On April 5, 2021, the Los Angeles Review of Books hosted a timely virtual conversation with Jody Armour, Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at USC, and Bidhan Chandra Roy, Professor of English at Cal State LA and founder of Words Uncaged, moderated by journalist, historian, and activist Maytha Alhassen, on writing, incarceration, and the power of language and narrative to help us imagine alternatives to the prison industrial complex.
IRENE YOON: Good evening, apologies for the technical difficulties, but on behalf of Los Angeles Review of Books, it’s my pleasure to welcome you all to “Writing Toward Liberation” with Jody Armour, Bidhan Chandra Roy, and Maytha Alhassen, three incredible scholars and activists we’re really excited and honored to have join us this evening for this important question of writing, language, and the prison industrial complex. I am Irene Yoon, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Director of the LARB Publishing Workshop. So as many of you may know, all the donations for this evening’s event go to scholarship funding for our workshop students. The Publishing Workshop is an intensive summer course dedicated to helping young people from diverse backgrounds gain access to the world of publishing, regardless of their ability to pay. The belief that drives the program is, at its core, the same as that which animates tonight’s conversation, namely that the written word has the power to shape and change society and the systems it supports. So I really want to extend our heartfelt thanks to those of you who made contributions, and really to all of you who’ve made the time to join us here tonight, technological difficulties notwithstanding. After about 45 minutes or so of discussion between our three speakers, we’ll transition to Q&A with the audience. We invite you to submit any questions in the Zoom Q&A window or the YouTube Live Chat depending on how you’re joining us tonight.
And without further ado, I’m honored to introduce our moderator for this evening, Dr. Maytha Alhassen. Maytha Alhassen is a historian, journalist, poet, organizer and mending practitioner. As a journalist, she’s worked as an on-air host on Al Jazeera and the Young Turks and has done field recording for a variety of outlets, including CNN and the Huffington Post. She has co-founded multiple social justice organizations and currently is Associate Professor in social justice and community organizing at Prescott College. If that weren’t enough to keep one incredibly busy, Dr. Alhassen also writes to the Hulu series Rami and offers yoga, meditation and Reiki workshops. We’re so grateful to have her join us and guide this evening’s conversation. And with that I’ll turn it over to Maytha. Thank you so much.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Thank you for having me. I know, I’m so L.A. I am originally from here, from Tongva land. I’m really thrilled to do something with these illustrious panelists and with the Los Angeles Review of Books. I’ve been a longtime reader and supporters, so I’m thrilled to be here as I said, standing in Tongva land in a land of sundown towns all the way up to the late 1960s, in a town where the largest massacre of Chinese folks on U.S. soil happened. So let’s keep those things in mind as we think about abolition, reparation, and justice. I’m going to introduce our panelists tonight, um, you probably already know them. But, of course, I want to give you that context, Jody David Armour is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at USC, he’s been a member of faculty since 1995. Doesn’t look that that way.
His expertise ranges from personal injury claims to claims about the relationship between racial justice, criminal justice, and the rule of law. Armour studies the intersection of race and legal decision-making, as well as torts and tort reform movements… I want to hear about that, I wanna see the intersections around torts and race. A widely published scholar and popular lecture, Armour is a Soros Justice Senior Fellow of the Open Society Institute Center for Crime, Communities, and Culture. His book, Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America addresses three core concerns of the BLM Movement, namely racial profiling, police brutality, and mass incarceration. His most recent book, N* Theory: Race, Language, Unequal Justice and the Law, which is coming out with Los Angeles Review of Books, examines law, language, and moral luck in the criminal justice system. His work on the intersection of these topics grew into a unique interdisciplinary and multimedia analysis of social justice and linguistics, titled Race, Rap, and Redemption which was produced by USC alumni and features performances by Ice Cube, Mayda de Valle, Saul Williams, Lula Washington Dance Theater, Macy Gray Music Academy Orchestra, and Mailon Rivera. So, a lot going on. I can’t wait to engage. Bidha Chandra Roy is a professor of English Literature at Cal State LA, where he has taught for the past 13 years, trained in postcolonial studies, Bidhan received his PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Bidhan’s current research and teaching focuses upon a critical pedagogical approach to community engagement in the humanities. He is the founder of Words Uncaged, a platform for incarcerated artists and writers to engage with the public through book publishing, art exhibits, and digital media. Bidhan is also currently the faculty director of the first imprisoned degree program at LA County Prison Lancaster and researches new pedagogical approaches to teaching in prison. He has been teaching in prisons since 2004 and is a passionate advocate for prison reform in California. He currently serves on the board of the California Humanities and Rapper YG’s foundation 400 Ways. He is currently co-authoring a book about the development of Words Uncaged as a platform for prison reform with former life-without-parole prisoner Tobias Tubbs.
Bidhan’s proudest achievement is that, of the 67 life-without-possibility-of-parole folks that have commuted their sentences by Governor Jerry Brown, 20% participated in the Words Uncaged program while in prison and had support letters written on their behalf by the organization. So collectively, there is so much of a profound set of knowledge, both theoretical and experiential and also artistic, we have a lot to get into. One question off top, how did you get into this work, what is the journey you took to engage academia with social justice within the prison industrial complex? Jody? Dr. Armour, I should say.
JODY ARMOUR: Okay sure. Thank you very much. I was introduced to the wonders of the law as an eight-year-old, when I got a Breanna Taylor kind of rude raid in our family home. My seven siblings and I were lined up in a room huddled, a phalanx of cops around my handcuffed and prostrate dad, and I didn’t see him upright again until I was visiting him in Ohio State Penitentiary on Family Day, where he was sentenced to 22 to 55 years for possession and sale of marijuana.
And in his situation and the predicament he found himself in. He was going to rot in that jail cell, because he was one of them uppity Negroes that was going to get no good time and do all 55, you know, if he made a deal. So it was either that, rotting in that cage, or what he reached for instead — and it worked out for him — he started grabbing law books from the warden’s library shelf. Taught himself constitutional criminal law, criminal procedure, exhausted the warden’s stash of books, got the students at Ohio State Law School to start bringing him in books, then started writing his own writ of habeas corpus on his cell floor with this typewriter right here. I’ll show you the typewriter.
