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Introducing A New Podcast On Incarceration: Beyond Prisons

Welcome to Beyond Prisons: a new podcast examining incarceration in America through an abolitionist lens.

In our first episode, hosts Kim Wilson and Brian Sonenstein introduce the idea behind the podcast, dissect and critique the current conversation around prison reform, and discuss the need for a broader vision for justice that should guide those efforts.

What is prison abolition and what would it mean to live in a world without prisons? What’s missing from current efforts to reform the criminal justice system? What kind of topics will this podcast cover? We tackle these questions and more in our first episode.

Going forward, we will conduct interviews and delve much deeper into the various issues we touch upon in this first episode. So, stay tuned!

Please listen, subscribe, and rate/review our podcast on iTunes.

Follow us on Twitter: @Beyond_Prison @phillyprof03 @bsonenstein

Music & Production: Jared Ware


Brian: Hello everybody and welcome to the first episode of Beyond Prisons. I am one of your hosts Brian Sonenstein and I’m joined by my co-host Kim Wilson. How ya doing, Kim?

Kim: I’m doing well. Hi Brian, how’s it going?

Brian: It’s going alright. I’m excited to be here. I’m glad we’re getting this off the ground.

Kim: Yeah, me too.

Brian: So what Kim and I are trying to do is something a little bit different. Oh, my dogs are barking in the background. (laughs)

Kim: We’re gonna have dogs, we’re gonna have cats. We might have you know, who knows what else is going to show up so I say let’s just roll with it.

Brian: I know, it’s fine. Kim and I decided to start this podcast to talk about the issue of prison reform and mass incarceration, and offer some different perspectives than a lot of the things you hear going on in the news right now. So I thought we could introduce ourselves a little bit. Kim, why don’t you go first?

Kim: Ok, well, I’ll tell you a little bit about what my motivations were, and I think that will be a nice segway into my intro. But the motivating factor behind me getting on board with this podcast really stems from a place of frustration. I’m frustrated with the policy choices around mass incarceration, around prison specifically, and I’m seeing so many things that are impacting communities that I care about and that many people that I know live in, and I feel like we could be doing something better and so I’m coming at it from that perspective.

That said, on a personal level, I’m the mother of two incarcerated men who are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole or at least that was their sentence. My professional and academic interests in incarceration began long before either of them had any encounter with the criminal justice system and I’m thinking of that in a broad sense particularly when we talk about schools and school to prison pipeline, which I’m sure we’re gonna spend quite a bit of time talking about in later episodes. And then I’m also coming at this as an activist who started out very much on board with prison reform and the prison reform movement if you want to call it that, and quickly evolved from that perspective to one of being strongly committed to prison abolition. So that’s a little bit about me, where I’m coming from, and what I’m hoping that this podcast is going to be about. What about you, Brian?

Brian: Well, so I am a journalist. I’ve been writing about incarceration and the criminal justice system for about five years now. My work has primarily been to address these issues from the perspective of the people who are most directly impacted by it and that’s how I actually got to know you Kim. I’m also deeply interested in the issue of prison abolition after having been an activist myself for a number of years on a number of issues from drug policy to whistleblowing. I’ve seen a lot of people have interactions with the system and none of them have been good, including friends of mine. I grew up in sort of a blue collar, very small town in New England and saw a lot of people who fell into drugs and other problems, wind up in the system and it just destroyed not only their lives but the lives of their families and friends, and so I just had a growing interest in this.

I’m very interested in the topic of reform, I’m also interested in critiquing reform, which is something we talk a lot about here. And we’re also going to try to break away from sort of this large statistical view of incarceration where we’re focusing on numbers. What we’re gonna try to do is bring perspectives from the people who are involved and use those to sort of guide our arguments about what the criminal justice system should be like. So why don’t we talk about like the major narrative around mass incarceration, you know maybe we can start by just critiquing that there. So I don’t know, when you think about mass incarceration , what are some things that jump out to you, like what are the things you know about it?

Kim: You know, coming at this from several different points of view and those things have deeply informed where I am today regarding mass incarceration. I think that’s an important thing to talk about because, again, as someone who was trained as a policy analyst, the policy perspective or that school of thought can really be distilled in terms of cost-benefit analysis and I want, as you pointed out, for us to move beyond statistics and to think about the real issues, to dig down deep into the racialized nature of mass incarceration, which is one of the things that jumps out to me. I mean, I think it’s important to address the numbers and to account for those and also to explain what those numbers mean in the context of people’s lives in the context of communities. How do those numbers translate into problems for the people who are behind the numbers, right?

