Jul 12, 2023

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In Spite of the Consequences: Prison Letters on Exoneration, Abolition, and Freedom

by Lacino Hamilton

When he was 19 years old, Lacino Hamilton was sentenced to 80 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Hamilton spent 26 years in prison before being exonerated in 2020 after DNA evidence cleared him. Hamilton became a prolific writer during his long incarceration and is publishing a collection of letters in his forthcoming book, In Spite of the Consequences: Prison Letters on Exoneration, Abolition, and Freedom. In this week’s newsletter, we’re publishing an excerpt from the book, which asks us to reframe the way we think about crime and incarceration.

“I didn’t create this impasse. I had nothing to do with the arrival of matters at this destructive end, as you infer. Did I colonize, kidnap, make war on myself, destroy my institutions, enslave myself, use myself, and neglect myself, steal my identity and then, being reduced to nothing, invent a competitive economy knowing that I cannot compete? Sounds very foolish, but this is what you propose when you place the blame on me or on ’us.’” —George Jackson

Dear Dr., Professor, friend of mine,

I don’t think I am going to spend a lot of time this morning explaining how the generic formula of justifying oppression, by finding defects in the victim of oppression, is a multibillion-dollar industry. A malevolent and dangerous industry encompassing almost every American problem. An industry that has acquired legitimacy and influence, in part, because entertainers and academics, many of mediocre talent, are its paid spokespeople. Spokespeople granted public platforms even when they have no special expertise or experience with the problem they write and speak about.

Finding defects in the victim is so popular, so American, that with or without paid spokespeople we have been conditioned to ask, “What is wrong with him?” “What was she thinking?” “Why would ’they’ do something like that?” Then answer those questions in ways that absolve the actual culprits, which, more than likely, is an institution, corporation, or state agency, considering every aspect of our lives is dominated and controlled by them.

So, for example, in Detroit, Michigan, 42 percent of fourth graders are behind in reading and math. No one asks questions about dilapidated buildings, two or three students sharing one textbook, no textbooks, ten (sometimes more) additional desks in the classroom, irrelevant curriculums, teaching models based on teaching tests—not about immediate problems or solutions, metal detectors, armed guards, mini police stations. Instead we are encouraged to confine our attention to the student and to dwell on his or her alleged defects. Pointing to his or her supposedly deviant family or absent father. What?

Let’s say for the sake of not arguing that no one in a particular student’s family can read or count. Are you telling me the school cannot teach the student to read and count, and do it proficiently? What use is the school? Can you imagine if 42 percent of Google or Amazon’s workforce was underperforming? Do you think they would blame the individual worker or immediately recognize there is a company problem? Would they bring individual workers in and fire them one at a time or assemble all the top executives, quality control, industry experts, and troubleshooters to fix the problem? Do you think they will do a survey to assess how many workers grew up without a father in the home? That would be absurd.

It is just as absurd when mass incarceration is analyzed by looking at the individual prisoner instead of asking how is it that America is 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people are in American prisons. Instead of asking how Black people, 12 percent of the American population, make up over 50 percent of the prison population. Instead of asking why America tries to incarcerate itself out of problems that are economic and political at base—the product of choices made by elites. The logical outcome of analyzing mass incarceration in terms of alleged deficiencies of individual prisoners is the development of programs that leave the systems and machinery responsible for facilitating mass incarceration untouched. The formula for action becomes extraordinarily simple: change the prisoner. What about changing a society that could have mass incarceration? What about that?

Blaming the individual and absolving institutions, corporations, and state agencies happens so smoothly, has been happening for so long, that it seems downright rational. First, identify the problem. Not in advance of the problem, because it has reached a point where it can no longer be denied or easily explained away. Second, study those affected by the problem and discover in what ways they are different from those not affected. Is s/he Black, no degree, poor, urban, immigrant, something? Third, define the differences as the cause of the problem itself. It is because s/he is Black, has no degree, is poor, urban, an immigrant, something. Finally, invent a response that deals sternly with those “differences.” Like monitor those “differences,” confine those “differences,” neutralize those “differences.” And to add insult to injury, the response is said to be done in the best interest of those being monitored, confined, and/or neutralized.

Of course the problems are there. They are there in such proportions I understand why many people feel unsafe. Why people are screaming out for “something” to be done. But the people you cite are opportunists who reap fame, fortune, and national celebrity by denying that racism, classism, and sexism are behind a lot of our desperate living. People who are not in solidarity with prisoners. Who do not help us find ways to be heard. Who do not match their resources with our ideas. Who do not follow our lead. They are given awards and book deals while those who are really with us, colloquially, “those that fuck with us,” are marginalized.

And this does not mean prisoners are beyond criticism. Every person is morally responsible for his or her actions. But George L. Jackson was right. I did not colonize my neighborhood. I did not kidnap the jobs that allow people to do more than just survive. I did not make war on my life chances, life chances sociologists were debating before I was born. I did not destroy four hundred years of informal ways of solving personal and community problems. I did not enslave my neighborhood to corporations with political power so oversized their desires become political realities to the detriment of my reality. I did not use my father and uncles, mother and aunts to build wealth for Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors just so they could go from three to two to one to no shifts. I did not gerrymander and reform away the vote. And then, being reduced to irrelevance, dispose of myself for fifty-two to eighty years.

Excerpted from In Spite of the Consequences: Prison Letters on Exoneration, Abolition, and Freedom © 2023, Lacino Hamilton, Broadleaf Books. Used by permission.

Lacino Hamilton is a writer, thinker, and activist who was incarcerated for twenty-six years due to a wrongful conviction for which he was exonerated in September 2020. His essays on prison abolition have appeared in Truthout, The New Inquiry, PEN America, The Michigan Citizen, and the San Francisco Daily. He lives in Michigan.

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That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, donate here.