S. Shabzadeh | Shahid

By S. Shabzadeh

From inside a cell, the night sky isn’t the measure—
that’s why it’s prison’s vastness your eyes reflect after prison.

My lover don’t believe in my sadness. She says whisky,
not time, is what left me wrecked after prison.

In his third book of poetry , Felon, Dwayne Betts opens with a ‘ghazal’–a poetic form originating in seventh century Arabia which was quickly popularized with the spread of Islam into Persia, Anatolia, and Central and South Asia. The word ‘ghazal’ derives from the Arabic word for ‘thread’ as poets string together abstract and independent couplets all ending in a common refrain–oftentimes a single word or a phrase. While the couplets can be independent and abstract, each couplet in a ghazal speaks to central themes of love, separation, and, above all else, loss.

In his ghazal, Betts uses the refrain “after prison” at the end of each of his fourteen couplets. Betts’ opening ghazal speaks to the immense loss experienced by prisoners not only during their time in prison but also long after release. Betts masterfully intertwines his own experience in prison–serving nearly eight years for an armed carjacking he did as a sixteen-year-old–to shed light upon how prison ‘redacts’ men of time, safety, innocence and their humanity. Betts displays this process of redaction strikingly on the cover of Felon as the image of four black men’s faces dipped in tar represents how incarceration consumes its victims.

In his introduction to Abolition 9/13 Betts was true to his penname, ‘shahid’­–Persian for witness–by relaying the truth of his experience and the experience of his friends back in prison to the panel. Holding up a tattered pair of grey sweatpants which he and a visual artist transformed by hand into paper, Betts explained: “jail [as an experience] attempts to redact all of our relationships and all of our humanity.” The paper was then inscribed with a mix of letters sent from prison from Dwayne’s friends, their prison records, and Japanese historical records. To Betts, these strips of paper strung together represented a kite, an embodiment of release and freedom as a means by which to get beyond the traumas of incarceration.

In Abolition 9/13 Dwayne Betts’s artistic and poetic approach to prison abolition came in dialogue with the prison abolition discourse popular in the academic world. Betts’ conversation with Allegra McLeod, a prison abolitionist and professor of law at Georgetown University, revealed the divisions and fissures in the contemporary discourse surrounding prison abolition.

In defining abolition, McLeod set forth that abolition was a project working towards the opening of new possibilities and the building of genuinely egalitarian coexistence that are anti-capitalist, decolonial and feminist, beyond white supremacy and capitalism. McLeod was highly critical of the attempts by centrist and liberal politicians to appropriate the language of abolition in order to give legitimacy to the status quo and reinforce the role of policy and prison in society. For example, McLeod critiqued centrist rhetoric calling for an end for racism in policing through trainings and increased funding to alternative forms of policing. These centrists who appropriate the language of abolition, McLeod argued, promote ideas of listening to the community and reform of the current criminal justice system to protect and preserve the status quo rather than do away with the system altogether.

McLeod connects such rhetoric to an attempt to de-radicalize the call for police abolition which became part of mainstream discourse following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resulting nationwide protests and demonstrations. By limiting the goal of abolition to the overturning of the racialized aspect of policing in the United States, politicians, journalists, and others attempt to obfuscate the size and scope of the abolition project. McLeod argues that such rhetoric seeks to refocus discourse away from abolishing the police and prison and focus it rather on alternative forms of policing minus the racial bias.  Similarly, McLeod additionally was highly critical of the appropriation of prison abolitionist rhetoric in order to provide legitimacy to the prison reform movement. Quoting Dylan Rodriguez’s “Abolition as Praxis of Human Being,” McLeod relates both the appropriation of police and prison abolitionist rhetoric to “liberal-to-progressive reformist attempts to protect and sustain the institutional and  cultural-political coherence of an existing system by adjusting and/or refurbishing it, [and] abolition addresses the historical roots of that system in relations of oppressive, continuous, and asymmetrical violence.”

Delving into issues of safety, McLeod attempted to address concerns regarding prison and police abolition arising from the oft asked question: “what about the murderers and rapists?” To this question, McLeod responded by highlighting the role of the government and elite in creating a “racist distribution of life chances” which creates conditions of deprivation, harm and violence in minority communities across the United States. McLeod likens this deprivation to violence and asks why attention isn’t given to the elites and government officials who do harm to communities across the country through their decision-making and allocation of resources while facing zero consequences.

