Justice in America Episode 20: Mariame Kaba and Prison Abolition
Josie and Clint talk about prison abolition with Mariame Kaba.
On the last episode of Season 2, Josie and Clint discuss prison abolition with Mariame Kaba, one of the leading organizers in the fight against America’s criminal legal system and a contributing editor for The Appeal. Mariame discusses her own journey into this work, provides perspective on the leaders in this space, and helps us reimagine what the future of this system could look like. Mariame’s way of thinking about this system, and the vision of possibilities she provides, is an excellent send-off to our second season.
More information on Survived and Punished can be found here.
Here’s the website for Free Marissa Now, which fought to free Marissa Alexander after she was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot to defend herself against her abusive husband. And here’s more information about Nan-Hui Jo, who was arrested for child abduction after she fled the country with her child to escape her abusive husband.
And check out the other organizations Kaba mentioned, including California Coalition for Women Prisoners and Critical Resistance.
Faye Knopp’s 1976 handbook, Instead of Prisons, can be found here.
To learn more about Ruth Wilson Gilmore and her seminal book, Golden Gulag, click here.
As previous guest Sonya Shah did in episode 19, Kaba mentions Howard Zehr, known as the “grandfather of restorative justice.”
She also mentions INCITE!’s community accountability resources, found here, in particular their Creative Interventions Toolkit
Justice in America is available on iTunes, Soundcloud, Sticher, GooglePlay Music, Spotify, and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter.
Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Mariame Kaba: What we’re saying as transformative and restorative justice practitioners is that the prison is actually an outcome of a broader system of violence and harm that has its roots in slavery and before colonization. And here we are in this position where all you then think about is replacing what we currently use prisons for, for the new thing.
Josie: Hi everybody. I am Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint: And I’m Clint Smith
Josie: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discuss a topic in the American criminal justice system and we try to explain what it is and how it works.
Clint: Thank you so much to everyone for joining us today. You can find us as always on Twitter at @justice_podcast, like our Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on iTunes, we’d love to hear from you.
Josie: Yes, thank you guys so much. Please email us at email@example.com. We want to hear your feedback, we want to know what topics you’d like for us to cover in the coming seasons or words or phrases connected to criminal justice you’d like us to breakdown. We want to know anything that might be interesting to you that we could teach you a little bit more about here on Justice in America.
Clint: So, today is a big day and a sad day but also a wonderful and triumphant day because it is the last episode of Season 2. We’re 20 episodes in. For me this is such a wonderful and generative process and I’ve learned so much and I feel so lucky to do it with my dear friend and we’re so grateful for all the folks who listen. I think it’s gotten greater listenership than we could have hoped for and we’re so grateful for the teachers who use it in their classrooms, for the people coming to this work for the first time learning about the criminal justice system, people who are sort of coming to refine and clarify their understanding. What you should know is that we are learning right along side you and we’re grateful for that.
Josie: Absolutely. I didn’t realize we were going to learn so much when we were starting this idea of doing this podcast and I’m so grateful to Clint for his partnership in this and just, you know, we’ve just covered so much amazing and interesting stuff this season and I think I’m really excited about today because it is a way to shift the conversation to what is possible.
Clint: Definitely and we’re doing something a little bit different because we are continuing the general topic that we discussed on our last episode in terms of reforms that would fundamentally change the entire system. So, restorative justice, prison abolition and those types of things.
Josie: Yeah, so last week we dug into restorative justice with our guest Sonya Shah, if you haven’t listened to it, please do. Today we want to talk a little bit about abolition to help set up our guest Mariame Kaba, who is the director of Project NIA, the co-founder of Survived + Punished and a researcher in residence at Barnard Center for Research on Women. Restorative justice is just one way to rethink our criminal justice system and one way to rethink accountability. And in that same way abolition is another way to sort of rethink the possibility of our criminal justice system. But before we talk about how restorative justice and abolition are related, let’s outline what prison abolition really is.
Clint: Fifteen years ago, Angela Davis wrote a book called Are prisons Obsolete? and in it she essentially outlines a case for prison abolition. She says, look, even people who care about this issue, who want to see real change to our system, have trouble imagining a world without prisons in it. But why would we assume that prisons are inherently necessary?
Josie: So, we know what you’re thinking. Whenever you kind of say the words “prison abolition” to people, it can sound really extreme right? People tend to think that of course we must have prisons. There are people out there who are dangerous, and who have done some really really bad things. And those people need to be locked up.
Clint: Perhaps you are even willing to concede that we could let 80 or 90 or 95 percent of people out of prison right now, and address wrongdoings other ways and it wouldn’t have any repercussions for public safety. But you also may believe that we still need to have that 5 percent locked away, otherwise we would all be in danger.
Josie: Yeah for most people, it’s difficult to imagine a world without prisons. It’s difficult for me to imagine a world without prisons.
Clint: Yeah. Same for me. I think it takes a lot of proactive work and proactive imagining that isn’t intuitive to the sort of society we live in. And it’s just so foreign and the instinct is to say, ‘this is the only way we can keep people safe, we should reform them and improve them and all of that, but we still have to rely on them.’ And to believe that prisons have no role in society is to be unrealistic or to believe in abstractions and not to be dealing in the real world as it is.
Josie: Yep, exactly. But Angela Davis makes a very good case that this is not true. So, she says in her book, “The most difficult and urgent challenge today is that of creatively exploring new terrains of justice where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.” And I just, I love that line, because I think it really encompasses what we’re trying to do here.
Clint: And Davis’ argument echoes that of other abolitionists, including Mariame Kaba, who we will talk to in a few minutes. And what prison abolitionists have long argued is that people in America have trouble imagining alternatives to the justice system precisely because ours is so monstrous. “We think of the current system, with its exaggerated dependence on imprisonment, as an unconditional standard,” Davis says, “and thus have great difficulty envisioning any other way of dealing with the more than two million people who are currently being held in the country’s jails, prisons, youth facilities, and immigration detention centers.”
Josie: And she acknowledges that there is not another humane system we could build to replace the current one, right? We could not house as many people as the current system does in any other system. But that’s the point. We actually don’t have to replace the prison system with just one thing. In fact, we don’t have to replace it at all. Instead, abolitionists argue that getting rid of prisons, it would require an array of alternative solutions whose utility depends on the person, the wrongdoing, and the circumstances.