Right there. That Royal manual typewriter, on a cell floor, kind of, tapping out his own salvation deep into the night. And the next time I was standing next to him in public, I was a 14 year old, he was in Cincinnati and Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing for an en banc panel of judges literally for his life. And you know, Cincinnati is where the Underground Railroad came up in the antebellum South, right. When you go to Cincinnati, when you fly into Cincinnati you actually land in Kentucky. Then you got to drive over the river into Cincinnati. That’s where black bodies in bondage found deliverance in the antebellum South. Well here’s another black body in bondage, my dad, you know, in Cincinnati, before this en banc panel of judges in the Sixth Circuit, arguing like I said for his life. And he’s prevailed in his case, Armour vs. Saulsbury. And so I learned from him, and I teach this case in my criminal law class now — I learned from him the power of language. All he had was word work. All he had was words that he could put together in a certain order, and the next thing you knew, you know, he had the door to his jailhouse cell flying open. So that’s where I kind of developed an appreciation for what Toni Morrison means when she says, “words are not just entertainment, words are apps with consequences.” And that’s just how I think about it now from that experience.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Yeah, I’ve heard you talk about it as “word work” which is so powerful, especially considering this theme of writing towards liberation. And you literally showed us an artifact from that work from your lineage, from your father. So thank you for that. Bidhan — how did you find your way into this work.
BIDHAN ROY: I have a lot less dramatic story I’m afraid than Jody, but I was a volunteer initially in 2003 or 2004. I was on the board of a dog rescue — pitbull rescue — service, and we started a program in a prison, which was the first, at the time, dog program. So dogs that were going to be killed, we took them into the prison, there’s a whole kind of training process and as part of that, I started these writing classes. Our participants reflected upon their experience of being in this program. And at that time, life without parole really meant life without parole. So we men in our program that had been incarcerated for 40 plus years. And what was just so moving to me was, I remember this one chap, that just touched a dog for the first time in 40 something years. And it was like a convulsion on his body, just the experience of touching a sentient being. That wasn’t in, you know, in a violent way or anything like that, just the act itself, a really simple act. And so the idea of trying to put language to that and to express it. Because I sort of felt at that time if people could have the experience I was having that wasn’t an expert on prison, I didn’t have the experience to Jodi had, you know, personal, that same kind of personal connection, and I felt like if people could have the experience I was having in there, and recognize who you are locking up and literally just letting you know, the death penalty by incarceration, that you couldn’t have a system like this. It blew my mind, you know…you can hear I’m from Europe, originally, from London, and I didn’t really know what life without parole meant a life sentence in Europe means something different, it’s not actually your whole life. So it took me quite a while to really understand that, and I thought: how can we have this, and how can myself as a naturalized citizen and a taxpayer now, that even though I didn’t know about this system before, I was supporting it through my ignorance. So the writing became a way of kind of trying to create a platform for those voices to get out there into hopefully make something that to me was intolerable, intolerable to others.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Yeah, any encounter with the prison system, it’s remarkable that anybody would walk away and say that this is anything that’s rehabilitative, that this is anything that has a positive impact on anybody socially. So a question that we’ve been thinking about, especially with the rise of BLM, defund the police movement, has been this interesting conversation Jody brought up, the Underground Railroad. There’s this revival of a notion of abolition, and before you know we were talking about Bidhan and I earlier in the early aughts in the 2000s, prison abolition was a lingo and a phrase, and now the prison part has been dropped off because people are seeing things, not just as a prison industrial complex, but in conversation with other systems. So for folks like you two who’ve been doing this work for a while, with that BLM-defund movement and abolition and this rising sort of celebrity culture, this abiding DJT — I won’t say his name — administration that tried to create a name for itself doing criminal justice reform. How do you define those two spaces, the prison reform movement and the abolition movement, and where do you see that your work landing. So whoever wants to jump in.
BIDHAN ROY: Okay. Well, it’s really tricky. I’m conflicted with it because I’m not a prison reformist, but I find myself at the moment, kind of operating within the prison quite a lot, that I’m not sure how we get to abolition, that’s not necessarily something, I’m the person to really speak on. But, ethically, I can say this that I’m an abolitionist in the sense that that I don’t think prisons work, and we need something completely different.
And then from where I am now, one of the kind of things why, you know, a kind of discourse or reform can be useful is it offers people like me away into the prison system, to be able to work within there. Because one of the challenges I’ve always thought of is, how do you enable the voices from inside to be able to speak for themselves about these issues. And without someone actually going in there, I’m not sure how those voices get out, and so it becomes a kind of discourse that only is spoken about on other’s behalf now. I think that’s needed too, but my own personal point is working inside a prison, which brings up all these ethical issues, because there is a compromise on your own ethics just to step inside a prison, you know. And so I find myself in a kind of complicated space between really being an abolitionist and believing and trying to walk towards that and you know, like the title of this talk, this idea of toward liberation. But how do you start somewhere at this moment and include those people who it’s affected inside a prison to enable their voices to speak for themselves, because I think they offer some of the best solutions. We’re writing a book right now called Imagine a World Without Prisons, which is book on prison abolition by people with life-without-parole sentences from an imaginative space as a way of kind of trying to imagine something that for most people in America, prison abolition is like, impossible to even conceive, because it’s as Foucault and others have written about, so like embedded in every little bit of our culture, that just bringing that up can kind of throw people off. So I’m not exactly sure where I fit in it in this historical moment, because to some prison abolitionists just the fact that I go into prison and run a program in there makes me compromised. It’s just a complicated issue. I’m not sure exactly how to best express that, but I find myself in that space between, I guess.
JODY ARMOUR: Yeah, I’m pretty much an unapologetic both police and prison abolitionist. All the way. And Isay it in the same way that I’m an unapologetic champion of defunding the police and support defunding the police as political messaging by the activists who have embraced it and been criticized by many of us who tone police down and tell them, “Don’t say defund the police, don’t say defund the police, you know, that’s triggering, you know, say something else.”
