Stevie Wilson is a queer abolitionist organizer currently incarcerated in the Pennsylvania prison system, where he runs abolitionist study groups and serves as an editor for In the Belly, a newly-launched journal by and for people held captive by the prison-industrial complex. We had been corresponding before the pandemic hit, but as it started spreading our conversation turned to the pressing question of how to get PPE and enact social distancing measures in jail, where a bar of soap costs hours of work and people are housed inches apart. Stevie noted that prisoners were already quarantined, so the only way the virus could get in was from contact with guards. On our website, we published his list of demands prisoners made to keep safe from infection. Then, the day before we were scheduled to call each other for this interview, his emails stopped. I learned he had been sent to solitary, presumably as retaliation for political activity. I sent him a letter with the questions I had prepared, hoping to continue the conversation in writing to include in this issue. A few weeks before we went to press in mid-May, I heard from one of his outside support team members that he had been released and transferred to a new facility and was able to talk on the phone. We spoke for an hour. The following interview is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Max Fox
Wilson: So, where do you want to start? Because I have your list of questions here.
Fox: First of all, are you doing okay? How is the new situation treating you?
Well, it’s prison. I’m doing as well as I can. Better than a lot of people because I have a great support team and everything, but this is SCI Fayette. It’s a little different from where I was at before. So it’s more security-minded and the other places were more relaxed. This is a larger prison, 2,100 people. And the other one was 1,300. It was a little different, but I’m doing okay.
That’s good to hear. So they put you in solitary after they thought you were doing some kind of organizing?
What happened was I sent an email. They were actually hunger striking in northern Jersey, in Essex County and at Rikers Island, for PPEs for COVID-19. I sent an email expressing my solidarity with them. And then eight days later, I get a write-up saying that I was encouraging prohibited group activity. It was just an attempt to silence me because they were tired of me talking about what’s happening here because I went on a hunger strike for eight days. I can go on a hunger strike all I want to, but I can’t sing out to the hunger strikes 500 miles away in quarantine. And I also asked them, suppose someone’s saying, “Black Lives Matter,” did a protest somewhere, maybe sit down in the road or something and I say I support that, am I going to go to the hole for that? And they can’t answer that. I said, “If there are demonstrators in Hong Kong, if I say I support that, am I going to the hole for that also?” It’s a blatant attack on my First Amendment rights.
It’s just a ploy for them to silence me for the little bit of time they could. And these are times because they’re arrogant and they think they can get away with it. When you fight back, this is when they realize, “Okay, these people are supporting him. He’s fighting back for this.” So then they have to come off you a little bit. Then they understand that you have... It’s why I tell people it’s important to stay connected because if they feel you have no support and you don’t know what’s going on, they will do whatever they can to you. They will try everything.
But if they know you have support and they know that you know what’s going on, then they kind of come off you, “Okay, okay.” They can’t do whatever they want to this person. And so it’s important that people stay connected. It really is. And I keep talking about that going into this COVID-19. We were staying in touch with what’s happening as far as what was happening in Pennsylvania. And I can only really speak about what’s happening in Pennsylvania, but we were doing a lot better than other places. I know that for a fact.
This is a call from Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution, Fayette. This call is subject to recording and monitoring.
Right now we’re coming out of an hour, almost an hour out of our cells. We’re in our cells over twenty-three hours a day, people are in their cells right now. But there were some other things that happened that kind of pacify that because they were giving out free phone calls and free emails and free cable. People aren’t paying for cable right now or Zoom visits. They’re not paying for cable. Cable’s paid through almost to July. The guys don’t have to pay for cable, all over the state, until July 1st. And then they have the Zoom visits, which was really big for a lot of people because some people were six hours from Philadelphia, so they never got to Fayette. So with the Zoom visit, you’re able to see your family, your children, your loved ones, your friends. It was really a big thing. So we’re fighting to keep that. And then the biggest thing that happened in Pennsylvania was decarceration. The fact that the governor signed the order of reprieve which allowed the 1500 people to leave the state system. Under the reprieve there was expedited parole. There were people who were just waiting to get their green sheet to go home when they got swiftly taken care of. It’s because of COVID-19, we’re seeing decarceration happening in Pennsylvania.