Clint: Those alternatives could include rigorous therapy, targeted treatment, housing, restorative justice, education, employment. There are countless possibilities, all of which could, as Davis phrases it, “crowd out” the criminal justice system. And its important to keep in mind that people who are prison abolitionists have a much larger intellectual and political framework for the way that they imagine prison abolition taking place. So it’s not necessarily, and I can’t speak on behalf of every prison abolitionist obviously, but its not necessarily letting all of the people out of prison right now, in this moment, and destroying the prisons with sledge hammers, although I imagine there are some people who do want that as well. What it’s really about is saying, how can we create a set of social and systemic structures that make it so that we are diminishing the power of the prison, investing in communities where the realities of what put people on trajectory to prisons aren’t the current social realities anymore? And so how can we sort of continuously diminish the need for and the power of this institution that we know continues to cause harm and harm and harm again.
Josie: And I think to that same point, this criminal justice reform community includes a lot of people who advocate for prison abolition. And in the meantime, what they are pushing for, is an end to new prisons, right? They are pushing for decarceration. They are pushing for proactive solutions that prevent people from going to prison in the first place. So, it’s not that its abolition or nothing, right? It’s that we think of abolition as the end goal, that we would really have a healthier society if we did not have to rely on prisons, or choose to rely on prisons.
Clint: And I think a helpful framework for me to remember is always the way that we think of what constitutes as something as radical or realistic and thinking about the sort of historical precedence of that. I always think for myself about slavery and I think about how you know I think in our minds we all think that all of us would be Frederick Douglass if we lived back in 1860 and what we have to remember is that there were very few people, like abolitionists were not at all reflective of the thinking of the sort of larger populous at that moment. Most people is you went and said, “I’m an abolitionists,” they would look at you like you were crazy.
Clint: They would say ‘that’s unrealistic, the United States had never actually existed as an institution without the institution of slavery alongside it.’ I mean, in fact slavery, you know, the US became the US in 1776, slavery has existed since 1619 so even more than 150 years prior to the United States becoming an official independent country we had had slavery here and so for so many people the idea that slavery would be abolished, the thing that was the sort of economic bedrock of not only the South but also the industries of the North, the idea that you would get rid of that seemed ridiculous to people.
Clint: And so I think it’s worth remembering that when somebody calls for the abolition of a system that our country has never existed without, it is a difficult thing to wrap your head around our country existing without that institution but it is also important to remember that this is something that we have done before and it is important to remember that now we look back at the people who chose to imagine a different world and who chose to imagine a different system in the most positive sort of way and as reflective of the way that we would imagine ourselves to be. And so that’s just a helpful framework and thing that I think is important to keep in mind as we decide what is ridiculous or what is not a ridiculous sort of policy initiative.
Josie: Yeah I think that is really true and I think part of this is imagining what a perfect world looks like. So often we get caught up in the legislative victory or the small policy victory and the way to see a path forward is to really see the end. And the end is a world without prisons, a world where people are safe without the American prison system. And you know for those who think this sounds absurd and impractical, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that our current system is also impractical and also absurd. You know, people come out of our current criminal justice system worse, not better. And this is a feature of the system, it’s not a bug. In other words, this is not a system built to make anyone better or to really rehabilitate them or to address the harm that they’ve done or focus on repair and healing. And in that way, you know, this is sort of what I think abolition and restorative justice have in common. They’re both focused on not just addressing the situation at hand but really making people, healing them inside, their trauma, their hurt and insuring that they can have consequences for their actions but not in ways that destroy them.
Clint: Abolitionists argue that the system as it currently exists does more harm than good, and that you can’t end violence, harm and destruction through a system designed to subject millions of people to violence, harm and destruction.
Josie: When you really think about it you can see that is really doesn’t make much sense to advocate for maintaining a system that has basically proven itself worthless. And actually, worthless doesn’t even do justice to the problem here. This is a system that causes actual harm to millions of people every single day. So the idea of prison abolition and restorative justice, these are some of the bold alternatives that people are discussing.
Clint: Just like last season, we’re ending the season by interviewing someone that we admire, adore, want to be number in their fan club, me and Josie are fighting for the number one slot. Mariame Kaba, @prisonculture on Twitter, who you heard in the clip at the beginning of the show. She is brilliant, she is inspiring and she, I think, has pushed me and pushed my thinking over the last several years in following her and listening to her and reading her work in ways that I am deeply grateful for. Again just one of the most important folks working in the world of criminal justice today.
Josie: Right. I just feel that Miriame in particular makes me think about the system in a whole different way. Everytime I talk to her. And honestly this system is pretty much all I think about so that’s kind of a big deal. So I’m excited for you all to hear our conversation with her.
Clint: Mariame, Josie and I spent some time together pretty recently up in New York where we discussed prison abolition, restorative justice, the criminalization of survivors and so much more. So stay tuned for our talk with Mariame Kaba and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Clint: Our guest on the show today is Mariame Kaba, who is the Director of Project NIA, co-founder of Survived + Punished, and researcher in residence at Barnard Center for Research on Women and just generally is a phenomenal writer, the best person you will follow on twitter and we are so grateful for the range of important work that she does and we’re grateful that she’s here with us on the podcast today. Thank you for coming.
Mariame Kaba: Thanks for having me.
Josie: So we wanted to start just by getting a sense of how you got interested and involved in criminal justice reform broadly and how you came to this work.
Mariame Kaba: Um, sure. So I grew up in New York City and came of age in 1980s. So, um, when I was coming of age in the city, it was kind of the early eighties were a fraught moment for many different kinds of reasons. The tail end of deinstitutionalization. So the first time where we actually started seeing homeless people outside on the streets. Michael Stewart was killed by the police in 1983 which was a very big moment for me. I was 12 years old and that really impacted me. My, um, older siblings were very animated by that fact. Um, crack cocaine is coming into being, this is the time of ACT UP. Um, this is when Reagan comes to power. It was a very tumultuous period and moment of time. So coming of age in that time led me to start organizing for racial justice as a teenager. And I also came of age during the time when there was the Bensonhurst case where a young black man was pursued and then killed by a mob of white young people who were close to my age because he supposedly talked to a white girl in a way that people were not happy about. The Howard Beach incident comes up in 1986. There was a lot happening during my teenagers in the city and I did not have an analysis of the criminal punishment system at that time. I just saw a lot of my friends, I grew up on the Lower East Side, so a lot of my friends ending up in juvie and then in prison and I didn’t, and the cops were always in our neighborhood harassing people and I did not really put all these things together, but I had a frame that was a racial justice frame at a very young age, mainly because of my parents. My mom and my dad. Um, my father, who’d been a socialist in the anti-colonial struggles in Guinea. Like I had a politics at home, but all I understood was like they were coming after black people in multiple different kinds of ways. It wasn’t until I was older and I had come back from college, um, I went to school in Montreal, Canada, came back to the city right after, I was 20 years old when I graduated from college, came back to the city and got a job working in Harlem at the, um, Countee Cullen Library and then ended up teaching in Harlem. And it was there that I found out that all of my students were also getting enmeshed in the criminal punishment system. But I still didn’t have a really, like I didn’t have a politic about it. It wasn’t until a very tragic story that occurred with one of my students who ended up killing another one of my students that I became very clearly aware of the criminal punishment system cause they were going to try to, um, basically try him as an adult. The person who did the killing, he was only 16. And it was that incident that kind of propelled me into trying to learn about what the system was, what it was about. And it concurrently, it was also the time when I started to search for restorative justice because it occurred to me, in watching the family of my student who had been killed react to the situation, that they did not want punishment for the person who killed their daughter. They were, uh, they wanted some accountability and they were also talking about the fact that he did not want him charged as an adult.