Since we’re talking too much about writing and language right. So these, these activists who have been able to bring about the most successful social movement of our generation, need to be lectured on political communication strategies by some people who were saying a lot of the same stuff when they were first saying Black Lives Matter. I remember vividly, Black Lives Matter. “Oh, Black Lives Matter, no, all lives matter, why is it just ‘black lives matter,’ why you got to say something so divisive?” That’s all you heard, I remember early on, and then a little after, that about a year later, all of a sudden I hear people say “Blue Lives Matter.” Oh, so you always got it. You always understood what we were saying you were just being, you know, an a**hole, okay I got you now. So, you know, the tone policing when activists say, you know, “abolish prisons, abolish the police,” they don’t mean overnight. Who are you talking to you who’s saying that? Who’s saying only black lives matter? Who’s saying that? A lot of people are stuffing straw men just to knock them down, that’s what they’re doing.
But what we’re saying when we’re talking about, for example, police abolition, defund the police, only five percent of their time is spent responding to any kind of activities or transaction having anything to do with violence, you know, so there’s a big, bloated punishment bureaucracy that we have both at the front end and back end with the police and the prison system. Let’s start taking care of the front end first, that part of the bloated punishment bureaucracy, by shrinking it, defunding it, and reinvesting in programs that can really promote safety in the community by lifting people out of criminogenic conditions that foreseeably lead to crime, right. So we’re overall much safer by investing in the front end, rather than now let’s go to the back end, the other part of abolition, dumping our social failures in jail cells and prisons and making them the receptacles of our social failures as we started to do through the Clinton years while Clinton was taking the scissors to the social safety nets that FDR put in place, welfare as we know it. He was also increasing jails and police. More jails, more prison more police. Making it real clear that there was a connection between the two, we’re pulling back support for social services and are gonna replace them with police, prisons, and jails, right. So just the recognition that the abolition at the back end, that a lot of times the reason we have bloated prisons, is because people are trapped in criminogenic conditions, let’s do something about those, the crumbling schools, the lack of jobs, the lack of affordable housing, the lack of health care, let’s do something about those criminogenic conditions, and we’ll find that crime goes way down. Then let’s get rid of all the broken windows policing crap that we’ve been doing, they’re just some studies out showing that when you break down on misdemeanor crime, it actually increases crime. I got some recent studies I was looking at right, I’ll be glad to share those, showing that the whole broken windows approach to policing that we’ve been engaging in for last three years was wrongheaded and counterproductive.
So, you know, we can abolish prisons at the back end by taking those time maneuvers. And then one final thing, when we stop thinking about prisoners themselves, even violent ones, as so much toxic human waste to be dumped and forgotten as monsters, as others, as demons, as what I call in my book, the way we “n*ggerize” particularly violent black criminals, Willie Horton being a prime example of how violent Black criminals shape the public narrative about crime and punishment and make us a more punitive nation.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: I know we had an exchange on a couple months after the uprisings and extreme pushback about the defunding the police messaging. For me, it was very clear that if you can’t say defund the police now, you probably, when slavery was happening, when people had chains on their legs, and were having their babies ripped from their arms, you probably would not say “end slavery.” So, not that everything is analogous and that there isn’t historical contingency that make things different, but the kind of resistance to systemic change around state violence is something we need to interrogate. And then something else you said, Jody, just also reminded me that we don’t have a language around the acceptable violence that we will absorb from from the state. It’s very violent for the state to put people in conditions where a large majority of children are hungry every single day in this country, where there are open, abandoned houses, and there are people that are being raided from Echo Park right now, for creating their own their own tents, because there’s nothing left to live in. That kind of violence, for some reason we cannot comprehend that as tangible, but what we go to is like, as you said, the five percent that we imagined the police protecting us from, but there is no protection when they come after the fact to the scene of a crime. So I think it’s really important, and these are the conversations I’ve been having with BLM folks, was for them to make the connection around that prison abolition, and defund, because people saw them as separate and this is kind of the work that the DJT was doing what he was saying. “I am the criminal justice reformer, but I’m going blue lives matter, I’m going to empower the police. We love the police.” And people did not see that as cognitive dissonance, when it should be.
JODY ARMOUR: I’ll give you one quick example, think about just the fact — now I’m gonna be out of this in just 60 seconds or less — think about the fact that we have dispensaries all around here in Westchester, a fancy dispensary, weed dispensary, you go in now, and it’s like going in an emporium, and it is just so inviting and welcoming and kush in every sense of the word, and just a couple of years ago we’re locking people up. We’re locking them up. Obama sent Eric Holder out here in 2010 to fight against marijuana legalization. It’s been bipartisan, mass incarceration, racialized mass incarceration has been a bipartisan affair, and all racial groups have participated in it. Obama is a black man, sent another black man Eric Holder out here to fight against legalizing a drug that is no worse than alcohol, we know number one, and whose enforcement, the measures that were taken to enforce against it, were grossly disproportionately falling on the black community. And so we couldn’t even get our act together there. So yeah, we have a lot of soul searching to do, and I’m just hoping that through conversations like this we can do it.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Yeah, yeah, so many dynamics of very Frankenstein sort of thinking and action that I think we’re going to take decades to come back and have a retrospective around unpacking a lot of this stuff. I want to go into a little bit more detail, Bidhan, around the work of prison education. As we were saying, some folks who are hardcore abolitionists will say “That’s strengthening the prison system, so why would we go in there and say we have a service, when we would want to try to get people out and say no, they have a service waiting for them on the outside. Let’s try getting them out.” What have you seen happen within the prison education work that you’ve done, and, of course, Jody, jump in, I know that you worked also alongside folks who do this work as well, and I’m sure you’ve gone in and done some work yourself. Would like to hear more.
BIDHAN ROY: Yeah, I mean I agree with everything Jody said, but I do, and this is why I understand why people are kind of critical of people that work in prison education, because I do feel a little compromised by it, because any moment you can have your — it’s called a green card, your prison ID, I have a staff card to be able to enter the prison — in order to run all these programs, and at any moment without any reasons whatsoever, or due process or anything, they can take that card away from you and then you know your work in there is done. So there’s a kind of fragility to that position which makes me a little sometimes cautious about talking about certain things. And I, as I say, do feel kind of compromised sometimes by it, but I weigh that up against the other bit of it. One of the things that I’ve kind of thought about with this is, not too long ago CDCR added added the “R.” It was just the Department of Corrections and then they added the “rehabilitation” bit, the “R.”
