In this candid and personal interview, Brian Sonenstein and Kim Wilson speak with Five Mualimm-ak about his life, reintegration, and why he’s fighting to abolish prisons by any means necessary.
In the late 1990s, Five was a community leader and successful real estate investor until he was convicted of crimes he didn’t commit. He spent 12 years in prison, including 5 years in solitary confinement.
On the day of his release, Five had a panic attack that landed him in the emergency room and then at Bellevue. Homeless for two years, he went back to prison for failing to appear for a meeting with his PO, and he was sent back to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence.
These and other experiences have informed Five’s expansive and influential work with communities directly impacted by incarceration in New York and across the nation.
Learn more about Five’s work: Incarcerated Nation Corporation (INC)
Follow Five on Twitter: @MrFiveINC
Please listen, subscribe, and rate/review our podcast on iTunes.
Send us tips, comments, and questions: email@example.com
Music & Production: Jared Ware
Brian Sonenstein: Welcome back to Beyond Prisons, a new podcast examining incarceration through an abolitionist lens. My name is Brian Sonenstein and I am joined by my co-host, Kim Wilson. How ya doing, Kim?
Kim Wilson: I am doing well, Brian. How’s it going this week?
Brian: It’s going well. Thanks for asking. So today, I am very excited to be talking to Five Mualimm-ak. Five is the co-founder of Incarcerated Nation Corp (INC), a collective of post-incarcerated project leaders that serve those incarcerated, previously incarcerated, and their families as a unified and visible voice. INC educates the public through meaningful educational projects that expose the conditions of confinement for millions of incarcerated people.
Five is national organizer that works with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, TRUA, and the Anti-Torture Initiative of the United Nations, and the ACLU.
Five, I am so glad that you are here today, thank you for joining us.
Five Mualimm-ak: No, thank you. Thank you for having me.
Brian: So, there is a whole lot for us to talk about today and I just want to get started by giving you an opportunity to talk a bit about what you are working on and how you arrived at the work that you are doing.
Five: Oh, thank you. So Incarcerated Nation Corp. is a collective, like you said, of people previously incarcerated, but we look at it as the most experienced people with incarceration. So we try to create projects that serve those incarcerated, but then we’re also visible voices. That is like two different things.
One is being out there in the media, which you don’t get paid for, but it’s sort of reliving trauma every day. To use your time as incarcerated or your personal experiences to echo and amplify others, so I think visible voices is what we call each other. We are in films, plays, TV shows, and do a lot of production around that.
Five: Because so many times you get these series like OZ, right and then a million times people say, “Is that like real?” and I am like, “No.”
Five: Yeah. That’s one of the problems. We have these assumptions of how incarceration is and that it is okay. In the movies, people get released and everybody is happy and they are walking out, back to their jobs. No, it doesn’t happen like that.
Kim: Right. Right.
Five: So it is vital for us and for the work that we do, we see it as the most groundbreaking work. When people look at the advancements in the last five years around Rikers—Rikers has been an atrocity for decades, why in the last five years? Because more and more people directly impacted are talking about it.
Kim: Hm. Hm.
Brian: So can you tell folks some of the issues in particular that you work on with incarcerated populations? I mean I know that there is a broad array of issues that you’re working on, but can you give folks an idea of the specific areas?
Five: Yes. Well, one specifically is youth and alternatives to incarceration. So we try to create, being that we work so much in the community, most of us are on community boards and we are also leaders in our neighborhoods, so we try to infuse that with alternatives to incarceration. So if I had twenty churches or twenty community organizations that I can have youth do service in, I will then put that into a working program and bring it to a judge and say, “Why sentence him to Rikers for eight months? You know, let us get him for a year. Let him go back to school and let’s work on reprimanding this.” That’s what the juvenile system is supposed to do, but we end up picking up the parts.
Like Raymond Santana, who works with us, he inspired a project that is called Safe Surrender because so many kids are being picked up by officers, who are 12 or 13 [years old]. Now you have a 12 year old that is elementary or junior high school and there are armed guards and there are armed officers, the warrant squad, coming to arrest him, because he was involved in a Facebook photo or some type of scandal. So we have to have those protections and it is up to us in the community.
So most of our projects are community service. We run food pantries. We work with the aging organizations, so Mid Bronx Senior Council, Bushwick Senior Council. We help support and fortify Meals For Wheels, as most now know is going to be cut from the Federal Budget. So what is going to happen with our aging? Our advocacy goes hand-in-hand. So as we have collective projects, like the release of aging people in prison, we are also working to help service those aging in the community.
So we have to say no to prisons, but yes to building communities at the same time. And it becomes a lot of work, a lot of double work, but we have to do it.
Kim: Absolutely and I am glad you touched on that. Again, thank you for being here with us today, Five. I know your time is precious, so I really appreciate that. If we could go back to this point that you made about communities and what is required there, because a lot of people hear about prison abolition work, but the component that needs more attention is the part where you are doing the work in the community.
Five: And I think that people mix that up, Kim, and I think that is the problem. You cannot abolish prisons, which tear apart communities, without repairing and building communities so it has to go hand-in-hand. There is no real teeth to what you are doing if you’re saying, “Close down this jail, but we’ll have nothing to do with what happens when the people are released or the people they’re going [back] to.” Functionally, if you are about abolition, then you are about community-building. Because prisons tear down families, they tear down structures, they tear down communities, they tear down employees, they tear down neighbors, brothers, uncles, they tear families apart.
It’s because of the distance and the sort-of isolation of human beings that we have become content with. I say ‘content with’ because we are satisfied with say, if there is a problem, I am going to call the authorities. I am not going to make an effort as a community member to solve this in my community. I am going to call a foreign entity to come in and handle it. We have grown in this country, and New York is a microcosmic example of the macro-, we have grown content with out of sight, out of mind. As long as that problem is out of sight, upstate somewhere, I don’t see it, it’s okay.
But incarceration impacts the community. Where was that person working? What was their house of worship? There are taxpayers in that community, as well as brothers, sisters, and uncles. We try to expose and create programming, in media as well, that exposes the entire impact. Where one person is like a pebble and once you throw that pebble in a river it has a ripple effect that hits everyone.
The other part is incorporating people, who do not feel directly impacted. Because as much work as we do to protect and serve people that are directly impacted, there are other people that say, “I have no relation to prison.” And I say, “You are the one paying for it. You are the one buying the products when people are released from prison. You are the one paying the high price in New York for people to live in shelters which is mostly people disenfranchised from prison, right.”
So everyone is involved. Like Scott Stringer, who is the State Controller, he says that we pay the most for incarceration on Rikers and other city jails, more than anyone else on the planet Earth. Of course he is saying that, that’s his job to protect the financial interests of the state.
We have used prisons and especially in New York State, where we incarcerate per-capita more than mostly anyone, we have used prisons as a sense of contentment, but feeling secure. In other words, we do not feel safe unless someone else is there. Unless another entity, the cops are there. We don’t feel safe to go outside and say, “This argument could get out of hand. Let’s solve it together” or “let me as a neighbor interfere with this” or I hear my neighbor beating his wife every night and I’m not going to say nothing because the hood and the community’s reputation is to stay silent. No, we have to take things in our own hands because the outside authorities are only going to make it worse.
Kim: Absolutely, absolutely and I am glad you raised all of those issues. Can you say a little bit more about this indirect impact, or the work that you are doing with the people that are indirectly impacted by incarceration?
Five: Right, we call it the collateral consequences.
Kim: Oh yeah. Can you talk a little more about that?
Five: Yes, so well, one in New York State. Let me just say on that, because I use New York as an example of the world. Nationally, we have over a half-million people released from prison every year. So that’s normal, we know that people are going to be returning home, we know that there is a great amount of people returning home. I say New York State because I started in New York State because it has been the defining state for the rest of the nation. People tend to forget how America was populated. Everyone at one point in time came through Ellis Island, the majority, and settled up into the fifty states. More so, how New York in a microcosmic example, people get cycled through Rikers Island and go to the sixty-something counties of New York State. So you have Ellis Island and you have Rikers Island, you have two examples of the prison industrial complex.
