Abolition Is Personal
I grieve what my life could have been if my family had access to support instead of incarceration
I was in elementary school when my mother told me my father was in prison. I remember a handful of calls and conversations with him that made me feel proud, but I can’t remember how many of those calls were made collect. My mom never let me answer the phone. He’d call and tell me stories about my nana. He’d tell me about her growing up in Belize City; he told me we were special because we had her blood.
I didn’t know how, but I knew he wasn’t in prison because he did something wrong. I knew it wasn’t because he was bad. I knew somehow it was because of circumstance.
He joked once that I had to be careful about what books I checked out from the library because I was likely on an FBI watch list because of him, and he was right. State surveillance often extends beyond offenders. But my dad didn’t commit crimes against the state. He was just poor, Latino, and had developed a drug problem.
His incarceration and those conversations are what I remember of him from my childhood. But it wasn’t really an absence. When my dad was in prison, I knew he was clean and I knew where he was.
I was 20 when moved in with him in Texas. I was 21 when he relapsed and was arrested again.
I visited him at Lew Sterrett, a Dallas County Jail just a few minutes from where John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Most people don’t know where the local jail is until they have to go. I was surprised that such a large jail was in view from downtown’s luxury high-rises and corporate views.
I got there just before visiting hours and waited in line with countless other families to be screened and allowed inside. The jail is operated by the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, and all my interactions were with police officers. Every point of contact was indifferent, and a couple officers were mean in a way I thought they enjoyed. No one offered help in navigating the huge facility, in filling out forms, in any part of the process. I was turned away because I didn’t have the right form of ID and because I brought a book.
I didn’t understand being met with such callousness until I realized that to the jail staff those who visited were guilty by association.
I sat in my car in the parking lot and sobbed. I didn’t understand being met with such callousness until I realized that the staff treated those who visited with disdain because we were guilty by association. Good people don’t end up in line to visit people in jail.
Later, on the phone, my dad was angry that I missed the visit, and I was upset that he thought it was my fault. A couple weeks later, I got the right ID and went back. While I was waiting, I saw other families turned away for other petty reasons, and I understood their hurt and anger.
The actual visit with him is a blur to me now. I remember hearing an officer call for my dad, and my dad laughing with him. Once my dad was seated, he told me a couple of the officers thought I was pretty, and he was gonna hear about it. He joked it off. I was revolted.
My dad walked me through his days: He had a job cleaning and mopping floors, which allowed more movement, a little freedom. He was allowed to be alone and relatively unsupervised. He joked about knowing how to finesse the guards and his history with having more coveted jobs while inside. He was scared because of a bad outbreak of staph infections. It was highly contagious and the jail staff were not concerned with controlling the spread. I’ve thought about this so much, the fear in his voice, as I’ve watched states fail to address the spread of Covid-19 in prisons across the country.
My dad left Lew Sterrett for a medium-security prison near Houston. There are several, and I can’t remember which one. Texas leads the the world when it comes to incarceration. It was the first state to adopt private prisons in 1985, one year before I was born. Texas has the most jails and prisons in the United States, a staggering 107. As of 2018, the total number of people incarcerated or on parole exceeded 600,000.
My father could have been in one of the many prisons just outside of Beaumont, Texas. It may have been Huntsville, a town built around a prison. Huntsville opened in 1849 and was originally used to house white inmates. After the Civil War, it became the first racially integrated public institution in Texas.
Years after my father’s release, the network of prisons near Houston made news as a hurricane brought massive floods throughout the area. Eventually, some (not all) affected prisons were evacuated and those confined inside were brought to higher ground. I came across the news story on Facebook and made the mistake of reading the comments, which consisted mostly of people debating whether those incarcerated people should be evacuated at all, whether it would be better to leave them there to die. I cried thinking about my dad. I think he was in Huntsville, but I never visited when he was there.
My mother managed to avoid jails, institutions, and death, but her position outside them was precarious. She had been arrested twice (that I knew of) before I graduated high school. I was maybe 13 or 14 when I went with my stepdad to pick her up from a police precinct. I can still see her reddened face covered with tears. I can still hear her whispering how scared she was.
Our home was raided by the police and my mother arrested again when I was 17. I had stayed home from school sick with a cold. I was in bed when her friend G came quietly in my room and nestled under the covers with me. G told me everything was going to be okay and to keep calm and to go back to sleep. I felt her lift the edge of my mattress up, but I didn’t know why until my room was searched and they found the glass pipe hidden there.
I sat on the couch in the living room in a daze as one of the officers asked if I had any family in the area. When I said no, he started to explain what would happen. I heard the words “group home” and not much else after that. My grandmother, who lived six hours away, came and got me. I can’t remember who waited with me, if it was an officer or someone else, or why I was allowed to wait for her, but I count it as one of the great blessings of my life. A privilege. G’s children disappeared from her. I knew some things could be exponentially worse than the life I had with my mother; the foster system could have been worse.
In all the recent conversations about what the world would look like without jails and without cops, there is grief and potential. I grieve what my life could have looked like if my family had access to support instead of incarceration.
Abolition isn’t hard to understand if you have visited someone incarcerated.
I don’t have a real relationship with my father, a side effect of his incarceration and a small example of how potential is eviscerated by prison. When I try to think of the total collective loss of memory and futures that have been taken from my family, it feels incomprehensible. My dad is out and he’s alive, and the healing of my family looks different as a result. He has the opportunity to heal outside the walls of prison, and I hope he is healing.
This isn’t the reality for many. I grieve for families that weren’t and aren’t as lucky as mine. I grieve for a world where this counts as luck. I grieve for families that have to travel far to visit a loved one in prison and for those who cannot visit. I grieve for families who have lost a loved one to police violence, for Black and Brown families who have to instill in their children a necessary fear of police.
I grieve for G’s children, beautiful and bright boys, full of life. I grieve for Oluwatoyin Salau, whose life was taken by the collective failure to protect those who are the most vulnerable and deserving of care and support. I grieve for a world that allowed her to experience the pain she did, and I hope for its end.
Abolition isn’t hard to understand if you have visited someone incarcerated. It isn’t hard to understand if you have found yourself in the shadow of any of the institutions erected in service of white supremacy — whether it’s the prison industrial complex, state-mandated rehab centers, medical facilities, and so many more.
Abolition isn’t hard to understand for anyone who has had to argue for the humanity and dignity of those they love, who has had to see a loved one discarded. Those who understand implicitly that these systems rob us of potential, of life. They rip from us countless futures, connections, loves, opportunities.
Che Gosset shared a tweet from 2019: “Abolition is a form of faith.” And for the first time, I understood abolition as the necessary pathway for my healing. Abolition is the deep-rooted trust that a better world is possible, and I have to think that’s true because this one has broken my heart so many times. I have to hope for a world that encourages each of us to meet our potential instead of profiting from our loss. Abolition is personal.