But, obviously, for most people that “R” doesn’t really mean anything, but it gives you a space to co-opt something that’s kind of been wired into the system itself. And how do you then go into that, use that as a little window to go in, and it’s not a very good metaphor right now in this, in a pandemic, but I kind of see it like a contagion, that you can be like a disease of education and liberation that goes in and offers these kind of spaces, and that can work through the system or under the system from the people that are suffering at the hands of it by giving them tools and giving them opportunities and giving them spaces and platforms for their voices to get out. So that’s kind of been my thinking, and that’s the model around education.
And then on the, not so much the big picture, but just the kind of personal level, where as you sort of become I guess emotionally invested in the people that you’re working with, many of whom had long life without parole, seeing them get out of prison is pretty amazing, and that they become advocates on the outside, and I think part of the kind of alternative model that that I think Jody was referring to, instead of police and punishment in this kind of system, to enable people to see something different, based upon a kind of, you know, I guess restorative justice might come close to it, but I’m not exactly talking about that, but something along those lines and say, “Here are people that have been called super predators, that often have committed violent crimes at some point, but really are the assets that can heal the community that they want to harm.”
And that I think is a kind of key component. There’s no sugarcoating the fact that there’s harm being done, but understanding that harm in this binary way of like, there’s a perpetrator of it, and there’s an innocent victim is just not factually true because most of the people that end up in prison have experienced crime, experienced abuse, experienced all that, and then at some point they’ve done it themselves, but it’s not like they’re the “bad,” you know in this kind of binary bad guy, good guy. Once you kind of spend a lot of time in that in that context you realize that’s a completely false myth, and so if you can see it more in terms of like, harm has been caused, no doubt about it, but that harm has been passed down all the way from the history of this country to the very events that were mentioned earlier, how do you transform that in another way and how do you respond to it in another way? And I’ve found that those people that have got out of prison from really long sentences are the best advocates, in a way, for it, because people can see it, “Man. I should be scared of that guy from how he’s represented in every other facet of our culture, and here’s this powerful, articulate man” — we run only in the men’s prison, so I say “man” — that can have this impact in their community and can speak to kids in a way that I certainly can’t.
Because they’ve, they’ve seen it through this lived experience that’s also been theorized, and they’re the people that can, you know, a lot of people in our program, they have their own theories, but not just like thoughts, but actual theories that are just as valid as academic theories. So I feel like allowing that space to come is really what I see the goal of education. Those that have suffered the most and been most oppressed can be the architects and the voice in this journey towards liberation.
JODY ARMOUR: Yeah, I really agree. I had a similar experience. I take my students up to San Quentin for example, and we sit down with a program called No More Tears. I’ve been up there with Leila Steinberg, who’s been doing it for well over 20, 30 years, went up here with Tupac, when he performed in the yard back in the day. And so we sit down, just as an example of the importance of having some interaction between folks in prison and folks who are outside the walls of the prison but are going to make important policy decisions about what happens to people inside those walls, and my law students are those kinds of people, they’re going to be judges, DAs, defense attorneys, public defenders, all the rest. So we’ll go in there, we sit down and No More Tears is a prime example of the power that some of these interactions and programs will have. As part of the program you’ll have mothers of murder victims and men sentenced to life without parole — San Quentin’s a men’s prison too.
And a typical session would go something like this. One of the mothers of a murder victim stands up and describes her loved one that she lost. And what the loss of that loved one did to the family, how it devastated the family, ripped a big hole in the family fabric. And then we’ll pass pictures or anything we have around, if she has them, as she talks about her loved one that was lost by people like those in the room with us.
And then she would sit down, and then one of the life-without-parole men would stand up, and let’s say he has ten minutes. He’d spend the first five minutes talking about the person whose death he caused, if he had any background on them, any pictures that the family had that he had devastated with his violent act.
Right, that’d be the first five minutes. And he would often say something at the end of that like — I’ll paraphrase — “the person who did that act, who deprived that family of that loved one,
who hurt that victim, was a depraved individual.” Then for the last five minutes they’ll say, “Let me tell you how I got to be that depraved individual.” A lot of times they’ll go into a story that’s sordid beyond belief. Often they’re in a foster care situation, talking about being thrown in car trunks as a three-year-old for two or three hours at a time as discipline, cigarette burns, molestation, you go down the line, and you kind of start to really see, you know, after we already sat with the mothers of murder victims, and we all sat down with him for a while before any lifers-without-parole stood up, after we sat with them, then now we sit with the story that he just told us, and it really strikes home in a way that is more visceral than you can imagine. That hurt people hurt people. The line between victims and victimizers becomes much more porous than my students started out thinking, and they come away from those experiences, almost to a person, you know, saying how transformative they found it to be, you know to go in those places and put a human face on people that they otherwise monsterize, demonize, or as I say in my word, “n*ggerize.”
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Yeah, yeah, I was just sitting and thinking it’s great you use this term “transformative” because that’s been a movement that’s responded to how limiting restorative justice as a court ordered initiative that still involves, as you said, the victim-offender model.
So folks within a community from grassroots sense developed this framework of transformative justice, looking at the systems that reproduce violence and how you can disrupt it through harm reduction and what the testimony as you were beautifully illustrating to us, does when you put folks in conversation. I’ve been in transformative justice experiences before. It’s still something that’s kind of new that we’re still trying to work out as a diversion from the legal system, but hopefully, eventually the folks that you have brought in can have the power to say, “Do this instead. Let’s involve the community, and let’s think very inventively around how to use the law.”
A quick question Jody, and I want to get to something with you, a closing question for both of you. My father told me this, I don’t know if this is accurate, but apparently there was a shift around how you could take the bar before. Because now you have to either go to law school or get an apprenticeship with the lawyer who vouches for you, because incarcerated folks in California were studying for the bar on their own and passing, so they wanted that as a deterrent. Do you know anything about this?
