Season 1, Episode 7
Season 1, Episode 7
About Our Guest:
Maya Schenwar is the director of the Truthout Center for Grassroots Journalism, and the board president of Truthout. She is the co-author (with Victoria Law) of “Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms,” and the author of “Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.” Her next book, a co-edited anthology entitled “Parenting Toward Abolition” (a collaboration with Kim Wilson), will be released in 2024.
Hosts: Josie Pickens & Jaison Oliver
Producer: Sydnie Mares
Editor: Imani Crosby
Coming up this episode on the upEND Podcast.
My sister was incarcerated and then I saw how being on probation led to Keely’s incarceration, my sister. I saw how Keely’s incarceration led to her re-arrest. I saw how when she was sent to drug treatment, the court-mandated treatment center looked like jail. And so all of these alternatives were just sending her through the same cycle. And that cycle also led to her daughter being taken away by the family policing system. And I saw how her drug use and her past criminal record were weaponized to keep her separated from her daughter and on and on.
Families separated through Child Protective Services voiced their anger on the steps of the state capital today.
They say the system has a history of racial discrimination.
Stop kidnapping Black children.
This CPS system is just a part of a bigger system. We have to destroy the whole damn thing.
53% of Black children will be investigated by the child welfare system by the time they turn 18.
The family policing system forcibly separates over 200,000 children from their families every year. Can a system that began with racist intent ever become a system that makes all children and communities safe?
We know the answer is no. Absolutely not.
Welcome to the upEND Podcast, a podcast that looks toward the abolition of the child welfare system, which we at upEND more accurately call the family policing system.
In this podcast, we contemplate the history of family separations in the US, the current state of the family policing system, and what a future without family policing can look like.
We’re your hosts. I’m Josie Pickens.
And I’m Jaison Oliver. Let’s get started.
Hey everybody, welcome back to The upEND Podcast. In previous episodes, we’ve talked specifically about how the family policing system harms children, parents, and communities, and how the abolition of this system is the solution. Now we want to talk about how family policing abolition fits into the larger narrative of abolition movements.
Today we’ll be talking with Maya Shenwar, Director of the Truthout Center for Grassroots Journalism and the Board President of Truthout. She’s the co-author with Victoria Law of Prison by Any Other Name, The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms and the author of Lockdown Locked Out, Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.
Her next book, a co-edited anthology entitled Parenting Toward Abolition, a collaboration with Kim Wilson will be released later this year. Hi, Maya. Thanks for joining us today.
Hi, thank you so much for having me.
So happy to have you here, Maya. So let’s begin. Can you tell us about your journey with abolition, where you started, and where you are now?
Absolutely. So I think my journey toward abolition happened kind of in bits and pieces. One of my best friends from high school was deported while we were in college and they kept him in the county jail for a few weeks before they flew him away. And so I came home from college for a few days to go visit my friend in jail before he was deported. And it was the first time I’d been in an actual jail building, although my dad had been confined in a psychiatric hospital while I was in high school.
This was the first time I was in an actual jail building. And I remember just sitting there with Ben’s mom, with my friend’s mom, on one side of a plexiglass window and my friend was on the other side and we had to talk on those phones across the glass and we couldn’t hug him. So he couldn’t hug his mom before he got on a plane to be deported and separated from her for at least the next 10 years.
And it was one of the most brutal things I’d ever witnessed. And I came back and I started thinking, why do we have prisons? And started reading, learning, talking to people. I read Angela Davis and Assata Shakur and George Jackson and Ruth Wilson Gilmore and started learning about how prisons emerged, how they emerged out of slavery and genocide and white supremacy and also had origins in suppressing activist movements. So that was kind of my introduction to the idea of abolition very early. This was like 20 years ago, so not as many people were talking about it that explicitly. But I started understanding that the roots of prison were not about keeping us safe. And in fact, we’re creating danger.
And when I became a journalist, I wrote about incarceration, the death penalty, prison conditions, and thinking about it now, thinking about this idea of a journey toward abolition, I recognized in doing that writing and interview people in prison that the system needed to change and that it needed to change in some kind of monumental way. But I was stuck in this mindset that some sort of carceral system was inevitable. And I was also stuck, I think, in the idea that, anything that was taken away needed to be replaced, which is a very carceral logic.
So for example, I was doing a lot of reporting on people incarcerated for drug offenses. So for people convicted of drug offenses, the replacement could be treatment. For youth who caused harm, oh, the replacement could be restorative justice court instead of regular court. So I had kind of that mindset.