Josie: You’re saying this is about the nineties.
Mariame Kaba: This is, yeah, this is in the kind of mid nineties.
Josie: And it feels like restorative justice, this is about the time that it becomes more of a, um, more defined. Is that fair? Do you think that’d be fair to say?
Mariame Kaba: Yes. I would say that it’s defined, um, you know, people are really talking about it as early as the mid eighties, but it’s when people who are doing kind of criminal punishment, criminal justice work get ahold of it is in the mid nineties, the beginning, at that period of time. I went through my first restorative justice training in ‘96 so that was my entry point into understanding and thinking about the system in various ways. I do want to say that before that after I left teaching, I went to work at an organization called Sanctuary For Families, which was a domestic violence organization to try to do education in transforming the minds and the practices of young people around teen dating violence. So I had this kind of move away from a classroom based setting and I was like, I’m going to try to work in a community based setting to raise awareness about these issues. That was my entry point into the formal domestic violence movement. And that’s important because it comes back later as when I realized that that space was not for me either because of the way in which carceral feminism was so prevalent in that space. Um, so carceral feminism being that often feminists who are interested in ending or supposedly addressing violence advocate for the use of a violent system to do that. Um, and so this was kind of the soup that came together for me and I wasn’t really doing organizing around the system of criminal punishment, I was engaged in working with young people directly who were in conflict with the law, which was different. It wasn’t until later in the early two thousands that I officially got involved in actual organizing that would try to shift power and build power.
Josie: So for people who are learning what restorative justice is-
Mariame Kaba: Yeah.
Joise: We have laid out the basics of the idea of a different sort of system that values coming to solutions versus over punishment. But I would like to hear from you more about what it was about restorative justice then and what it continues to be about restorative justice that you find to be such a important intervention for people who could end up like the students that you had or you know, are facing sort of the specter of the system kind of bearing down on them constantly.
Mariame Kaba: Absolutely. Um, so let me say about restorative justice that um, people who are practitioners of restorative justice see restorative justice as a philosophy and ideology, a framework that is much broader than the criminal punishment system. It is about values around how we treat each other in the world. And it’s about an acknowledgement that because we’re human beings, we hurt each other. We cause harm. And what restorative justice proposes is to ask a series of questions. Mostly the three that are kind of advanced by Howard Zehr, who is the person who about 40 years ago popularized the concept of restorative justice in the United States. He talks about since we want to address the violation in the relationships that were broken as a result of violence and harm, that you want to ask a question about who was hurt, that that is important to ask, that you want to ask then what are the obligations? What are the needs that emerge from that hurt? And then you want to ask the question of whose job is it to actually address the harm? And so because of that, those questions of what happened, which in the current adversarial system are incidental really, you know, it’s who did this thing, what rules were broken? How are we going to actually punish the people who broke the rules? And then whose role is it to do that? It’s the state’s. In restorative justice it’s: what happened? Talk about what happened, share what happened, discuss in a, you know, kind of relational sense what happened. And then it’s what are your needs? Would do you need as a result of this? Because harms engender needs that must be met, right? So it asks you to really think that through. And then it says, you know, how do we repair this harm and who needs to be at the table for that to happen. It invites community in. It invites other people who were also harmed because we recognize that the ripples of harm are beyond the two individuals that were involved, it’s also the broader community and the society at large. So that’s what restorative justice, at its base, is really the unit of concern is the broken relationship and the harm. Those are the focus of what we need to be addressing. And through that, that obviously involves the criminal punishment system. In many ways RJ has become co-opted by that system. So people were initially proponents of restorative justice have moved their critique away from using RJ and talking about instead transformative justice. That’s where you see these breakdowns occuring because the system has taken on RJ now as quote unquote “a model for restitution.”
Josie: So just to clarify, you’re, are you? So transformative justice is now seen as part of restorative justice or the other way around?
Mariame Kaba: No. Restorative justice and transformative justice, people say they’re interchangeable sometimes, they are not. Because transformative justice people say that you cannot actually use the current punishing institutions that exist. Whereas RJ now is being run in prisons, is being run in schools. Institutions that are themselves violently punishing institutions are now taking that on and running that there. And what people who are advocates of transformative justice say is RJ, because of its focus on the individual, the intervention is on individuals, not the system. And what transformative justice, you know, people, advocates and people who have kind of begun to be practitioners in that have said is we have to also transform the conditions that make this thing possible. And restoring is restoring to what? For many people, the situation that occurred prior to the harm had lots of harm in it. So what are we restoring people to? We have to transform those conditions and in order to do that we have to organize, to shift the structures and the systems and that will also be very important beyond the interpersonal relationships that need to be mended.
Clint: You’ve mentioned that the framework of transformative justice and restorative justice before it becomes sort of co-opted by these systems of violence is not, some people use them as an alternative to punitive measures. An alternative to incarceration. But you reject that premise.
Mariame Kaba: Right. I reject the premise of restorative and transformative justice being alternatives to incarceration. I don’t reject the premise that we should prefigure the world in which we want to live and therefore use multiple different kinds of ways to figure out how to address harm. So here’s what I mean, because people are now saying things like the current criminal punishment system is broken, which it is not. It is actually operating exactly as designed. And that’s what abolition has helped us to understand is that the system is actually relentlessly successful at targeting the people it wants and basically getting the outcomes that wants from that. So if you understand that to be the case, then you are in a position of very much understanding that every time we use the term “alternative to incarceration” what comes to your mind?
Josie: Incarceration. We’re centering the system.
Mariame Kaba: That’s right.
Mariame Kaba: You’re centering the punishing system. When I say alternative to prison, all you hear is prison. And what that does is that it conditions your imagination to think about the prison as the center. And what we’re saying as transformative and restorative justice practitioners is that the prison is actually an outcome of a broader system of violence and harm that has its roots in slavery and before colonization. And here we are in this position where all you then think about is replacing what we currently use prisons for, for the new thing. So what I mean by that is when you think of an alternative in this moment and you’re thinking about prison, you just think of transposing all of the things we currently consider crimes into that new world.