Most of the products that are made in private prisons are sold in New York. Like Victoria Secret has the most stores in New York. Distributors for weapons and arms are mostly selling to New York. Military gear that is made in prisons are also retailed in New York. So when we’ve got a problem, we let privatization become the answer and where community is not the solution, privatization becomes the answer. I just said that to say that we allow this because people are not educated and I think that is where INC has started to make an impact of saying that, “Let’s assume that no one knows anything and let’s start teaching people on a one-on-one basis.” And I think that that has made a huge impact.
Sorry I think that I have derailed form the question (laughs).
Kim: No, it’s a great answer because I think it does illustrate how complex the problem is and there are so many layers to this and I really appreciate the parallels that you drew between Rikers Island and Ellis Island and giving us, you know, a picture that we can draw from and say, “Okay, this is where, we’re funneling all these people through Rikers Island and they are going out into all these various communities and what not.” I think that is a very powerful way to think about it.
You have mentioned Rikers Island a couple of times and we all know and you more than most, about Mayor de Blasio’s move last month, to shut down Rikers over a ten year period with the intent of opening up five new prisons. So I’d like to get your thoughts about that.
Five: Ooooh boy. Oh man.
Kim and Brian both laugh.
Five: So this guy, right, yeah, right. Bill, I have to say Mr. de Blasio, or the Mayor, I have had a personal relationship with him since he has been elected. Working on his behavioral task force and all the relations that we have, people assume, “Oh you know the Mayor? You are good with him?”
No. It’s probably been because I’m the greatest threat to him. I probably have been the greatest advocate in his face all the time about issues. So, I am on the behavioral task force by force, not because he was like, “You know what, we are going to think about the mental health of the people of New York. We are going to assign Five.” No, Five is the one suing you if you don’t do this. You also are not addressing immigration so Khalil is on the immigration task force. Terrell Muhammad is on the juvenile task force. So these things are because people directly impacted had forced him to do that.
The mapping meetings which was all about how we arrest people with mental health was just so that I could work on people with mental health in Rikers not being processed. All of that, I should be able to speak to the Mayor about his job and his duty preserving citizens of the city not by force. So when you see all of these things about Rikers, it’s because for the last five years, students have been making the way.
Organizations like Jails Action Coalition, which we created to be the force for people at Rikers. We are at every Board of Corrections hearing, we have to then shape the board, then, we noticed that the Board was not doing what they are supposed to be doing and then we also rechanged the board.
Like why is there not a woman on the board? Why is there not a woman of color on the board? Why is there not a person previously incarcerated on the board? Why is there not someone with a medical background on the board? It took years to change that. It also took years of getting them to fight and open up public comment and I think that is where we made a change. Students were going in and writing reports about how horrible it was in New York. And when we got to the ninth or the tenth school, the board started to react to it.
Then, they launched an investigation by Dr. Gillian and of course, that went down the rabbit hole because nobody, no matter who goes into there, they are going to realize how bad it is. All of these things are not public knowledge. People do not know that we have hearings constantly, that every time we close down a unit that they make a new one. They have made the Enhanced Security Housing Unit and now they are making a Young Adult Unit. Hey the Governor says, “Kids, you know, kids are not incarcerated at 16, but we are going to start a new unit that starts at 18.”
Brian: Can we actually pause there, because the enhanced supervision housing unit that you just mentioned, it was a really early on example of how reform goes with Rikers Island and the Department of Corrections and with Mayor de Blasio and I was wondering if, maybe, you could give us an overview of what the ESHU is and how it turned out? Because I think it brings a lot of this to light…
Five: It definitely does and it definitely represents the consistent, persistent force of people directly impacted, right? And advocates behind them and organizations and mental health professionals. So like Urban Justice Center and I am just going to throw this out there, like Jennifer Parish, she’s amazing, she’s the director for Urban Justice Center mental health project and she is one of the lead advocates on jail action and she is there at every Board of Corrections hearing, every Department of Corrections hearing, and every [New York] City Council hearing, and it’s because that’s her job. That’s her responsibility, but also she is committed to human rights and if it was a violation that doesn’t enable her to do her job, why are we not listening to the professionals?
So when we talk about the coverage and the mental health training that corrections officers has, it’s her organization that does those classes, her and Mary Beth’s. So she knows that you’re not being trained and also we have access into Grad H which is another project, so we know what is going on Rikers and then we have the family members that are part of our collective so we understand the facts of everything.
The problem begins in that the system in itself doesn’t want to admit to these problems. So it becomes this battle of we have to constantly show harm to show wrong. We had three deaths that we had to petition the DA to take it seriously. And then report him to the Department of Justice so they could go over everybody’s head and go in. Since I’ve been doing this work, I have indicted over twenty-something corrections officers and literally had a system to work and get information to the Department of Justice that was valid.
Now that is nothing that the system cannot do itself because they have the same records that I’m telling them to subpoena, they have the same data that I’m pointing out exists, and they are hiding it and not wanting to make a change. Why? Because they have 10,000 jobs that they think that they are preserving. They are trying to preserve an environment of necessity. But if you look at the bigger picture, and I hate to keep going back to this, that one jail fills 60-70-something facilities upstate. From that one jail goes everyone else, so they are responsible for sending human bodies which other counties depend on for gerrymandering for loans and grants because of the amount of people they have in their state, or basically because the county doesn’t have any other income other than jail, all of those are valuable options, literally [they] are producing an income of incarceration. So we have become the incarceration state.
Like it’s a business in Attica, it’s a business in Coxsackie, it’s a business in Auburn, and it’s actually why the town is named after the jail. Rikers plays a pinnacle point of pressuring people to then be pushed up into these facilities. They make it so horrible and so hard and so bad there that people will cop out. So 95% of convictions are plea bargain, so that means incarceration is willful. So I do not want to drag this out into a derailment, but just that alone, let me say the effects of that. Now incarceration’s willful, you come back from doing fifteen years in Attica, you’re not considered homeless because you have been in Attica for fifteen years, right?
So willful incarceration means that you are now not acceptable for homeless services, because you are not considered chronically homeless. And the person who did that happens to own the shelter system, BRC, Muzzy Rosenblatt. The other person, Gordon Campbell, who works on the Board of Corrections. Wow, is that a coincidence? No, this is this city.
We are living in a city where we deliberately displace people of color. Remember red-lining, started in New York, which other states copied. This is deliberate attacks on people of color. I keep saying Rikers because 80% of people [incarcerated in Rikers] are people of color and 80% of people in New York state prison facilities, over 80%, only come seven communities, which is basically three counties. Sorry, six communities because Park Slope is totally gentrified but there is a Brooklyn table in every prison.
So Rikers is an example of Cook County jail in Chicago cycles 1,000 people per night. It is also an example of CCDR in California and other prisons who are like saying, “You know what? I think we need to start making quadruple bunked because the triple bunks is not doing enough. Or let’s shut down the gym because we have 2,000 more people coming in and just put beds in there.” So we have, and like Marty Horn, who’s the ex-comissioner of New York, I think he is actually right. When you have 2 million people you can’t service one person right. You can’t do nothing right. I just went on a tangent there.
Kim: You’re okay, you’re allowed, and I deeply appreciate you sharing that as well. I wanted to touch on or wanted you to touch on a little bit about the visible voices that you mentioned earlier. The effect of having to relive trauma as part of the work and you know, that is something I struggle with, as someone who’s impacted by… because my sons are in prison. There is an expectation that if you are engaged in abolition work or prison reform work that you’re always—you become a go-to person. You’re expected to always have something to say or some insight or an action plan and sometimes, you just really don’t really freakin’ feel like it. Sometimes you’re just like I want to shut off the TV, I want to shut off the computer, and I do not want to be bothered. Can you talk a little, if you’re comfortable, about the effects of having to relive this trauma and the kind of work that you’re doing around mental health.