And then my own sister who was addicted to heroin began to be incarcerated. And that cycle continued on and off over the subsequent more than 13 years. And I think that that’s what really took apart this idea I had about changing the system, as in reforming the system or replacing the system with a new system built on the same foundations. Because my sister was incarcerated and then I saw how being on probation led to Keely’s incarceration, my sister. I saw how Keely’s incarceration led to her re-arrest. I saw how when she was sent to drug treatment, the court-mandated treatment center looked like jail. And so all of these alternatives were just sending her through the same cycle. And that cycle also led to her daughter being taken away by the family policing system. And I saw how her drug use and her past criminal record were weaponized to keep her separated from her daughter and on and on.
And so throughout this, in my writing, in my organizing, I came to understand what was happening to my sister and my family through an abolitionist lens where this whole thing needs to be dismantled. And I learned from mentors like Mariame Kaba and through the works of projects I was organizing with here in Chicago and came to understand that these systems and their alternatives that were claiming to help and support people, including drug users, including children, were actually exerting extreme violence against those groups.
And I think the last chapter of that is that I came to understand the need for family policing abolition the most viscerally in 2015 when tragically my younger niece died of SIDS, of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. And immediately when this happened, my sister was being investigated by both the police and the family police.
And her older daughter was taken away right away while my sister was in the throes of grief. We all actually came under suspicion of DCFS, Illinois’ family police, and they pretended to be sympathetic about our loss. But even as they did that, even as they had those conversations with us where they were handing us brochures about processing a loss, even as they did that, they were inflicting another grave loss on top of it, which compounded my sister’s trauma very, very deeply. And I believe it was one of the factors that eventually led my sister to overdose a few years ago in combination with other traumas that came through state violence.
And my sister died from that overdose. That was almost four years ago. And I think now about these systems that I once thought that you could reform. And I can’t even look at them without thinking ‘violence’.
But I also think whenever I discuss them or hear about them or see them, throughout all of this, the abolitionist organizing that is happening throughout my city of Chicago, throughout the country, throughout the world, is helping me always see a world beyond this horror and beyond this pain.
That was a great answer, especially just thinking about you have, you know, children and family services coming in and saying, oh, we know that this is terrible. You lost a baby, right? We’re going to take this other child and we know that this is terrible, but yeah, we don’t trust you. And… good luck.
Yeah, we’re going to compound your trauma and compound the effects of this tragedy, which goes back into this idea that police and even family policing system help instead of harm, you know?
Yes, exactly. And I thought a lot that day about this nightmare of having this social worker in my parents’ living room talking to us about processing loss while her colleague was taking my niece away, you know, simultaneously.
And as this was happening, I was thinking in my head about the future that could be. And the future was my sister going back to heavy drug use, you know. Caring for her children actually had the opposite effect of giving her a reason to stop using, or use less, all of those things to think about what her life could be beyond drug use. And also, even beyond that, just being with her children was important for them, important for them to have their mom around. But I knew it was going to exacerbate the addiction and it did. So here they are punishing her for something she didn’t even do, you know.
A year later or two years later the medical examiner testified that it was SIDS. It was nothing that she did, but by that time she was deep into her addiction again and her custody was eventually terminated. And I see this happening with so many people I talk to that actually their mental health and their circumstances go downhill quickly after their kids are taken away because it is a fucking horrifying trauma. Sorry. It’s a horrifying trauma. And it’s like, you’re putting people in a position where you’re saying, you have to improve yourself and check all these boxes. And you have to demonstrate yourself to be a perfectly mentally healthy human being. But meanwhile, you’re taking away the most important thing in their life. And so that was the standard that my sister was held to.
Right. So you’re looking at this, you are seeing this with your sister, your nieces, you see this with the immigration system, you see this with people that you’re interviewing and speaking with. Now, all these years later, how do you define abolition? How do you define it for people from your perspective?
Yeah, absolutely. So prison abolition is a particular approach to the project of liberation more broadly. And it says that prisons in any of their forms, so that means prisons, jails, immigrant detention, house arrest, electronic monitoring, these places cannot be reformed.
They can’t become more humane. They can’t be reshaped to improve people’s lives or meet human needs. And instead, abolitionists say that the whole carceral system needs to be dismantled.
And then that system includes these buildings that I was just talking about but also includes systems like probation and parole that are these very restrictive forms of confinement and surveillance. It includes lockdown drug treatment centers like the one that my sister was confined in. It includes the sex offense registry, which is its own very severe form of surveillance and punishment. It includes sex worker rescue programs where sex workers are arrested and taken to the so-called state rescue operations as opposed to being incarcerated. And of course, what needs to be dismantled also includes family policing.