JODY ARMOUR: No, I don’t know, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It could easily have slipped by, and I will definitely look into it now. I certainly wouldn’t put it past folks, because people have an irrational fear of people who’ve been convicted of crimes, especially if it’s been a violent crime. So I’ll look into it, Maytha.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Yeah, yeah, I mean I think it kind of combines all the things we were talking about. What does it mean to really be an autodidact and to have a critical pedagogy of training yourself towards justice? So, a closing question — I’m using my moderator privileges to extend my question-asking — an then we’re going to bring your questions in, folks who are listening. Bidhan: Can you talk about the work that’s come out of Words Uncaged? In your bio you mentioned that folks who are life without parole have gone through your program and have had sentences commuted, and you mentioned it a little bit that folks were doing advocating on the outside as well.
BIDHAN ROY: Yeah, so when I first started, because as I say “life without parole” meant that, we weren’t really anticipating this second iteration that’s been really kind of a happy surprise. And so we developed this thing, and I don’t like to own it in any way because we all did it collaboratively.
But the idea was to show, again, not exactly restorative justice, but transformative justice, this idea that the person that caused the harm can be the person that can bring healing. We did this interview recently with the head of parole. And she was saying that one of the things that she’s very happy this change in terms of trying to reduce sentencing and let more people out and all this kind of thing. But the downside for her was the court date, retraumatizes the survivor of the crime or the families, because there’s no healing built into the system of punitive justice, and I think the thing with punitive justice is people think somehow that’s what they’re supposed to do, or they’re not being faithful or loyal to their loved one that may have died or been, you know whatever happened to, if they don’t come out with this hardline punitive system. But then, 30, 40 years later, they realize they haven’t healed from it. And so there’s this kind of weird and I think that’s part of what Jody mentioned about this irrational fear and animus towards people that have committed a violent crime.
So we took that idea and said, well, how can we create something when people with life without parole get out, that we do something in the community that’s a storytelling-based project that helps the young people that were basically on their path, to have those people that have gone through that path speak to them and do this kind of collaborative storytelling project. So one of the new things we’re doing with this once the pandemic eases a bit is, it’s a pilot program for — it’s kind of like a diversion program as part of the shutting down the juvenile prisons in LA. And it’s run by former lifers. And we do this collaborative storytelling project where this event, someone will tell their story of, you know, let’s say of gang murder in the third-person but tell the actual story, and then everyone in the community can write that story in whatever way. They can rewrite it, they can connect to emotions, or whatever. And so it becomes this kind of collective project of telling this story, it’s this big kind of tapestry that hopefully can be a way that people can feel heard and heal as well, because I think that’s another missing part in punitive justice, it’s a narrow definition of the law. There is harm caused, but just locking someone up just makes it worse for everyone. So that’s the kind of idea of the kind of social transformation by recognizing the idea that healing can happen, and it can happen through this kind of collaborative storytelling process.
JODY ARMOUR: Let me bounce off of that for five seconds with this. I hear everything you say, and you know I agree, I agree, I agree, I agree with everything, but here is the counter thing that I hear sometimes, especially from those about who are on the left, who are typically otherwise progressive. When someone from a socially marginalized community is injured — an LGBTQ member, black person, woman — a lot of times we start saying, the only way you can show that you care for those victims from those socially marginalized groups is by punishing the victimizer, especially if they’re from a dominant group. And so, for example, I’m thinking of Amber Geiger and Botham John, the Dallas white woman, Dallas police officer who shot the black, young man: 26, eating ice cream on his couch, watching TV.
Everyone on my timeline, was saying murder, murder, murder. She should get murder. Now, she made a dumb mistake, she was clearly negligent, she got off on the wrong floor, mistook his apartment for hers, the door was ajar, she thought she kicked it open, thought he was an intruder. Stupid mistake, negligence, right, no question, recklessness. Typically that’s manslaughter folks, but everybody on my timeline was saying murder, murder, murder. Otherwise, these were anti-incarceration people, they were otherwise decarceration people, when it came to other general crime, but wait. When the victim is from a marginalized group, a black man, and the victimizer a white police officer — nothing to talk about here, murder, let’s be as punitive as possible in our response to we care for those people.
No. I lost followers and friends behind saying, we’re never going to get out of mass incarceration with that attitude folks. We got to start rethinking violent offenders, like, all the way across the board, we can’t pick and choose.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Well, it’s not even just mass incarceration, it’s incarceration in general, right? A similar conversation, we’re talking about language, arose in response to what happened on Capitol Hill on January 6th. Folks quickly, from marginalized groups, said, if we were those folks that came in, we would have been killed, let’s call them domestic terrorists. But there was a pushback from the Muslim community, even the black Muslim community. This is where there was an interesting divide: there was a black Muslim community, then there was the non-Muslim black community. But anybody that was in the Muslim community said, pump the brakes. Using that language of the state that only existed as a form of incarceration, of discipline, of stripping rights, of stripping agency, will only strengthen that field of domestic counterterrorism. And so what does it mean for us to say what this is, without using the language of state violence?
JODY ARMOUR: Yeah, that’s beautiful. I remember that vividly. If we start saying, allowing them to call domestic terrorists, what those people did in D.C., which many of us loathe and abominate right. But if we allow them to characterize them as domestic terrorists, I’m gonna be honest with you. Over the summer I was coming in every day for six weeks here in LA, while the streets were roiling with protesters and activists, and it was awful. There were times when it was turning violent.
And I had heard a lot of people trying to characterize them as terrorists. And I kept saying no, no, no. Don’t characterize them as terrorists, even though there was a lot of violence and there was looting and there was a lot of other stuff going on. I could have easily started to characterize a lot of those activities that way if I wanted to start going down that road. You don’t want to start going down that road, you know, the FBI is already calling people like me black identity extremists just for being associated with Black Lives Matter. So now you want to throw on top of that, you know, domestic terrorist, black identity extremists, and all the rest. No, no, no.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Yeah, I mean there’s another element, and we’re gonna jump to questions around this, how, of course race is a predominant dynamic within this whole institution of the prison. Well, the way that language racializes — if you say terrorists, and then you have domestic, you’re saying domestic equals white, and then you’re saying the default for terrorists is a racialized Muslim. So there are things that we have to contend with if we don’t want to reproduce prisons. So we have some questions coming in. Are y’all ready for them? Alan Burnett says, “What are some of the work that these former life without parole men are doing in their communities?”