Five: Yeah, it’s—it’s hard. It’s hard. It’s hard for me to continue to advocate for things that I am still going through. One of the toughest things is living with this disenfranchisement. I was incarcerated in the late 90s, 2000, went to jail because they were saying that I was transporting an immense amount of drugs and I had huge drug locations upstate in these counties and actually, I was doing real estate and fixing up abandoned properties and I had a lot of cash on me, which made me look guilty because I had $280,000 on me because I was doing real estate deals and a lot of it was cash. When you are doing foreclosure under-market value flips, I am closing ten deals with one investor. So I was trying to buy residual income property upstate and then open up and use that residual income to buy a building in New York to do reentry.
So I have been doing this work for years, with a ten to twelve year gap in the prison system, sad to say. So these cops, who didn’t have a drug problem in their town, had to create a drug problem. And the FBI ended up indicted them for all of the charges that I was indicted on and basically, released. So what happened is that you have a system and when they asked the officers like the entire precinct was locked up, like the shop steward, the lieutenant, Michael Hammonton, Nick Messiere, the shop steward, the lieutenant, the sergeant, the captain, everybody. As a matter of fact, when the FBI ran into the precinct, the desk sergeant went into the bathroom and blew his brains out because it became a system that cops were creating crime, right? The War on Drugs, when Reagan cut community-based funding for mental health facilities, he also cut community-based funding for law enforcement so civil forfeiture became the thing of the day.
So they have to catch these drug dealers and they were using abandoned property to basically set up drug strings. So here is this guy taking all of these abandoned properties and renovating it and making it viable property. So I was disrupting their plan and I had a lot of cash on me so it looked like something they could plant.
And the Innocence Project played a lot of roles in it because a lot of people were exonerated based on DNA evidence that these cops had proliferated so that’s why I work with them so closely ‘cause they are basically the reason why I’m home, but during my incarceration period, it was always trials and tribulations and struggles because I’m an activist, I’m an activist in prison. That’s not the best place to be an organizer and that’s definitely not a place to be a person who is a community person.
So even at Rikers, I worked with Otis to create the Inmate Liaison Committee and I took the people who were the most empowered in every house and created a huge meeting where they were representing the entire jail system. Did that threaten the jail system? Yes, because now you have a sensible system that you can address everyone house needs in one meeting. They don’t want that, right?
Kim: No, of course they don’t.
Five: They want confusion. They don’t want a unified system because then, grievance comes in. Then, we all are not detainees, so why can’t we vote this year. You know what I mean? So, it’s become this system of demanding rights and that is considered problematic. Just like community-members who do free lunch program[s], right, who are locked up for doing domestic terrorism, right? My mom went to prison just for that, for doing after-school programming, creating this Southeast Bronx Community Centers, it was a bunch of Jewish women who came together and she was mailing products back to Israel. That was considered a terrorist threat. Also, the women and children was a terrorist threat, now that the state picked it up and called it WIC, it is good, but Herman Bell and other people are still incarcerated for creating the Free Lunch and the WIC program.
So I just went back, all the way back, to say that even the person in my stature, or in what I was doing in life and that’s not to say that I never had bad experiences in life, yes I did, but when I was released from incarceration, it was funny in some sense. I try to make a joke out of it because it is not funny, but it’s like they ignored me for ten years and they said, “Hey Five, you know how you have always been talking about you’re innocent and you didn’t do nothing. Turns out you’re right, they just locked up all the cops that locked you up. Here is $40, here is a bus ticket, good luck and make it.”
The point is I had spent a long time in solitary and held there for basically frivolous deeds and released directly into population, which is different because I live in New York state so I get a bus ticket to 42nd Street, Times Square. But it is a difference when you come home and you’re an advocate and you’re talking about your circumstances, but when I was testifying and when I admitted that these officers were doing these things wrong, the FBI puts you under a Witness Protection Program and literally keeps you in prison, but will change your locations or basically alter your jail record because they think they are protecting you, which me and Preet Bharara from the DOJ had a few conversations about. They think that they are protecting people, but actually like I was a hero in prison. I was like… people didn’t… even corrections officers were like, “Did you lock these cops up? That’s crazy because they make us look bad.”
So either way, it is sort of comforting but it also hard because then you have problems owning your history and your time.
Five: You know, because of how your prison records look, but the Department of Justice still works with me closely because they are like, “You know what, the last time this guy [Five] pointed out bad cops, he was right.” So now I am working with them to basically work and indict corrections officers, but everybody else who is in this system making it worse. And abolition work is on multiple levels. You have to be there for the family members, but also work for those incarcerated their family members. Because when I was incarcerated, I have children, you know? One of them is a daughter, she’s going on seventeen now and I have no relationship with her. When you miss twelve years of a kid’s life, you miss junior high school, elementary, and high school, you sort of miss the kid’s whole life.
Kim: You do, yeah.
Five: And it’s impactful because, because I was doing real estate my child support payments was $532 a week. That’s a lot. Yeah.
Kim: Yeah, that is a lot.
Five: It’s a lot because I was making $30,000 residual income while I was out. But now that I am a prisoner and now that I’m incarcerated, I am making 16 cents an hour, so that times twelve years, I come home owing $150,000 and I am still in family court today, still being threatened to send back to jail, today. Like literally.
Five: And so my activism, this is the reason why I just said [that] about my time incarcerated because my activism has been that since I’ve been home. So I took my own personal problems, I took things that I can relate to personally and then worked on that from an ‘I’ standpoint.
One of the first things that I realized was damaging in my life was when I was upstate and I’m in a box, when I come back down to Rikers for court, I’m in a box. So the point of old box time is one of the first bills that passed in New York City around solitary was Intro-292A. Mayor de Blasio was [like], “Oh yeah I think this is good.” And [I said], “What? What do you mean this is good? We holding people accountable? No it’s frivolous.” So we have a mayor that doesn’t have any expertise and doesn’t listen to the experts previously incarcerated. He didn’t change it until Councilman Drumm pushed it and showed how much money we are spending on it. So that passed.
And then from there, I was also writing and helping Allen Ferrell with the Fatherhood Initiative and we wrote the Parent Pledge. And I had this great idea because I’m like, I was doing this, I had a nightclub, I had twenty properties, I had a Porsche I was driving around, I met this girl at the club, I went to prison… turns out she’s now pregnant. I don’t know her though, we don’t know each other, so can’t we create a program where nonprofits can be mediators. And we did. And don’t get me wrong, it didn’t help me and my situation because of the bitterness and the anger, I’m still in court, but at least there is a project that allows people that didn’t have the time before incarceration to know each other to at least say, “We have this child and an interest, let’s dedicate means for that.”
Kim: Wow. Wow.
Five: And yeah. And then coming home I realized that ten-twelve years that a lot of things have changed. There is no more of Susanna, who has her baby shower in the community or there is a cook-out outside or the birthday party BBQ. That doesn’t happen anymore because that’s technically trespassing. And you can’t cook-out on public property anymore nor in city housing nor in government housing nor federal property.
So I came home to see a wasteland, like, “Where’s everybody at? Everybody’s [not] outside, there’s no music playing, there’s no BBQs going on?” People were like “No man, I got a walk around with my Con Ed bill, because I got stopped ten times in my own building.” Like Mr. Rodriguez, who played dominoes on the corner was locked up and I remember going to court with him with Vince Morrin and sitting there looking at him like, he was sitting there saying, “I was on the bench.” And they were like, “Okay, but the bench isn’t [on] the city street?” And he was like, “It’s attached to the building. It’s bolted to the ground and I live in the building. Like how I am trespassing? Sitting on the bench at the building I live in.”
