Dedicated to Krishan and Troy Justice
“Every window on Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco” – Susanna Kaysen, Girl Interrupted
As i prepared to write this piece i realized that i haven’t written about jail since i was there, and then only in fervent letters to my friends and family. I wrote about seclusion (twenty three to twenty four hours a day). I wrote about regret. I wrote about the way the clouded window in my cell fought tirelessly and successfully against the siege of sunlight. I wrote about how the window glowed a purple sunset on the day of the vigil in remembrance of Tyler Clementi’s death. Even the thick cement walls could not keep him out that day.
I was not incarcerated for “activist” crimes. I had not been hauled away and sentenced for attending or organizing a protest like Melissa Parke and others who were jailed for their involvement in the G20 protests. In fact, my offence did hurt people that i loved, and though i don’t speak about it in the following discussion, please don’t think that i don’t think about it.
I was in jail for about ninety days. Fourteen of those days were spent in solitary confinement – no time outside my five by seven cell save for two court dates, no showers, no mattress, just a metal bed, no utensils or cooked food, and only a hard heavy, heavy, quilted robe to wear with no undergarments and large armholes through which one could see my entire naked body. I had to attend court in these clothes where my father, judges, lawyers and anyone else that was in the court that day saw and smelt me. On one of these days i was menstruating; the blood ran down my thighs.
The rest of my time in jail, i was incarcerated in a segregated cell for twenty three to twenty four hours each day. For the remaining time, i was let out in fifteen minute intervals. About once a week a guard called in sick and we were put on total lock down. No time outside our cells, no visitors.
While i could go on about the various humiliations i was subject to in and outside of jail at the hands of the legal system, friends, family members, community members and professionals, instead i’d like to present here some lessons i learned in the hopes that it will help people who work with, live with, love, and work for inmates and ex inmates, particularly those who consider themselves part of the “prisoner justice movement”.
Pleasure As a Revolutionary Act
My first piece of advice, and perhaps the most important, is to say that all of you, poor and/or trans and/or survivor and/or people of colour should understand that this could happen to you. I hope to all that is sacred that it won’t but in case it does, there are a few things you can do to prepare yourself. So, first and foremost, teach yourself how to make yourself cum. Make it a priority to learn how to do this without the help of vibrators, porn, a partner or anything else, because someday you may find yourself on the inside with nothing but your own body to help you.
And don’t stop there.
Teach yourself how to sing. I sang to myself for hours at a time. Write poetry. Read it out loud to yourself. Teach yourself how to dance. Do it alone. With no music. My mother once told me at a jail visit to dance. I went back to the lockup and organized an impromptu dance party with the other inmates and i still count it as the best political action i’ve ever organized.
The Non-Profit Prison Industrial Complex
To everyone who is doing “prisoner justice” work, ask yourself this :
if the prison industrial complex was dismantled today, would you still have a job?
If you answered no, then you have and are benefiting off the slave labour of inmates. Do i think you should quit your job? Maybe. But i can definitely say that we all need to work within and without prisoner justice non-profits to address the systemic problems that exist that keep inmates and ex inmates out of them. In my experience this means the following:
1) Do not allow your voice to be representative of inmates and ex inmates. Not in university classrooms, not at protests, not ever.
2) Make prisoner justice organizations accessible to inmates and ex inmates. This could be as simple as calling people back, inviting people to meetings, or privileging their voices.
3) Fight prisoner justice organizations that do not hire inmates and ex inmates. I have yet to find a prisoner justice organization that has even ONE ex inmate or inmate on the payroll. What might we say about an anti-racist organization that does not hire ONE person of colour?
Prison As A Metaphor
Many “activists”, in particular academic “activists” use prison as a metaphor in their work. For example, it is currently very popular for academics, in particular academics of colour, to use Foucault’s penopticon as a metaphor for the security state that people of colour in north america currently live in. Let me assure you all that, although the penopticon was never actually built, it close cousin does actually exist in prisons and jails all over the world. So while the penopticon is used as a metaphor to speak to heightened surveillance, especially of people of colour, when those same people use the metaphor of a prison to speak about their current living conditions it’s almost laughable if it weren’t so hurtful.