So I think that first and foremost addressing the racialized nature of mass incarceration and more broadly what we refer to as the prison industrial complex. That’s one of the main things that I want to talk about and I don’t feel is actually discussed enough in public policy circles. Now, that said, I think that there are public policy institutions that are doing this kind of research and that are publishing reports and white papers and what have you that do address the racialized nature of mass incarceration. But this doesn’t actually seem to make it into the spaces where policy makers are making decisions and that gap right there really frustrates me and it’s something that has frustrated me for a really long time. We know, for example, that Black people are disproportionately represented in the system and what does that mean?  You know, what does that mean in terms of communities? And I want to talk about that and to explore that. We know, for example, that in terms of placing this in a global context that the U.S. has one of the largest prison populations in the world. So what does that mean you know and what does that look like on the ground and what does that mean in the context of the politics of today? Because I don’t think that we can really launch a podcast in 2017 and not talk about the current (laughs) political situation in this country.

Brian: Right.

Kim: If that’s not a source of frustration for people, I don’t know what is and it’s certainly a major source of frustration for me. Then there is the gender component of mass incarceration. We tend to talk about men who are incarcerated and particularly black men. To neglect an oversight of talking about women and how those numbers have grown exponentially over the last decade and a half, and I think that’s an important piece that needs to be addressed as well.

So there’s a lot of stuff that I’m thinking about when I’m thinking about mass incarceration. I think that that this is a good place to start.

I’m also thinking about mass incarceration in broader terms and this goes to the title of our podcast as well, Beyond Prisons. I want us to imagine what that means. What does it mean to see something beyond prisons? Can we imagine a world not only without prisons but what are some of the creative solutions that we can come up with through these conversations that are going to be I would say not only realistic but that are necessary in light of the fact that we have, what, over six million people under correctional supervision in this country with about two million of those incarcerated? So when we think about, when I’m thinking about incarceration in this country, I’m thinking about it in really broad terms. I’m thinking of policing. I’m thinking of surveillance. I’m thinking of all the various ways, the mechanisms that are used to control certain populations in this country particularly marginalized groups in this country. What about you?

Brian: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that on a very basic level, one of the things that I want to do is talk about what we as Americans by and large think prisons do, who goes there, what happens there, and this includes even through the lens of the reform movement.

But as activists, when we’re thinking about policy that we could be implementing and if we’re thinking about what comes next after prison, I think one of the most important things that we can do is have conversations that could lead to a cultural shift among people that will lay a stronger foundation for these policies, and I think we can get there.

As we know, prisons and the system in general are largely out of the public view. Attempts to, I know this as a journalist and you know this as both a scholar and a parent, but any attempts to get more information about the system or to question actions by officials, you get the silent treatment or worse. I think in order to really lay the groundwork for a lot of this policy, we need to have conversations and clear some things out about punishment, and about crime, and about safety and the role of prisons in all of this, right?

And I think that there is this idea that people are criminals instead of people that do things that are against the law or maybe have low moments. I think there’s this idea that when you go away to prison,  you deserve harsh treatment and certain things as punishment and there’s no thought that these people are eventually going to get out. They’re going to have to reintegrate into society under even more difficult situations than the average person trying to get a job out there today, when you have this scarlet letter of a conviction hanging over you.

What I hope that we can do in addition to all the things that you said that I totally agree with. In addition to getting into the various issues that go on in prison, and at the front end and back end, before people go in and after, I just really want to challenge our assumptions, and I want us to really think about the myriad costs that are associated with decisions that we make with punishment. And even on just a basic and theoretical level, we talk about prison sentences, right. We talk about sentencing reform, but we attach arbitrary years on prison sentences because I mean there really is no science behind a lot of this and it’s just interesting to think a lot of times—I hear people on the left and liberals are always talking about how oh, the Republicans are so anti-science. Well, the truth is that as a society, we have this looming system that is very pseudo-scientific and very anti-scientific in a lot of ways.

And so these are the ideas and little things that we want to chip away at. We’re gonna bring guests on to talk about these things and a lot of the things that you and I are going to chat about today. We’re gonna gloss over a lot of things, we’re gonna mention a lot of things, but trust that in coming episodes, we will dig into these issues deeper. So, what else? What else should we talk about here?

Kim: Yeah, I mean playing off of those points that you just made about prison, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about as I was preparing for this episode today was something that Angela Davis writes about in ‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’  And she says, ‘stop thinking of prisons as inevitable, ‘ right? We think of the prison as this natural thing, and that we can’t imagine life without it. And I think that our name again captures that, but our approach to what we’re attempting to do with these conversations is to think about what is life without a prison. It’s not some Utopian ideal. It’s not politically naïve to talk about a world without prisons, a society without prisons, and the difficulty that I’ve encountered in my work with people, including a lot of liberals.