And I think that as we talk about this dismantling, we’re talking about it as abolitionists simultaneously with thinking about how to genuinely meet the needs of people. What are the resources that are going to genuinely support safety and freedom? What are the strategies and also the practices that are going to reduce harm and violence? So abolitionists are asking these questions.
I also want to point out in thinking about abolition, the organization Critical Resistance, which is a long-time abolitionist organization, talks about how abolition is a practical organizing tool and it’s also a long-term goal. And so we try to practice abolition in our daily lives and in the way we organize but we also always have it in our sights that it’s possible to actually build toward this kind of society where prisons do not exist and where people’s needs are met and where collective safety and justice are realities. Like I don’t see this as some sort of idealistic dream. I see it as something that can absolutely happen and that needs to happen.
And I think in terms of thinking about how this fits in with family policing, it’s both of those components. It’s the dismantling of the systems of surveillance and punishment that tear children away from their parents and families and homes and traumatize families through investigations. And it’s dismantling the social norms in which we’re trained to police each other.
But it’s also about what kinds of structures and communities and resources can we build collectively to support parents and caregivers and youth? And how do we redirect resources away from state violence that harms families and isolates people and traumatizes people and toward things like housing, and food, and clothing, and time, and recreation, and the arts to support families living safe and flourishing lives? So I think these are the kinds of questions that abolitionists are asking.
I love that answer. I love the layers of that answer where you’re kind of connecting what many people believe is just prison abolition and connecting it to other broader abolitionist movements. I love that. I love the visioning of what is next and an understanding that this abolition work is concrete work that we are doing every day, but also involves the dreaming and imagining component. So I love all of the layers that you added to that definition of abolition because sometimes we find it difficult as abolitionists to include all of those layers. So I appreciate that very much. And this is a lot of what you’ve done in your latest book, Prison by Any Other Name, right?
That looks at family policing as an extension of and intertwined with the Prison Industrial Complex. Do you have more key findings that you like to add other than what you discussed in how you define abolition?
Yeah, I think that another aspect of abolition, in addition to thinking about how people’s needs can be met, like the resources that are needed to meet people’s needs, is about thinking about what we’re doing with each other, like how we are relating to each other. And I think that’s especially true when it comes to dealing with harm and also in thinking about abolition in relation to family policing.
And I think that part of my question in thinking about family policing abolition is how can we give people the time and the resources to actually build community in ways that ensure that children have a full support system?
And the reason why I bring that up is, and so my new book, which is coming out much later this year, end of this year, is called Parenting Toward Abolition, and it’s an anthology with Kim Wilson. And when we asked people to write essays about abolition in relation to parenting, almost everyone talked about how in order for those things to go together, parenting needs to be a collective practice. We need to think about caregiving in community and stop this kind of blaming of individual parents for things that go wrong or for children not having the things they need. And then the community as a whole is responsible.
And I think that that sounds really good and I’m a parent too and I want that. But also nobody has time! Nobody has time, nobody has resources and that’s always the struggle. And that’s part of capitalism. It kind of intentionally individualizing us partly by reducing the amount of time we have to spend with each other. And that’s very advantageous for capitalism and for other oppressive systems.
So to me, that’s another component is really thinking about time and specifically time for community building. And one thing I’ll mention is that Ruth Wilson Gilmore in talking about what prison does has often talked about how it steals time from people, that that’s one of the critical horrors and forms of violence of prison is stealing people’s time, stealing years off people’s lives. And I think that that connects with, well, what does abolition mean? Part of what abolition means is time, freedom, in order to build all of these things within our communities that we really need.
I’m really stuck on this idea of time on one hand of stealing our time, but then something that I also think of Ruth Wilson Gilmore was here maybe last year doing a talk. And one thing that she mentioned was how so many like more jobs are being created today. And like so many of those jobs are us policing other people. It’s like, these are essentially guard jobs of just monitoring folks as opposed to creating something.
We’re putting so much of our time and energy into ensuring compliance or making sure that people don’t go outside of certain boundaries rather than really being able to create or come to community. It’s really frustrating.
Yeah, and I like the way that you connected this idea of individualism and parents being asked to operate in this space of individualism as a result of us living in such a capitalist society. This is something that we’re talking about at upEND all the time. We’re often talking about ideologies like capitalism, ableism, and particularly like the white imagination that we have to constantly fight against.
