Prison Abolition: An International Struggle

Activists show solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Gaza. (Photos: Mahmoud Ajjour, The Palestine Chronicle)

By Benay Blend

Winner at the Sundance Film Festival for Best Directing, Garrett Bradley’s “Time” focuses on an intimate love story to convey an indictment of the prison-industrial complex. Bradley’s film follows a Black couple who at a very young age commit armed robbery of a bank.

From there Bradley relates how one act performed out of desperation can lead to a 60-year prison sentence for Robert Richardson, and for his wife Sibil “Fox Rich” Richardson–20 years of working not only for Rob’s release but also for the abolition of a dehumanizing system that has become “the new Jim Crow, as described in Michelle Alexander’s book of the same title.

“I thought it was really important to find ways to extend the conversation around incarceration in a way that was familial and emotional and inherently feminist and Black and Southern,” Bradley said during a Q&A as part of the International Documentary Association screening series.

Splicing together her footage from the present day with Fox Rich’s home videos, Bradley looks at one family’s fight not just for prison abolition, but for the hope of bringing home their father. “I wanted to show the ripple effect of what it means to incarcerate 2.3 million people,” Bradley told TIME magazine.

“We think about the magnitude of people that are incarcerated, but we have no optics, no sort of visual examples of what that looks like. We’re dealing with an invisible community. In a way, the only way we can bear witness to their experience is through the people who are on the outside.”

“Connecting the dots,” Bradley says, “is something that I don’t anticipate stopping.” During her own incarceration, former political prisoner Angela Davis asked that her personal campaign be transformed into an international abolition movement. Moreover, she has asked that social movements place Palestinians at the center by calling for the abolition of Israeli prisons.

At no time has her call been more urgent than now when what Bradley calls “an invisible community” are dying at a faster rate than ever. In a recent Reuters investigative study, reporters examined mortality in more than 500 US jails from 2008 to 2019. Subverting a major principle of the justice system, innocent until proven guilty, a staggering 4,998 inmates held on minor charges died long before their trial.

As the report concluded, some deaths were due to lack of adequate healthcare. More than 2,000 committed suicide as a result of mental breakdowns. An increasing number died from drug and alcohol abuse, while nearly 300 died from being imprisoned for a year or more awaiting trial.

Author of These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggles and Defiance in Israeli Prisons (2020), Ramzy Baroud tells a similar story of over approximately 800,000 Palestinians who have been held in Israeli jails since June 1967, the year that marks the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.

In “Dying Alone: When We Stopped Caring for Palestinian Prisoners,” Baroud discusses how the plight of political prisoners has been erased from the Palestinian leadership’s agenda, reduced to a “mere humanitarian subject” disconnected from the resistance as well as Israel’s brutal violence.

In order to gain attention, Baroud explains, Palestinian prisoners launch hunger strikes under the banner: “freedom or death.” The most urgent case now is that of Maher al-Akhras who has endured over 77 days of hunger strike. Left with two options, freedom or death, he does not have long unless Israel chooses to do the right thing by setting him free.

What Bradley did for Fox Rich and her husband, Baroud provides for detainees in Israeli jails. Each creates a space in which the normally invisible can tell their stories. In this way Bradley used home videos that she mixed with her own footage to make a film about the ripple effects of mass incarceration on one enduring family.

In These Chains will Be Broken, Baroud records prisoners’ personal stories in which the “prison,” he says, becomes “a metaphor for the wider Palestinian experience.”

In the early days of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in Albuquerque, my friend Selinda Guerrero, an organizer for Millions of Prisoners, told me that no matter what the offense that person’s life is more than the worst thing he/she has ever done. Like Fox Rich, she has spent the past few months working to bring attention to her husband Clifton White who was arrested on bogus charges during one of the early BLM rallies in Albuquerque.

“How can you convey the full length of 21 years in the span of a single film, let alone a documentary that runs just 81 minutes?” asks David Ehrlich in his review of Bradley’s “Time.” “You don’t measure it in length, but rather in loss,” he responds in answer to his own question.

Palestinian women, too, are not strangers to that loss, yet, as Shaatha Hammad writes, “relationships thrive” despite years when their men are detained in prison. For example, like Fox and Robert, Jinan Samara waited 18 years for her betrothed Abdel Karim Makhdar’s release.

“What passed was a bad dream,” Jinan said after being reunited with her husband. “Today we are living the truth, we are living in reality.” Soon after that they were married.

“Jinan and Abdel Karim’s case is not a rare one,” writes Hammad. “It is a reality that will continue as long as there are thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons.”

In a recent conversation, Angela Davis explained that in order to imagine “a world without prisons,” several things must happen first. For example, she speaks of the importance of connecting punishment to poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of dominance that are reflected in the prison system. Political education, too, she feels is critical in order to replace common assumptions about the criminal “justice” system.

One of those assumptions, she continues, is the idea that punishment is a just response to all violations of the law. Looking to non-Western societies, she points to reconciliatory or restorative justice, a process that brings about reconciliation between offender and victim in order to bypass the prison system.

Finally, in a statement from Critical Resistance, formerly incarcerated people, activists and scholars joined together to express concern about Zionist organizations who are attempting to appropriate criminal justice platforms in order to advance their own agendas.

It is Janus-like, the statement warns, for these groups to call themselves prison reformers while at the same time white-washing the terrible conditions that are rampant in Israeli prisons. Recalling Garrett Bradley’s advice to connect the dots, these organizers understand that “Israel imprisons Palestinians in order to suppress their struggle or freedom, just as the U.S. criminal legal system targets Black and Brown communities as a means of continuing their subjugation.”

“Our struggle can only grow stronger when we join in solidarity with Palestine’s struggle for self-determination and freedom,” concludes the statement, thereby validating prison abolition as an international, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist movement for reform.

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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