Josie: And it has to fit that that sphere.
Mariame Kaba: It has to fit that sphere. But here’s what I, I would like to say lots of crimes are not harmful to anybody.
Clint: It’s not actually reimagining the, the idea of what constitutes as criminal behavior in the first place.
Mariame Kaba: Exactly. And it’s also that we’re in this position where not all crimes are harms and not all harms are actually crimes. And what we are concerned with as people who practice restorative and transformative justice is harm across the board no matter what. So I always tell people when they say like, ‘oh, we’re having an alternative to incarceration or alternative to prison.’ I’m like, okay, what are you decriminalizing first? Do we have a whole list of things? So possession of drugs is a criminal offense right now. I don’t want an alternative to that. I want you to leave people the hell alone.
Clint: Right. There shouldn’t be a transformative justice intervention for-
Mariame Kaba: Drug possession.
Mariame Kaba: Exactly. That is not what we’re in for. That is not even close to what we care about. You’ve got to decriminalize a whole lot of stuff and then you got to figure out what are the actual harms that are really harming people and then you’ve got to address and transform those. So that’s why I don’t like this concept of ‘we are having this as an alternative to…’ No. It’s its own vision, it’s its own ideology. It has its own set of premises that are about how we relate to each other as human beings.
Clint: I’m interested in the way, you mentioned harm and that is what these frameworks represent, right?
Mariame Kaba: That’s right.
Clint: They represent a means of moving toward healing.
Mariame Kaba: Yes.
Clint: From very real harm, emotional, physical harm that has been caused. And, and I’m interested in the idea of how one, how practitioners think of inviting those who are harmed, those who have committed harm and the ripple, you know, those who are harmed by nature of their proximity to what has happened, how do you think of inviting people into this space without notions of coercion, without, because people have to come on their own accord and I can imagine a scenario in which someone who feels profoundly harmed rejects the idea that like they should sit across the proverbial table from the person who did that harm to them. So how do you, how do you go about bringing these folks to the table in the first place?
Josie: Can I add onto that question? It’s both, to me, that if have been harmed you might not actually want to engage in a different process, but also if you have harmed, you might not have the skills or language or even interest in addressing it this way.
Mariame Kaba: Absolutely.
Clint: I think that’s a helpful addition.
Mariame Kaba: I think that’s right. So here’s another reason for why this is not an alternative to incarceration is that 100 percent of RJ and TJ is voluntary. You have to choose to get engaged and to be engaged. Under the current culture that we live in right now, what is anybody’s incentive to take accountability for harm? The current system that we have right now, what is the incentive culturally for anybody to take responsibility for what they’ve done? To actually say, ‘I did this and I want to find a way to repair that harm.’ Because if you do this in this current system, you may end up behind bars. You may end up prosecuted. So the incentive is to deny to the nth degree that you harmed people. The adversarial system that we currently have, the punishing system that we currently have encourages people not to take accountability for the actions that they do. In this kind of culture, you could imagine the barriers and the obstacles in the ways encouraging people to take accountability for what they’ve done because they don’t want to be put on blast and then end up potentially having admitted that they did something terrible and find themselves locked up. So this is why right now to engage in this is incredibly courageous on everybody’s part. It’s courageous on the part of the survivors and it’s courageous on the part of the people who caused harm. So I want to say that for me, what I have found is that most people who are harmed in this society don’t turn to anything.
Mariame Kaba: So I’m always confused by people who get very mad at me for being a practitioner and holding accountability circles and accountability processes around harm because I’m always like, well, why don’t you work with the 50 percent of people who maybe do report then? Because the vast majority of people I know who are harmed in multiple ways, whether it’s a theft or a physical assault or rape, never report to the system. They don’t go to the current system. They choose nothing over what we currently have. So I’m working with a whole bunch of people who’ve chosen nothing-
Mariame Kaba: But still need and want to have the harms that have happened addressed either because they caused it and it feels terrible, because just put yourself in the position, when you’ve hurt somebody, how have you felt about that? If you’re a person with any sort of conscience, you have been troubled by that.
Mariame Kaba: And people want a way to make things right to the extent that they can. I believe that because I’ve seen that on more than one occasion. I’ve seen that over and over and over again. So this is why to me, the conversations we’re having about the criminal punishment system are so limited because we don’t actually think about the millions of people who don’t avail themselves of it all. If every single person who was harmed went towards the system, the system would crash. There’d be no way to account for them because it’s not just first reporting to the cops, let’s say law enforcement, it’s the district attorney who decides whether or not to bring charges and file a petition. And then it’s that person deciding whether or not they’re going to go to trial because they’d rather, you know, all the things that happen by the time you get to a trial or a plea bargain, the numbers of people who’ve caused harm, are infinitesimal compared to those people who still exist out in the world who’ve been harmful or been harmed. So that’s, I think we have to be really clear that when we’re talking about RJ and TJ were working overwhelmingly with people who either can’t access the system, don’t want to access the system, have accessed the system before and had horrible experiences in it. So I don’t understand where like the controversy is. There is no controversy. Frankly, without my intervention in some of these situations, people would have been much worse off.
Josie: Right. We talk often about how the criminal legal system is reflected and you know, has the same qualities as many of our other systems. And the cruelty of it is reflected in so many other ways. Right? And so thinking about what you just said about people being accountable for harm they’ve caused reminds me, even what we see talking about race today, which is that it’s very hard for people to think that they can be racist because they think they’re a good person. And part of that is because we have a system that tells you you’re a bad person or you’re a good person.
Mariame Kaba: That’s right.
Josie: So when we think about transformative justice as a way of repairing harm, how does that reframe the way that we think about people?
Mariame Kaba: That’s right. Transformative justice calls on us to shatter binaries of all different types. Most of the people who currently are locked up, for example, in our prisons and jails, are people who are victims of crime first. They’ve been harmed and have harmed other people. The “perpetrator,” quote unquote, “victim” binary only works if you’re looking at one specific incident at a point in time, because usually the very same people who are victimized in one context have perpetrated in another. Transformative justice lives in the messiness of that and says, it isn’t that easy. We can’t just be like, you were victimized and you’re a victim always. You are a perpetrator, you’re a perpetrator always. But that people are constantly in fluidity moving between those kinds of, which are not identities, but the states, the actions, the behaviors that actually focus on that, so we are very much, when you think about a transformative justice approach and philosophy to addressing harm, you’re constantly doing what the carceral state never does. What the carceral state does is it conspires to obfuscate structural and systemic violence and turns all violence into individual failing. Transformative justice says, actually, we need to illuminate the structural and systemic violence and we need to elevate violence beyond, just quote on quote “the individual” because it’s not just about the individual is embedded in how we actually live, that these are mirrors of each other. The the structural and state violence that exists is a mirror of the interpersonal violence that exists. These things are together. That’s what I appreciate about a transformative justice approach to thinking about harm, is that it explodes those things at all levels and allows us to kind of be in the muck of the messiness of how things are in the world for real. So that you don’t have to be a perfect victim to deserve that somebody pay attention to your harm and you are not a monster for having done a bad thing. You’ve done a bad thing. So we have to be able to talk that way and think that way if we’re really going to try to address harms that have happened in particular instances. So that’s what I appreciate about having a philosophy and ideology and a vision and a framework that allows me to be able to live in those kinds of grays because a lot of this stuff is grey.
