of undoing also the ways that the prison itself is naturalized pretty much inside. Even though of course folks face the brutality of imprisonment and captivity, there’s still a way in which that’s naturalized as you’re saying right? That’s still sort of totally fully normalized?

What I was trying to explain to people when I say abolition — this is why I asked that question because I want them to understand that abolitionism is, not something that’s always in the future. I was explaining to them that if someone — a white, wealthy person breaks the law? Okay? What are the chances of this person being put in prison? It’s not gonna happen. Same if a guy had a substance abuse problem and this guy is 21 years old, is white, he lives in the suburbs, has a substance abuse problem, he breaks into his neighbors house, burglarizes the house, gets caught, he gets locked up. Are they going to keep them locked up? No, they’re probably going to send him to some drugs treatment place, that’s what’s going to happen. That’s abolition! That’s abolition. Instead of locking him up, we’ll go to send you where you need to be: treatment. You see, and that is abolition also. So I’m trying to explain to people that no, the solution isn’t always “call the police,” isn’t always a jail or prison. The other ways we can deal with harm.

And so when I explain it that way to them, then they see, “Oh it’s here, abolition is here.” Now everyone doesn’t get a chance to be a part of that process. How can we open it up to everybody? If a person is getting high and then the committing crimes to get high, then why would we lock that person up? That’s not the issue. We don’t call the police and lock them up. No, then let’s get them help with their substance abuse problem. And that’s abolition, you know? So my task, a lot of time, in here actually translating the work for the people in here. And that’s one area I think that we’re not doing too well. And I don’t think we’re going to do well on that area, stuff that’s being published I don’t think is actually accessible to a lot of people behind the wall.

Stevie, I wanted to ask you precisely about this point: So in your writings also you consider yourself a translator, right? And you just stated that right now; The necessity of sort of translating queer abolitionist theory to other prisoners is one of the key things that you find yourself doing. So I wonder if you could talk, one, a little bit more about that, but also do you find yourself that you are also translating and thinking theoretically inside for those on the outside? So in that sense it’s sort of a two-way process of translation, right? Rather than a one-way process?

Yeah. I think one of the things that I learned early on is the necessity of translating… I found that many of the works that I was reading, when I gave the book to someone else or an article for someone else, they really didn’t get it. And when I broke it down, they got it. And, um, so that was kinda like the way my studies groups changed because it was no longer about giving people the assignment and coming back the next week and that we just assumed that we were ready. It was actually about creating questions that would test the comprehension of the study group members. And part of it also was that it was important for me that they were able to apply what they were learning to their lives, actually holding up to their lives. They look like this: “Do I find it to be true? I’m reading something by this author and this thing XYZ, Do i find that my experiences are X, Y, and Z? Do I have another way or I’m paving something else?” And that’s something that… I’ll give you example: For instance, let’s talk about organizing behind the wall. A lot of times if you hear it’s about divisions, like gangs, racial divisions and things like that. Well, I’m in Pennsylvania and that’s not the case; in Pennsylvania it’s really geographical; it’s that people are Philadelphia versus Pittsburgh or you know, Harrisburg versus Allentown. And so when we would read certain things that would talk about the divisions based upon gangs and race it didn’t apply to Pennsylvania. So guys would say that — this doesn’t apply here and, well, tell us how does it apply? Well, you know, it’s really geographical. You know how it goes down. And so I would have to tell people who are working in Pennsylvania that, you know, this is not how it goes in Pennsylvania. It’s not that it’s about gangs or race, it’s more about geography. Well, a black guy and a white guy from Philly would get along better than a black guy from Philly and a black guy from Pittsburgh and this is how it is. And so I think that works both ways. There’s some things that we thought we need to let people outside know so that we could work together better. And I think people outside…

People outside, you should think about how to make the work more accessible. Oftentimes the work is not written towards prisoners or written for prisoners. That’s not the audience. The audience is other academics, you know, or some other journal versus — I ask myself “who writes for prisoners? Who writes for prisoners?” And that’s the big thing. And I think that that’s why — if we could get over that or we could somehow learn how to get around this, then we would see many more people in prison declare themselves abolitionists and working toward abolition — we would see it.

So I have a question about that: So it seems like, on the one hand, you do sort of take or think about translation as a two way process, right? Inside and outside. Because I assume that, you know, also part of what you’re saying is that folks in the outside also aren’t necessarily understanding what, you know, the theory that’s happening on the inside, right? We have to translate stuff going in and stuff coming out, but we might even think about translation as an abolitionist practice in some ways, right? You kind of continually undermine the walls and cages that seek to continuously separate us. Right?