BIDHAN ROY: Allen is actually a member of our program, and he’s one of those life without parole who is just doing incredibly things. So some of the work I mean, Allen, for example, is doing a lot of work with Human Rights Watch, and, you know, he’s a great example of one of those people that, once you meet him, he changes people’s minds, but he’s smart enough as well to be advocating for…again, I don’t know what the right word is because it’s not really abolition and it’s not really reform…but, advocating for those who are incarcerated, essentially, in whatever way he can in whatever space he can. So he is someone who’s doing remarkable things in those ways. Tobias Tubbs is another former life-without-parole prisoner who is doing tremendous things in South LA with an urban gardening program, and he’s also one of the guys that’s heading up this kind of restorative/transformative storytelling project in South LA.
We have Anthony McDuffie as well, and Janae Quinney, both former gang members from different sides, one a Blood, one a Crip, who were doing a lot of work around reducing gang violence amongst teenagers in South LA. Janae Quinny did a lot of work as well during COVID, feeding the community, started a food bank in the West Athens community. So they’ve been doing tremendous things. I could go on, but those are some of the ones that spring to mind.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Thank you so much for that, you also reminded me that I did have a question for Jody, that’s kind of on this piece of what’s happening now. Jody, your book is about to be out.
JODY ARMOUR: It’s already out. It’s been out for a little while we’ve had a good run.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Where’s my copy? Um, can you tell us a little bit more about this multimedia project and where we can see it?
JODY ARMOUR: The book really, at the heart of my book was this play idea of Race, Rap, and Redemption. I put it on in Bovard Auditorium, which holds around 1100 students, staff, and faculty in the heart of USC. And the call of the question for the evening for the students assembled, students, faculty, and staff, was should we, collectively, pour liquor for Tookie?
Stanley Tookie Williams had just been put to death after Arnold Schwarzenegger denied his petition for a stay on the explicit ground in his denial letter that Tookie Williams had not achieved personal redemption. That was the legal criterion he applied at the time.
And so, that was the call of the question. Should we, in other words, as a collective unit, engage in a ritualistic ceremonial expression of solidarity and empathy and sympathy with a first-degree murderer named Stanley Tookie Williams, who co-founded the Crips?
Right. I didn’t want to talk about low level nonviolent drug offenders of the kind that Michelle Alexander centers her book The New Jim Crow on, because as John Faff points out in his book Locked In, only five to six percent of the prisoners in the state prison system, which is where 87% of the prisoners reside, are there for anything that could be characterized as a low-level nonviolent offense, let alone low level nonviolent drug offenses, and that’s probably an inflated number, all right? So if we really want to do something about racialized mass incarceration, we’re going to have to radically overhaul how we think about violent offenders, especially violent black offenders, so I wanted to center the play on a violent back offender named Stanley Tookie Williams and make this closing argument from the damned in front of it, and make the audience the jurors. And I knew that if I was going to change hearts and minds and bring them around to sympathetically identifying with a Stanley Tookie Williams, I wasn’t gonna be able to do it just using propositional content of the kind the lawyers are trained to use, right? Just a lot of formal arguments and fancy language and this way of argumentation is important and vital of course, but it wasn’t going to be sufficient in two, two and a half hours, to get us to pour liquor for Stanley Tookie Williams.
I knew I was going to have to bring in the arts, the performing arts, because arts are a way to people’s hearts and minds, in combination, I think, especially with some propositional content like nothing else. So I made, essentially, my cogent argument based basically on a kind of statement followed by an exhibit A B C D E F G, and each exhibit was a performance like Lula Washington’s dance company doing a modern dance to Tupac Shakur’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” about a twelve year old girl who was raped and has a child, and the community turns their back on her. The closing couplet is “Prostitute, found slain, and Brenda’s her name, she’s got a baby.”
And what if that baby Brenda had wass Stanley Tookie Williams, and he comes out and he winds up in the foster system now. And the story we just shared about hurt people hurting people. Then there are other performances like that: Mayda del Valle, Saul Williams, you know, culminating in performances by Ice Cube and others. And by the end of the night, what I saw was the power of art, because what I saw was–and you see in the footage–almost 1100 students, staff, and faculty standing up with their lighters in the air for Stanley Tookie Williams. Because that’s the power of art.
I’m trying to build on some insights from that play to talk more about how we can humanize criminals, especially violent criminals, especially violent black criminals, through the arts. And how we have to humanize them if we’re ever going to make real deep cuts in racialized mass incarceration.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Yeah. So again, let’s have somebody sponsor a redo of that so that we can see it in the post-pandemic world together, that sounds incredible. But I think what you’re gesturing towards is that the power of art is indisputable, and it’s transformative and part of all our work. So we have a question about that. from M. Kanter. So M. Kanter says, “Can you give examples of some positive collaborations with California literary community in LA and beyond, how best to educate writers and readers about the need for decarceration?” So it sounds like we’re talking about, both inside and outside. I mean, there’s also a program called Inside Outside Writers. But anyone can go into that.
BIDHAN ROY: So, so the question is how to educate writers…
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Well, it says both about collaborations with the literary community and how to educate writers, it sounds like. I don’t know, maybe they’re talking about, inside, outside, but you can take the question in any way you want.
BIDHAN ROY: Okay, well, I would say with response to the collaborations, I about this a lot, like what does writing do, the experience of it, and how does it include your body, how does he do all these kinds of things to you when you write, and you can articulate these ideas and feel, “Oh, that’s what I meant.” So, if you can collaborate with incarcerated writers and help promote that experience and help share their words, I think it’s less about writing about someone as much as trying to collaborate in the real sense of the word and allowing people’s voice to come out and think what that really must feel like if you’ve all been essentially thrown away.
I mean, Alan who asked the earlier question was telling me about, you know, being in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay and having these moments where he tried to put language to this transformation that he wanted to see in himself and that he wanted to see to the prison system. And years later, he’s now doing that and being able to do that. So I think when you really kind of not take for granted what language can do, particularly for people that have maybe had bad experiences with it in the school system or something like that, to be able to can offer those opportunities is really a way that I would hope all writers could search out possibilities, and there are a lot of programs out there, including Words Uncaged. We would welcome anyone that wants to collaborate on these issues.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Jody, do you have any examples?
JODY ARMOUR: Just a lot of similar kinds of experiences, I’m thinking, you know how much we talk about words that wound. Why we need hate speech codes. We don’t talk enough, sometimes, about words that heal, and how words can suture the places where blood flows from the words that wound.