Clint: And so this is a way of kind of probing into that and also leading into the next sort of questions and thinking about intimate partner violence, sexual violence and, and things that represent, as most acts of violence do, but, and especially in this context, represents far more than the sort of interpersonal, um, instance that took place, right? Like when you are dealing with issues of violence between partners you are understanding the sort of larger systems of patriarchy and misogyny and masculinity that shape often what is, not that it is singularly man to a woman, but often is. And so I’m, I’m curious how we think about transformative justice when let’s say a woman and her child, feel a perpetual sense of fear or threat from an intimate partner who has physically and sexually and emotionally abused them. And how do we think about what, how does one protect a vulnerable group of people, um, in this context? And also reject the idea that the singular solution is to put this man in a cage? Um, so, so I guess this is a way of asking, you know, cause people often bring up public safety, right? Like how we think about public safety. And I think, you know, in many of these cases people aren’t actually in danger even if it is someone who has committed harm because they are not a perpetual threat, but how do you reconcile those two things?
Mariame Kaba: Yes. Well thanks for asking and I, I will say this, I think you should know that the concepts of community accountability and transformative justice as we understand them in the current modern moment were developed by mostly radical women of color and trans people who started trying to think through what can we create for ourselves within our communities to address intimate partner violence, both domestic violence and sexual violence. So your listeners may know or may not have heard of Incite! Women and Trans People of Color Against Violence, which came into existence in the early two thousands and uh, came out of this concept of both abolition movement and also the interpersonal violence around intimate partner and sexual violence movements of folks who had been working at both intersections. I was part of Incite!’s Chicago chapter. And so a lot of the language and the, and the theorizing and all of that stuff comes out of that space. So it’s actually a perfect example of how to think about addressing these issues because there’s a great toolkit online for those people who are interested in this that was, uh, put together after a five year experiment that was done by a group called Creative Interventions that looks at how do we address domestic violence by using community based accountability and non punitive responses? And the reason why that was the case was because those black and brown feminists who were trying to figure out how, it was because we were wanting to take seriously domestic and sexual violence. And because we saw that the current system was not taking these things seriously. And in fact that when you did after many, many times of trying to fix this yourself turn to the law enforcement system, you often found yourself criminalized within that system. So mandatory arrest laws, all this, you know, people didn’t want to figure it out. And if, God forbid, if you were in a same sex relationship, then you were both were, they didn’t want to figure it out. So because of all those things, people were like, we need another thing. And so that’s how these ideas came to be in terms of specifically transformative justice and community accountability to address harm in this of way. So for example, I’ll say I facilitate something that people call a kind of accountability processes for people who mostly are survivors of sexual harm or have perpetrated sexual harm. And one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that people mostly want a few things from those processes. They want answers. ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘Why did you do this to me?’ Right? If they’re engaged, if they want to be part of that kind of thing they want, they want recognition of the harm. They want you to admit that you did what you did. That’s so important. The current system, again, we talked about this before, makes it impossible for you to admit that you did harm. Often people want some form of repair. And they want to figure out what that could look like. Sometimes what it is is that folks want some restitution of their agency, which they feel has been taken away from them. And sometimes people want to say like, ‘I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to another person.’ So all of those things are often not possible to get within the current system as it’s set up. So that’s when an accountability process could help. Your question about, um, kind of, you know, how do we protect people? It’s like I always ask the question, what are we doing for people now? Like we can’t have conversations about this stuff without asking what is currently available to people and are they availing themselves of that? And the answer to that is no, no and no for certain populations who are already at the margins, the margins of the margins are already alienated. And those are the people who came up with these other tools to try to actually address the harms that have occurred. So we are not, I don’t, you know, I’m, I’m always also saying to folks like, I’m not an evangelist for TJ or RJ or abolition. They are just practises for me as well as frameworks for how I want to live in the world. It’s the prefiguring of the world in which I want to live. I’m trying through these kinds of frameworks to live in that world. So that’s why I’m also like, again, reminding people that I’m not interested in the alternative conversation. That’s why, because I’m, I’m in the process right now of constantly, right now I’m facilitating a process for somebody who is, uh, with somebody who caused harm, who, who sexually assaulted somebody. And um, we are in our particular design of our accountability process, the survivor is also part of it, but it’s not a given that the survivor always has to be part of accountability processes. You can do processes with just the person who caused harm and no survivor. You can do processes with just a survivor and not the person who caused harm if they won’t take accountability. Like processes work across the board in multiple ways. You can design them according to the needs of the people who are involved, so it’s very much like not a one size fits all. It’s very much tailored to what the situation is, what the harm is, what the people need and want. That is also what I appreciate is that prison is one thing. It’s one solution to every single problem. It’s taking a hammer and everything then is a nail. In this case, we are constantly working out amongst ourselves what it is that is going to hopefully help people. I will also say this, to end on this issue around processes, is that processes are not inherently healing. It often feels really terrible while you’re in it because you’re bringing up all your feelings. You’re telling this person, through other people, cause usually don’t have them sitting at the same table, you have support teams that hold both parties. Sometimes you’re communicating through your support teams like, ‘I am so pissed off. This person still says they’re not doing, they didn’t do what they did.’ They are not inherently healing. What you can hope for in a good process is that you’ve put people on a road so they can begin their journey towards healing. That’s the best we can often hope for. And so, you know, I think that’s really important for us to kind of make sure we have on the line there and because people don’t like complexity and because people want simple solutions to things that are not simple when you talk about these issues, people say, ‘well you, well, you know, how you’re going to make sur?’. It’s like we live in such a society where the punishment mindset has seeped into our hearts, our minds, our spirits. We can’t even begin to imagine a world where people aren’t being coerced into doing things because the system we’ve set up is coercive as hell. This always seems to people fanciful like, ‘oh my god,’ and I’m always like, well actually you do this every day. You’re living this everyday. When shit happens in your family and your group of people, you sit down, you’re all trying to figure out how to do the best you can with it. The minute something happens people don’t just pick up the phone and 9-1-1, contrary to what is portrayed out there. You know, people try to work stuff out all the time.