And so I started working with Vince Morrin doing Stop-and-Frisk with Jose Lasalle and that was because I was outraged about the community. And how it was under attack and I wanted people to have the defense of defending themselves, not teaching people how to fish, but you know, not fishing for them, but teaching them how to fish.
Kim: Indeed. Indeed. Wow. Wow.
Five: So that was just one that was just one thing as well. And now I also started, when I first came home on solitary, the first person that I started organizing and working with was my father’s friend, Rodrick King, who had just did 29 years in solitary. So, I got an invite, and it’s like, “Hey, I’m a friend of your dad’s. He was a Panther, I was a Panther, I’m doing this event. Come down.” I come down to NYU and I meet this guy and I am going off about my five years of solitary and I did all this time and he’s like, “I just did 29 [years].” And I was like, “What?” [laughs].
Five: And at that point, I put the little pain and problems that I had in my pocket and I continued to do this work because there’s always somebody, who’s suffering more that needs us to be the voice. And he told me that it was me and him that nobody else is going to do this as serious as me and him. He told me that he will take the West Coast and I would take all of the East Coast. He gave me a few films that he has made since he’s been home and he was like, “Let’s do this and get my two comrades out and also the longest people in solitary in the country.”
And ever since then I have been working to advocate. I have done films, TV shows, productions, and we took Herman House and won an Emmy and we continue to use that to make another film and we got Herman out. And then we got Albert out. And I think that the greatest thing of my work is that Albert was out at the end of the week, the beginning of that next week, he showed up in Harlem at my door. And I was just shocked. I was like, “I was going to come see you.” And he was like, “No, let’s get to work.” So he is now on my board. We are now trying to address solitary nationally.
But I use my own personal circumstances, like when I came home here I am, I live with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, I am being released. How am I being released? A bus ticket being dropped off at 42nd Street, Times Square. [I] have a panic attack, go to the hospital, get caught up. Parole tells me, “That’s messed up, you should have been here that day.” [I] turn around, they send me back to prison, I didn’t max out until 2012, then came back home.
Kim: Oh my god.
Five: That should never happen to anyone. So now my organization now is the only organization that goes down to the bus station and picks up the roughly two thousand people released every year. We are just standing outside with a giant sign with your name on it to help escort you. That’s done in collaboration with the social work students of NYU Silver School. So then we have a person to do psycho-socials, you know why? When I came home, I had a week[‘s] prescription of the wrong medication. Let’s just understand this. They don’t give you the right medication in prison in the first place. So that means when I am released that I have a week[’s] ration of the wrong medication.
So in order to come home, I need to have a psycho-social, I need to be evaluated, and I also need to have constant blood tests. Oh wait, but it takes 45 days for my public assistance to kick in, so by then, I’ll have a psychotic episode. The system itself doesn’t make sense. So what we do is we fill those gaps. So we just said, “Great, we will get social work students to write psycho-socials the day you come home. And we will also submit it” and we also have a project with St. Luke’s Roosevelt that is totally, solely dedicated for people previously incarcerated, so you come home that day, that night you’re in the hospital or you’re being checked and have an appointment. That is called response, that is really literally supporting those coming home.
Kim: Absolutely, I mean…
Five: I used it as a track for my own self
Kim: Yeah, yeah because I mean the reentry piece is something that my research and work has focused on quite a bit and you know this from a few years ago when we first met, but what you describe in your own situation and what I think listeners can take away from this is the sense that reentry requires a very hands-on approach and an understanding that it is more than just opening the doors and letting the people go home. That reentry should not begin the day you get out (Laughs).
Five: (Laughs) It has to begin that you go in.
Kim: It begins the day you go in and if you have those community resources and if you have projects and programs and things like that, that prevent people from going into prison in the first place then you know, we don’t have to have that discussion, but you know, given the current reality, we do have prisons. So when people go into prison, that’s when reentry really needs to start. Identifying people’s mental health needs, providing the proper medication, giving them counseling and things like that, that these are not frivolous things, which is what people perceive them as.
Five: It is also changing the terminology of reentry, because reentry is just like what you said. It’s like, “The door’s open. Good luck!”
Five: Basically, “See you when you get back!” And reintegration is what people need. Reintegration is a longer process, right? When you look at the processes, and when I say, let me just, like I said I used my own life as a track, so let me just talk about that. When I came home, I was right in a shelter. I was in Bellevue, I’m back in prison basically, I’m in a 50-unit dorm, 50 men, three showers, and I put myself in a corner so that I can avoid everyone else like I’m in a cell again. So I had to be poverty pimped for a year in order for them to help me, so I stayed in the shelter for over two years.
And the shelter system is because okay, legally I’m medically disabled because of solitary confinement and mental illness. So legally, I’m disabled, but I don’t qualify for disability housing because I am a felon. So it’s like this contradictory issue that I use as a backing to create housing. So the building that I live in, which is a fifteen floor building full of studios, is the building that I built. So I only live in the solution, I would have never had a solution if I did not put myself out there, if I didn’t apply myself to be a case study to the top psychs on the planet, to create the congressional hearings, to be at legislative hearings, to get the U.S. Commission on Human Rights to look at solitary, to do all of these things to produce the research to say “Why I am still homeless? Why is me and my child still sleeping on the street?”
Don’t get me wrong, four or five years later I’ve been home, I’m still in that housing. The Corporation for Supportive Housing still hasn’t gotten its units from the government, I’m still stuck in a sort-of poster boy situation because there is only one building that they approve for felons with HUD. Out of the millions of buildings in New York City, so here it is the mayor can talk about, “Yeah we got Five on our Behavioral Task Force and people directly impacted are sitting at the table.” Yeah but that person is living off of SSI, is not being meaningfully employed, and is still suffering because I live in a studio with three kids. Are you serious? So these are the conditions and most of the advocates need advocates.
Kim: Indeed! Absolutely!
Five: I have a friend of mine, who was advocated for people and he was facing deportation! And he is advocating for people. I had people who were going through cases and living in the shelter, but they have to put on a mask and we have to put on this mask as post- incarcerated leaders, because we’re not funded. The only way I can get funding is if I talk about building more jails. Or the only way I get funding is if I’m talking about something that is going to be attractive for the system. So total abolition doesn’t get supported. So we have created grassroots systems. We have farms, we have wineries, we do everything that we can to create a system of self-employment and self-stability. Because we’re not gonna to get grants and RFPs (request for proposals) to abolish a prison, but previously incarcerated and post-incarcerated leaders have to keep our foot on the backs of legislators.
This is why we organize lobby days and create legislative efforts, but this is also why I have grown to found the nation’s largest student group, the Student Alliance for Prison Reform. When I first came home, my first group was in Princeton, Princeton SPEAR. And then students from SPEAR had went to Harvard and created the actual umbrella and since then, I am in every state. And also Petey Greene is up under that, Amnesty International chapters are up under that, and how does that make a difference? The students that we inspire, we teach the students the conditions and consequences of incarceration and these are the students that go into prisons and teach. These are the students who are in law classes that are going to write the legislation that we need.
I just had my students at Yale finish a legislation, draft a bill. And to have the senator and push it and it went right through committees. These are things that affect their future. So it’s like… I feel like an older advocate fighting older advocates and the only other people on my side are the younger people, who realize that the world is going down a very bad course. So I also think that it is only strong when people like me are supported by others. Because most of the people coming out of prison never touch their computer in ten years, don’t even know what a website is and you say [to them], “HTML”- they think it’s two dorms and a bed number.
Five: I was talking to a guy that got out the other day and I was like, “You have to have an html number.” And he was like, “I got my den number.” And I was like, “What?” And it’s just the lack of technology…
Five: … but together we’re powerful. I think INC has created this sense of what we call incorporated and that’s why we are nicknamed incorporated because we work together and try to create solutions together. We build state-wide coalitions to state-wide services.