I’ve just seen that, I’ve seen that happen just over and over. Toni Morrison said reading is meditation. And I think writing is too. And I think a lot of my best students, my favorite students through the years, have made me a better writer, and have made me a better meditator.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Yeah, I love that. You know if I can offer something, and one of the exercises I do with folks is kind of taken out of the book of one of my mentors, Robin D.G. Kelley, who talks about freedom dreaming. He has a gorgeous introduction you can find it online, and then he has this gorgeous epilogue about what it would look like to live out his freedom dream.
So I asked people, and I think this is something similar, Bidhan that you’ve talked about, what does it look like to be free? What does freedom look like? What does it feel like? Because it has been a disembodied experience, where we’ve gotten to the point that we could say it’s okay to put bars in front of people and to be in solitary confinement. And I can’t even imagine what’s happening in COVID right now.
So, what would you want for somebody else, in terms of the freedom that you want for yourself?
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Oh, we got two questions coming in. Okay, this one. David Hilsebach says, “It strikes me that all three of you are pretty much talking about incarcerated men. How are incarcerated women even more marginalized, less worthy of our attention?”
BIDHAN ROY: We’re just starting a degree in the women’s prison, it all got delayed because of COVID. So my experience in women’s prison is considerably less than the male prison. But I think you’re right. I mean one of the things I’ve kind of that struck me from my experiences in women’s prisons is what we were talking about earlier, and this idea of harm, and committing crime.
So many women that are incarcerated for really long sentences around murder and things like that were horribly abused in a very direct way that led to it. They were pimped or trafficked or stuff like that, or maybe you know domestic abuse and things like that. And then, the kind of bit that snapped them into, you know, doing a violent act. It just makes that distinction we were talking about earlier between this idea that there are violent criminals, and that somehow it’s like part of them, and then there are victims of violent crime, it just blows that away, totally, you know, in a way that was just very visceral for me, and very immediate because you see it right there. “I was being abused, I was being beaten, I was being trafficked, and then I snapped and murdered this person that was doing this to me.” And somehow there’s no mechanism in our system to recognize that and there’s no mechanism to allow any kind of healing because you’ve gone from being abused to being punished with nothing, no other opportunities in there. In a way the female prisons just bring it to a very sharp point that, it’s impossible not to think “This is ridiculous. There’s got to be a better way than doing this.”
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: And also the fastest growing prison population is women, correct?
JODY ARMOUR: Yeah, they are. There are some jurisdictions that have started in the last couple of decades to recognize battered women in self-defense cases. So, it used to be that if a woman killed a person or an abusive partner, while there was a lull in the violence, while he was asleep, or perhaps even by getting somebody else to kill him, that she could not claim self-defense. They say you can’t claim self-defense, because the claim self-defense, there has to be no less drastic no alternative, and since he was asleep, you could have left the house and gone to the police, and they could have taken you to a battered women’s shelter. And so you didn’t have to do it for that reason, number one, right, they were saying that, and then number two, you know, the threat wasn’t imminent, he was asleep, so it wasn’t imminent. You have to be under attack.
But the law has changed, number one, in a number of jurisdictions, not in enough, not nearly enough, but in some jurisdictions, because of a long campaign by people who have been seeking important criminal justice reform that balances the scales in terms of gender more, you have experts who get on the stand and tell jurors about battered women’s syndrome and how not only is it something that can affect someone’s psychological capacity to leave the situation, learned helplessness and that sort of thing, although some people go down that road, you know, I think the more interesting testimony that they bring out is that, no, we don’t have to go down, “she was cognitively challenged.” There was no less drastic alternative, police do not protect these women. Battered women’s shelters do not work. They bring the ghost of dead women into the courtroom and sit them down in the witness box with them as they describe separation assault resulting time after time in death by these women who tried to leave these men. So they say no, you can’t just walk away, and you’re saying he’s sleeping, doesn’t pose a threat, you’re telling me that if somebody abducts me and they say they’re going to kill me when they awaken and I have to wait till they wake up before I take them out, or something like that. So it’s changing slowly but we still got a long way to go.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Yeah, just made me think of a couple of cases that became pretty massive. The Cyntoia Brown story, teenager who was sex trafficked was attacked by somebody who was propositioning her, and she killed him in response as self-defense, and she was granted clemency because there was a public outrage against it.
And another story that was revisited, but at the time she never got any redemption around, it was Lorena Bobbitt. I don’t know if folks saw that documentary series that they did, I think it was, it was underwatched, but basically it was a comedic story and this guy who was a terrible abuser, and we never heard that part of the story, was seen as having something taken away from him, and he was the victim of that story, but she was undocumented. She relied on him, she was constantly abused, and she was to her breaking point. And there was nobody, especially in the 90s, that was protecting her.
Highly recommend both stories to go revisit the nuances of the story of women within the prison system. A last question we have, unless folks in these final minutes, want to ask their question, is from Jonathan Shelley. Jonathan asks, “Are there particular texts or readings that you have found to work well for the programming that you do?”
BIDHAN ROY: There’s sort of the obvious ones: Foucault and stuff like that. But there was a book I read relatively recently called America Is the Prison about the kind of heyday of the Black Arts movements prisons in mainly in New York but also in, in California, in Soledad and stuff in kind of the 1970s period and then history of some of the degree programs. I didn’t realize how many degree programs in prison there were until the Pell grant funding got taken away. There was something like 300 programs in the country. Reading that history, you realize there was this moment where a lot of the stuff we were talking about was almost coming to some kind of fruition. There were programs that were going into prison that weren’t just teaching about what personal responsibility or stuff like that but were teaching about liberation in this bigger sense, this social sense that we’re talking about and the idea of education instead of just punishment with warehousing. And how abrupt that change was in the late 80s, early 90s. That was a very powerful book for me. I forget the guy’s first name, but Bernstein is his last name, and the book is America Is the Prison.
