Poetry + Abolition

On his work with the Prison Story Project, Matt Henriksen once said: “Regardless of our pasts or your pasts and regardless of those walls, we can meet in the space words create and share stories and ideas. We bring our story-telling-know-how to you and bring your visions of the world back to us.” As I reflect back on Matt’s legacy of advocacy for the incarcerated, and the poetry we shared over time, his presence feels deeply connected to my own growth as a reader & writer contemplating justice within the creative word. Over recent months, I have found myself turning or returning to each of these poems as I deepen my understanding of the prison industrial complex and the necessity of abolition. In August 2020, after another psychotic break, I found myself turning to poetry & mad survivor narratives to make sense of my own lived experiences, standing on the bridge between disability justice & abolition. A few months back, I stumbled upon “Zombies in a House of Madness” in an old 1970’s copy of Madness Network News Reader, & have been both haunted and comforted by the legacy of Michael Beasley as a poet and abolitionist before my time.  I was enamored by Beasley’s reach—from a short film of his poem by Saul Landau within San Francisco Jail, to a musical collaboration with singer/songwriter Country Joe McDonald, Beasley’s connections to others begin within and move beyond the prison’s walls. Each poem in this playlist speaks back to what I see in Michael Beasley’s work, and has been in my ear as I think through the necessity of disability justice, mad narratives, intersectional movements, and our call to abolition.

from One Big Self: "I want to go home"

           I want to go home, Patricia whispered.

                                                I won't say I like being in prison, but I have

learned a lot, and I like experiences. The terriblest part is being away from your families.—Juanita

                                                      I miss my screenporch.

I know every word to every song on Purple Rain.—Willie

            I'm never leaving here.—Grasshopper, in front of the woodshop, posing beside a coffin he built


            This is a kicks' camp. Nothing positive come out of here except the praying. Never been around this many women in my life. Never picked up cursing before.—down for manslaughter, forty years

                                                      I've got three. One's seven. One, four. One, one. I'm twenty-three. The way I found out is, I was in an accident with my brother. He was looking at some boys playing ball. We had a head-on.

            At the hospital, the doctor says, Miss, why didn't you tell us you were pregnant. I'm pregnant? I wasn't afraid of my mama. I was afraid of my daddy. I was supposed to be a virgin. He took it real good though.

            The last time you was here I had a headful of bees.

            See what I did was, I accidentally killed my brother.

                                                                                    He spoke without inflection.

            Asked how many brothers and sisters did he have—

            On my mother's side, two brothers, well now, one brother, and                  two sisters.             On my father's side, fifteen sisters.

When I handed Franklin his prints, his face broke. Damn, he said to no one, I done got old.

                                                I kept a dog.

When you walk through Capricorn, keep your arms down and close to      your body.

                                                     That's my sign.

No, she can't have no mattress. No, she can't have no spoon.             See if she throwed her food yet.

                                                          No, she can't have no more.

            I am only about thirty-four minutes from home. That's hard. —George, field line seated on a bag of peas on a flatbed

            My auntie works here, and two of my cousins. If I get in trouble, get a write-up, my mama knows before supper.—George

            My name is Patricia, but my real name is Zabonia, she spoke softly.

Some have their baby and are brought back on the bus the next day and act like it doesn't bother them a bit. Some cry all the way. And for days.—guard

                                                                                          That's hard.                                                                                           I don't go there.

            My mama was fifteen when she had me. That's common.                                                                           in the country.

                                                      Some can learn, and will be okay. Some could stay in the class forever and not learn. S── when she was a little girl was struck in the head with a machete, and I don't think she'll learn much more...

She is so sweet. You wouldn't believe she had did all the things they say      she did.

                                                     Don't ask.

My mug shot totally turned me against being photographed.

                                                      I miss the moon. I miss silverware, with a knife,                                                       and maybe even something to cut with it.

                                                      I miss a bathtub.                                                       And a toilet. With a lid. And a handle.                                                       And a door.

When Grasshopper came to Big Gola his wife was pregnant. He saw the baby once. Next when he was twenty. Now he's inside. In Texas. Second time. But he's short now. He'll get out soon.

                                                                                          That's hard.                                                                                           I don't go there.

                                                      I miss driving.

We're both here because of love.—Zabonia of herself and her best      friend

                                                      I am highly hypnotizable.

I would wash that man's feet and drink the water.

Various Protestations from Various People

Esther say I drink too much.  Mama say pray don't think too much. My shrink he say I feel too much,  And the cops say I steal too much;  Social Workers say I miss my Daddy too much,  That I dream of driving a Caddy too much.  White folks say I'm lazy and late too much,  Not objective—depend on fate too much.  Philosophers say I wanna BE too much.  Reagan say I talk about me too much,  Singing songs ‘bout being free too much. 

