A new media project to bring incarcerated writers to the forefront of prison abolition discourse
The call for prison abolition has been popularized over the last decade of mass movements against police violence, many of which have operated under the banner of Black Lives Matter. But what does abolition mean, and who gets to define it? Thus far, much of the conversation has been steered and curated by mainstream media. A new initiative from Scalawag Magazine tentatively titled ‘Project Abolition’ seeks to disrupt the dominant narrative by platforming voices from within prisons themselves. Scalawag Editor-At-Large Da’Shaun Harrison joins Rattling the Bars to explain Project Abolition.
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa. I read somewhere, it said, in the beginning was the word. So today we’re going to have the word as spoken by Da’Shaun Harrison. Welcome to Rattling the Bars, Da’Shaun.
Da’Shaun Harrison: Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Mansa Musa: Tell us a little bit about yourself and about Scalawag before we unpack some of the interesting things that’s going on with Scalawag.
Da’Shaun Harrison: For sure. So, my name is Da’Shaun Harrison, they/them pronouns. I am the Editor-At-Large of Scalawag Magazine. Scalawag is a digital platform that works to build solidarity with oppressed communities in the South through journalism and storytelling. A big part of what we do is we want to use our platform and our work, our writing, to shift the narrative around oppressed communities and to take back the power that oftentimes is kept in the hands of few. So we do that through being in relationships with our communities that we write about, that we talk to, that we build with. Through community-driven reporting, through developing or creating outcomes that best benefit folks in the South. So we do a lot of really important work with the South in mind because we know or we think, that a liberated South is a liberated world.
Mansa Musa: That’s right.
Da’Shaun Harrison: We’re trying to build a future that matters, that benefits us.
Mansa Musa: So we recognize what you’re saying in terms of Scalawag and developing a media outlet to give voice to the voiceless and also to shift the narrative around poor and oppressed people. You all have a project called The Abolition Project.
Da’Shaun Harrison: Yes.
Mansa Musa: Tell our audience about what the Abolition Project is.
Da’Shaun Harrison: So, it’s tentatively called Project Abolition, but it’s going to change a bit. As we develop more of the project some things are going to shift. Project Abolition is a year-round effort geared towards disrupting and shifting the way that policing, and abolition in particular, are covered. So, thinking about the ways that mainstream media has the power over constructing narratives around incarceration, around prisons, around folks on the inside. And we want to build something that helps to shift that narrative while also increasing the amount of work published by incarcerated writers, both at Scalawag and in other newsrooms. Because we recognize the fact that the only people that can tell their stories the best are the folks who are experiencing it directly. But we also know that folks on the inside have historically been incredible storytellers. So thinking about George Jackson, thinking about Mo Mia, thinking about even MLK.
We wanted to be able to give folks on the inside the space and the platform to be able to share their stories in the very same ways that many of our predecessors have been able to do. And also providing readers with literature that supports them in envisioning an abolitionist future. A lot of times folks don’t really know what an abolitionist future looks like or what abolition really means. So we want to be able to create a project where folks feel clear and understand what it looks like to build an abolitionist future and what it means to prioritize the work and the writings of incarcerated folks.
Mansa Musa: And in that regard, when we say abolition or abolishment of prisons, most people have a narrow perspective of what that would look like. Explain to our audience, if you can, what that means.
Da’Shaun Harrison: So a lot of times folks get really confused about what it means to abolish prisons. And what it means is exactly what it sounds like: to destroy the very things that keep folks caged. At Scalawag, we are thinking about not just the physical prison, we know that the four walls are things that keep folks caged, but we also know that prison is expansive, that it expands to open-air prisons. So folks who are in Gaza, in Palestine, folks who are experiencing what it means to be living in an open-air prison. Black folks, poor folks living in hyper surveilled neighborhoods, things of that nature. Destroying the very things that keep folks caged like gender, class and race, and things that lead to people being subjugated, people being oppressed, people being marginalized within the world.
People often think of that as an idealistic thing: something that’s impossible to do. But on a much smaller scale we are witnessing, on a daily basis, abolitionist communities: folks who are finding ways to build relationships with folks that they’re in community with to avoid reproducing punitive or carceral response violence, avoid reproducing or having to call on the police or mental health crises and things of that nature. And we want to be able to map that out and create a larger platform to share those stories with people so they know that it is a possibility.
Mansa Musa: And in that regard, when we witnessed the Justice Restoration Movement, we witnessed, like you say, that in most cases, the sentencing project is doing a thing called ‘50 Years and a Wake Up.’ And they’re saying that, this is the prison industrial complex which is a new form of slavery, that the engines started getting revved up 50 years ago. So 50 years ago, they had made a conservative effort through laws, blood sucking acts, police brutality, to give people a position in prison. Now, I want you to talk about at this juncture how these storytellings, wherever they’re coming out of, the space they’re coming out of, but more importantly, the spaces coming out of the prison. How do you vision these storytellings helping to shape the narrative of abolition?