It’s mostly liberals who I’ve been working with around issues of prison abolition, that any time I say, ‘Ok, imagine a world without prisons? What does that society look like?’ The first thing I hear is, no, no, no, you can’t possibly mean you want to get rid of prisons. And again, this really is super, super frustrating because it’s not even… I’m giving you a magic wand. You can make the world whatever you want it to be, right? It’s like, it’s a theoretical exercise in a lot of ways. And people don’t even want to imagine that world.

Brian: Why do you think that is? Like why do you think people—I have my own thoughts on this, obviously, but I’m curious of your thoughts on why people are resistant to the idea of having that radical imagination.

Kim: Well I think a lot of people are afraid, right. I think that there’s a lot of fear that they watch these television shows, they see things depicted in the media and presented a certain way, and their fantasy about what someone in prison looks like or is capable of is informed by these things.

They don’t necessarily—even if they have an experience with someone who’s been to prison, they tend to have this wall up, like okay, I like the idea of improving conditions for people in prison, but what are you talking about? This is going a little too far. You can’t really be talking about getting rid of prisons. And, I’m like actually I am. So institutions where we put people in cages for long periods of time without any consideration as to what that is doing to someone. It’s a problem. It’s problematic. We need to have, I’m fond of saying, the courage, the backbone, like we need strong backs to be able to say this is wrong, right?

And how do we disrupt this system? How do we change this system? How can we make something that is different from what we have now, right? Not just substituting and moving this around or you know they say rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, right?

You know, just a couple of days ago, de Blasio, Mayor de Blasio of New York, announced that they’re closing down Rikers and that’s great, and I’m cheering for the fact because Rikers was a really shitty place. It was a horrible place by all accounts and it needed to be closed. However, what he’s proposing is setting up new prisons.

So for me, and this is where I have to depart with the reform movement: Substitutes for prison, including other prisons, doesn’t really help the issue. It doesn’t address the social, the economic, the political problems that have created the issues that we have regarding mass incarceration, and I think until we get to that, until we get to that point where we can, I mean, good grief, have a conversation about what a world without prisons could look like. And to move people just a tiny little bit to say ‘ok, what does transforming this society mean? How do we deal with really scary things? Okay, so someone’s committed murder or someone’s being raped. These are horrible things and how do we address the victim’s legitimate concerns here while also addressing what is happening in terms of incarceration that we know doesn’t actually act as a deterrent, right? It doesn’t work, so what do we do about this?

We need a better way to approach this and I’m thinking of this podcast and our conversations as a way to explore various approaches to what that landscape would look like. I’m looking at it also in terms of how do we challenge white supremacy as part of this project? I see a lot of talk about prisons and carcerality that want to leave out the race component.

And that’s one of the hang-ups I think that we have and that we confront, particularly in the terms of policy making and policy choices that are being made because these policies around prison are meant to appear race neutral, and they’re not.

We need to have not only a language but a process by which we can assess, analyze, and understand what racialized carceral system is, and what do we do about that.

Brian: I agree. I completely agree. And I think that there is a lot of danger in compartmentalizing reform efforts instead of taking these broader approaches like abolition. My head is spinning. There’s so many things I want to say in response to what you just said.

I mean one thing I want to say is that I think that for people who don’t really know what prison abolition is, they’ve never heard of it, or maybe they have somewhat of an idea. I think that one of the helpful ways to think about this too is that there is not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution to prisons, much the same way that much the one-size-fits-all of prisons doesn’t work for the justice system.

I think when we’re talking about getting rid of prisons, like you said, we’re not talking about replacing it with a different kind of prison. I really resent a lot of this talk about looking over to Sweden and see how awesome it is to be a prisoner in Sweden. I think that’s totally the wrong way to look at prisons. It’s also a hard conversation, I think, and I wonder if you ever butt up against this, Kim. The needs and the problems are so bad for people who are incarcerated that the needs are very immediate, right? So I’m not sitting here saying we shouldn’t support these reform efforts that look to increase the quality of life of prisoners, because we need to help people right now.

But we can’t do that at the expense of a broader vision. I see a lot in these reform efforts of reducing or showing greater leniency toward low level non-violent offenders, but at the same time, we are going to increase penalties and introduce new penalties for violent offenders or for other drug crimes. They talked about introducing a new Fentanyl mandatory minimum sentence in the last criminal justice reform bill. It probably will be added to this one, I assume, with Republicans being in control of legislature.

