“Is it surprising” asked Michel Foucault, “that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons”?
Thus begins, Disability Incarcerated, a recent book about the intersection between disability justice activism and the Prison Industrial Complex. It is the first book of its kind, recently published, and it is actively carving open a space for dialog to happen between academics, activists and artists, connecting the dots between oppressive institutions and cultural models desperately in need of revisioning.
I was honored to be invited speak on a panel at a symposium about the book at UC Berkeley this week and I had the chance to cross paths with some amazing characters involved in cutting edge work and ideas.
“The stated political rationalization behind imprisonment is the fight against crime, but the effects are profit making and the social control and removal of those same groups that were once enslaved, killed in colonial violence, or confined in poor houses and medical institutions.” P.13
The longer I stay in the movement to change the mental health system the more I realize that we can’t talk about our models of care without talking about the racist and brutal colonial history of our country. We can’t talk about changing the mental health system without directly talking about class, race, and gender oppression. Angela Davis, who is arguably the most important voice in the prison abolitionist movement, spoke in her introductory notes about the ease with which police kill both Black people and those perceived as mentally ill. Interestingly, she spoke about a white woman shot down by police and said it was an act with racist origins.
“The impulse to kill w/o asking questions is borne out of racism” – Angela Davis
The dehumanization that is inflicted on all of us who don’t fit into a narrow system is palpable. The othering we are taught to enact on each other is both the result of and the cause of so much psychosis and madness, on all sides. What are prisons and mental institutions if not giant shadows of our society? How are police and prison guards not insane for killing and torturing other human beings? If we don’t have the language to talk about our internal experiences, and all we are given is the language of a system that has such brutal roots, how can we be expected to grow and develop and thrive? How can we be expected to get along with one another? And as Foucault points out, all of our institutions bear the same mark of origin: the School-to-Prison Pipeline is greased with psychiatric drugs and diagnoses. In the 21st century the institutionalization is almost seemless.
I suppose the good news is that people are connecting the dots. When we start seeing the system as crazy, and we can draw parallels between young Black men and white bipolar women being shot dead by cops, when we can gathering and mourn for our losses, assess our situation, and vision for the future, we’ve got some hope.