Josie: I would think the alternative is that people, if you’re not trying to work stuff out, think about how painful it is to not have the tools to try to work stuff out in your personal life or in your family or you know. Um, so you co-founded Survived + Punished.
Mariame Kaba: I did.
Josie: Which I wrote about a couple of months ago because there was a story in New Orleans about a woman who had been abused for many years by her husband. In 2003, shot him, um, in a moment, what people would call self defense, although I think that that is another simplistic framework that doesn’t necessarily reflect the, but she, um, was sentenced to life without parole and she was recently given the opportunity to get a new trial. And when she was released on bail, she has, she has four kids and she finally gets to see her kids and she was released on $1,000 bail and the DA, you know, released a public statement saying ‘we’ve left this violent criminal out.’ And Survived + Punished I think is an organization addressing the wrongs of that situation from beginning to end, um, in a way that reimagines the system. Um, and so in terms of gender violence, which I think is where a lot of people get hung up on the safety thing, like Clint said, can you talk more about Survived + Punished and how you see it in the context of a situation like that?
Mariame Kaba: Absolutely. Absolutely. So Survived + Punished is a national formation that, um, we, uh, organized together in 2015, um, that comes out of several defense campaigns that were launched earlier than that. So it was the Free Marissa Now mobilization campaign, which had been organized around freeing Marissa Alexander who is now free, um, a legal defense campaign for a woman named Nan-Hui Jo, who was, uh, a woman who was an undocumented woman who was married to an American, who was a domestic violence survivor, who took her child out of the country, um, and then when she returned with her child, was separated from that child and put into immigrant detention. So they were working to free Nan-Hui Jo. She’s now free. Um, and then, uh, the other group that was involved with, uh, the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander, which I co-founded a, which is now called Love & Protect. And then the other group is the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Um, and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners who has been around for 25 years. And it’s an inside, outside campaign between incarcerated people and people on the outside who are working to try to free people from the cage. And so our groups came together, mainly because we had been doing these individual defense campaigns. And as you mentioned in the story that you told, I’m sure there weren’t necessarily people who were involved in the defense of that particular survivor.
Mariame Kaba: Because it’s impossible to do, like we’re just putting our fingers in the dike and all this water’s coming all the time because these cases are so, they happen all the time. And they happen for three reasons. The first is because the use of violence in this country is completely misunderstood and also completely um, kind of, it almost makes it impossible for us to have any sort of conversations about anything as soon as violence is involved. And you can tell that from the way that criminal punishment reformers try to constantly throw people who use violence under the bus in any sort of quote unquote “reforms” and movements like we can, all the violent people, we’re not really talking about them. We’re talking about the nonviolent, nonsexual offending non serious crimes, right? Like, so the reason we exist is to say, no, actually lots of people use violence. Lots of people are locked up for violent crimes. In fact, half of the people currently locked up are locked up for violent crimes. And we’re not going to shy away from that because there are times when you need to use violence, not just in self defense, but also because you’re in a position where, yeah, you got to figure out what to do with your life. You use violence sometimes just cause like that’s what’s at your disposal, you don’t know how to deal with, do anything better. You still deserve to be treated with humanity and decency and not to be locked in cages all the time. So, um, we also recognize that gendered violence, particularly racialized gendered violence, if we don’t take that seriously, we’re not going to dismantle the P-IC. And as an abolitionist organization, which Survived + Punished is, we really want people to take that seriously, that the prison is a gendering mechanism, that it enforces gender violently. And that if we don’t actually take the time to make those connections, we’re not going to dismantle anything. We’re not going to be able to. Criminalization itself is sexual violence. We also see that, that clearly think about all the different ways that people are violated who end up in the criminal punishment system. From the arresting officers through to the incarceration and the constant cavity searches and the strip searches. The strip searches of the people who go to visit people. That like this criminalization is itself a form of sexual violence. So Survived + Punished wants people to understand these connections and to understand that without addressing gendered violence, particularly racialized gendered violence, we aren’t going to get to the point where we can transform anything. And then finally, our work is really to say that you have the right to your bodily autonomy. You have a right to defending your life and defending your children, that we don’t believe in the kind of, uh, criminalization of survival. So if you move your child away from your abuser and then all of a sudden you’re being charged with kidnapping. If you are in a position where you are in a domestic violence situation and then you are being coerced by your abuser to do XYZ and then you’re charged as a co-conspirator and you get a harsher sentence than the person who was the abuser. You know, these things happen all the time because historically in our country we actually, while we’ve punished less numbers of women, we’ve often given them harsher sentences then the people who have done the precipitating crime or event.
Josie: Right, right.
Mariame Kaba: So we want to make all of those things really clear and we’ve been very successful over the last few years at making sure to free the survivors we’ve been pushing for, whether it was Marissa or Nan-Hui or Bresha Meadows or like all these people. But we don’t want to let people think about these people as exceptional victims. We want them to understand that they are a proxy for many thousands of others. And that that means that we have to shift and uproot the whole entire system in order to address these kinds of survivors that people may feel sympathetic, um, uh, when they hear the stories.
Clint: So let’s move into that. Let’s think, uh, how do you conceive of abolition and like what is your framework for what that means, what that looks like? Because I think that that’s a word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people that has a lot of historical significance, but at the same time that’s also misrepresented, very purposefully in a lot of contemporary political discourse. So can you talk a little bit about how you think of what abolition is and how it fits into your sort of larger practice of work?