So it’s been a mixed bag for us and it’s something, obviously we want to fight to keep, hold onto the decarceration, the Zoom visits and things like that. And also nothing’s going to happen as far as organizing was at. The people outside, okay, particularly, even outside of Pennsylvania, like New York and Chicago really came through for Pennsylvania prisoners. They really did. And so we had to raise funds for commissary and for cleaning supplies and things like that. And the people knew that was coming from not somebody who was in Pennsylvania but out of state, people were actually sending funds so we can have stuff, make sure our cells are cleaned and we can have food to eat and our bodies are clean and things like that. And so that was really amazing and really the things that happened is that we could talk about abolition and we could talk about being in solidarity, but these are the very real things that people saw were happening.
And so it really solidified within this population, a sense of something that’s bigger than themselves. They’ll be part of something bigger than themselves. So that was really important. We had situations before where people had talked about support and just showing solidarity that way, but this was, “Wow, people are coming out of your pocket to help us out.” People are really moved and touched by that. And so I was really appreciative of all of that. In your letter, you had sent the question about organizing and what this situation with COVID had me thinking, right?
Yeah, I was just going to say, that kind of leads us into that.
Let me tell you something. What happened was, I was trying to create a collective mindset in here where we’re all on this trip of abolition. We are struggling for justice. I was trying to create a collective mindset and failed to realize I had to create a cooperative mindset first. In prison, this is a place where you are... It’s a place of isolation and alienation. The system doesn’t want us to stay connected to each other. The system doesn’t want me to be connected to you, to my family, to anyone in here.
There’s this kind of barbaric individualism, “Worry about yourself. One man, one armband. One man, one ID.” That’s what we’re taught. So we don’t come together, right? I was kind of putting the cart before the horse on this. I was trying to get people to come together and think a certain way together and therefore getting used to being together and working together. Period.
You remember also that in many of our neighborhoods, you see what happened in Philadelphia. There’s no sense of public culture, public community, stuff going on. That stuff’s been taken away. And so I grew up when we had a public pool that we all went to in my neighborhood. We had a public program. They don’t have that anymore for the young people. Growing up, they don’t feel a part of their community. They don’t feel a part of their neighborhood. You see that a lot of them don’t feel part of their family. And then you come to prison stuff, let’s talk about community. They’re looking at you like, “What? What ‘community’? I’m worried about me, myself and I.” One thing that this COVID-19, this pandemic taught me in my organizing was that I had to teach people how to cooperate first. How to be together so we could get together, you know what I mean?
So I had to slow down. I had to really slow down and understand that before they can learn to work... We took a day to learn to work across differences. We can have melody without harmony. You see that? You can have melody without harmony and understand that we are different but the thing is that we can work together. And that’s what happened here. We understood that we needed to work together to get through this COVID-19. We do that here. So you saw people who weren’t talking to each other usually talking to each other. You see that? People who weren’t working together are working together with each other now. And I was looking at it, “Wow, this is what I’ve been trying to do in the first place.” I see people who usually don’t talk to each other talk to each other and cooperate on certain projects together. So we had to get used to being with each other. Being around each other, and then we could study together. So it was really important to me. It just made me really understand if I was able to have the collective mindset and a cooperative mindset—you cannot achieve solidarity without kind of going through those phases of additional work, building alliances and then there’s solidarity, but you need to... “I don’t even talk to you now all of a sudden I got solidarity with you.” That’s performative solidarity. You’re never going to get real deep solidarity unless you get guys to be together and work together first.
When you talked about that [in the letter], I said, “Wow, you made me think about that.” And I thought deeply about it. I said, “I had to back up and really think of the way that I can get prisoners here to work together on certain projects so then we can come together and have a collective mindset. I can’t just jump to that.
That’s fascinating. And you think that you have a more solid foundation for doing the kind of study work now that you’ve been cooperating with people?
That has to come first. It has to be a thing where people are used to coming together for something first, before we start talking about that.