Where must we ground ourselves and how do we avoid sacrificing our values for wins in this abolitionist movement?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think about a few things, and then right for a second coming back to Ruth Wilson-Gilmore how she says capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it, and so they’re so tied together.
And I think we do need to see all those structures of oppression kind of in partnership with each other working against us. And I think that in terms of this idea of the white imagination, it’s a constraining of our imagination. And it’s so connected with this idea that Mariame Kaba has that oppression puts a ceiling on our imagination.
And also it’s thinking about the white imagination as being built on settler colonialism, on slavery, and also on that scarcity mindset that’s driven by capitalism. And so all of those things make it possible for the solutions that get imagined inside of this, you know, when we’re thinking about, oh, what do we do, you know, to reform prisons? The space in which to imagine is so small. And that constrained space, I think, makes possible things that otherwise would seem ridiculous. You know, prison itself was a reform.
A reform to corporal and capital punishment and, you know, but stayed inside of this punishment mindset. So it was like, oh, we have to have something just as bad. You know, if we have something just as bad, like what could it be?
We’re still in this moment of “well, we need something that in certain ways will be just as bad.” And without uprooting those structures that prisons are built on. So for example, I think this limited constrained imagination is really evident in electronic monitoring as a reform. I feel like that’s one of the most obvious ones where people are saying “We need to, we really need to reform prisons. We need to replace them with something.”
And this was one of the things that actually prompted our book, Prison by Any Other Name, was I read this article, it was in The Week Magazine, that was saying, okay, we have to abolish prison and instead put people on house arrest through electronic monitoring. And this dude thought he was being really revolutionary, I think. But he was saying, oh, we’ll save money because we won’t have to take care of people. We won’t have to give people food, which, of course, a lot of people on electronic monitoring are starving in their houses because they aren’t fed. And we’ll save money, da, da, da, da, da, and really recreating the prison.
And so I think that’s what happens inside of this white imagination and inside of this space where the ceiling is on our imaginations, as Mariame says. You reproduce the same thing.
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This conversation about imagination, like what has made the biggest impact for you in developing your imagination? How have you built that muscle? How have you worked on it?
Well, not to bring it back to Mariame again, but she actually was the person who prompted me to start imagining in a bigger way.
I was writing, it was when I first started writing Lockdown, Locked Out, and I interviewed her in, it must have been late 2012, and I considered myself a prison abolitionist. I would not say that I was yet a police abolitionist because I couldn’t imagine what would be done. Like, what do you do in an emergency? Who are you supposed to call?
And Mariame challenged me on it and she said, “Well, who do you think we should call?”] And I was like, Yeah, that’s right. We need to start doing some of that work, each of us ourselves, right? And that abolition is not this project where someone hands you a blueprint and then you say, oh, I can follow the blueprint. It’s something where even as we’re organizing collectively and we’re learning history, and we’re starting to understand what’s being done, and we’re reading about projects happening in other places, we’re also needing to constantly ask ourselves those kinds of questions.
Partly because every community is unique and every family is unique. And I think that that is a thing that’s challenging about abolition, but also really cool. And I have tried to emphasize that with people that, you know, you are coming into this already having practiced abolition in your life because you don’t call the police every time you have a problem. You don’t call the police every time that there’s violence.
When my five-year-old hits me because he wants mac and cheese, which thankfully I think he stopped hitting me for mac and cheese, but there was a phase. I wasn’t getting on the phone to the cops and saying, there was some domestic battery in this house. And so we’re all navigating this.
And recently in my life, one of the things that has inspired me forward in terms of imagination is observing children on the playground. And I used to go to the playground every day after preschool with my kid because preschool ended a little bit early and we would go to the playground and there would be a bunch of other kids from the preschool. And they were always getting in conflict. Harm was constant, right? And joy was constant, the whole spectrum, right? But you would see harm happen and you would see them experiment with how to respond to it. Sometimes there’s that kid who’s gonna be the snitch and come over to the parents and say like, “Hey, so and so did this.” But more of the time, you started to see them resolving it themselves, talking about what happened. Often the experiments went badly. You know, they would say, oh, you’re a bad guy or whatever, or I’m going to push you because you pushed me.
But you could see them experimenting, trying all these different strategies. And then sometimes you witness the wonderful conversation about, “Well, why did you do that to me? I did that because I’m sad or I’m hungry or somebody took my lollipop,” or whatever.
You start witnessing these conversations and realize that the human imagination can hold this. It’s like the human imagination, we don’t need to innovate or like create some restorative justice AI that’s going to be able to enact that, you know, that we all have it in us.