Another thing that I want to say and I’m jumping around a little bit here, but I’m just thinking about your comments, is a lot of times what we see in reform is euphemism, to make it look like things are changing or to modestly or slightly tweak a prisoner’s experience. But the abuse and the fundamental issue of why a certain thing in prison is bad remains the same.

So, for example, with solitary confinement, we say that solitary confinement is torture and I think that it is pretty widely accepted now that solitary confinement is torture. And at the same time, the reforms that we get are two extra hours out of your cell per week, and reformers call that a victory. Or only certain groups of people are not allowed to go into solitary confinement, or they opened a new housing unit that is basically solitary confinement in everything but name.

So it’s really tricky and that’s another reason why I think it’s important to consider abolition and to take it seriously because a lot of these problems. We are at where we are today because a lot of these politicians have been kicking the can on these issues ever since we had prisons. I mean, Attica, the reform efforts followed Attica. Rebellions have been going on for years and years and years. Things haven’t gotten materially better.

I think when we think about abolition, another thing to think about like you were saying, is how do we think about somebody who’s committed an act of murder, an act of rape? How do we think about justice? But it’s also that the prison and the system that we have set up does nothing to sort of head off these things from happening by changing the material conditions and environments, social contexts and racial contexts like you were talking about, that people live in, that limit their options and push them in or silo their paths in life.

So it’s not just what can we do differently when someone commits a crime but it’s like how can we invest in communities. All the money we spend on federal, state, and local jails, all that money could be so much better put to use with education, jobs, healthcare in society in ways that would reduce the number of people winding up behind bars.

Kim: Absolutely! And I think to your first point regarding reforms and changing things in the immediate and looking to European models of prisons and what not. I think that there is a space for having a comparative analysis as to what other countries are doing that are better than what is happening here in the U.S. and if it improves the conditions of people on the inside, then Ok, great.

However, what an abolitionist’s perspective actually does is that it provides a framework for understanding and placing that conditions have to be improved right now, however, the long term goal is not to just sit back and say, yeah, we improved conditions, but how do we not use prisons as an anchor for the problems that are happening in society? How do we or what other things can we use?

And you mentioned some of those things: investing in communities, providing healthcare, mental health. Mental health is such a big part of this problem, not criminalizing drugs and seeing that these things don’t actually improve safety or security, but are used as the pretext for increasing the carceral state.

I think that one of the things that we’re going to do in upcoming episodes is really delve into what do we mean by prison abolition. Today, I think that we can just give a quick definition of that, a working definition so people have that and to talk a little bit about what we mean when we say prison industrial complex so that we understand the language that’s being used here. Because I think particularly in this day and age, particularly in this political climate that our words matter and our words matter more than they have in the past.

So providing clear definitions gives us a place to begin. It may not improve or increase understanding very much, but at least it gives us a place to begin so that we know that we’re talking about this thing over here, and not that thing over there. That said, one of the things I talk about when I talk about prison abolition and again using a lot of Angela Davis’ work, using the work of people from Critical Resistance, as well as Insight, and a number of other groups is to really think about it as a political vision. To think about how prison abolition constitutes a set of long term goals.

There are things that we are doing right now, however, the goal is to eliminate and get rid of imprisonment, to get rid of policing and surveillance as the mechanisms that we use to address social problems. I think that’s really the most concrete way of putting it in really simple terms. It sounds easy but once we start unpacking that, I think there is just so much happening in that. So that framework include, for me at least, that framework of abolition is also anti-racist.

It is when we talk about gender disparities. We’re including trans’ rights. We’re talking about immigration policy. We’re talking about all of these things that are happening right now and the kinds of policies that are being implemented by this administration that work against an abolitionist framework. I feel a sense of urgency now more than I have I think before. And I think I’ve had a sense of urgency for a long time. I don’t know. What do you think about that?

Brian: I totally agree, and I think that we really need to have goals. And I think a lot of what’s happening in the prison reform movement and even just sort of larger on the left, I think you see that it’s a little different when you talk about when you talk about something like single-payer healthcare, for instance. I think we need to have these goals that even if they seem politically unfeasible in this moment, we have to have something to work toward. Like you said, provide a framework for what we’re doing, not only so that we don’t shut off any avenues to fully realize reform or anything like that, but just so that we’re going somewhere with this.

This is the work of movements. You know, we might not see this in our lifetime. A lot of people that I talk to about abolition for their first time kind of scoff at you. They’re like, yeah right, there’s no way that would ever happen. The prison is such a fundamental institution in our society that obviously it’s much bigger than any one issue.