Right, yeah. You can’t just jump into the theoretical stuff—
Yeah. “You come here, you come here. You come here.” And he says, “Oh, you trust him. I don’t know him. I don’t like him. Where are you from?” In Pennsylvania, it’s more geographical. We don’t really have gangs and stuff like that. Our yard is geographical. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Erie, like that. So if you’re from Philly, you don’t hang with guys from Pittsburgh. You don’t want to even talk to them. You don’t live with them. In every part in the yard, every city had its own section of the yard that they frequent. That’s the Pittsburgh kid. That’s the Philly kid. That’s another Philly kid. That’s the Harrisburg table. So that’s how it is in Pennsylvania. People were not used to working with other people who are not from the same city they’re from. See that?
I work with everybody. The thing is that, what was really great about being at Smithfield was that I had a deep connection because I play a lot of sports. I coached a lot of sports and I won a lot of championships. So a lot of people want to play on my team, right? And so I made a lot of connections throughout the jail, a lot of relationships got built. It’s like that as far as abolition. You have to build relationships first. And so, because I had those relationships, I was able to come in and start a study group that was a little different.
When I came here, a lot of guys from Smithfield are now here in this prison. So people know me. “Oh, yeah, he’s gay. He’s a good dude.” So people will actually vouch for me. People didn’t get to see you. You know what I mean? What are you actually doing? You can talk abolition all day long, but how are you interacting with people? You can talk about being in solidarity with a prisoner but listen, are you really in solidarity with people? You can talk about mutual aid but let’s see what’s happening. Are you really practicing mutual aid? They say in prison, they say, “Believe nothing that you hear, half of what you see.” You see? You don’t have to explain that people are watching you. That’s your biggest... That’s where you see the most reaction. What are you doing? How do you carry yourself?
You asked a question about violence and sexual violence. And I wanted to talk about that. It’s really hard to talk about. That’s why when I mentioned before that there was an outside study group and they wanted to do some inside, outside study work. And the first material they sent in was talking about sexual violence. And I was, “Oh, you shouldn’t do that.” I said, “You’re going to get a really bad response. You’re not going to get people to write back because that’s a kind of a taboo subject to talk about.”
Here, it’s not something we talk about. And so when I talk about violence and you guys, I need to talk about it in a very general sense. I do want to tell you that we do deal with sexual violence in here. There’s an article I did for the Philadelphia Partisan, called “Abolition Behind the Wall.” And it’s about a real-life incident that happened with sexual violence. When you see that article, you’ll see that whole essay is about how we had to confront someone over that person trying to pressure another person into having sex with him.
When we talk about sexual violence behind the wall, there’s actually three prongs of it. The first thing is you're a prisoner, so prisoner to prisoner. And so what we tend to do is we try to educate. There are certain populations behind the wall that are more vulnerable, susceptible to that type of victimization. Right? And so we tried to educate that particular population and let them know the different traps. Like, “Don’t get into debt. Don’t do drugs. Watch out for certain things.” We try to educate about these certain traps. And the biggest one is debt. They try to get people into debt and then you actually owe me something, so you have to do something for me.
And another thing is that as part of this other thing with prisoner–prisoner, trying to stop that type of violence is creating mutual aid networks. Because what happens so often is that you have a young person who’s maybe hungry or needs hygiene products or something like that. And they’ll go get it from someone, that person wants something else back. See? And it’s not what that person wants to give back.
So we do it to make sure that we have these products available. And if we didn’t give it to you, don’t go borrowing off of somebody. Don’t go to them, we call it, “going to the store,” two for ones and put interest. No. We’ll just give it to you. “Here. Here’s some cosmetics. Here’s some food. Here’s some underclothes. Don’t go borrowing stuff from people.” So that’s a part of our mutual aid network. And almost every block has that. It’s called a Sadaqah box, which in Arabic means charity. And it definitely is. And so what happens is that if a person doesn’t have anything or has little funds, you could just have it.