And giving people, I think, opportunities to develop relationships with each other, like these same kids were doing every day on the playground, you could see that as those relationships were strengthened over time, they were able to address harm better among themselves. they were able to think more about what to do when a conflict came up. And these are five-year-olds, like, you know, they still can’t make their own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So if they can do it, like, you know, I think we probably can. So that has been definitely an inspiration for me in terms of imagination expansion recently.
But I’m happy to talk about actual projects in the grownup world too. I have a couple I was going to mention.
Actually, so I love more playgrounds, stronger relationships. I’m curious about the other projects, but very much on board with more playgrounds for all ages, let’s get out there. But yeah, please, what do you got for the people who feel like in addition to the playgrounds?
Yeah! Yeah, so one organizer whose work really inspires me and has gotten me to push my own mental boundaries is Shira Hassan, who founded Just Practice. And Just Practice is a mentoring group and a training group that is really building up and supporting a community of practitioners who can do community accountability practices, who can support structures for people who’ve been harmed and people who’ve done harm to move forward and to create processes and to address those harms and those conflicts, including as they relate to gender -based violence.
And I love this model of creating support mechanisms for practitioners and training people on how to do this work because these are skills. And we talk about them a lot, like, oh, here’s the alternative to incarcerating or punishing people. But most people don’t know how to practice them, including people who talk about them. So I love that.
And Just Practice also runs a help desk, which they launched in partnership with Interrupting Criminalization, the project that Mariame and Andrea Richie founded together. And the help desk offers support to organizations, which I think is really crucial. So organizations that are working on this kind of stuff, that are working on violence intervention and preventing harm and all those things, they serve as a thought partner that can just be contacted like, we don’t know what to do in this situation. And then they can offer that kind of help in thinking about liberatory responses to harm.
So that’s really inspiring to me because I think sometimes when we talk about things like addressing harm in our communities and doing transformative justice and stuff, it’s almost like talking points as opposed to like creating more people who can practice it just in their daily lives and creating organizations that are actually grounded in those principles and able to practice them on a larger scale. So I love that. Just Practice is really inspiring for me.
Another kind of imagination-pushing one for me is the Ujimaa Medics in Chicago, which is this group that does emergency response, particularly for shooting victims. And I think within our limited imaginations, we’re trained to think that we cannot respond to massive medical emergencies until the paramedics come. Like beyond calling 911, there’s nothing we can do.
And so Ujima Medics is responding to gun violence and also responding to the under-resourcing of communities that in so many Black communities, in Chicago in particular, it takes forever for an ambulance to arrive because there’s just not that many hospitals nearby in many communities. So this project involves training people in how to take care of victims of shootings until the ambulance arrives. So making it much more likely that people will survive.
And that means caring for the victim. It means handling the crowd, like training in how to handle crowds without police. It’s about being the go-between with paramedics, like informing them about what happened, and informing the police about what happened to prevent further violence that’s caused by police.
And then also training people in how to respond to other medical emergencies like asthma attacks. That’s also become part of their work. So I think this is really important also because when I think about alternatives to 911 projects, which I think is so important, I think about what do we do instead of the police? But I think we also have to recognize the other aspect of 911 is, we need to call it when there’s a life-threatening medical emergency. And then how are we, A) going to build upon their response since often their response is not good enough. And then B) how are we going to respond to that response? How are we going to navigate responding to the paramedics who are often racist, classist, sexist, transphobic, ableist. How are we gonna…
Right, coming in misgendering your friend or like not actually acknowledging if they checking to see if they can speak, you know, a particular language, right, let alone audibly. Yeah.
Yes, exactly. Yes. And also with the recognition, as we know with family policing, that police always show up along with any medical responder. Like there is so often they are there too. So it’s like, we need to learn those skills as well in terms of medical response. So yeah, that’s another group that I just I think is doing really powerful work and imagination stretching work.
You’re talking about Shira Hassan and Mariame Kaba is reminding me that a friend borrowed my Fumbling Towards Repair workbook on community accountability and has not given it back. And so where am I supposed to, I need to call the help desk because how am I supposed to work through? You haven’t given me back my book. Like what am I supposed to do?
Yeah, oh, yeah, right. Oh my gosh. That person, you know, like three people have borrowed that book from me and not given it back. I keep having to rebuy it because people are like, oh, this is useful. It’s not a book you give back.
Think about it as an investment in community, an investment in an abolitionist future. But we currently live in a capitalist society, so books cost money and there needs to be some kind of restitution. Give our books back. Give me my book back.