Mariame Kaba: Yeah. For me, prison-industrial complex abolition, prison-industrial complex meaning all of the interests that come together to imprison, surveil and police people, um, that P-IC abolition, for me, I came to it actually through the work of Critical Resistance, uh, which is a formation and organization that started in the Bay Area in 1998, so exactly 20 years ago, CR is celebrating 20 years this year of existence. And what Critical Resistance started talking about in ‘98 and had built on years of other people’s thinking about this, you know, Nils Christie, um, you know, kind of a lot of the Scandinavian philosophers who had been talking about it in the 1970s. There’s a very important kind of abolitionist, uh, statement and document that came out called Instead of Prisons that was put together in 1976 by Faye Knopp and a bunch of other people who called themselves abolitionists, prison abolitionists at the time, because in the ‘70s, people were talking about the end of prison. People were talking about prisons being over because we had numbers of people that have been in decline at that point. Um, and so there were already people who were talking about, so what’s the system that we’re going to build that will be the prison instead of prisons? At that period of time. But anyway, so what, uh, what you should think about when you’re thinking about P-IC abolition is what Ruthie Gilmore, uh, talks about, Ruth Wilson Gilmore talks about, which is that abolition is really more about presence than it is about absence. Abolition is a positive project that is focused on not just the dismantling of the current punishing systems, but also the building of something else. That abolition, that people who are usually kind of a thinking about P-IC abolition, something else that Ruthie says all the time, is that abolition is not just about changing one thing, everything. So it is like a philosophy, an ideology, a framework and a practical organizing strategy that asks you to think about all the different ways in which the systems that we currently have shorten people’s lives. So it is about kind of reversing premature death ultimately. That what we have currently in our current criminal punishment system is to accelerate people’s death in multiple kinds of ways and that that system is surrounded by many other systems that co-constitute that premature death. So you have to think of capitalism, you have to think about eradicating that. You have to think about the environmental destruction that we are under the climate, you know, destruction that we’re currently dealing with and facing. What if you’re doing work on climate change, you’re doing abolitionist work. If you are working to make sure people have a living wage, you’re doing abolitionist work and organizing. If you are working right now to ensure that people’s education is actually a good one, that people have access to free quality education, you are doing abolitionist organizing. It’s a systemic and structural view of how the world operates. It tells a story about how we came to be and what we need to do in order to be able to actually shift those conditions. So the other thing about abolition that I think people often ask me about is they say, ‘I can’t wrap my brain around the ends of prisons. I don’t, I don’t understand that.’ And I’m always like, I make that sound because it’s usually white people and white men. You do this to me on a regular basis. Um, so that was my white man voice. But um, that was very badly done. Sorry. But it’s like ‘I don’t understand why?’ And I’m always like, well then you can’t wrap your brain around a world without exploitation and dehumanization. How sad is that? How sad is that? If you can’t imagine a world without these things, then you cannot imagine a world devoid of that. And I, and I refuse to succumb to that. I can imagine a world without dehumanization and exploitation. And so therefore that project makes sense to me. And the last thing I’ll say is that, um, the other part of abolition that makes to me a lot of senses, people also say like, ‘how does that work? How could you do that?’ And I’m always like, you practice abolition daily. It’s a daily thing. And there are communities right now that are living in abolitionist present. There really are. There are places where you can travel and I came, I lived for over 20 years in Chicago and you can go to Naperville and you could go around and those kids have the schools they need with no metal detectors. All of them are going to college. They live in homes that are beautiful and have what they need. They have all the food they need to eat. They never see the cops except when the cops are called. They like that they are living an abolitionist present. The question I always have for people is why they can’t see that for my nephew? Why that world is not possible for him when it is possible for many of the children of the people who tell me they can’t imagine living in an abolitionist future? I’m like you’re living an abolitionist present. So I don’t understand what we’re really talking about here. You’re saying that there are some people who are never going to be allowed to have what your kids have. That to me is unacceptable. I refuse to acknowledge that as being something that’s valid. So to me abolition is always present. We’re doing it in so many different ways and the way we’re trying to get there is often through these non reformist reforms that are the ways that give us a track to move towards that horizon. Um, and so for me, my organizing is very much determined by abolition as, as the thing that I want to hold true to. The questions I ask of any sort of policy reform or whatever are guided by that, are guided by an abolitionist framework.
Josie: To me, it feels like the opposite of the way of thinking that you have presented is the Ap-Eds you see from the ADA or the DA when there’s like sentencing reform up, right? And you see the Op-Ed that says, like ‘here was the case where this guy broke into the house and then he raped the woman and he chop her head off.’ And you know, and for me, I find that like the deeper I get into this work and the more comfortable you have to get with stuff that is uncomfortable, right? And you’d have to stop talking about nonviolent and drug offenders and all of these sort of, and talk about people who have done things that have been really harmful.
Mariame Kaba: That’s right.
Josie: This is such a hard fight because the Ted Bundy, right? Like people ask, you know ‘what about Ted Bundy?’ And I’m like, I’ve read Ted Bundy’s Wikipedia page. I hate prisons and I also like don’t want Ted Bundy coming into my house.
Mariame Kaba: That’s right.
Josie: And that strikes me as like-
Mariame Kaba: That’s fair.
Josie: But it strikes me as not reflective, as speaking that framework as if it’s the only one when it’s not the only one.
Mariame Kaba: Right.
Josie: And so I’m wondering what your sort of response is when people say that to you?
Mariame Kaba: ‘What about the rapists?’ All the time.
Mariame Kaba: All the time. ‘What about the rapists?’ And I’m like, well what are we doing with the rapists right now? So I don’t want to like, I don’t, I don’t understand what you’re asking me. Are rapists currently locked up?
Josie: Right. Most of them are not.
Mariame Kaba: Most of them are not. They’re living all over the place. Harvey Weinstein is free. So what are you really asking me? You have a different question.
Mariame Kaba: You know, um, and so I do think your question about what about Ted Bundy? I don’t understand why we would build a system based on the exceptional when the vast majority of people are not Ted Bundy. That would be my first response. Why is Ted Bundy the person that we are going to operate a whole entire criminal punishment system to like quote “can capacitate?” Like that makes no sense. Most people are not serial killers. Okay? So that’s number one. Number two, I’m always telling people that because abolition is about changing everything, we aren’t even going to know the world in which we’re going to be living. Like we’re not, our brains are not able to even imagine how our relationships to each other are going to shift in that new world. But we will need to come up with solutions at that point for people who cause inordinate repeated harm to people on a regular basis. I’m just saying it shouldn’t be a prison. I’m just saying the current system that we have right now is not going to address that because you may put Ted Bundy away but you’re putting him, what you’re really doing is sentenced him to death. So why not just say what we really want is the guillotine? Like you caused repeated harm what we want to do is kill you and not have to deal with you anymore. Why isn’t that the argument? People say things like, ‘well, putting people in prison for life is more humane.’ What? Have you been to prisons? Have you seen what’s going on? Do you know anybody who’s been incarcerated for 40 years? That is not better than death. Okay? That is social death. That is civil death. That is death of all different kinds. We just don’t want, we just want to hide people away. We just want to hide the problems, we want to disappear our problems. And that’s what we use prisons for to disappear our problems and to control redundant populations. You know, it is a social control mechanism and that’s what we really want. So I just say to people on a regular basis, yes, what about Ted Bundy? In our transformed world, we’ll have to handle people who cause horrible harms in a repeated way. I’m just saying this current way of doing it is not good and shouldn’t be the thing. And then last thing I’ll say is that I’m a big fan of, uh, a woman named Elizabeth Povinelli who talks all the time about the importance of, uh, every time, you know, one of the things criminal punishment reformers love because they really love to tinker with things and they’re kind of, often by nature, people who aren’t really organizers they’re advocates, so they have no accountability to anybody. They have no base. They can just tinker with playing around. It’s like no one will turn to them when they pass them shit and say, ‘what the hell did you do?’ There’s no one to point to them. Okay, so they have no accountability. Those people often say to you, when you bring up issues of abolition of transforming, ‘well, what’s your solution to the problem?’ You know what? You’re allowed to say, ‘not this,’ and you can shut up right after that.
