Abolition Beyond The Binary

The prison, therefore, functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs—it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”

Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the American criminal justice system currently holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories. The disproportionate numbers of Black and brown people in prisons are evidence that the innately racist system is merely an evolution of slavery. 

Last weekend, after months of planning and 3 weeks of fundraising, I co-facilitated an abolition teach- in alongside Trans-masc abolitionist, eli b. The intent of Beyond The Binary: Abolition Teach-In was to focus on analyzing and accessing the Prison Industrial Complex, embodying the principles of TGNC affirming, sex work affirming feminism while utilizing an intersectional framework. 

During the teach-in, we watched a documentary entitled *Free CeCe about CeCe McDonald, a Black Transgender woman who was brutally attacked while walking pass a drunk crowd on her way to the store. As she tried to defend herself, a man was killed, and CeCe was arrested for murder. The documentary focuses on the international campaign that followed as well as the common occurrence of Transgender women in men’s jails including the use of solitary confinement as a safety measure. 

Attendees of the teach-in got a chance to sit down and talk to CeCe in a “groundings” style format about the specific intersections of lateral and horizontal violence faced by Black Transgender women in their everyday lives. While we did not require CeCe give a speech like she often does at events, it was refreshing to see earnest and productive conversations between colonized cisgender, Transgender, and Non- Binary people on commonalities in being trapped within the prison industrial complex. 

The Transgender community is frequently targeted for violence and abuse because of their gender identity or presentation. They are uniquely ostracized due to patriarchal societal “norms”. This impacts employment, housing, and quality of life. As the political group, TransJustice asserts, “Gender policing, like race-based policing, has always been part of this nation’s bloody history.”

The current and ongoing genocidal agenda being carried out through intersecting patriarchy and white supremacy against Black Transgender women (transmisogyny) has resulted in an alarming and rising number of murders. As a result, groups of Transgender women of color have been forming partnerships with police departments in major cities as a means of “protection”. 

However, violence and abuse come from the very authorities entrusted with their safety. Incite refers to this reality as “law enforcement violence”. Law enforcement frequently harasses and profiles cisgender and Transgender people of color because they police race and gender simultaneously. Thus, gender non-conformity becomes a disorder to be punished.

The limited avenues for income due to ostracization and discrimination forces TLGBQ and TGNC communities to turn to survival economics (sex work, drugs, theft). The criminalization of survivor economics, which impacts poorer communities of color the most, places this community in direct confrontation with police and, as a result, imprisonment. 

In discussing immediate ways we can lessen police interactions with the TGNC community, we discussed the complexities of the FOSTA- SESTA bills. The House Of Representatives Bill,  FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and the Senate bill, SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act were signed into law by President Trump in 2018 and has been hailed by advocates as a victory for sex trafficking victims. 

FOSTA- SESTA act was designed to prevent websites from facilitating sex trafficking. The bill is designed to bring down sites that make trafficking more visible, but it conflates consensual sex work with sex trafficking. Sex work becomes an umbrella term and the product of threats and intimidation. Furthermore, it sends more sex workers to the streets, where situations are arguably more dangerous. These are situations that place them in the crosshairs of police because sex work is criminalized and can potentially result in their deaths. 

Members of the TGNC community who are imprisoned are exposed to horrific rates of abuse by both staff and other inmates, facing physical and sexual assaults at much higher rates than their counterparts. The U.S Transgender Survey (USTS) found Transgender people are ten times as likely to be sexually assaulted by their fellow inmates and five times as likely to be sexually assaulted by staff. Transgender prisoners also face other challenges behind bars, including denials of medical care and lengthy stays in solitary confinement.

Chart provided by National Center for Trans Equality

It is important to note, as we did during the teach-in, that the material reality of ALL poor Black working-class people in America, across age and gender lines, who are quickly being forced to rely on survival economics, is criminalization. Particularly hit hardest are the colonized youth. We can no longer afford to see these things as separate issues, but instead intersecting ones. What can we collectively do right now that assures less of us behind prison walls? 

We need Public health diversions, restorative justice, decriminalization laws and community control of the police. We need to rethink our traditional punitive approaches to reducing crime. These immediate things can provide us with major increases in public safety, reducing crime and cutting unnecessary spending for more police and more (gendered) prisons. To implement a “world without jails” will require comprehensive engagement to achieve change, including re-examining how we view punishment in the context of the carceral state and re-examining the ways in which we police one another over gender non- conformity.

It’s all of us or none of us. We have nothing to lose but our chains. 

*Free CeCe Documentary available on Amazon Prime and Vimeo. 

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Erica Caines is a poet, writer and organizer in Baltimore and the DMV. She is an organizing committee member of the anti war coalition, the Black Alliance For Peace as well as an outreach member of the Black centered Ujima People’s Progress Party. Caines founded Liberation Through Reading in 2017 as a way to provide Black children with books that represent them and created the extension, a book club entitled Liberation Through Reading BC, to strengthen political education online and in our communities.