Yeah, I’m curious as a writer and as a journalist, your work is so important. Like we’re fighting a lot of narrative battles right now. How do you strategize? How can we collectively strategize from that position of thinking about the media?
Yeah, I think that’s so important in relation to all these questions. And I’ve actually been, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately because of the way that dominant media has shaped the narrative around Palestine and how what we’ve seen happen, and we saw this happen with prisons and policing for many years and it continues to happen, is the initial response after October 7th in the wake of Israel’s initial attacks on Palestine was the dominant media represented it in such a twisted way with so much emphasis on the narratives built by the perpetrators of state violence, in this case, Israel and the United States. Dominant media narratives were driven by their storytelling. Israel’s narrative, the US narrative, that’s what was being printed in publications like the New York Times.
And I think, when we think about that narrative of the perpetrators of state violence, that’s often what we see in relation to policing, and prisons, and family policing as well. Like the language even that’s used, I think it’s almost even worse for family policing because this language of like abuse, neglect, like violence against children, that’s the narrative.
And “care” on the other side, right? Like everything is it’s “care” on the other side. “Care” versus “abuse”. Yep.
Right. So those the perpetrators of state violence, one of the ways they’re perpetrating it is through media and particularly through mainstream media institutions that use the police as one of their primary sources.
So when I was coming up as a journalist, I remember learning, one of the first beats that you will cover will be the crime beat. And that’s intentional because you will learn how to develop the police as sources. And the police are really good sources because they’re always responsive, because they will send you their, you know, their reports immediately. You’re not going to have to chase them down. Like they will give you what really happened.
And you see in so many local news sources, they run these one-source stories and the one source is the police. And crime stories are very, very popular on a local level. And very often they’re interviewing only police for those stories and sometimes in conjunction with the victim’s family or the victim, you know.
And so we see these stories represented in the media. Like this is how harm happens and this is how society responds to it. And we grow up with those stories from a very young age. The police are the heroes almost always in those stories, in those local news stories. And so those are the narratives that we need to be pushing back against.
And I think that one thing that became very inspiring to me as a journalist, once I became disgusted with some of these mainstream organizations and the way in which they decide to cover these stories. One thing that became inspiring to me was how do we create our own media? And I think creating our own media is part of the project of abolition. And I think that that happens on a number of different levels.
So for me, it’s happening in part through Truthout. We are an abolitionist publication. We literally, that is one of our criteria for publication around stories that have to do with harm or policing or prisons or family policing or wrong that’s been done and how people want to deal with it. All of these things, we’re thinking about how does this serve the goal of pushing us toward abolition and also supporting human beings. How are we actually taking care of human beings and respecting human beings? So thinking about abolition in that way.
But I also, when I talk about creating our own media as an abolitionist project, I also want to recognize that people have always been creating their own media in their communities. And people in prison are creating their own media. They’re doing that through publications.
In Illinois, we have an amazing prison-founded publication, State Bill Speaks, that was founded by people in State Bill Prison that is still being published after a couple of decades. But also sending each other kites in prison. That’s a form of media. That’s distributing information between cell blocks. People are making media when they create zines in order to inform other people in prison about what’s going on with a particular thing. Or I know people in prison who have created zines to talk about, this is how you file a clemency petition. This is how you access people on the outside who can help you appeal your case, things like that.
And so I think that I see media as a tool of abolition, both in terms of how can we build publications that will support abolition, that will uplift abolitionist ideas and cover prisons in ways that are abolitionist, but also how do we uplift the abolitionist media that people are creating in community already?
I know, like, for example, I was talking about sex worker rescue projects and this as this very harmful and dangerous prison alternative, an actual tactic that sex workers themselves are deploying are zines to talk about harm reduction practices while doing sex work. Sex workers communicating about clients to avoid, through various media. I think that we need to uplift those media as well and think about how we’re honoring it and how we’re supporting it as part of an abolitionist practice.
All of that is so, so good. It has me thinking about this idea that we have had as reformists who have moved into abolitionists. And some of us who consider ourselves abolitionists who still kind of struggle with this idea of like, we have to find something to replace this system, right? So I wanna talk a little bit about this idea of somewhere else.
What would it look like for there to be, when we’re talking about family policing, no foster care? What would it look like to be no somewhere else, to sit with nothing rather than a nicer, friendlier version of the system that exists today?
Yes. Yeah. I think it’s such an important question. It’s tough.
It’s tough, right? It’s so tough to like…
It is. It is. And I think that this is the trap that we so often fall into with reform, even if we don’t think we’re going there, is prison is this place where people disappear from mainstream society. And when we think of alternatives, many of them are doing something similar.