Josie: Because we do that about everything else. We do that about politics, right.
Mariame Kaba: Okay? You’re allowed to say ‘not this.’ Your critique in and of itself is valid. You’re allowed to say ‘not this,’ and keep it moving. Why? Because we didn’t get into this problem yesterday. We got into it over time. This is a collective problem that lots of people’s hands are involved in. This is bipartisan to the nth degree. So why then is a problem that was formulated by a lot of people over a long period of time expected to be resolved by one person giving the solution to the problem or having to shut up. Because what they’re selling you is not just like ‘you don’t get it,’ it’s ‘you come up with solution are you say nothing’ and I absolutely reject that. I reject that on its face. I think that is a way to silence people with radical critiques. You are allowed to just be like, ‘yeah, this thing we’re doing, not this’ and that’s more than enough and you can keep it moving. You know? I choose to engage in trying to build some stuff along the way, but that’s me. I choose to do that because I want to, not because I feel compelled because of my analysis of the world to offer a quote “fake solution.” I’m not interested in that at all.
Joise: So one of the things that sticks with me that I’ve heard you talk about that, for someone who does this stuff day in and day out, was very clarifying for me as a way of thinking about this and I was hoping you could just speak about it, is the difference between consequences and punishment and how we think about accountability. And this goes back to transformative justice, abolition and goes back to two to gender violence and how we think about punishment. And I think it’s especially critical in this moment right now of #metoo where there is a reckoning and I am still worried that the reckoning has the potential to mostly be punishment based and not actually a reckoning with harm.
Mariame Kaba: Yeah. I think it is completely and utterly fair if somebody hurts you and harms you, for you to want that person dead. I think that that makes, as a person who myself has been a survivor of violence, I have wanted to kill my rapist, I have one wanted, you know what I mean? Like I have wanted vengeance for that person. It is fair for individuals to want those things. It is not okay for the system to do that.
Clint: That is not what should be dictating public policy.
Mariame Kaba: That’s right. I think people completely, I mean I’ve been raped so I’m not like gonna sit around here and say you should have to hold hands with your rapist. That is not what I’m saying. I don’t even think you need to forgive people. Restorative and transformative justice is not about forgiveness. Okay. That’s a misnomer. People think that RJ means you forgive. No, you don’t have to forgive. You do not have to. So I understand that. Here’s what I think is an issue. Punishment means that you are inflicting pain and suffering on people, that you are inflicting pain and suffering on people. I don’t think you can end violence with violence in a sustainable way. You can interrupt violence with violence right? For the time being, but the cycle continues on. Right? And so one of the things that we always talk about in transformative justice is when you have a punishment where you are inflicting pain and suffering on a person, that is a passive thing. People don’t have to do a single thing. They could cross their arms. They are just, it is a passive, uh, thing that you are doing onto people. You are putting that onto people and it usually doesn’t work. We know this, we know punishment often does not work. You know that with your children. It does not work. So it’s not even useful in that kind of sense. Consequences are always things that you have to think about within the context of the harm that occurs. So it shifts. Consequences are also things that I always think about when it’s like, uh, for example, um, you can tell somebody who is an, uh, an abuser to leave their home. That’s a consequence for bad behavior. If you make it so that that person can never have another place to live, that’s a punishment because you are taking away from that person the basic things we need to live, shelter, food, uh, you know, all sorts of other kinds of things that you just need as a human being to survive. If we are depriving people of those things, including their liberty, that’s a punishment. But if we are saying to people, you did this horrible action and you have a, you’re in a position of power, you got to step down from your goddamn job. That is not punishing people. That is saying that you actually have done something that means that you no longer can have the privilege of power. You can’t wield power in that same way. You are sexually assaulted children. Well, you should not be able to work with kids anymore. Do you know what I mean? Like that is not punishment. That is a consequence of the behavior and actions that you took. So if we are not depriving people of their needs that they have to survive, if we are not depriving people of their liberty, these are not punishments to my mind. These are consequences for actions that are proportional to the harm that they caused. So I think about that a lot, um, in terms of when I’m thinking through with people who want, I’m sitting with in a circle or I’m sitting with in a process and just like, what is, what are your wants and what are your needs? We talk about that a lot and I’ll often say your needs we’re going to try to meet, your wants we probably can’t get. Because you may want to kill this person. I can’t help you do that. That’s not what we’re gonna be able to do in this process. You may very much want to follow this person for the rest of their life. That’s not going to be possible. So what are the things that are your baseline needs? And that might be recognition for the harm, answers, things like that that we can work through. But a whole bunch of other things we’re never going to be able to achieve.
Josie: And maybe once you work through your needs in this process, your wants change.
Mariame Kaba: They always do. We know that about life. That our wants and needs change according to when some things are fulfilled and when things are not, you know, and when we feel differently about the situation and relationship to the situation. So that’s, that’s what I would say about punishment and consequences. And it’s always a game of figuring out, you know, what, what is proportionate, what feels like a spectacle versus what feels like actually what we need in order to be able to move forward together in the world. You just have to constantly be playing with those ideas. But that’s what I would say as I kind of, uh, you know, quick summary of that. Yeah.
Josie: So I could really talk to you for the next six hours. I already have like eight other things I would love to ask you about. We’re both just so grateful that you came on and, you know, what we’re trying to do here is give people tools to assess the systems around them, as accurately frame it the criminal punishment system, and I think being able to imagine something else is so important. Thank you so much for coming on.
Mariame Kaba: Thank you both for having me. I think you all are doing a really amazing job with this podcast which is super informative and educational. I listen to it all the time and learn something new. So thank you for having me.
Josie: Thank you.
Clint: We appreciate that.
Josie: That was Mariame Kaba, she’s the Director of Project NIA, co-founder of Survived + Punished and a leader and advocate in rethinking what our criminal justice system could look like.
Clint: Thanks for listening to the second season of Justice in America. I am Clint Smith.
Josie: I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint: You can find us on Twitter at @justice_podcast, like us on Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on iTunes, we appreciate all of your reviews.
Josie: And don’t forget to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with feedback or show topics you’d like for us to cover in the coming seasons. Justice in America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams and the production assistant is Trendel Lightburn.
Clint: We’ll see you soon.