by Courtney Hanson
On Nov. 12, 2021, California Coalition for Women Prisoners hosted a special virtual event celebrating 25+ years of inside organizing and the consistent publication of The Fire Inside newsletter. Around 200 people gathered for a dynamic program that featured Mariame Kaba as the keynote speaker and remarks from Angela Davis, Victoria Law, Hamdiya Cooks-Abdullah and Piper Kerman, as well as musical performances and poetry readings.
Romarilyn Ralston set the stage with beautiful opening remarks about The Fire Inside, now the longest published newsletter by and for people in women’s prisons in the United States. She said that while inside, this publication “allowed us to express ourselves through poetry and art, different essays about the struggles based inside of women’s prisons,” and that because of CCWP and this vehicle, “thousands of people’s lives have been amplified and lifted up.”
Romarilyn shared deep gratitude for CCWP’s community, the many members and volunteers who have fought tirelessly for liberation for the last two and a half decades. “And now, we are here,” she said, “imagining a world without prisons, imagining a community that is free from harm, imagining a space where all of us can live our best lives and be our best selves.”
Mariame Kaba’s keynote brought this theme of collective care and freedom to life, which isn’t surprising given that her latest book, “We Do This Till We Free Us,” inspired the title. Specifically, her father’s quote in the final section, “Show Up and Don’t Travel Alone,” where he says, “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.”
“Thousands of people’s lives have been amplified and lifted up.”
“In the work of CCWP, I see a reciprocal labor of care embodied and engaged,” said Kaba. “The networks and connections you’ve encouraged, fostered and maintained for over 25 years are the foundation for so many people’s survival. You are constantly inventing and reinventing how we be with and for each other.” Kaba framed CCWP’s model as one of accompaniment – to live and walk alongside criminalized and incarcerated people, to “show up repeatedly, listen without judgement, and offer resources and skills without condescension.”
Kaba ended with the importance of spirituality and generational connection – inviting people to drop names in the chat of ancestors who guide them and us. Dozens of names immediately started bubbling up: Erika Rocha, Patty Contreras, Marilyn Buck, Wolfie, Yogi, Beverly “Chopper” Henry, Rose Braz, Fanny Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, Leonard Peltier, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mumia, Charisse Shumate, Theresa Martinez. During the Q&A segment at the end, audience members asked about avoiding the burnout of care work, how to protect survivors while refusing disposability politics, the relationship between policy and abolition, and building community with imprisoned people.
Next, Indigo Mateo came on screen to perform “Afterlife,” an ethereal and futuristic song about her traveling back from an abolitionist future to pick up a loved one coming home from prison.
Angela Davis followed with her remarks about CCWP’s robust support and solidarity for imprisoned people: “As someone who literally was freed by the people, I strongly identify with the theme of this tribute,” she said. Davis congratulated CCWP and its broader coalition and community for recently winning reparations for survivors of forced sterilizations in prison.
Davis used the example of CCWP’s ongoing COVID-19 advocacy to name a crucial aspect of CCWP’s organizing framework: “CCWP knows how to effectively combine attentiveness to the immediate situation with the best possible long-term solution. Therefore, you help to attenuate the isolation required by pandemic-ordered shutdowns through the Writing Warriors program at the same time that you insist on decarceration as the only way to adequately address the impact of the pandemic.” Davis said that this balance “is an important lesson for anyone who wants to ensure that abolition is taken seriously, is strategically approached, and does not distract us from meeting the immediate needs of our people behind bars.”
Testimonies followed from Hamdiya Cooks-Abdullah, Piper Kerman and Victoria Law. Cooks-Abdullah spoke on the people power behind CCWP’s selfless volunteers and staff and encouraged the audience to continue supporting the organization.
Kerman uplifted CCWP’s ability to prioritize conditions and campaigns issues, based on guidance from inside members and networks. Law reflected on the beginnings of her journalism career two decades ago, where she found that CCWP was one of the few groups that not only worked on women’s prison issues but was the only group that was specifically formed to work in solidarity with the organizing that was already happening. She raised a toast to celebrate CCWP’s work, our loved ones who have come home, and our loved ones who will be brought home in the future.
Longtime CCWP members then got on the virtual mic to share various Fire Inside readings from the archives, written by formerly and currently incarcerated members and accompanied by photographs of them and/or of the issue itself. Thao Nguyen gave a heartwarming performance of “We the Common,” a song written for Valerie Bolden (who has since been released) that was performed live at CCWP’s Chowchilla Freedom Rally in 2013. CCWP staff came on screen afterwards to share their own personal histories with CCWP and talk about campaign and program highlights, such as the movement to Drop LWOP (Life Without Parole), CCWP’s Across the Walls visiting program, and racial and gender justice policy work.
Jane Dorotik closed out the program by affirming the importance of inside organizing and two of CCWP’s most generous gifts: the “gift of hope” and the “unparalleled recognition of the expertise inherent in all incarcerated women,” as well as the commitment to working alongside imprisoned people and with their guidance to advance change. “Together, we can build a world without prisons,” she said.
California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) Development and Communications Coordinator Courtney Hanson can be reached at email@example.com.