In response, Betts was highly critical of the academic discourse and rhetoric surrounding abolition, calling it “fake and not real” and part of a conversation that he was “not interested in having.” Betts went on to say he didn’t want to be part of a conversation that doesn’t “forthrightly allow me to acknowledge what friends of mine say when they confront people that murdered their family members.” Betts elaborated by relating a story of one of his friends who was contacted by a federal prosecutor to ask his stance on the compassionate release of a man who killed his cousin. Betts’ friend wanted his cousin’s murderer to stay behind bars. Betts’ anecdote and his response sought to problematize abolitionist rhetoric surrounding violence, innocence and safety, by highlighting the deeply entrenched ideology of retributive justice in the United States. Betts took the onus off the state saying that criticizing the state as a proxy for individual violence is “disingenuous.”

Further, Betts was critical of the contemporary discourse which seeks to “sanitize” abolition through the use of the rhetoric of innocence, by focusing attention on the wrongly convicted and the theory that society would be safer without mass incarceration. Betts openly discussed his own guilt and the guilt of his friends that he has worked so hard to free from jail. To demonstrate the complexities of guilt and justice, Betts related a story of a man who killed his own cousin. When Connecticut offered a rehearing and resentencing, the man’s own family argued that he deserved life in prison for what he did. Bett’s anecdote again works to problematize ideas of innocence and safety. Here, the family was asking that this man–a family member–spend life behind bars both due to his guilt and to maintain their sense of safety in line with retributive conceptions of justice.

Finally, Bett’s sought to refocus the scope of critique from institutions and concepts that perpetuate mass incarceration to include the elite: “It hasn’t been people in the street that denied me my dignity, my right to work, it’s been our colleagues” Betts said as he related experiences with Yale Law school, the Connecticut Bar Association, and other elites as they denied him reintegration due to his status as a felon. Betts continued, “what really matters to us is who you harmed and if you’ll harm us.” By highlighting that it was indeed his own colleagues–those participating and attending the seminar–Betts transformed the conversation into a critique of the disconnection of the academic elite and their active role in perpetuating the harm of mass incarceration. Highlighting the disconnection of the academic and legal elite from those they purport to advocate for, Bett’s closed his intervention by stating that “a conversation that doesn’t try to meet them where they live and suffer is a false one. It is a completely false one.”

The clashes Abolition Democracy 9/13 revealed the deep fissures that exist not only between abolitionist academics and liberals who use abolitionist rhetoric for institutionalist or centrist aims, but also between the academic and legal elite in general and those they purport to advocate for. Bett’s discussion of his own experience, that of his mother who was a victim of rape, and his friends in prison highlighted the difficulty with implementing the aspirational goal of implementing abolition in practice. Whereas abolitionists in academia seek to abolish both the police and prison, Betts’ critique underscored that the complex and multifaceted nature of violence, innocence and safety all present major challenges to overcoming the status quo.

The communities which suffer most from the harms of mass incarceration also suffer from endemic racialized under-policing which leaves these communities vulnerable to crime and violence. Betts’ own experience represents the cross-section of the complexity of violence and the many ways in which it manifests in racialized and under-policed communities:  Betts’ experience both as a perpetrator of crime and violence and as a prisoner who suffered from the violence of mass incarceration, in addition to Betts’ mother’s experience who had to relive her trauma as a victim of rape, reflect the problem in its full dimensionality.

Betts’ critique comes at a critical time for the abolitionist movement. The George Floyd protests and the election of a Democratic president in the United States has allowed the entry of abolitionist rhetoric into mainstream discourse. While McLeod was correct in pointing out that abolitionist discourse has been appropriated and misused for other means, the discursive infrastructure remains intact. Betts’ critique demonstrates the need to use this moment in history to connect the ideals of the academic and legal elite to the needs of those who are suffering. To listen to them, to hear their pain and ask for their input is essential in this moment if we, as abolitionists,  hope to realize our abolitionist goals. Doing so will require acknowledging our own complicity and hypocrisy.

As is common with all ghazals, Betts ends his ghazal by inscribing his penname at the end of the poem:

You have come so far, Beloved, & for what, another song?
Then sing. Shahid you’re loved, not shipwrecked, after prison.

In the Persian and Arabic, the word shahid has a dual meaning depending on the context: witness and martyr. Betts embodies both interpretations of the word shahid: he is simultaneously both a witness of the horrors that is mass incarceration in the United States and he also is a martyr who embodies the struggle for not only his own humanity, but his friends, too–the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. Betts’ poetic honesty forces us to confront that beyond the ideals and niceties of abolitionist rhetoric, these are people fighting for their humanity and it’s time their voice is heard.