Kim: So one of the things that this conversation’s bringing to light for me is you know, one as an example for people, your life’s work is tremendous and I can’t think of anyone else even in activist circles that would even come close.
Five: Oh wow, thank you!
Kim: No, seriously, in terms of having a real impact across the board here, and you know, on the other hand, when someone hears this, I don’t know, maybe you could talk about this a little bit, the difficulties and the challenges that you’ve experienced even though you have resources at your disposal, even though you have access at City Hall and other places, that you have struggled tremendously and that you’re still dealing with so much of the effects of incarceration. And I want people to really understand how difficult that is and like you, I’ve written about this from my perspective and my experience that even with…you know, people think, “Well you were well-positioned, you’ve written about these things and you have a PhD, blah, blah, blah, and they think that somehow these things save you from the anguish and the pain and the retaliation and all of the other nonsense that you have to deal with on a daily basis.
Five: [Laughs] And I’m glad you framed it under that time frame ‘cause it is literally a daily basis.
Kim: It is and it’s like… the economic, you know, problems that you have to deal with as a result of this, which—
Five: Let me just give you an example—
Kim: Go ahead.
Five: —so I was at Section 8 the other day, speaking with some supervisors because they constantly keep trying to cut me off for Section 8 and they constantly keep trying to cut me off of my Social Security disability benefits. Why?
Because they pull me in and say, “Hey, you know, we’ve seen you on TV with the Governor talking about Raise The Age and the governor said that you work for him.”
Really? I don’t work for him, I work with him. I work with the Corporation for Supportive Housing, I’m on the Anti-Torture Initiative, I’m on the Subcommittee Against Torture [at] the UN, I’m on the US Commission for Human Rights, I’m also a human rights scholar at Columbia University, I teach at Columbia, I go to Columbia, I work with NRCAT—National Religious Campaign Against Torture—the Congressional Campaign Against Torture.
I do all of this work for nothing, Kim. I don’t get paid from any of it, no one compensates me, maybe a little honorarium here and there, $100 for speaking or something.
None of that is really substantial and people talk to me, and I had this article the other day, this media person was like, “But you work with the Mayor, right?” And I was like, “With and not for.” And the other person was like, “Aren’t you paid?” Like, “No, none of us are paid.”
So people assume that somehow I’m getting funding so that I’m paid. People think even the work at INC that I dedicate my life to, I don’t get paid for that, nobody pays me, I don’t have a paycheck. And so how am I able to operate? When people ask me to come to events or do something, it’s like, “Okay, how am I getting there? How are you getting a Metro Card? How am I feeding my child? How am I putting food in my house?”
Me and my son, people don’t even understand that I live off $180 of food stamps a month and it’s me and my thirteen-year-old son because we are still stuck in the system of nonstability. You see for people of color, like my oldest son says, “For people of color, stability means, ‘Oh, we don’t have to, we can pay a rent bill every month, we are stable.’”
Most people are like, “Oh we’re rich,” when they win the lottery, for us, it’s like, “Oh, we’re stable,” because we’re used to struggling, we’re used to juggling the ConEd bill and the bill for rent and what is more important.
Kim: Exactly, exactly.
Five: The activist life is even harder because everyone comes to me for something. Nobody comes to Five and says, “How can I do for you, Five? Or what can I do for you?” People come because they need help, they need assistance, I got people coming out of the prison, they need money. When they get home today, how are they going to eat today? Like literally, we have to create systems keeping people, human beings alive. Food, clothing, shelter, the things you need coming home, is hard to get and then once you’re home, you’re advocating for others. You’re not getting paid for that advocacy! There is no system of support for people.
Let me tell you something. The reason why I did most of the work that I did when I came home is—I’m just going to put it out there—Jenifer Parish from Urban Justice Center, Jail’s Action, used to buy me a Metro Card every month. Like, “Here’s a Metro Card.” Until I realized that she was doing that out of her own pocket and I was like, I felt bad, I couldn’t accept it no more, but that was really the sole reason why and how I got on the train every day.
Kim: Yeah and that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes and I don’t think, like you said, people don’t realize that—
Five: No, they don’t.
Kim: —the impact is long-term and also—
Brian: Yeah, the punishment continues.
Kim: —intergenerational and they… people get the wrong impression when they see, when you’re visible, that visibility somehow translates into money in the bank. But it doesn’t, they think you’re like an Instagram model—
Kim: —like all of a sudden you’re a brand ambassador for abolition and you got sponsors that are coming and saying, “Well, you know, talk about this and we’re going to give you money.” And that’s not the way it works. You’re suffering long-term and often times, you’re suffering quietly and we want that from activists.
Brian and I had a conversation about this earlier, but also you touched on it as well about the unpaid work and I think that’s something, we can touch on it today and I’d love to have you back as well to have you talk about this, you know, a little bit more, because I think it’s important to address it.
The idea that the work should just be unpaid, we do the work because it’s necessary to do the work because we don’t, at least for me, I don’t see where else right now, I could give my life meaning not doing this. In helping… I’m using myself and I’m putting myself out there in a lot of ways that are uncomfortable as hell for me and I do it because it’s like, okay if I’m struggling and I’m visible and I’m vocal and I have access and I’m connected, Jesus, this is going to be so much more difficult for people who don’t have any of these things.
Five: Now this is one of my problems that I’m going to… one of my tremendous, tremendous problems. I’m doing this work to be able to create change. And as soon as I’m like so defeated and like I’m tired of this, then change happens and they realize that what I’ve done was worth.
Even though there is no pay involved, there has been success. When I started teaching in universities, it’s because I had relationships with the professors and they was like, “Hey, I wanted you to come talk to my class.” And then next thing you know the next professor is calling, the next professor is calling me. And Yale had called me to come teach a class one day and they were like, my students didn’t even have money, and the beginning our students didn’t have money and they were like, “We want to learn about these things because these are the things… I want to be a prosecutor, I want to go to law school, I want to go into social work,” all these different sort of sort-of next generation field of jobs, and they’re coming to us, saying, “We want to learn about this. We want to learn about this.”
And so in all of our offices, you’ll see like… or if you look online and sort of follow us on Twitter, you’ll see coffee mugs and how we brag with it. We call it ‘Muggin’ Each Other’ and it’s because the students only afforded to give us coffee mugs. So like you’ll see a post and I’ll tag Terrell in it, like “Drinking a cup out of Yale,” or Harvard. Or Princeton. It’s because we felt that they needed to learn that because we were in prison on the other end.
The other thing is that these are the students that are going into prison and teaching, so we merged with them to create educational curriculums based off of our experiences, so now they’re educating people with empathy, but also understanding that, what they can do action-wise can further damage somebody. Like don’t send your student, if you are a tutor or a person in school, you can’t send a person pictures. Or simple things like that would end up being catastrophic.
So if I didn’t do that, like they say, “Hey, can you come out and teach?” And I’m like “Yeah, I gotta get paid, I’m an expert, I’ve been doing this, I’ve got a PhD in cruel and unusual punishment and a Masters in torture.”
[Brian and Kim laugh. A lot. So does Five].
Five: “And an associate’s in the prison life, so let me come teach your class.” They are like, “It’s going to take us three months to get the honorarium and then, we can get this going.” And I’m like, “I don’t need money.” [They say] “Cool, what are you doing Thursday?”
So I’ve taught in every school, I’ve taught in the 26 CUNY schools in NY alone, huge. And then it paves the way so that now people are being invited guests. When we was at conferences, we wasn’t invited, that’s why we have- you’ll see in most of our offices- a huge thing of name tags that we keep hanging up because those are the conferences we showed up like, “You talking about prison? What’s up?”
And then we sit down and include ourselves in those. Everything we have done has been done by force and I don’t mean to say that to create this negative environment, it’s just tells us that if we don’t do it, it’s not going to happen.
Kim: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Five: So that weighs on me and that weighs on me every day.
Kim: But I also feel that we can take these major institutions to task as well—
Kim: —because Princeton, Yale, Harvard, you know and the rest of them. They got money, they got money.