I say—sing about me being free too much?  Say sing about me being free too much?

The Invention of Crack


Dark alliance. Crack smoked over this backdrop:
CIA seal, Contras. So much heavy weight.
How birds fly? How millions turn into guerrilla props:
AK-47s, & all else. White smoke. Rocks. The dead & dying.
Gary Webb’s tale of two horrors: Contra & crack.

Mr. Speaker, what is most
frightening about crack
is that it has made cocaine
widely available… Mr. Speaker,
I am afraid that the crack epidemic
will only get worse.

I wish to bring to the attention
of our colleagues an article,
“Extra-potent cocaine: use
rising sharply among teenagers.”
Confirms what many of us in the Congress
who have the responsibility of reviewing
federal drug abuse policy
have known for some time;
that the availability of “crack” –
cocaine in its purest state –
at low street prices will only
expand the abuse of cocaine nationwide.


Black man say crack will ruin. Senator Black Elect say scourge
& scourges & look behind the words & you know he knew
“there is always a prison for them.” This post Rockefeller,
after Carmona got laced with a life sentence for a hundred
dollars worth of heroin. Ain’t many black folks in Congress.
Keep saying Reagan did it. Black man say Reagan did it.
Reagan say look at the paper, the bodies in the street. Rangel
says scourge & you vote for him again & again & again
& the pen is still filled with the bodies. Ain’t no conspiracy here.
Hand to hands scared him. Black man watching the projects
turning into a war zone. Probably thought if no one notices
the zombies in the street he should. Don’t tell me he trafficked
in the New Jim Crow too. Rangel says scourge. All these years,
all these years & the bodies in prison & we done
stop counting but I know what he told the papers:
We’d stop counting. Stopped counting how many babies
lost their mothers to the pull of smoke running from aluminum.
We had. Stopped. Counting. Mr. Senator was out to duck ruin.
Ours. It seems. You think we counted our lost? Lost
Pounds, lost brothers? All the women who bartered
With the dirt their knees gathered in the dusk?”

            The newest scourge on the streets
            is a frightening low-cost substance
            called crack. This form of cocaine
            which users freebase, has been proved
            lethal time and again, and it’s responsible
            for an alarming number of episodes of death
            and injury in recent weeks.



Nickel bag, Dime bag, Eight ball:

            We invented a way for niggas to be
            Good at math. Call me crackhead, call me
            fiend, but I know my Daddy’s name
            is what I tell them young boys,
            Even as they wave me on to the spot
            Where a kid my son’s age passes out rocks.

Jesus, some of us still be praying with aluminum between
Our lips. All our music reduced to something clever to say
about dope. Call it white lady. Call me snowman. Say
I move avalanches. I drought the city. From the first to the fifth
I got it all back. Crown me rap star. If I ain’t a hustler
what you call that. I was just trying to feed my babies.
Move weight. Fly birds. Call me Ricky Ross. Call me
Dopeman. Pusherman. He who gots bricks. Move that dope.
This, all of it, the abyss where men come to die. & the rest
of America goes to watch. Where Rangel at? Ha ha. & they
still say whitey did it. I been had my money on the man
that stay in office, that gets in office, that suits up to go
prosecute, that suits up to go defend. I say they did it. What?
Watch when the city went to ruins. Inheritance ain’t nothing
but memory. When the mayor & the reporters smoking too,
why we the only ones in jail? Where all those men who dreamed?
They keep saying in the 80s a Smokey, Teddy, Luther would have
Crooned to a crack pipe. We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord,
Whatever will that will bury what brought smoke, crystalline
white rocks to our streets.

            “Rayful. Freeway Ricky. Supreme. Everyone wanting
            To be Escobar. A poliferation of bodies enlarged
            By cameras. Philargyist: lover of money, antecedent
            To Andre 3 stacks, to all those pockets full of stones.
            They say where the earth has no water there is a man
            Craving the shiny glimmer of a nickel, or of the ragged
            End of pipe in their mouths. 1980 something.
            Corposant & corpse. Or fuck your hearse.



It take a nation of millions to hold
us back? Well they got that. We got that too.
Hands around our throat. Before you suffocate
your own fool self. Father forgive…

So the penitentiaries are barrels full of
Children running away from Jake, Bodine,
5-0, all these names for the same dance. On the Run.
& watch when the researchers come, notebooks in hands
writing about the dispossessed. About the clean & dirty.
Their idioms of death & whatnot. King me muthafucka,
they say when the research drops. Expert on the Negro
Problem. They become oracle & insight. & we get all
the dead bodies around us. Say so many people died one year
the District was worse than Vietnam. Per capita they say. Per
capital. Meaning all the capitals in the world was better to be in than
here where Sam did go to college no matter what the news say.
& he came back & paid rent like all these good folks
with dogs & shit do now. Talk about the victor writes history.