I think that something that you were touching on or something that it made me think about when you were talking is that if you bring an abolitionist framework to this, it does inform the way you look at other policies and other areas of government and society instead of just sort of being content to fiddle with whatever problems are going on. It makes you want to investigate the root causes more, to question the system more. It also sort of gives you more empathy in a way. I feel like even the worst political foes that I could imagine, I definitely would like to understand more about why they are the way they are. That doesn’t mean I’d excuse their behavior, but just sort of a strategy. I feel so much that political fighting and everything today is like very in the moment and lacks a broader context. So, anyway, I think abolition is something that if there were ever a good time to talk about it, it would be now with things as awful as they are. I feel like we almost have more space to talk about abolition than we might have had a few years ago.

Kim: Absolutely! Absolutely! Yeah, I think that one of the things that I wrote down in my notes in my preparation for today had to do with reforms, and one of the things that Angela Davis says is that the idea of reforms doesn’t go beyond the prison. So if all of your solutions begin and end with prisons, then there is really no room for alternatives in that reform model, and that’s the problem that I have as an abolitionist with the reform movement – that all of the solutions maintain these carceral institutions, so whether we’re talking about house arrest or surveillance, parole, probations, what have you, then it’s not really an alternative.

You’re trying to give something a different look without doing much about the actual problem and this resonates with people. This is very appealing and again, this is extremely frustrating for me because again, as someone who was trained in policy and public policy research and what have you, the literature really approaches mass incarceration from those perspectives.

So when we’re writing policy documents, when they’re doing evaluations of re-entry programs, for example, there are really no alternatives that are being presented that are not carceral alternatives. And that, for me, has been part of the problem for years. That, for me, the ‘Aha’ moment or the lead-up to the ‘Aha’ moment if we can even call it that, came a number of years ago, where it was evident that the further I dug down into re-entry and what was happening in communities was people returning from prison to certain communities.

There’s a pattern there and that pattern is repeated over, over and over again across communities in this country. So the policies weren’t working. But it wasn’t enough to just say the policies aren’t working. What is actually happening here? What is informing these policies, and I think that was where I really started to go into the abolitionist literature because the public policy literature doesn’t discuss abolition. It completely neglects it.

Abolition is something that, if you’re a political theorist that was talking about abolition from that perspective, and people are writing brilliant things about Foucault and what have you. But that information, that knowledge doesn’t transfer over to the public policy space.

So how do we bring these things together? It’s not just political theorists, but philosophers and other people who are doing work on prison abolition, not just theoretical but practical work as well. How do we bring that knowledge to bear on policy choices so that in the choosing because people talk about public policy in sort of a disconnected way in this thing that’s happening somewhere in Washington and in the halls of the State Capitals and what have you, it’s some kind of mysterious process. No. People are making decisions, and those decisions are informed by people’s values, people’s understanding of the problem, etc., etc. And if we’re not attempting to understand that part of it in terms of what’s happening with so many people and disproportionately, black and brown people in this country going to prison, then we’re actually not being honest about trying to address what is happening here. What we’re doing is something else, but it’s not rooted in an honest, intellectual project that is going to give us public policies that improve the conditions for communities and the people that live in those communities.

I think that, for me, that’s one of the strengths of an abolitionist’s perspective, and one of the things in my activism and in my scholarship and in my personal life that I have really committed to understanding in a lot of different ways. And I think that it presents a lot of challenges. It’s a difficult task to be an abolitionist.

It’s not an easy thing to say that publicly and it’s even more difficult thing if you write about these issues, or facilitating workshops and conversations with people around these things. They always want to talk down to you and tell you that you’re misinformed somehow and that letting people out of prison is just going to run society. I’m like, have you read the paper? I mean, have you looked around?

Angela Davis says this all the time: not having any prisons would actually improve things. No alternative would be better than having prisons and that really gets people’s backs up. They can’t handle that. I think to your point earlier about trying to understand where people are coming from with that, I think that’s an important piece of the overall puzzle in conversation here, and I’m looking forward to these conversations as the podcast unfolds and as we get deeper into these things.

Brian: Yeah, and I just think one last thing I’ll say on your discussion of policy-making and peoples’, like you were saying, sort of arching their back and a lot of this stuff. I think it speaks to a lot of political incentives that end up shaping reform and that need to change, and hopefully conversations like the ones we’re going to have on this podcast can help change.