The drug treatment center that’s locked down where you disappear people, that’s a somewhere else. The mental health jail where you disappear people in order to get help. Foster care is another form of separation and segregation and isolation and disappearance that’s a somewhere else.
And I think that one of the things that Vicki and I in our book, Prison by Any Other Name, one thing that we really wanted to make sure to do was to not do that thing where everything has a one-to-one replacement, you know. And saying, okay, like, this is what you do instead of mental health jail. This is what you do instead of foster care. This is what you do instead of probation because we know that some of those one-to-one replacements are actually the problem, like they turn into somewhere else‘s.
And instead, we wanted to think about the fact that sometimes the alternative is nothing. In the sense that so many children, for example, are funneled into foster care that have not actually experienced harm. That have not experienced at least the harm that is being alleged, right?
And so many children get sucked into the system that if we said, oh, well, we’re gonna, instead of putting them in foster care, we’re going to redirect them elsewhere, you know, but still retain these systems of arrest in the case of prisons or these systems of mandated reporting and investigation in terms of family policing and foster care. Instead, I think we’ve tried to take a step all the way back and think about, OK, what if those systems of policing didn’t exist?
And what if there is something that’s taken really seriously, which is that sometimes there doesn’t need to be a state response. Sometimes there just doesn’t need to be a state response at all. That doesn’t mean that there’s not a problem. Sometimes there is a problem. But sometimes the best response is no response.
And it’s the thing that I’ve said that people get the most frustrated about. And I get it. I, like, because so many things are wrong. So you want to feel like there’s a response to every situation. But for example, with drug use, I think this is something that now people are getting a little more now that there’s been legalization in so many places.
But when I first started thinking and talking about prison abolition, you know, in the aughts, people would say, OK, but drugs are a really serious and harmful problem. And what do you do instead? Like you can’t just leave people in the lurch if they don’t go to prison, like you have to have treatment. And I think what I would say then as now is: What are we offering? What are we providing for people to do voluntarily if they want help with a particular thing? What resources are we providing that people can have the agency to choose? All of those things, as opposed to these automatic responses and these mandated and state-based responses, I think the more that we go in that direction, the better.
And part of this is about just personal autonomy. Part of it isn’t even that creative. It’s like, OK, which of these options involves someone being able to have control and power in their own life and which of them doesn’t? So I think we like to think a lot about this stuff in terms of what is being offered, what is being resourced, what is being provided, as opposed to what’s the mandated response that kicks in when a certain thing happens. So I think that’s what we meant when we said sometimes the best response is nothing, is if somebody doesn’t wanna do it, sometimes that’s not the thing.
And this is particularly in response, I think, to situations where something is, a state response is kicking in for a person’s quote-unquote own good. So, and this is the case, I think, a lot of times with family policing particularly the case with mental health and drugs is, oh, we are doing this thing that doesn’t feel good for you for your own good. And I think in a lot of those cases, a better response would simply be nothing or would simply be, okay, like we’re not gonna tell you to do anything. You have the option to look at these possibilities for treatment or you have these harm reduction options. You have these, for drug use, these possibilities for where you can go get your drugs tested. You have these options for places where you can use drugs that would be safer, you know, all of those offerings, if that makes sense.
What you were just talking about has me thinking a lot about ableism and just like how that plays in, in a lot of these interventions as well. Like, oh, you are not equipped to take care of, and so much of that, I mean, racism, sexism, all of that, but like also ableism being such a big part of it, that was just something that I was thinking about.
But I wanna shift to talk about your upcoming anthology, Parenting Toward Abolition, and the vision of the future that it’s putting forward for families and communities. Please tell us about your book. Obviously, we at upEND and our audience definitely want to know more.
Oh, yeah, I would love to tell you about that. So the book is tentatively titled Parenting Toward Abolition. It might change because every five seconds, one of us is like, wait a second, what about this?
But yeah, the idea came about for a number of reasons. For me, I was thinking a lot about the intersections of parenting and the abolition during the early years of my child’s life when I was feeling like I was being pulled away from movements because I was doing all this invisible caregiving in my home. But meanwhile, I think part of the reason I felt like I was being pulled away was movements aren’t built for children. You know, and they need to be. They need to be built for everybody. But B, because that labor that is so devalued in capitalism is also sometimes devalued in movement spaces, including abolitionist spaces, but really is part of the work. Caregiving is part of the work. And I think that if people understood caregiving as part of the work, that would actually create much more vibrant and powerful movements, because it’s also caregiving each other, which is the thing that ensures that we can do the work for the long haul.