The Reagan Era, the cocaine era, them boys from Dunbar
could hoop is what I mean to say. All the dope gets in
the way though. Me remembering their story
a bag at a time & ain’t none of them get high.
My uncle caught touchdowns for Bladensburg,
where his story. My aunts ain’t get high, my mom,
where their story? All their history buried in the
narrative of the shooter, of the one pitching them kilos.
We buried a nation inside the lungs
That fill with smoke, & the smoke smothers the nation,
& the nation is the small child crying in the corner,
& the barrels are filled with crabs….

            Joseph E. Lowery, president
            the Southern Christian Leadership
            Conference, urges blacks to turn in                       
            drug pushers regardless of race.
            “We are devastated spiritually
            and emotionally by what crack
            and other drugs are doing to our people,”
            he said, ”Drugs represent the new
            lynch mob that is more effectively killing
            our people than the old lynch mobs.”

Always that same hurt,
              You think a man don’t
Know what a high can do?
              Flattened an entire city
Block a few guns did –
              I tell my shadow we made
 It all possible. You know
              Getting high ain’t the move,
  But ask someone who’s been
              There, shit feels like coming/
   For days, that’s what they
              Said about heroin – crack,
    It feels like God has dropped
              A piece of heaven behind
    Your eyelids. After that, all
              You want is to be that close
    To an angel again.

Continue reading on www.fishousepoems.org

Cell Song

Night Music Slanted Light strike the cave of sleep. I alone tread the red circle and twist the space with speech Come now, etheridge, don't be a savior; take your words and scrape the sky, shake rain on the desert, sprinkle salt on the tail of a girl, can there anything good come out of prison

from santa rita 128 to 131


I was detained approximately 54 hours, 47 of which I spent in jail.

I spent 47 hours under bright fluorescent lights.

I was cold approximately 43 hours.

I was moved 7 times, to 5 different “tanks.”

I spent no more than 15 hours in a tank near a door with a small rectangle of glass through which 21 women and then 27 women could see barbed wire and light then dark outside.

I was fed 6 times—5 “sack lunches” which included 2 slices of stale bread, 2 slices of slimy bologna, 2 crème cookies soaked in bologna juice, 1 packet of “salad dressing” (mayo), 1 packet of mustard, 1 packet of a “calcium mix” and 1 orange; and 1 “hot meal,” which included maybe turkey & definitely beans, a side of cooked carrots, some sauce, a salad, a cube of cornbread and a cube of cake.

I used a toilet no more than 5 times.

I slept no more than 4 hours.

I was denied birth control.

I heard someone with epilepsy was being denied medication.

I met 2 people with serious illnesses who were denied medication.

I watched 2 people go through withdrawal.

I watched 1 woman use 1 toilet at least 10 times in no more than 2 hours.

I spoke to 1 woman who confessed she was having suicidal thoughts.

I gave 1 back rub.

I received 0 back rubs.

I spoke to 3 people on “the outside:”

I spoke to 3 “trustees.”

I spooned 3 women.

I spooned 1 woman I had known previously.

I saw 2 women volunteer to stay inside longer to make sure 2 more women wouldn’t be left alone in their respective tanks.

I saw 1 woman refuse release to make sure her friend would have a friend in the tank.

I met 1 woman with an “Abortions Get Babies to Heaven Faster” fanny pack she likes to wear when she visits Texas.

I saw 5 slices of bologna stick to a white wall.

I heard harmonizing coming from a tank 2 times.

I heard 1 person recite 1 poem to 2 pigs.

I heard I had 1 welt on my back.

I saw at least 5 bruises on each wrist.

I heard 1 woman suggest not admitting injury unless it was severe.

I met 2 women who chose not to report feeling ill for fear of being put in solitary confinement.

I met 1 woman who had been released from Santa Rita no more than 2 days before.

I crushed on 1 woman.

I was 1 of at least 5 women crushing on 1 woman.

I met at least 1 woman in a polyamorous relationship.

I met at least 1 woman who had recently had sex in the woods.

I met at least 1 woman who had recently had sex in a dressing room.

I met 1 woman who suggested we start a website to replace the #OO camp.

I met 3 women who were still in high school.

I had at least 5 pigs completely ignore me.

I heard at least 5 pigs lie at least 5 times.