Because it’s really hard, you have to admit on a certain level that it’s hard for policymakers to go out and maybe put out a reform that would reduce the number of violent offenders in prison because all it takes is one violent offender to make the news to cause a political backlash to that. I think because of that the incentives are so stacked to be harsher, whereas the political gain for showing leniency is so unfortunately low, and I think we need to completely invert that and sort of show politicians and these political figures, including prosecutors.

To a certain degree, they’re followers. They’re going to take certain cues from the public in terms of what the public will support and what the public won’t support. So I do see the tide changing a little bit in terms of how people view ‘offenders.’ Obviously, it’s like a very niche group of offenders are given leniency right now, but it’s hopeful in the sense that it could–if we could have these conversations to get people to think differently, we could change those political incentives so that there is less of a risk for a politician to craft a policy or sign on to a policy that would decarcerate and that politicians won’t so strongly overreact to rises in crime and the public doesn’t prioritize the safety of some communities at the expense of others.

Kim: Absolutely! And I think that this whole thing about who we let out of prison, and what is an acceptable kind of level of criminality–if we’re aiming for zero crime in society, we’re neglecting the fact that we’re dealing with human beings. So we need to talk about that. We need to address that on the front end and I don’t see where politicians do this very effectively, and I’m sure we’ll certainly critique the politician’s approach to public policy around incarceration and what have you. But we don’t have a world where we will be crime free. That world actually doesn’t exist. So a world without prisons is possible; a world without crime I’m not so sure.

So I think that, how would we handle that crime? What constitutes a crime? So we have all sorts of examples currently in the news: defending yourself against a domestic abuser is considered a crime. So that’s a problem. What do we want to do with that? I mean, what we’re really saying to victims of violence is well we don’t care about you if you tried to defend yourself, then you are really the problem. How has that changed anything for that community, for that person, for their family or anything like that? So I think we need to move beyond the surface level analysis that is really popular and talk about the complexities involved with letting people, not just opening the doors and letting people run out of prison. We’re talking about a more thoughtful approach to decarceration, getting rid of cages. We’re talking about, as you mentioned earlier, providing people with healthcare and for me, particularly mental health, and what that would do. We know that there is a large proportion of the incarcerated population that has a documented mental illness. That’s a problem.

And if our approach to these issues is basically to just lock them up for some indefinite amount of time, don’t provide them with any kind of counseling or support while they’re incarcerated, that somehow through the isolation and solitary monastic existence that these people are going to have some kind of ‘Aha’ moment, and magically come out being okay.

Brian: That’s what I mean. Yeah, when I was saying earlier that I just feel like incarceration is so anti-science. I mean listening to the way you just described it, it sounds ridiculous! And we have at this point mountains of evidence showing how incarceration harms, and I would argue that we have very little evidence suggesting that incarceration as an end in itself works to do anything other than perpetuate misery. So, yeah, sorry I just wanted to chime in here.

Kim: No, Absolutely!

Brian: Because it always baffles me that we cling to this institution so strongly, but it’s complete pseudo-science the more that you dig into it.

Kim:  Uh-huh, Absolutely! Absolutely! And I think that’s a valid point and that we need to talk about that more not just on here, but in the context of public policy choices that are being made. Targeting specific groups of people or to put people in prison who have drug problems makes no sense. It makes absolutely no sense. You don’t actually change the conditions for that individual by putting them in prison. Not just putting them in prison, but putting them in a cage and not giving them any kind of assistance.

These things don’t happen, like they don’t just fall out of the sky and all of a sudden they walk out of prison and they’re going to magically never use again. And that seems to be the sort of approach towards carcerality here, why reforms are a huge problem because it relies on this notion that if you lock someone up and you take away everything that is meaningful to them, that is of value to them, their ties to the community no matter how strained those are, their ties to their family no matter how difficult that family might be, those are still ties that we are basically cutting off and say, Ok, we’re going to remove you from society, from everything that is near and dear to you, and now we’re expecting you to be ok. So when you come out, you should be ready to conquer the world. And then we set up this system of obstacles for a person who’s returning from prison and into the community, and we say, well you need to follow all these rules. Okay, so you go to prison from a community where most of the people that you know have also gone to prison, but we have laws in this country that prevent the association of people with a felony conviction from associating, so that can get you back into prison. That’s just so ridiculous! Who else would you know? It’s like if your parent went to prison and you’re their child and you also went to prison, we’re basically saying, well mom, dad, aunt, uncle, cousin, whatever the ties are, you can’t be around each other. So now we’re undermining the support system that would be there by making the association a criminal act.

It’s like, God! How is this supposed to work?