But you can also go to the Sadaqah box and borrow stuff that you’ll get back on your commissary day. So we tell people to use the Sadaqah box instead of getting it from other people because all of this nonsense, right? The other thing is creating relationships with people, particularly those from marginalized populations, where they feel comfortable reaching out, asking me for help when another prisoner is pressuring them to have sex. And that’s what that article was actually about. If you look it up in Partisan. That’s what it was about. When it comes to prisoners and staff and sexual violence, we have PREA [Prison Rape Elimination Act] complaints, right? But you have to be willing also to stand as a witness for that other prisoner. You see what I’m saying?
This is a call from Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution, Fayette. This call is subject to recording and monitoring.
If it’s the prisoner’s word versus the officer’s word or staff member’s word, the prisoner is going to lose. So they need witnesses so you have to be willing to stand and be a witness for that person. Even if that means there might be some repercussions for you also. See what I’m saying? And so that’s a part of it also. And then we obviously can collect information, reach out to people outside and ask them to help us if there’s something going on. And that really worked well because when people on the outside say there’s a PREA issue going on and they call in here, you get results.
I’m telling you something. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections hates bad publicity. So that’s how when we use phones now to actually publicize stuff, that’s when you get a lot of action out of that. That gets them to do something. The other thing to understand is that sexual violence is a part of being in prison almost every day, strip searches, pat downs. You have to go to the shower and people see you naked and things like that. It’s really crazy. So a lot of that is a part of being in prison and people don’t understand that. This happened any place else, you would see it as sexual abuse, sexual violence, but because we’re in here, they think that’s supposed to be normal. No, it’s not.
How do you ever get used to being violated that way every day? Somebody that’s coming to touch you all over because they feel like it, just cause they want to annoy you. Come on, stop. This is crazy. But this is actually part of the sexual violence that takes place every day, every day in these places. It really does.
The other thing is that part of what I do here is I make heteropatriarchy, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia and sexual violence part of my study group. This year, I decided to do a group about patriarchy, right? Because the DOC pushes the line in all the men’s prison that our failure is usually a failure to grab and to practice patriarchy completely. That’s what they tell us. All we needed to be, all we needed to see is a better patriarch. “Be a man. Be a better man. Be a man.”
This is a call from Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution, Fayette. This call is subject to recording and monitoring.
Just imagine that you’re queer or you’re transgender. And the whole program, everything is, “Be a man. Man up. Be a man.” And it’s like, “Wow. So the whole thing is pushing patriarchy.” And in my mind, at the women’s prison, the same thing: “You should go get a good man.” You know what I mean? It’s about being docile to the man and you’re not acting lady-like, like a woman, you know what I mean? This is a place that’s not only segregated by gender, but it produces these gender binaries off of that. It produces that. And it has a really rigid binary here. It’s really just amazing and I understand that shit is killing them. And I know that it’s killing us, our families, our community. So what they’re actually giving us is poison. And so I’m trying to get people to understand that, “Listen, we got to let go of that stuff. We got to let go of that stuff.” Because most guys in here, they’re in here because of pride. “This guy said that. That guy said that. I got mad. I pulled out my gun and I did this because I’m a man. I can’t let him talk to me like that. I’m a man. He can’t do that to me.” You see? “This is the ideal man.”
And the thing about violence is, understand that prisons are such an inherently violent place. Everything that happens here either is because of violence or a threat of violence. They always got mace on them. They always got the handcuffs. They always ready to jump on you. You know what I mean? So the thing is it’s really weird because they’re trying to tell you that violence is not the answer. Right? But that’s the only answer they have for us here.
You’re talking about an environment where violence is all you see and hear. That’s the motivation for everything. Everyone is telling everyone, “I’m going to beat you up.” You know what I mean? So I’m telling you this and they say, “You said you should go home and not be violent.” So the state has a monopoly on violence. Us being violent is wrong, but their being violent, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” They can beat you up. They can do all types of stuff to you and that’s okay. We have to somehow divest ourselves of violence being an answer at the same time. You asked the question about the advice maybe I would give to outside activists, right?