So at the same time, Kim Wilson, my co-editor, was figuring out how to parent two children who are in prison, as well as one child who is not, all of them adult children. And she was talking about how that was being treated as a very individualized, lonely project where she as this one person, this one parent, was being expected to be the whole support system for two children behind bars who had been given life sentences. And what does that mean both about our society and about our abolitionist movements that they are not broad enough to encompass the support work for somebody’s two children behind bars? And also that our abolitionist movements are—and I don’t wanna say this as a criticism of the movements, but more that all of us need to be thinking more capaciously about what movements mean— is that care work over the long haul for people inside is movement work, you know?
And so we were thinking about all these things and how they tied in with parenting while also thinking about how frustrated we were with every single parenting book that just doesn’t talk about systems. It’s just like, “This is how you’re messing up your child and how you should parent your child better,” you know?
And it’s like, I, you know, still take advice from a lot of those, a lot of those books, but they are very much, it’s kind of like, you have the responsibility for being a good parent to raise a good child, which is so much inside of that capitalistic mindset that also helps produce systems like family policing. And so we decided to create an anthology and invite abolitionists and people inside and outside of prisons to contribute.
Dorothy Roberts has contributed, Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, Harsha Walia, Anya Tanya Voutsy, Vicky Law contributed, Jenny Viets, a restorative justice practitioner. Many, many people have contributed and it is especially interesting. Shira Hassan contributed. She wrote about kind of community caregiving and queer chosen family. We’ve got, definitely, work that’s talking about collective family building.
As I mentioned, Nadine Naber, who is an intersectional feminist, abolitionist activist who’s very active in work on Palestine solidarity contributed a chapter in which she talks about how do we parent kids collectively and a project that she was involved in called Parent University where they tried to do some of that collective parenting. And we have pieces from people talking about their experience of being parented. We have pieces where people talk about their experiences of parenting their kids and not feeling like it’s working.
We have a piece from Dylan Rodriguez, an abolitionist and father talking about lessons from parenting.
And podcast guest!
Oh, amazing. He writes about how parenting has given him lessons for the movement. Like he’s drawing from his experience of parenting to say, here, these are some things we need to think about in abolitionist movements that I learned inside my house, you know, which is great. And I think uplifting what important work parenting is.
Mariame’s piece talks about children’s books that we can use as abolitionist tools and how children’s books can be an abolitionist tool, which I think is really important.
We have some pieces about the need to go beyond kind of the structure of nuclear families in thinking about what parenting means. And I think that’s also an abolitionist project because, you know, as long as we have these just super isolated containers of nuclear families, it becomes very easy to punish the parent for whatever is going on in that in that little bubble. And also because abolition is about community. It’s about building community. It’s about nurturing the community. It’s about using community as our solution in many cases. And we’ve got, I mentioned Jenny Beads…
I’m gonna stop you because you’re giving people…you gotta let people get the book.
Sorry, I, you know, the book isn’t out yet, so I haven’t done the little promotional talks. So I’m like, here’s the whole thing. But you know what? It’s okay, because none of the lessons, none of the lessons have been revealed. I hope people read all those essays.
That sounds amazing. You know what? In fact, I am going to, my first thought, I’m gonna buy it and give it, not even loan it, but give it to the friend who has my Fumbling Towards Repair as a gesture of solidarity.
Look at this transformative justice at work.
That’s transformative justice. Oh my gosh. Our secret wish is that people will give it as like baby shower presents and then like people will start, you know, to like non-abolitionists and people will be like, “Oh, a book about parenting!” And then they’ll be like, “Wait a second. What is this?”
I’ve been bamboozled!
I love that and that’s a great idea. So aside from ordering your books from our local independent bookstores and pre-ordering once the title is finalized and that’s ready for Parenting Toward Abolition or whatever it’s called, where can people find you and how can they stay connected with you and your work?
Yeah, so they can find me at Truthout, truthout.org. Also my website, mayashenwar.com. I am involved in Love and Protect, which is an abolitionist organizing project based in Chicago that focuses on criminalized survivors of color who are victims of gender-based violence, survivors of gender-based violence. So people can check out Love and Protect. And yeah, I think those are the main places that people can find me.
All right, Maya, so we thank you so much for joining us today. Folks, we have one more episode of the upEND Podcast before our season ends. So we are excited about that. Yeah, I guess this wraps it up. Thanks again, Maya. Thanks, Jaison.
Absolutely. Thank you so much for your wonderful questions and a great conversation. Really appreciate upEND and everything you’re doing.