Brian:  Yeah, and I think one of the things that we all are going to need to talk about, and it’s going to be hard given just American culture in general, are these limits of individual responsibility. I think, as you were talking about earlier, that a lot of the way carcerality bleeds in, and the punitive structure bleeds into post-release and things like that, and you were talking about drug treatment programs and things like that. You know, even in that situation- let’s take drug treatment programs for instance. A lot of these programs are 12-step programs that are built around the individual basically accepting full responsibility for their actions, making no excuses outside of themselves, and supposedly being able to stay sober with that as their backing. And the truth of it is that there are limits to personal responsibility for somebody like that. I mean, if you live in a context in which drugs are always around, or maybe you have a chronic health issue and that’s how you became addicted to opiods. I mean, taking responsibility like that is just another, it’s like another one of these examples of sort of puritanical anti-science approach. It’s like disproved by incredible amounts of evidence.

But we’re going to need to really as Americans dial back our desire to pin 100% total responsibility on people who commit crimes. And I just want to…I think this is a good time to talk about in terms of abolition too, Kim and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this. When we talk about prison abolition and you said this earlier in a way, we’re not just talking about letting people out of prison. We need to… there still will be accountability after prison, right. There still will be justice. And hopefully, it won’t look like this. So, yeah, I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that.

Kim: Yeah, I mean we need to talk about and explore new forms of justice. So the whole theatre that’s associated when someone gets sentenced to a long prison term is one of the problems. I obviously experienced that with my sons and this idea that somehow justice was being served within that context felt so…it’s painful and it’s still painful today. To think back on this and part of what that does is it creates further divisions within communities because we’re all in this together. We’re all in this together, and like you said, the American ethos of individual responsibility and resiliency and this kind of ‘you can do it, and I built it myself…and I didn’t need any help, and it’s not my responsibility to take care of you, etc., etc.,’ which is at the core of American society. People really really believe that, uncritically believe that. They don’t examine what they say around resiliency and individual responsibility at all, and we have medical models that are informed by this perspective. A lot of this probation and parole are informed by this perspective. A lot of re-entry programs are based on these perspectives, and the need to rely on personal transformation strategies as the preferred approach to dealing with crime and to dealing with people’s problems. Because I think we conflate that. We make people their problems. We don’t separate the two. We don’t say, Ok this person has a problem…we say, these people are a problem. So drug users are a problem, not wait a minute, let’s think about what is actually happening here.

And as you pointed out, we’re living in a really un-scientific time. The lack of critical thinking around these things or the willingness to approach this from a scientifically informed perspective is another huge issue that we’re probably going to talk about in one way or another throughout every conversation that we have because it’s there. It’s part of every single issue, and to lay blame at an individual’s feet is…one of the things that I say quite a bit is that when we individualize, we moralize. It makes it really easy to moralize. We do a lot of finger wagging and we can say, oh you need to get your act together, you need to stop doing drugs, you need to stop doing this, and we’re very much invested in this notion of choice; that an individual chose this path as opposed to this other path. And when we do that, what we’re doing is obscuring the fact that there are conditions and that there is a system in place that perpetuates these conditions that can strain your choices. So if you can’t eat because you don’t have a job and because you can’t go to your mama’s house because of whatever reason or because there are federal policies that prevent you from crashing on her couch because she lives in HUD housing or something ridiculous like that.

And you’re back on the street. I mean, what would you do? Because I think about that quite often and I would do whatever I need to do to eat. I would do whatever I needed to do to survive, and I live in L.A. I have been in supermarkets out here where I’ve seen people arrested who are hungry. They’re coming in and they’re stealing a loaf of bread or something small like that, and the police are called because that is the system that we have. Instead of the manager just giving them the damn loaf of bread and keeping it moving, it’s like…No, we have to call the police. Now you have another set of problems there. I think that part of our…part of what I’m hoping we’ll do is to unpack that a little bit more in a more critical way, and bring people on as guests who can discuss these issues in a really well informed way to get us to think about this stuff beyond the superficial, beyond this sort of knee-jerk reaction to petty crime.

But, that said, I also feel that we need to talk about violent crime, and that without the conversation or a set of conversations about violent criminals that we would be doing a disservice to what we’re saying we want to do with this podcast. I think that we need to address what happens when the unthinkable happens, and how do we deal with that and how do we address that? How can communities come together and what does a justice model look like that says, ok, well we need to talk about that more… We need to address the fears that people have and discuss ways that someone who has committed a really horrific crime can be held accountable. It doesn’t produce more harm. It doesn’t perpetuate the pain that already exists because I don’t think, in speaking from my own experience…the pain doesn’t go away. The pain when something horrible happens in your family with crime …that pain doesn’t leave. It doesn’t get better with time. It is just as fresh today as it was the day that it happened, and I think that is something that for me, on a personal level, that I want to talk about more and to bring in families that have been impacted in these ways by crime on both sides. I think that’s an important conversation to have, and something that in transformative justice circles and restorative justice circles has been happening for a lot of years, and there are ways to approach those conversations. But we can’t do that until we talk about accountability. But if accountability is happening in very narrow terms of ‘lock them up and throw away the key’, that doesn’t cohere with an abolitionist perspective, and as you can see, there is a lot to talk about.