I would say slowing down. The things I’ve noticed... You have to notice what is already there. There’s abolitionists even if the people don’t call it that. So you find out how people’s needs are being met right now. How are they resolving conflicts right now? You should come to a setting and try to learn first, right? Remember I talked about the Sadaqah boxes, right? So you go, you realize they already had something that’s like mutual aid. You see that? They may not call it that. That’s what it is. This is mutual aid. Sadaqah box is mutual aid. So you got to go to a community and learn that community. Learn what they already have there.
We need to slow down sometimes to figure out what’s already there. I kind of learned that from Mariame Kaba, about going into a setting, going into the community and finding out what’s already there that’s abolitionist and also paying attention to language, because that’s something they’re saying here that kind of used to bother me. They say, “Oh, we’re policing ourselves.”
I was like, “Oh, why do they use that term?” What I feel like they’re saying when they say policing ourselves is that we’re not going to go to the police. We don’t want to get the cops involved, so we just police ourselves. That means working together, that means being cooperative to get something done, and let’s not involve the police at all. So it’s actually an abolitionist practice with a name that sounds crazy to me.
This is a call from the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution, Fayette. This call is subject to recording and monitoring.
We’re not going to call the cops, we just work together and we just take care of... We do this ourselves, they don’t get involved. But I didn’t like the name, how they were saying it. Policing themselves, right? I didn’t understand the language that was there. If you could break it down, talk about why that sounds kind of crazy to me, but I want to work with it for right now until we actually get to a certain point where we decided to change that language. So that was something else I learned.
There’s something you mentioned about class and gender and sexuality. And I think, there was a time when prisoners regularly critiqued capitalism and imperialism along with racism. Let’s say in the seventies. We don’t see that today. You don’t see it, and I think it’s a problem. There’s no intersectionality, as if they’re not talking about these perceptions of race, class, gender, none of that. It’s usually coming from just one mindset, one way. And I feel like the term prisoner has been flattened and homogenized. So I’m able-bodied, cis heterosexual male. That’s all it means. Able-bodied, cis het male, that’s what it means. That definition leaves a lot of people outside.
A lot of people invisible, erased. And part of my task was to push above it and put it in the act to just broaden the definition, especially for terms like prisoner and community and harm and freedom. There were major holes in our practice and there will still be major holes in our practice behind a wall. We’re never going to dismantle the PIC if we don’t eliminate this oppressive system, right?
You see, we have cops in our head and cops in our heart. Now you got to get rid of them first. We’re worried about the cops. You got to get rid of the cops in your head and the cops in your heart, understand? And a lot of this is a lot of work. We’re slacking. So I’m pushing now, we have to do this work because honestly, if they were to start kicking out all the prisoners right now, people will still go home and commit a lot of harm, you understand? And we don’t have the systems set up to deal with it right now. So we need to start building capacity, right?
We’re going to have to deal with harm when it does happen, because harm will happen, deal with conflict because conflict will happen. But it’s a skill that we have to learn. The PIC’s not going to teach it to us. That’s why we also need study groups and we need people on the outside to assist us. There are so many people here that don’t know anything about being a part of community. People are like lone wolves their whole lives. They need to know how to be in community. They want to be in community, but they don’t have the skills, that skillset. The thing is that we don’t give them a chance to practice. You play like you practice, so if you give a chance to practice...
As far as class and communism, we have to do better connecting the dots regarding economics of race, gender, sexuality, ability and borders. We don’t talk a lot of the time about that here. Once again, it’s usually one thing that’s about racism and that’s it, or they’re talking about sexism or ability, but as far as understanding the economics behind all of this it’s not there. When you look at where this works, we have these really weird ideas sometimes in prisons like they say, “They’re making money off of us.” I said, “Well, who is they?” “The state is making money.” The state is not making money, the state is paying for you, so who is making the money? Who’s making money? So you have to get back to... They know somebody’s making money off of this, right? Like, you have to get back to the economics of this.
There was a time in the sixties, in the seventies, when prison radical intellectuals addressed class, they called out capitalism, they called out imperialism. We’ve lost that. You get to study these issues, but we need materials that are accessible to prisoners with areas that help them connect what is happening to their condition and because of their families and their neighborhoods.