Da’Shaun Harrison: So, under the Project Abolition umbrella, we have four different initiatives happening right now at Scalawag. The first one being Week of Writing, the first initiative of that being Stop Cop City. So for folks who don’t know, Atlanta is in the process of trying to build a literal cop city, right?
Mansa Musa: That’s right.
Da’Shaun Harrison: There’s a lot of effort on the ground to stop Cop City, to destroy that as a possibility. And so we’re going to be bringing on folks for a full week who have either been organizing on the ground around this issue, or organizing in Atlanta in general, or who are just Atlanta residents who want to write about, talk about what they feel around Cop City. So that’s number one.
Then we have Abolition Week where we’ll be producing content for two weeks. It’s actually Abolition Weeks at this point because we had a lot of submissions from folks. But we are producing work, from folks who are incarcerated as well as people who are in Palestine, about what it is like to be living on the inside. So sharing narratives from people who have a lot of important things to say who just have not been given the space to share.
And then we also have what we call the Press in Prisons that was an initiative started by Scalawag back in, I believe, 2019. Where we wanted to be able to give the media an understanding of how to be able to write about incarcerated writers, but also how to get narratives about abolition on the inside. So we developed a handbook around that as well as different training for media folks to know how to engage with folks on the inside.
And then we have what we call Pop Justice, and that is sort of interrogating a lot of mainstream TV shows and movies that produce propaganda that keep us from wanting to fight against the carceral systems. And so all these things together are a part of what we call Project Abolition. And I’m excited about it because it gives us the space to have incarcerated writers not only share what it’s like to be incarcerated, but also share stories that are completely unrelated to their incarceration.
We know that folks on the inside have a multitude of experiences. They have a multitude of knowledge. And we wanted to be able to give them the room and the space to share that knowledge that doesn’t just start and stop at, I’m incarcerated and this is why. And so I’m excited about being able to, in many ways shed light on the multiplicities of the folks on the inside-
Mansa Musa: And you know what? And I like-
Da’Shaun Harrison: … And then also talk about abolition. Go ahead.
Mansa Musa: Not to interrupt you. But I like your strategy because I recall that back in the ’70s when Angela Davis was locked up, they put out If They Come in the Morning by Angela Davis in other political prisons. But what it did at that juncture, it shed light on, 1) the abuse that was going on in the prison industrial complex, and 2) the intellect of the writers at that time. We recognized Angela Davis’ popularity, right?
Da’Shaun Harrison: Right.
Mansa Musa: And we recognized George Jackson’s growing popularity, but they had other writers in there that were locked up. And I like the approach about how you’re talking about the media because I was talking to someone about Creed III, and in Creed III, the narrative that they were painting was about the way the prison was. And if I’m not mistaken, they sanitize the image in order to create the narrative or this individual coming out a certain way. But when you’ve got yourself and other people in the media giving instruction to me on how to go in and get a conversation, and have a conversation, and have the narrative unfold. If you’re in journalism, your search is for the truth.
So as you search for the truth and you get in front of someone that’s been in prison 48 years or 30 years, and they write about the relationship between them and their children– How they raised their children in prison– and then you look at where their child’s at now, and that child wrote a scholar or that child graduated from Morehouse. This is a story that needs to be told, and not only should it be told, but it gives credence to the person that’s raised their child. It helps society to understand that this person has wealth and worth. So this is a good thing that you’re doing. Talk a little bit more about how you all go about organizing your activities.
Da’Shaun Harrison: So, a lot of restrictions and censorship happen on the inside with folks who are incarcerated. So a lot of times we’ll be able to communicate with folks via email, but then a lot of times we have to do things through snail mail which can sometimes, of course, slow down the process. So what we try to do is get things as far out in advance as possible so we’re able to make sure they feel comfortable with the edits that are made and the changes that happen to their stories. So we’re able to get their stories online, not censored, but in a way that honors the fact that they can’t oftentimes get to us in a quick fashion like a lot of people can. So we organize it in that way. We communicate very frequently with folks’ families or folks who are on their JPay and things of that nature to make sure that we’re able to contact folks and be in contact with them while we’re navigating the editorial process.
And then also always paying writers. We always pay our writers, unless they ask us not to because there’s also restrictions around that. But we always want to make sure that folks have money on their books, that folks are taken care of for their intellectual property that they offer us. So we do that as well. We organize things typically at least three weeks in advance, oftentimes much further in advance to make sure that we have time to do the edits, especially when they’re happening through snail mail, and making sure that we can communicate with the writer as often as we can.