JODY ARMOUR: One of the forms of literature I think often is overlooked that I draw on in all my work is rap. I’m thinking the people I draw especially on are people like Tupac, [incomprehensible], Cube. And what I found is when we’re working on word work and the people in the class, whether they’re prisoners or my students or both, typically both, when we start thinking about language and how we’re going to perform the language, and make an art of language. They start listening to people like Tupac for his language skills, and then connecting what they hear with what he’s doing with the language to one of my favorite writers, you know, Melville. Here comes, “I’m tormented by an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts.”
I mean we start getting into it, they see, here he is over here, and he’s flowing like you know, I hear Cube flowing over here just like Jove and, you know, Magna Carta over here, and it really presents nice bridges. And a lot of good rappers are really making a lot of very nice literary references. That makes it possible to bring in a whole lot of literary traditions, and they hear some great stuff. That’s kind of been, I’ve found, a very helpful tool.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: So you’ve been requested, Jody, to hold up and recommend your book. This is from LARB, it’s a seminal work on some of the subjects we’re discussing
JODY ARMOUR: Here we go, how about that?
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: So I also have another amendment to make. David Hilsebach is Reverend David Hilsebach who performed the burial service for Robert Harris. I just got this message.
Related to this question I’m curious, do you have any, besides programming, any books that if folks want to, you know, enhance their own pedagogy, to learn about the work that you’re doing besides your books, any other books you would recommend or writers, or authors in this world.
BIDHAN ROY: Yes, well, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the Words Uncaged books. So Allen. who had the earlier question, he is featured in a book we produced called Human, and that’s available for free on our Words Uncaged website, you can just read the PDF.
And then we have an art book that just came out relatively recently called 128G, which is the kind of institutional term for someone’s history, so it’s kind of a reclaiming of that institutional reduction of your history on a form, and through art, so that’s also available through our website, wordsuncaged.org. And then we have another book Disconnected, Reconnected, which is again also available through our website or links to Amazon. All of those are predominantly life-without-parole writers.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Thank you for that. We have a couple closing questions before we turn this over to LA Review of Book. Someone asked, “If we abolish prisons, do you think there’s another type of punishment that might replace them, and if so, what form do you think that punishment might take?”
JODY ARMOUR: In the short term, for sure. See, this is what makes it tough for a lot of folks, in the short term you telling us that we don’t want some legal consequence, some significant criminal consequence for Derek Chauvin.
Okay abolitionists, stand up. All those who say, you know for what Derek Chauvin did, there should be no penal consequence at all, zero. And we’ll make sure that every police officer out there gets that signal for future cases, that there will be no consequence, zero of a penal nature. Right?
Many of us start to balk and hesitate. And I think that certainly a lot of people in the black community that I talked to right now are saying like any other community, we want killings solved, we want raped solved. We don’t want rape kit backlog, you know, we want to be able to walk down the street and have our children walk down the street with some sens of safety like other communities, that’s an important public good. And so what our problem is, is with the police only dedicating 5% of their time to responding to violent offenses and calls of any kind, they’re not spending time really solving violent crimes, instead they’re spending time going after turnstile jumpers and broken windows policing and a lot of other stuff, you know traffic enforcement stuff that they don’t need to be doing anyway, you know, mental health stuff and drug interdiction stuff and house listening stuff and homelessness stuff. All that stuff that they need to be focusing on solving the serious violent crimes in the black community and many would say now, what are we going to do? That doesn’t mean that then you try to make the punishment for those criminals be as grim and torturous as possible. And the way that Bidhan was talking about earlier, you look at the prison conditions in some of these European countries and they’re just very different. The prison conditions themselves. Some of them are more like dorm rooms, we need to treat people like human beings, you know and like we’re trying to rehabilitate them. So yeah, we got to get them off the street, you got to stop the rapes and murders, you got to stop them! You got to get them fenders off the street. And, you know, meaning incapacitation, that means we can’t get back we can’t have abolition overnight. We all understand that. But once we have incapacitated them so that they’re not causing harm, we can treat them humanely, try to rehabilitate them, treat them with basic human decency and respect.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: T you for that. That’s a really good characterization of this transitory period that we’re trying to figure our way through as we try to divest the over 50% that is invested in policing and so much more. Not so much more, but even more than just 50% altogether around the prison-industrial complex that includes the prison, from our tax dollars, how do we transition from the divestment of some of that to community solutions? So, appreciate that. Before we go, is there any way that people can continue to follow you and your work or the work that you are championing, please let us know.
BIDHAN ROY: Yes, so you can follow Words Uncaged on Instagram, or, you know, WordsUncaged.org as well. H when the pandemic is over, we do host a lot of different events and things like that, so there’s numerous ways to get involved, but please stay in contact and if you are interested in collaborating in some capacity, there are always opportunities down the line.
JODY ARMOUR: JodyArmour.com. And my Twitter handle is named after my latest book. It’s @niggatheory, without the asterisk on that occasion. And then, you know, of course, LARB Books.
MAYTHA ALHASSEN: Yeah, yeah. Amazing. I just want to say one of the first times I met Jody he was saying, “The more radical I get, the bigger my ‘fro gets.” So it’s good to see that you still are at your most radical at heart. So, I appreciate that and it was so great to meet Bidhan. We have so many circles that intersect. I can’t wait post-pandemic to connect with you and to do more. So thank you all. Thank you. LARB and Irene, Sonia, Boris, the whole team that I have yet to meet, thank you again. And thank you for listening!
IRENE YOON: Yes, thank you, thank you all so much. Thank you Maytha, Bidhan, and Jody for this terrific conversation, and to all of you for joining us and thoughtful and sharing such thoughtful and thought-provoking questions. We also want to thank our Matching Grant event donors Juan Arias, Ora Donnelly Charanzetia, Jenny Williams and Joan Hennehan, for helping to make this evening possible, and to everyone here who donated to the workshop scholarship fund through this event. If you’d like to learn more about the LARB Publishing Workshop while we’re also dropping lots of links and things in the chat, you can find us at ThePublishingWorkshop.com and if you’d like to donate, we invite you to do so there or through the link that will be appearing in the chat. If you enjoyed this event and would like to know more about other events that LARB will be hosting this year, hopefully without the technical difficulties, as we mark our ten-year anniversary, we encourage you to sign up for our newsletter if you haven’t already or find us at LAReviewofBooks.org.
Thank you all so much. Again, thank you to our wonderful speakers for joining us, and we wish you all a wonderful evening.