What I find ironic is that almost everyone behind the walls is a socialist. You don’t call it that, but everybody behind... We have to be socialist to survive here, understand? That’s how we live. We need each other, we have to come together as a group. Almost everybody is a socialist in prison. Everybody needs somebody and you lean on each other all the time. You understand? And so it’s like, even if you don’t call it that, you’re practicing it. You’re already practicing it. You may not be using that language to describe it, but that’s actually what’s happening. So I think that they can call it whatever they want to call it. I’m cool with you calling it what you want to call it, but you know what, you’re practicing socialism, you’re practicing collectivism.
You know? And so we have to really do a better job of translating what we mean by socialism, communism. It’s still dirty words. So we have to understand the people who you’re living with, it’s socialist, y’all come together. Y’all come to the pool together, work out with people. So much of what’s happening behind the walls here is socialism. I find that particularly, people of color, that’s how we live anyway.
Particularly people of color, we live that way. So it’s nothing foreign to us. You might call it something that we don’t call it, but the practice itself is not foreign to us. So really what I’m trying to get to do is practice it. I don’t care what you call it right now, but I want you to practice these things. What you’re practicing is socialism, what you’re practicing is communism, and you might not know it as that, but I want you to understand it as the practice itself.
You get a better job of getting people to understand the economics behind this, how connecting the dots... What is happening right now in Palestine and what’s happening here, how are they connected? What’s happening on the border and what’s happening in Philadelphia, how are they connected? You see that, we have to get this done, but it has to be a way that’s accessible to the prisoners.
It’s about the experience. I thought that before, I found myself translating a lot. And when I come across someone’s work I don’t have to translate, I feel so elated. Like Ruthie Gilmore, I don’t have to translate Ruthie. I guess with Ruth, they understand it. Angela Davis, they understand it. Some people that get to work, I got to go do this one step at a time. Come on.
I’m trying to break it down, what’s being said and they get it. Once I break it down, they get it. “Oh, that, okay. Yeah. I know that.” That’s why I don’t know if they got it unless you can explain it back to me and give your own example. That’s what they do, that’s how I know they got it. I know they got it. So this is about really aiding those types of materials that speak to prisoners. Prisoners have their families too.
A little while ago, I was reading “Feminism is for Everybody” by bell hooks, right? And what she was saying, I’m like, this is the same thing with abolition. We need to sit there and bring abolition to the masses. Stop waiting for people to come to us, we need to go to them, so that an eighth grader can understand what abolition is. We got to make a better job of doing it, and that means not just writing but also stuff like cultural production. You know what I mean, cultural productions, building with people and like I said, sometimes going into the community to find out what is already there that’s abolitionist. And honoring that, you know what I mean? And here, what I can do is as a study group, because I use a study group as consciousness raising groups. I use the group to cycle conversion and connection. I use the group to cycle transformation and challenge also, okay? That’s my task while I’m here. To continue to raise the consciousness of the people, create connections between them and the people on the outside of the wall and to build together. Was there something you wanted to ask me?
I’m curious what you think about the relationship between what you’re calling abolition and what we’re calling gay communism? One of the things that we drew from was this incredible text that we found in this magazine that Marsha P. Johnson edited in the seventies. And it basically sounds like what you’re describing, practices of mutual aid.
What is that? Could you send me that text? I want to tell you something, you’re right about some of the relationships. This is actually one of my courses, under the six processes of relationships. Prison creates relationships, right? It constructs the ways of seeing and interacting with other people. I said abolition must counter those ways of seeing and interacting. So for instance, prison alienates, dichotomizes, it creates hierarchies of worth. So abolition has to be about connection, recognizing and holding complexity and differences and community-building and organizing it doesn’t replicate this oppressive, dominant structure. So when I was talking about the relationship that prison creates... I’m saying that prison actually does these things where they see me a certain way, the officers see me a certain way. And our job as abolitionists is to change and challenge those relationships. So from alienation we go to connection. ⊱
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