Five: Don’t get me wrong, we just did a whole conference there, and they raised the money for that.
Kim: Yeah, yeah, but it speaks to… the fact that the bulk of the emotional work, the labor, that’s required in this space to really create change is coming at the expense of people like you and people like me, who have chosen in a lot of cases, to say, “Okay… it would be nice to get paid.”
Five: “But this is my lifestyle, I’m going to do this.”
Kim: And… I recognize that if I don’t do it, it might be some BS, but it happened as a result of me not being there, right?
Five and Brian: Right.
Kim: And I feel that in that way, I have that sense of responsibility and duty, but it also weighs on me because I’m like, “Okay, opportunity cost.”
Five: But we also live in a country where me and you both understand, you probably more than me with the cultural levels of understanding that you have, we have to show harm in order to show wrong and that’s the problem.
Five: I just can’t say people previously incarcerated need to sit at the table. I gotta do fifty fucking- excuse my language- demonstrations to show you that we need to be there. I’ve got to do fifty events to show you that we should be there. One of the greatest and saddest situations—I’m going to put this out there—so I was working with Apple, Google, of course Chicken and Egg, The Mill, this other company called The Mill, to create a six by nine virtual reality app. Now, I have been working on a VR app for like five years now. I could… there’s a project that Anga Mahalla and I did that years ago, that Harry, Gina Belafonte put through, we have money from the Canadian government, so we created this whole angle of prison virtual reality website.
And it didn’t really work because the technology wasn’t really there. So Google and Chicken and Egg and Guardian and all these people come into the picture with the technology and I’m like, “This is what I’m trying to do.”
So I pitch them the project, they go for it, but they wouldn’t let me write the story, so they said that they would hire another person. So great, now I have to find a nice white person for them to hire, which I did. So they hired this person, who wrote the articles and then they were like, “This is going to cost us $250,000 to make and we can make money back off of it and we probably could offer you a dollar or INC a dollar.”
[Five says] “Oh great, so if a million people download it, I’ll be straight. We could probably do that 2021.” And I’m like, “Wait a minute, the problem is now.” You know what, “Forget it, I don’t need to make money.” [They say] “Oh cool, we’ll launch on Friday.”
So, now I have an actual app that I can use, that I can strap to legislator’s head about solitary, but I don’t make a dime off of it, but people have to relive trauma. I did three months of articles with The Guardian, but didn’t get a dollar or paid off of anything because I had to put the issue out there.
Now for me, it doesn’t put a dollar in my pocket, but when I show up to Congress, and they’re like, “That’s the guy from the centerfold from The Guardian and he also did three months of articles, so be careful, because he may make your ass the next article.” It plays in my favor.
Kim: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. We defer the monetary compensation for…
Five: But Kim, I’m deteriorating, I’m dying, Kim. I’m literally… I had a total knee replacement, I had a car accident. When Brian seen me, I didn’t even have my dental surgery yet. I didn’t even want to tell him that I still haven’t had it because I haven’t put the time away to do it, so it’s like I’m doing so much that I’m deteriorating and I need to then focus on me, but when I do that, then they’re like…I’m ready to go on vacation… I’m trying to go to California, my [inaudbile], excuse my language for even saying this… his wife had passed away so he was like, “Come up to Cali for a week. Come hang with me.”
I’m ready to leave and they’re like, “Hey, the Governor just signed your bill.” And I’m like, “What the hell!” So progress comes, it draws you back in, I feel like Al Pacino, trying to get out—
Kim and Brian laugh.
Kim: You gotta get out!
Five: —what’s that movie about the Bronx, where he’s like trying to get out and he’s like, “They just pull me back in.”
Kim: “They just pull me back in,” right? Exactly. No I mean I hear you, I hear you.
Five: I’m going to say this again, too. And even when we are doing the production part, people don’t even know, like Harvey Weinstein and Jay-Z didn’t pay the family until the Monday before the series aired and they agreed to give the family some compensation because they just want to use people’s narratives, so Akeem had to loop in this huge email, who works side-by-side with our organization, Akeem Browder—the father, the mother had passed away, and it was also the mother and we had to threaten Jay-Z to like expose the fact that you’re not going to pay the family for basically profiting off of their trauma. And yes we need this story to be out there, but won’t you morally do the right thing.
Kim: And this… yeah, again, this issue is… we’re definitely going to do an episode about this, Brian and I were talking about this earlier today, about this sense that activists should suffer and live in poverty and that’s part of the work. And it’s like, most of us are doing a good majority of this work uncompensated—
Kim: —and at the same time, I’m living in LA, Brian’s up in northern California, and you know, this is an expensive market to be living in.
Brian and Five laugh.
Five: I live in the most expensive city in the world.
Brian: But you have to be there to do the work, right? So it’s like…
Kim: You have to be there, but it’s also like, “Okay well, I have lawyers that need to get paid, I have to buy food, I have to put gas in my car, I have my own medical things that need to be addressed on top of sending money in to my sons on a monthly basis and buying them books that will keep them, that will keep them connected.” And all of these things matter, so I certainly want to talk about that part of it a little bit more, but I want to switch gears briefly here and see if I can get some of your thoughts.
So you’ve said that you’ve been working with the DOJ for a while, the Department of Justice, and since you know, Jeff Sessions was appointed…
Five: Oh God.
Kim and Brian laugh
Five: Yeah it’s crazy.
Kim: I’m anticipating a lot of changes or a lot of nothing happening and a lot of undoing things that have been going on, including the data gathering that we’ve relied on. I know as a social scientist, that data has been important for me in my work and in terms of amplifying the problem and bringing that to light. So I’d just love to get your thoughts about what this new administration…
Five: It’s going to be a huge step back and the step back comes in the aspect that they were looking to do investigations. So the Department of Justice is supposed to take claims, but also claims with slight evidence or anything that seems probable into an actual possibility and investigate it. How is that going to change in the current climate? We’re not gonna have those free investigation funds or the ability to do that, until something concrete actually happens. Until another uprising at this facility or until another disaster, they’re not going to be able to go in.
And the sad part, is that us, people previously incarcerated, were just getting into the White House. When I got to the White House and I got the pink pass and the armed guard, I didn’t make a big deal about it. But Glenn who went in a week after me, “I’m not going to tolerate this shit.” I was like, “Dude, they are going to give you a pass and there’s going to be an armed guard because you’re a felon.” And he’s like, “No, we have to say something about this.” And he made a huge issue about it, the president addressed his letter, invited him back, right?
So that, also like Darrel Atkinson…
Kim: So when you’re talking about Glenn, you’re talking about Glenn Martin, right?
Five: Yeah, Glenn Martin. Sorry, Glenn Martin from Just Leadership, but also has another collective he work with, Education Inside Out and a whole bunch of organizing.
So I said that his leaders weren’t let in. We had The Women Association, The National Women’s Council of Formerly Incarcerated Girls and Women had a symposium at the White House, they were doing the women-world thing, I’m on the lawn with a virtual reality effect,the south lawn, none of that’s gonna happen again because the people who were in position have all been pushed out. So I think that the new administration, being Republican-strong of course and Sessions being in charge, there’s definitely going to be no preliminary investigations and they’re only going to look at cases that is actual happen-tense already.
Like I have a case where a person was murdered in Fishkill. That went from them investigating other issues to them just working on that because it was a death. So we are going to see a stark change where corrections are going to be able to hide a lot more, a lot easier. And that’s honestly what’s going to happen.
On a national level, that will impact the support, but I think it’s going to agitate and what we have to do as activists is use that as a means to get people to work together more, to say, “We can’t rely on the government, we can’t. We have to take this as personal accountability.”