I heard 1 pig compare the impact of the people the pigs had to process on “the system” to 400 marbles going down a drain 3 times.

I heard 1 woman praying.

I saw one appeal to “the Virgin” scratched into the wall of a tank.

I heard 2 women were put in solitary confinement.

I heard 1 woman was put in solitary confinement for scratching a word into the wall of a tank.

I saw “OCCUPY” scratched into the wall of a tank.

I heard 1 woman was placed in solitary confinement for banging on the door of a tank to get a pig’s attention.

I saw at least 2 women kick the door of a tank at least 5 times in a row.

I saw 1 woman be forced into a tank.

I heard 1 pair of cuffs.

I heard 1 pig tell 1 woman if she had a problem with not getting a phone call she should call her lawyer.

I heard 1 pig say, “This isn’t about the constitution…If I don’t like your face…”

I heard 1 man banging on the door of his tank.

I heard 1 pig tell 1 trustee not to answer my question.

I met 2 women who requested that NLG contact their employers to let them know they would not be making it to work.

I met 2 women who were worried their arrest would lead to them losing their job.

I met 1 woman who lost her job as a union organizer when she was a “no show” after being arrested at a demonstration.

I met 1 woman who works as a union organizer.

I met 1 woman who works in San Francisco’s Financial District.

I met 1 woman who can “crack” a house.

I met 1 woman with family in Spain.

I met 1 woman who teaches elementary.

I met 1 woman who said the games the pigs were playing with us were the same ones she plays with her kids.

I met 1 woman who teaches yoga.

I met 2 women who worried their car would be towed.

I met 1 woman who worried her boyfriend would forget to pay her parking ticket.

I met 1 woman whose boyfriend runs a comic book store.

I met 1 woman whose mother had bailed out Huey Newton.

I met at least 2 women who were afraid they wouldn’t be able to get into a college class.

I met at least 3 women who were menstruating.

Bridesmaids came up 1 time.

I was 1 of at least 2 women who had seen Bridesmaids

Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci” came up 1 time.

I heard 1 woman sing, “One big room / full of bad bitches.”

Aquaman came up 1 time.

I saw at least 5 drops of fresh blood on the floor in the hall.

I saw at least 7 spots of dried blood on the wall of a tank.

I heard the riddle “What is brown and sticky?” 2 times.

I saw at least 15 wads of wet toilet paper stick to the air vents of 3 tanks.

I watched 4 women throw wads of wet toilet paper at the air vents of 3 tanks.

I heard 1 woman admit she was waiting to be released to take a “victory poop.”

Khali came up at least 5 times.

“The 99%” came up 1 time.

I heard 1 pig call herself part of the 99%.

I heard 1 pig say the system had crashed, that we’d be inside at least 48 more hours, after we’d been detained 52.

I heard 1 pig threaten a mentally ill man.

I heard 1 pig make fun of a woman praying.

Dante’s Inferno came up 1 time.

“Why am I being detained?” was chanted at least 10 ten times.

“Phone call!” was chanted at least 20 times.

“From Oakland to Greece, no pads no peace!” was chanted at least 10 times.

The Diva Cup came up 2 times.

I heard 1 woman call the inmates who worked at the jail “trustees.”

I saw 13 people I’d previously met inside.

I saw 3 people without shoes.

I saw 2 people in “protective custody.”

I saw 2 bologna faces.

Staying positive was equated with preparing for a class action lawsuit at least 3 times.

Layleen’s Bill (With Revisions)

for Layleen Cubilette-Polanco Xtravaganza

The New York City Council will pass a package of legislation,
expanding services for transgender, gender-nonconforming,
non-binary, and intersex inmates        will turn out its pockets,
never sign another ransom note

All officers with trans inmates in their custody will undergo
a competency training        will have their badge numbers
etched off with diamond-tipped acrylics, aquamarine

New beds will be added to the transgender housing unit
        beds of wildflowers will erupt from lots that were not
vacant, just holding their breath

Counselors will be made available to all trans inmates         we
are each our sister’s counsel

The Board of Correction will convene a task force        will
be tasked with something useful, like beekeeping, or collecting

Sex workers will have their cases diverted to Human Sex
Tracking Intervention Court        will spray paint the words
“we are the intervention” on the courthouse rubble

The Rikers Island compound will be replaced by a series of
smaller, borough-based facilities       will slip into the rising
Atlantic, the ribs of our dead prepared to cage it

Trans elders will be held in solitary confinement for their
own safety        will have their charcoal locs retwisted in
chosen hands

This legislation will take effect in the summer of 2020
        we have never asked permission to sing