Mansa Musa: I’m in DC and I know that some of the institutions are opening back up and allowing volunteers to come in and do different activities. Because when I was locked up, we had a couple of groups come in and we used to do a lot of book discussions. And we’re getting ready to roll out a documentary called, To Say Their Own Words that deals with the organization we were doing. Are you all allowed in institutions or are you networking with people that are going into the institution in the form of volunteers, maybe teaching school or anything of that nature? Or are you all not allowed in?
Da’Shaun Harrison: So a couple of places, especially here in Georgia– And things in Georgia have gotten more strict, it’s actually ridiculous– but a lot of places don’t let media folks on the inside. One of our editors used to teach in a prison back in Memphis and what we’ve been trying to do is build what we call a ‘Freedom School’ and we’re wanting to get that on the inside for folks who want to learn about journalism, who want to write more, who want to build out that relationship to writing. We’re looking to expand that for sure. And that’s going to be a part of Project Abolition too, because we recognize that it’s important not just to be in virtual conversation with folks, but to be sitting with folks on the inside as well and teaching these things. And so I’ll say, if you want to connect about that, I’m open to it because-
Mansa Musa: Yes. Because there are a couple of colleges that go into the institutions. And also the federal government just passed the Pell Grant so the Pell Grant will open the door for colleges that come in. And it may open the door for accessibility to that population. But in terms of the publication, what are your plans for when you all get the publishing from the individuals? What’s your plan on that marketing? What are your goals in that regard?
Da’Shaun Harrison: We are actually in the process right now of building out the branding and the marketing for Abolition Week in particular. What we want to make sure that we are doing is centering incarcerated writers in every aspect of that. So a lot of times mainstream media in particular, they’ll use particular images and things to sensationalize what’s happening. We don’t want to do any of that. We want to make sure that what our branding and marketing looks like is true to the folks that we’re publishing. So we talk at great length with writers, with their families, and with folks on the inside of our organization to determine what marketing and branding should look like.
And for now, what we do have for that two week process, we’ll be developing different media illustrations, etc, to be able to be clear that all the writing is from incarcerated writers. And to center artwork, photography, etc, for those who don’t want to be anonymous because, of course, there are some folks who want to remain anonymous as well. For those who don’t, we want to be able to center their artwork and their photography and their artistic skill. Because for us, it’s not just about the writings, it’s about being able to center and prioritize the folks on the inside in general. So if you’re not the best writer, but you do create art, we want to publish that. So we’re building marketing and branding right now that feels very authentic and real, and doesn’t sensationalize the experience, but honors who the folks are that we’re publishing.
Mansa Musa: All right, let me ask you this. In terms of opposition, and it might be a general policy in the US, but I know specifically in Maryland, they had prohibitions from prisoners profiting from their writing and other restrictions too. Do you foresee being confronted with this? Or have you all already been confronted with this?
Da’Shaun Harrison: We have. So yes, there have been some instances where, in our communications with writers, we can’t directly relay to them that we’re going to be paying them, right? That’ll be a conversation that happens with their family. So we try to honor that. We have come across that in some instances, but for the most part, it hasn’t been a huge issue, which I’m grateful for. But we’re still on the look-out for it just in case.
Mansa Musa: And let me ask you this, and this is going right back to the victims because we’re not insensitive to victims. We are not that kind of people. We don’t advocate ignoring people that have been harmed by whatever’s going on with a person on the other side. But how do you address the victims that might feel some way about a person? He or she might not necessarily be writing about the crime, or may just be doing creative writing. But how do you address that? The victim is saying, well, they shouldn’t have a right to do anything other than serve time. And giving them this opportunity to have a voice, possibly, we’re putting them in the spotlight, getting them publicity and the whole insane narrative about being soft on crime. How do you respond to that?
Da’Shaun Harrison: We actually haven’t come across this before in our work, but what I will say is that we are determined to be clear about the fact that all folks on the inside are people. And that folks have the right to not be locked in a cage and there are a number of responses that you can have to violent acts or non-violent acts that don’t require someone to be locked inside of a cage. And while they are on the inside, it’s important for us to make sure that we are able to engage folks across the spectrum in a way that honors the fact that right now the state has them locked inside of a cage. That’s not doing rehabilitative work. And so what comes up for me is it’s important that we honor that. And we can do both of those things at one time: honor the victim or the survivor of whatever the crime may be. And I’m using ‘crime’ loosely. I’m using it for whatever the reason may be for why they’re on the inside. And also honoring the fact that they shouldn’t be locked in a cage. And generally folks have been clear about that.
We haven’t had folks writing about the reason for why they’re on the inside. And that has played a significant role in sort of quelling or stopping any sort of pushback we might get from victims. But we also just realized the fact that most of the folks on the inside are not on the inside for any violent acts. And also the fact that most of the folks on the inside are inside because they’re poor and a lot of crimes that happen, happen because of poverty and anti-Blackness. So we honor that and we are clear about that in our analysis. And we want to be able to give folks the space to share their experiences and to share their writings irrespective of what the general narrative around what incarceration is.