So what we have been doing is creating statewide collectives. We have one of the biggest problems of being a national activist and a national organizer, you have fifty different states. So what works in New York is not going to work in Washington state or Colorado or different states, so we have to create statewide collectives in each state that can address those issues because Sessions is going to roll us back, just like… it’s not him, it’s top of the line, we have, and I hate to keep saying this because it seems like an ill reality, Donald Trump as the President of the United States of America, like there is going to be no progress unless we superforce it. If you think it was hard before with a few rallies, it’s going to be even harder now.
Brian: And at the same time, like I wonder if you have anything to say about, you know, your own work has been focused intentionally locally, like you were saying what works in New York isn’t going to work in Florida. The systems are different, the incentives are different, and a lot of this… there is a lot of focus that is paid to the federal level, but a lot of this is going on… a lot of the most horrendous abuses are going on at the local, city, state level, so yeah, I don’t know if you have any sort of comments on the importance of keeping your focus local instead of focusing too much on the federal level or anything like that.
Five: So we have to do both and I hate to say like it’s more work for me, Brian, but it is, but I have to do both. I have to attend to the federal level, the macro, but also the micro is where the healing happens. So we have to then work with The Quakers and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture because they have a huge integrated church system, to then work with college students and community organizers and the poor to create systems of support like the bus stops we have in New York state, they cut out the prison visits, so there is no more state facility visits that are paid for by the state, compensated, or allowed by the state. What does that mean?
Kim: Oh wow.
Five: When the public is out of the question, what happens, Kim? Privatization becomes the answer.
Five: You have these tour bus companies who can charge $150 a visit. So what do we do? We take buses, we convert the diesel engines to peanut oil and the students drain the peanut oils in the schools, like at Columbia, they give us the peanut oil and then we have solar panels on the roof and they are Freedom Food Alliance, the project that Herman Bell built, literally does free prison visits.
So then we were now able to say, “If you’re a member of INC, your family will come visit you. We will get free visits. We give you food to go home and you can even pay for all of that with the food stamps.” So the purpose of creating projects that we’re actually supporting are real projects, that make sense to do, are projects that other people aren’t doing. I just had this huge thing in Philly that we are doing, a block party, and the ACLU had coughed up some money to create a voter registration. “Alright, you want to do a voter registration? Great, let me get the five top hottest artists in Philly, I’m going to throw a concert and then we just charge people to register to vote to get into the concert.” Yeah, instantly, 15 to 20,000 people registered to vote.
Brian: That’s awesome.
Five: Yeah, it’s happening next week. So it’s like a simple solution, it’s a simple solution, and it’s like, people directly impacted need those solutions so when it comes to the prison system, we see the solutions that are the real problems. Like I remember coming home and arguing with the Correctional Association about how they thought there was hot water and cold water in prison.
How are you the oversight for the state and you don’t even know that there is nothing but cold water in prison. Like you just think we have hot water and can take baths, like, no I lived out of a bucket. What are you talking about?
We lived like animals in prison because of the inhumane conditions, so the first people that do oversight should be the first people that we address. Why are you not looking at this? How have you been monitoring prisons, writing an 80-page report about Attica? I could sum that up in two words- close that shit down.
Five: Like it’s terrible. I don’t need Jack Beck, don’t get me wrong, I love Jack Beck, but Jack Beck writes 80, 90 pages of articles about something that’s simple. It’s torture. Let’s stop doing it, we are damaging people. It doesn’t take 80 pages to describe that. You know why? Because they are reformists.
Kim and Brian: Yes.
Five: Reformists are different than abolitionists. Reformists are saying, “We need prisons, but let’s make it so it’s palatable and digestible because it’s not humane in any way, but let’s make it a digestible.”
What that is, is validating the system that says, “You know what? We just need to lock up the bottom 10% of society, like the poor people in America, like the bottom 10%, the extra Americans. They’re just extra people. As a matter of fact, if we could make money off of locking them up, we will be better off for it. And we have replaced slavery with a system of incarceration, but the needs for incarceration are validated through the injustices of people of color and the oppression on certain communities of color.”
Because when we react to it, it’s like, “Oh look, this is why we need prisons. This is why we need jails.” No, if we had absolute human rights.. I had an argument with a Congresswoman the other day and she was like, “We have equal rights in America.” And I’m like, “That’s funny you’re a woman, who said that because I would at least say that ‘when woman have equal voting rights,’ but that was going 70 years ago, so the two woman in my building are older than American rights and I’m sure you’re getting paid as much as the man next to you. Oh you’re not, sorry, there’s equal rights.
So I think it’s an illusion and when it comes to incarceration and what it is different about people previously incarcerated is that through our leadership, we have used our own traumatic experiences to be the example of the problem.
I have used my own mental health abuse and deterioration to show this is a problem for others, I have used my own homelessness to create housing for others, I have used my own personal problems within the movement to create solutions for others, and I think that a lot of times we forget about us, so advocates, like you said, we suffer in these pockets that nobody knows. Like people just figure, I’m being paid, I work. “Five, you have like five offices in New York.” I don’t get paid. I have no salary. I make no money. I do this because it has to be done, but I have 86 bills right now and half of them are going to pass and that’s just in New York alone, like I have a bill in every state on solitary, so we’re creating change and it’s at the cost of our own mental stability, our own traumatic sense of staying alive, imagine teaching a class about solitary and reliving in that every day.
Kim: Yeah, I mean it’s like I was tweeting out something the other day after hearing about Jordan Edwards and …
Five: Another tragedy.
Kim: … just decided finally to publicly say that I’m definitely suffering from PTSD and as I was typing that, and I tweeted this as well, my heart was racing and palms were sweaty and I was really having… going through it in that moment and that’s real, because every time, every time something like this happens, every time there’s talk of another prison rebellion, every time something happens with the police or with COs or what have you, these things have a real impact, right? And it… our work may have an impact for or on other people and we do that work because we are choosing to do that work, but at the same time, we need to recognize that it comes at a cost.
Five: Yeah it does.
Kim: We are not necessarily helping ourselves by helping and doing all of this work, so if you’re still in a precarious living situation five-plus years after release and you’ve created housing security for other people, but you’re still housing insecure, we need to highlight those contradictions because I think that… I hear folks say, they think that somehow I’m balling or things are cool or I have a ton of money, but it’s like, the opposite of that is true.
Five: I’m actually even more poor, I’m actually like struggling.
Kim: Because it makes it difficult, again, Brian and I were just having this conversation earlier, it makes it difficult for you to… and you have to stay in this work, because it’s like, where are you going to go work? You can’t go and get a traditional job once you come out and say, “Abolish prisons.”
Five: Yeah that’s not happening. Nobody’s paying you to do abolition work, let’s say that.
Kim: Nobody is paying you for that.
Brian: These reform organizations need the reform, you know, to get funded.
Kim: And the reform organizations and this will be our final two questions here. I’d love for you to say a little about, you’ve touched on it already, about reformists and prison reform as opposed to prison abolition, but I want you to say a little bit more because this is something that I’ve highlighted on several occasions, that the reform movement wants to maintain and preserve the status quo, they want to make minor changes, but for the most part, everything else pretty much stays the same. There is no deep interrogation whether we need prisons in our society.
Five: I’m going to give you two examples really quick. One is something super, everything is sort of familiar about. So the governor said about solitary, “Hey I’m going to address it” after we sued him. So reform was… before he agreed to some adjustments, you used to get 12 years mandatory for anything that’s described as, not proven, as a weapon from corrections. Okay, that’s great, but the reform is from 12 years to now, 10 years, 11 months.
Kim: Are you…
Brian: Is it a joke?
Five: Yeah, it’s a joke. The whole process is a joke. That means you’re taking two steps back from every rule, you’re not changing nothing, you’re not implementing, you’re not impacting or changing people’s lives right now and it’s the brick by brick process.