Brian: There is.

Kim: There is no shortage of topics here. I think we barely scratched the surface today. I’m excited about what we can do with this podcast. I don’t know. Do you have any additional thoughts?

Brian: There’s just one more thing that I wanted to bring up, and I am curious what you think about this, too. I think a lot of times when people bring up these arguments somebody might say to you, Well, Kim, what about the victims? What about the people who the crimes are perpetrated against? Don’t you think that deserve our empathy too? I don’t know what you would say. I would say our system is not designed at all right now to really empower victims in any meaningful way outside of punishment. I think prosecutors by and large aren’t really interested in what a victim would like to do.

I wrote about earlier this year that the vast majority of crime victims, including violent crime victims would prefer rehabilitation over incarceration. There’s a lot of myths that, I would also say that maybe people wouldn’t be victims if we didn’t have incarceration and were addressing these root causes. That was really the last thing that I want to bring up. I’m just thinking about some of the things that might come to your mind when you’re thinking about prison abolition for the first time, sort of these ingrained defenses that we have as Americans against imagining a world without prisons.

Like you said, a lot of this, we will be digging in very deeply on all these subjects with guests, and I’m very, very excited. So, yeah, we want to know what questions you have. You can email me at We would be happy to take tips from people and hear how people react to the show and a lot of ideas that we have. Honestly, I want to hear what sort of problems people have with a lot of these ideas because I think that a lot of these conversations are going to be really uncomfortable for a lot of people. They’re gonna be really difficult. We’re going to be talking about violence, and sexual offenses and things like this that we react to in a certain way. But we need to have these conversations if we’re really going to make a meaningful impact on this issue. What about you, Kim? Do you have any final thoughts?

Kim: Yeah, I think that there are a number of victims groups around the country that have been very outspoken against things like the death penalty, and I’ve been working with some groups, some people in Delaware around this as well, whose families have been the victims of violent crimes. And it’s a difficult conversation, but I can tell you that from my own experience, talking with these families, they have been out front of the death penalty abolition movement, and they have said things not in their name, like you can’t kill someone because you lost someone in their name. And this notion of state sanctioned violence as a way to mete out justice is deeply problematic for a lot of people, not just on a moral level because they do think that it’s wrong, but in terms of what this actually does. What does this actually do?

It doesn’t feel good, but then again, I think that the people who are best able to talk about this issue are the victims. I don’t want to speak for anyone. If anything, another goal that I have for this podcast is really to amplify and marginalize people’s voices, and to let people speak for themselves rather than talking over them or for them. You’ll hear me say a lot, I’m speaking for myself, because I think that needs to be clear that I’m not talking for other folks here. I think that in general, I look forward to hearing what people have to say. I think that these are courageous conversations that we need to have, that they’re going to require us to have really strong backs to address. We’ll certainly give people trigger warnings around certain issues. There might be a trigger warning around the entire podcast. I mean, I don’t even know. That includes just as much for my own benefit as for anybody else’s because this isn’t easy.

I’m on board with this project because it gives me a way to sort of channel this energy that I have and to bring this work to a much bigger audience, and to include a lot more people in this conversation. Before I forget, if people want to contact me, I’m at and I look forward to hearing about what people have to say and if they want to chime in, and if they want to have ideas for future topics. Certainly, I’m open to these things. Hate mail you can send somewhere else. I’m not interested in the hate mail and the abusive nonsense that I’m sure we’re going to get as a result of putting ourselves out there on these issues. It’s been, this has been great. I enjoyed this conversation. I think it was a lot easier than I thought, huh.

Brian: Yeah, I know seriously. I’m really glad to be doing this with you Kim so thank you very much and thank you everybody for listening. We will have another episode out soon. You can subscribe to us on Itunes Beyond Prisons and stay tuned for our next episode. Thank you so much.

Beyond Prisons

Beyond Prisons

Beyond Prisons is a podcast on incarceration and prison abolition that elevates people directly impacted by the system. Hosted by Kim Wilson and Brian Sonenstein.