So in a few months actually, we’ll be doing an initiative where we’ll be publishing work strictly from folks who are on death row. That’s important to us. It’s important to us that we hear from people who are experiencing perhaps the least amount and the most amount of violence on the inside because we recognize that prisons should not exist at all, irrespective of what the reasoning is, and that we have to find better solutions. And so I’m excited that we take on those types of tasks that allow us to support victims, support survivors. And I’m saying this as a survivor myself, while also honoring the fact that prisons have got to go and we want to make sure that we support the folks on the inside as much as we can.
Mansa Musa: And, in that regard, it goes a long way in terms of educating the public about humanity or the lack thereof, because this is really about humanity. This is not about being soft on crime. This is not about ignoring what’s going on with a person that’s been victimized by someone’s behavior, because at the end of the day, all of us are victims in some regard. There’s no such thing as you being associated with the prison industrial complex and not being victimized.
Da’Shaun Harrison: Not be a victim. Absolutely.
Mansa Musa: And I like the thing about death row, because you look at death row and you look at people that are locked in, for the most part, 24/7, maybe get an hour out. But how do you deal with that pressure and how do you deal with that kind of inevitability like that? At some point in time, they’re going to call my number and that’s going to be the end of my life. And for your viewers and for our listeners and our viewers to understand, when you’re looking at the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration, which is a new form of slavery, your tax dollars are going into holding up these bohemians. Your tax dollars are paying the blood suckers that are keeping people held in captivity.
So if you want your tax dollars to go towards this type of inhumanity, then when you send your taxes back, put in there, ‘I want my money to go towards killing, murdering, and genocide.’ But if you don’t want your money to go towards that, then look at what Scallywag is doing, look at what The Real News is doing, and make an objective determination on whether or not this thing has any value or any truth associated with it. So I’ll commend you on your strategy and I’ll commend you on the direction.
One other thing, where are you all at with the county jails? Because they just had a thing down in Atlanta where, if I’m not mistaken, or in Georgia, where a guy was eaten alive by bed bugs. And so where are you all at in terms of do you have any relationship with the county jails?
Da’Shaun Harrison: Absolutely. Yes. We actually have an essay coming out for the week of writing 5/1-5/5. So it starts on May day. We’ll have an essay from a writer who was detained and imprisoned in DeKalb County Jail here for protesting Cop City. And part of that essay will be discussing the man who was just eaten alive by bed bugs, as well as the person Tortuguita, who was murdered by police in the forest. So yes, we are very much involved with folks who are in county jails as well, particularly because we have over 40 people in Atlanta who have been arrested on domestic terrorism charges. And so we’re connected to a lot of folks who are impacted by the system in different ways, coming from county jails, state jails, and state prisons, because that’s important to us.
Mansa Musa: And I’m glad you brought that up because you don’t hear about 40 people being locked up for domestic terrorism. You don’t hear about a person being bitten. It only gets coverage and only gets a lot of attention if another media source picks it up outside of the mainstream media and then it gains traction from those sources in that space. But you don’t ever hear about that stuff in mainstream media. And probably be so because mainstream media is beholden to the sponsors and in most cases the sponsors have a stake in whatever’s going on with the prison industrial complex.
What do you want to tell our audience as we close out? What do you want to tell our audience about Scalawag going forward? You have the floor, go ahead. Make your case.
Da’Shaun Harrison: I just want to say that I appreciate the work that you all do here at The Real News, at Rattling the Bars, and I appreciate folks who are invested at all in abolition. Even if you’re someone who’s like, I don’t really understand abolition, I don’t know that I really support it, but I know that I don’t want people locked in cages. Knowing that folks are at that starting point, knowing that folks are willing to think through what it means to divest from prisons, from incarceration as a project and trying to find solutions to that. Trying to find answers, trying to find a way to commit to abolition full-time is important. So I value that work, I value the folks who are making those commitments. And more than anything, what I want folks to do is look at the work that Scalawag is doing and The Real News is doing and other media platforms are doing to center incarcerated folks, to center folks who are directly impacted by these systems and learn from them.
Mansa Musa: There you have it. The Real News, Rattling the Bars. Da’Shaun Harrison, Scalawag doing remarkable work. You are only getting this information from Rattling the Bars and The Real News and Scalawag. These are the media sources that are bringing you the real news and making you aware of those things that are going on within the prison industrial complex in America and the world overall. We want to ask you to continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. I often say this, and this is true. Like you say, we hold these truths to be self-evident. Well here goes self-evident. This is really the news. Thank you very much.