Yeah, two points about that. We’ll talk about abolition, and especially like work strikes…And I was trying to explain to people, abolitionists outside — that doesn’t work in Pennsylvania. I was trying to explain that to them. It’s not like down South where, for like Alabama, the guys are working and you don’t pay them. Well, in Pennsylvania, they work and some of these guys make $150 a month and that’s all the money you have coming in and then you aren’t willing to go on strike. You understand what I’m saying? And so I had to explain this to people on the outside, why a work stoppage doesn’t work in Pennsylvania. I think one thing that we have to think about also is that different things work in different regions.

We can say what works in California and Arizona is going to work in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Because PA and Jersey are right next to each other and they’re very different as far as the prison systems and the culture. And so I think that that’s important too…

For people inside and outside there’s not really good communication and good context. If someone says that you’re involved in the American prison movement or you are a penal abolitionist and you’re not in direct contact with somebody inside the prison, you are wrong. You’re wrong. I don’t understand how you know what’s going on if you’re not in direct contact with somebody you’re writing or talking to, emailing or something. I don’t know how I even know what’s going on inside these walls. I don’t understand it. So I think that’s the problem is more communication needs to happen. Better communication needs to happen.

Yeah. Communication also, as you’re saying, it’s sort of translation, also geographically, that’s happening not only within inside and outside the walls but also across different States, across different territories, different populations. I mean it’s certainly the case with the work strike, which you were mentioning, it was this constant process of translation, right? Which, which I think you see also as your theoretical and political practice inside. So I think also what you would say, and what you also mentioned in your, in your writing is the importance of sort of criticism, right? And self criticism. Can you tell us?

Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s very important. That’s always there. I think it’s important for us to all look at what we’re doing and and holding it to critique. What I’ve found is that, in this place, people would know their own pain. Everyone knows their own pain they’re going through. So most people here to talk about racism, they understand anti-black racism. They understand. But they don’t understand misogyny, homophobia and things like that. And so the thing is that what I realized is that people could see when they were being wronged but they couldn’t see how they’re wronging other people, they couldn’t understand that they could be contributing to someone else’s oppression. And so it’s important for us always to look at what we’re doing and making sure we’re not creating more oppression. It’s always important to look at what we’re doing and make sure we’re not harming other people. I think it’s always about having a conversation about our values, that we are actually we’re sticking with our values, you know, talking about them. I just think that they’ve missed that — behind the walls we’re not getting a lot of critique. And what happens is that the people on the outside, I said it before, people on the outside don’t want to critique the people inside. Do you understand what I’m saying?

There’s a hierarchy in here and when you are queer, a trans, disabled, neuro atypical person, you at the bottom, you’re at the bottom here and you will find people who are in this movement, who are behind the wall and some activists who will sell those people down the drain for a little bit of a perk. So I think it’s important to check.

At the same time, right, It’s not just denounciation and stepping back, right? You emphasize the BLA’s practice of Unity — criticism and unity — so there’s a way of criticizing that’s not simply just pushing out because otherwise…

First of all, when I say critique and criticize, first of all, it has to be done from the perspective — First of all, I’ve always analyzed what I do as radical compassion, I always talk about radical compassion and I think it’s important to understand that when I’m critiquing somebody, it’s not because I’m trying to tear you down but because I want to make us better. You better. And so my critique actually comes from a space of love for the person because, honestly, I find it hard to even be concerned with someone I don’t care about.

That’s me personally and yet people would do things and I don’t really say anything to them because I really don’t care what you’re doing cause you’re a very negative person and I don’t want to get involved. That’s just how I keep myself safe behind the wall. But what I’m saying is that my critique comes from a place of compassion for people. My critique comes from a place of love, it’s not about tearing someone down, it’s about building you up and building us up. So I do think there’s a way that you can do it and the way that we should do it — it’s about community. I don’t think about tearing anybody down or just putting someone out there or consider someone disposable “we don’t really need you” — That’s not how it’s supposed to be. You have to meet people where they are and give them the opportunity also to say things that they feel honestly, you know, even if it is messed up, because well if that’s how you feel let’s talk about it. But I gotta give the opportunity and the ground to say that, you know.

From: https://rustbeltradio.org/2019/11/20/ep33/