It’s going to help a little bit, not a lot, but we have to continuously do both. I think that’s where it comes from, the opposition has support, has funding, has a life, has salary, has vacation time. The opposition has always more resources than we do because they are profiting off of what they do, so I think that’s where my concept has changed to try to create businesses so that we can profit, at least be self-sustainable off of the things that we do. Like we have a t-shirt print shop, why nobody hasn’t done this before just boggles me, but why are we constantly ordering from China and all these other [places]?
Like I know 100 organizations they can now order their t-shirts through us and help employ people previously incarcerated. We have a paralegal business, why nobody has their own paralegal business, how many damn bills and pieces of legislation are we going to write before we open up our own lawyer firm?
So we need to start creating self-sustainability, in order to make this fight happen and I think that that is going to take ingenuity, but take everybody on board, but it’s also an example of how drained we really are. Like there is a difference between abolition and reform. Reform was me every year going to the National ACLU and cursing out all of the lawyers like always, like I’m famous for, I’m tired of them taking all of the bills that I make or that we make that would actually end prisons and litigate them. So they’re litigators. Abolition is when two years ago, they literally came to us and said, “We’re not litigating no more.” That was also the year where they got $50 million dollars in funding for everything but solitary. Think about that.
The minute that they said that they are going to fight to end solitary, they cut their funding to work on solitary issues. The system itself is existent, the people’s jobs because of the prison system. Abolition is not when I’m trying to do prison mitosis.
I love Glenn Martin, I’m just going to say this, I love him to death, he’s a great man, he’s helped so many people, but his position is close Rikers and build more jails. You hide it by saying build communities, but you really mean community-based jails and you really say close Rikers which closing doesn’t mean shutting it down, it’s meaning that you’re closing something but opening something else.
Kim: You’re shifting, you’re shifting the population and you know… it’s not, what I describe a few episodes, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, right? You’re not really doing anything. It’s still a sinking ship.
Brian: And you’re slowing things down to a certain degree because then politicians turn around and say, “Okay, we did it, we can wipe our hands of this,” and maybe, another generation goes bye before… or like you guys were saying earlier like another rebellion or something awful, some tragedy has to happen in order to get things moving again, you know.
I almost think that it’s not just, kinda like, it doesn’t do anything, it’s more harmful because we are fooling ourselves into thinking that progress is being made. We are just punting the issue.
Five: Exactly and it’s going to lead to a bottleneck of, like you said, another uprising, another…
Brian: Because the beds in these new jails, which they are going to spend a billion dollars on in New York City, if not more, I mean what project in New York City has stayed on budget, let’s be honest, but you know these are beds, these are jobs that need to be filled, and once they are there, it’s going to be so hard to pull them back, to peel them back. And you’re telling me that there are not better places to spend a billion dollars in New York City to head off incarceration and to invest in communities, like…
Kim: Yeah you’d have to ask if people are really interested in investing in communities and ending incarceration and we have the clear answer to that is a resounding, “No,” they are not interested in that. But I’d like to wind this down, the last question we have for you is, “What does prison abolition mean to you?” So you talked a little about what reform is, but can you give us… just tell us how you see prison abolition.
Five: Prison abolition to me is by any means necessary, that means I’m in the room when they are talking about a legislation that is going to decrease the size [of the prison population] to literally 1%, to legislation that is going to change it to 100%, to being outside of the prison like I’m all the way in, like back up the truck, knock down the wall, everybody run off into the sunset and I think that you have to be in an abolitionist frame of mind and live in it, like it’s a possibility. It’s not a lifestyle, it’s not a 9-5 for me—sorry, it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle, it’s not a possibility, it’s my everyday actions. An abolitionist is on his community board because he is worrying about the people coming from incarceration coming back into his community.
He is also doing things in the community center or can be called on by neighbors. So an abolitionist is a person, whose actions is totally abolishing the prison system. I’m going to give you an example. There are people who just go around and say, “Close Rikers.” That’s cool, that’s not going to happen just by you saying it, like the wind in your breath is not going to blow it down and shut down or close or whatever.
But then you have to take interns from people that are not going to be sentenced to Rikers, like we have interns in our organization that would be on Rikers if not for us, we have family members that are part of our family group that actually need monthly meetings and sort of networks of support to be there to end Rikers, but also those family members are supporting other family members. And then we have visiting, we help transport people to go make visits, so we are playing every part of it.
Abolition is a person, who believes in a world without prisons, in other words, another system besides slavery or incarcerating a person or putting people in cages, so everything that you do changes around that.
If you’re an abolitionists, you wouldn’t say, “Yeah we just need lesser jails,” or “We just need more, better controlled jails.” It never went out of control because it was never about having a controlled system, it was about control, controlling people. The prison system itself was built off of slavery, so how can I say anything part of slavery is cool?
When people ask me, “How do we reform, how do we change solitary?” You know what, it kills me because when I’m looking at them, I’m looking at them as a person talking to a person that has been poisoned. I have been poisoned by the system and what you’re saying is, “Okay, Five, we know you’re dying, because you’ve been poisoned, but how do we help the kidneys stay along or how do we help your pancreas last like six more months?”
Kim: They want to keep you on life support. They don’t want to see you really live or really thriving.
Five: So abolition to me is shutting down the ability of poisoning and killing people, so if you’re not abolishing it, you’re just trying to tweak it… you know, it plays in your favor. So abolitionists are people that are directly impacted because we have live in a communities that are directly impacted. I live next door to fifty or twenty of the people, whose husbands are locked up, their fathers locked up, my son goes to school where everybody in his class has a parent incarcerated, like it’s a part of my daily life.
Of course, this is my fight, sorry I’m taking so long, but I cannot comprehend how people are reformists, knowing that the system is built off of this atrocious system of slavery, knowing that it’s unjustified, so it’s like 90%, I believe, are people that are there for fucked up reasons, that shouldn’t even land people in prison and it’s a control system and I think that those who have experienced slavery, where you’ve been stripped down butt-naked, cleaned, and sold to the state and you’re state property and you’re owned by that institution, and that county owns you, not your neighborhood, because you get letters from home talking about how your neighborhood is deteriorating, but that neighborhood, who’s counting your body is benefitting, you become an abolitionist, so I just think that anybody that has been impacted by the prison system is majority abolitionists, but there’s some people that are about the prison system because they just don’t know anything different.
They haven’t experienced anything teaching them that it’s a possibility, so we have created like the Beyond the Bars Conference, I’ve replicated that across Princeton and Harvard now, because every year we should be rethinking prisons, we should be thinking about what we can do to change that. Sorry, long answer.
Kim: I mean that’s a great answer, I really appreciate your time today…
Five: Thank you.
Kim: And you just sharing your story and being so honest and forthright about everything, including your own struggles and what’s happening with your own… in your own person life, because I think that’s important for people to hear and I think our listeners will appreciate this conversation so thank you so much.
Brian: Yeah, thank you so much, Five.
Five: Thank you, thank you, it’s important to echo the voices of those directly impacted and just really quick on an ending note, those who suffer and live with mental health that are incarcerated, spend more time in prison, are released last, and have the worst reintegration conditions out here and it’s literally the most marginalized people in society and I just wanted to say that because that’s my constant battle because that’s also my personal constant battle and that just shows you how things haven’t changed.
Brian: And one more thing, Five, if people want to check out your work or follow what you do or support it, where should they go check you out.
Five: IncarceratedNation.org, and from there you can get all of the other different networks, the IN Channel, the IN Care, the IN Consulting Services, the IN Clothing Line that we are trying to do. So all of our projects can be [found] in one place, IncarceratedNation.org.
Brian: Great, great, well it was so great talking to you, thank you so much.
Kim: Thank you.
Five: Thank you.
[Outro music starts playing]
Kim: Thanks for joining us this week on Beyond Prisons. You can rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. You can also find me on Twitter @phillyprof03…
Brian:… and you can find me on Twitter @bsonenstein.
Kim: Our Twitter handle for the podcast is @Beyond_Prison and you can also email us at BeyondPrisonsPodcast@gmail.com. See you next week.