Penal abolition and the razor wire plantations

Poverty skolaz report and reflect on the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA 17)

by Tiny, Lisa Gray-Garcia

We walk back and forth in a jail cell every day
It’s called your doorways
Tent cities
Bus benches and
Metal chairs in the emergency room
Waiting to be seen – from “The Poorhouse to the Jailhouse” by Tiny

“Prison abolition is different from penal abolition. We don’t just want to get rid of the structures; we want to get rid of the whole system that functions to destroy people,” said Ashanti Alston, Black Panther and penal abolitionist.

Intl-Conf-on-Penal-Abolition-ICOPA-17-opening-plenary-Bilal-Ali-Ashanti-Alston-0717-New-Bedford-Mass-300x169, Penal abolition and the razor wire plantations, Abolition Now!
Bilal Ali and Ashanti Alston spoke at the 17th International Conference on Penal Abolition held in New Bedford, Mass., July 26-29.

POOR Magazine had the blessing of listening to Ashanti and many more freedom fighters at the 17th International Conference on Penal Abolition held in New Bedford, Mass., aka stolen Wampanoag territory, home to some of the first undocumented immigrants – the Pilgrims – and the ancestors of many stolen bodies, from enslaved people to Northern European medicine women. Suffice it to say the cries from the ancestors can be heard here. Loudly. And I laid down prayers every day.

The conference, bumpered with the healing work of Black-led healing circle Harriet’s Apothecary and the prayer of a First Nations Wampanoag elder, was filled to the brim with theory seminars such as “Exorcising White Supremacy,” “Abolitionist Horizons” and “Failed Encounters with Solidarity” alongside voices from the other side of the plantation walls being read by poets and community organizers from across Turtle Island with liberation voices like Ashanti’s calling for deep inclusion from plantation prison scholars in our movements.

At POOR Magazine, we call the work to make sure our incarcerated, unhoused and criminalized voices are not only included but leading movements. We are impacted by poverty scholarship, and this theme began at the opening plenary with Janetta Johnson, who called for incarcerated people to be included as life coaches and leaders in this penal abolition movement.

Intl-Conf-on-Penal-Abolition-ICOPA-17-opening-plenary-Woods-Ervin-Monica-James-Janetta-Johnson-0717-New-Bedford-Mass-300x225, Penal abolition and the razor wire plantations, Abolition Now!
The opening plenary at the 17th International Conference on Penal Abolition featured panelists Woods Ervin, Monica James and Janetta Johnson.

“We need to support trans and non-trans incarcerated peoples inside and outside with all the support we can give them. They have deep lived knowledge. They could act as life coaches for people on the outside,” said Black trans justice revolutionary Janetta Johnson in the opening plenary with Monica James and Woods Ervin speaking together in a beautiful circle.

Ashanti continued, “This is why it’s so important to include people inside in the building of a movement – to help us stay focused on this side. Today there is so much potential to take this movement to another level. My challenge is for you to take on the work of the freedom of people who have been inside for 30, 40 or 50 years,” he concluded.

“We need to help Anna Belen Montez, a Puerta Rican political prisoner,” Jose Soler, a union organizer from Boston who brought up Anna Belen as a call to action for the audience. PNN spoke to him later and he explained that Anna needs our support to get the same kind of attention as Oscar Lopez Rivera and, like him, she now has Jan Sassier as a lawyer to fight her case.

As well, the conference highlighted the struggle of trans peoples of color across Mama Earth. From Argentina to the U.S., trans people of color in and outside the plantation walls are harassed, criminalized and killed. Many of the letters from folks inside that were read throughout the conference articulated this abuse and the need for more support.

Unhoused people as political prisoners in the jailhouse outside the razor wire plantation

Saying that “11,794 citations were issued to unhoused folks for the sole act of being unhoused in 2014 alone,” Black Panther, POOR Magazine reporter, poverty scholar and organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness Bilal Ali – with revolutionary organizer Dayton Andrews – spoke to the ICOPA audience. “They spend more money criminalizing us than housing us,” he told us. Bilal went on to list the endless white supremacist, anti-poor people laws put in place since the colonizers stole this land.

Intl-Conf-on-Penal-Abolition-ICOPA-17-opening-plenary-Tiny-Leroy-Moore-0717-New-Bedford-Mass-300x266, Penal abolition and the razor wire plantations, Abolition Now!
Tiny and Leroy Moore, long time comrades in struggle who have overcome impossible obstacles over and over again, took their wisdom to the conference in Massachusetts.

As Bilal and Dayton laid out the facts of the constant criminalization of us poor folks from the powerful “Punishing the Poorest” report by the Coalition on Homelessness, I reflected on my ideas – which I presented in my workshop – that we unhoused people are political prisoners outside the razor wire plantation walls. As the daughter of a disabled, unhoused, single, Afro-Boricua mama raised and tortured in foster homes and orphanages, trying to survive in the Amerikkkan hamster wheel, trying to overcome, heal, live until she couldn’t handle one more little murder of the soul, us ending up years on the street unhoused and criminalized for the sole act of not having access to a roof, eventually landing me in jail for three months for the sole act of being unhoused. Personal is political, she would say.

Our political is personal. Our imprisonment is political. Houselessness isn’t a crime. Being so tortured in your heart and soul that you can barely function, that you can barely stop from screaming, that you can’t work, pay rent, hold down plantation jobs, or sell your body, your soul or your mind, isn’t a crime. It’s the result of the violence and sickness of life in this post-colonized Babylon – on either side of the razor wire fences.

“The underground cells were the same size and functioned the same as the current Security Housing Units,” said one of the powerful organizers of ICOPA, Viviane Saleh-Hanna. She showed us imagery of a frightening place called Patience, Ghana, where enslaved peoples were incarcerated, while she spoke at one of the workshops laying out the deep architectural and actual connections to the multi-billion-dollar industry of chattel slavery and the current multi-billion dollar industry of plantation prisons.

The closing

After these powerful four days of penal abolition and resistance in this Wampanoag territory that was home to Frederick Douglass and one of the sites of the underground railroad, a closing speech was delivered by beautiful, fabulous sister Monica James, who articulated some of the tensions felt by poor, incarcerated youth scholars who, along with a few poverty scholar adults like myself and Leroy Moore, were at the conference speaking our truths.

This was a testimony to the work of the penal abolition movement to transform itself away from being only an academic exercise into becoming a truly impactful people-led movement. Her words were felt and our stories were uplifted and we could see exactly why the voices of poverty scholars must not only be included but lead the work to destroy the institutions built to incarcerate and profit off us that is about us and must never be without us.

Tiny – or Lisa Gray-Garcia – is co-founder with her Mama Dee of POOR Magazine and its many projects and author of “Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America,” published by City Lights. She can be reached at Visit POOR at