I’ve also heard people who have never been on the inside quote the brilliant Mumia Abu Jamal, saying that “We are all living in our own personal prison cells,” which is true, especially as a means to validate the lives and the work of people on the inside, but if your on the outside thinking this accurately describes your oppression, consider your positionally. Do us all a favour and think about it long and hard.
For all the criticism i have, i didn’t get out or get better without the help of my community. I’d be remiss not to mention some of the really important solidarity work that’s being done.
1) Court support : in addition to being a comfort to an inmate, court support can sometimes make a huge difference in the outcome of a given hearing. People came to my bail hearing and it was very influential. I got bail. Court support is extremely difficult to do, especially when it’s done by immigrants, people of colour, trans people and other folks who are really traumatized by courts and the legal system. Once, my father and my sister sat through eight hours of court. They were subjected to watching some of the cruelest treatments of human beings you can ever imagine. Very difficult, but so essential.
2) Letters: In addition to reading them being something to do in my cell, it was a validation that people in the world still cared about me and that i still existed.
3) Books and Poetry : My sister and a few others photocopied literature for me. Not only did this help me, but i also passed on these materials and talked about them with the other inmates, so sometimes we weren’t in jail, instead we were in a make-believe poetry group.
4) Monetary support : This can mean money for family and friends to take trips to visit, money for postage, or money for the “canteen”, which is a fund from which inmates can buy candy, magazines and other small items.
5) Legal Support : My sister spent hours finding a good lawyer for me that would accept legal aid. He ended up saving my life.
6) Housing : My family provided me with safe, supportive housing in the community which allowed me to go through my own processing of the trauma i’d just lived through.
7) Post-incarceration : My bail conditions were extremely restrictive, to the extent that i couldn’t leave my house at all, and then not without accompaniment. Family and friends came to Brampton to visit and then for me to go excursions with them. People brought comforting gifts, like homemade scented shea butter.
8) Forgiveness : This is something that i was showered with. The people who were most affected by my offence were at times the most supportive. I have an immense sense of pride for my community of friends, family, and community members who never judged me.
While i am by no means an expert, nor do i think there is by any means a sure fire away to prevent incarceration in our current societal context, i do have some thoughts on the matter.
Of course, fighting the prisoner industrial complex is as much about fighting prisons as it is about fighting systemic violence. Us inmates are as often survivors of violence as we are perpetrators. So, dealing with violence in our own ways, in our communities through unconventional means, like truth and reconciliation, and survivor-centred support is an important means of prevention.
Many people end up in jail because they don’t have safe, accessible housing. While it is difficult to find the capacity within our communities to offer this, its just as important to explore ways and develop networks to provide people homes as temporary as they may be.
Lastly, prison prevention is invariably tied with anti-poverty organizing, and while i am a strong believer in organizing protests, i think its just as important to the struggle to provide work for poor folks. Something i’d really like to see happen in our movement is the implementation of needs-based hiring policies that take into account qualifications, skills, experience and financial need.
I am happy. Happy to be a bhua, happy to be an auntie, happy to be alive, happy to feel the sun on my shoulders. Though i would never say that going to jail was a blessing, it was a lesson.
annu saini is an ex-inmate, psychiatric and family violence survivor, and a poor and working class queer womyn of colour. She has been published in make/shift magazine, the poetry anthology Colored Girls: The Sister Anthology, Asylum magazine and the book Q? Y Art? (http://issuu.com/qyart/docs/qyartcollection).
She is a performance poet and conceptual artist. She is a lead producer, programmer and cohost of the show frequency feminisms (www.frequencyfeminisms.wordpress.com). She lives happily in a community of people she loves.