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By Why Is This Happening?
What if we just got rid of prisons? The United States is the epicenter of mass incarceration — but exactly what is it we hope to get out of putting people in prisons? And whatever your answer is to that — is it working? It’s worthwhile to stop and interrogate our intentions about incarceration and whether it enacts justice or instead satisfies some urge to punish.
Prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba wants us to explore some truly radical notions that force us to inspect those instincts towards punishment. Hear her dismantle what she calls the current “criminal punishment system” and instead employ the ideology of restorative justice.
CHRIS HAYES: The craziest thing is that, I think, sometimes white people particularly in these situations, they’ve got this crazy mix in their head of racialized suspicion and then white liberal guilt, where they don’t wanna say a thing, because then it’s like, “Oh, I’m a suspicious white person who’s a racist.” But, then they call the cops.
MARIAME KABA: That’s right, and by calling the cops, you’ve… like, you’ve thrown a grenade. You’ve thrown a grenade and you didn’t need to.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to “Why Is This Happening” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. We’ve been living through a period recently where two things are happening simultaneously. I think they are sort of interestingly in tension with each other. One is that, and this is true of me and my show so I wanna just be very clear: Liberals have come to see prosecutors as important figures, and maybe not come to, maybe they always did. But the idea of the kind of savior prosecutor, or the valiant prosecutor who is going to catch powerful people in the midst of lawlessness is something that has been hanging over our heads during the 22 months of Robert Mueller. And you hear all the time, “This guy is a prosecutor, he’s a prosecutor, he’s an amazing prosecutor.”
And, the idea being that a real important liberal ideal here, which is like kind of equitable application of the law really matters, and it’s really important that no one is above the law, and if powerful people break the law, that there is someone there to restrain them, and say, “Look, here’s what the law says, and you have to be held to account, and face the music, and maybe go to jail.” As in the case of Paul Manafort. That’s , I think, the really genuine principle part of it, but there’s also an emotional substrate which is just wrath. Like, these people deserve to get it. They deserve to get it, they deserve the perp walks, they deserve the orange jumpsuits, they deserve to be away from their family, and locked in a cell. They’re felons.
And, you see this kind of wrath all the time. You see it play out in this latest college scandal with these very elite parents who have engaged allegedly in criminal activity to get their kids into schools, and they paid bribes, and there’s this kind of wrath. A lot of people feel, not unjustifiable, right? I mean, it’s a kind of righteous wrath. You see, if you feel that kind of righteous wrath around the CEOs of the major banks during the financial crisis, none of whom famously went to jail. In fact, Elizabeth Warren just came out with a proposal saying, we should sort of expand the definition of criminal liability for people at corporations that break the law so that there will be more people in the upper echelons of corporate America who do go to jail if their corporations do something.
And, that feeling of wrath syncs up I think with some basic views of accountability, and justice, and equality, right? Powerful people, privileged people, affluent people, people with connections breaking the law, they should be subject to the law, and particularly in the context of an America that is the epicenter of mass incarceration for the entire world, that’s throwing kids left and right into jail for things like having too much marijuana, or stealing toothpaste, or jumping a bunch of fares in the New York City subway. Like, look, equality before the law means that everybody gets it, but there’s also something deeper to think about when we feel that feeling in us, and I feel it.
I feel it about Paul Manafort, I feel it about Michael Cohen, I feel it about the parents. I want to see them be punished, and some part of me wants them to suffer a little bit — not a ton. I don’t want them to suffer a ton, but there’s some part of me that feels that feeling, and that feeling is a feeling that I think it’s worthwhile to stop, and interrogate, because that feeling even when you’re applying it in really righteous modes, most of the time, that feeling when it’s being stoked, and whipped up, it’s not being whipped up, and stoked against the Paul Manafort’s of the world, or powerful white parents. It’s being stoked up against poor people of color, marginalized people.
I lived through New York in the 1980s, and I lived through the Central Park jogger, and I watched the city get whipped up into a frenzy of wrath, and again, was that wrath righteous at some level? The crime that was committed was horrendous. A woman was jogging in Central Park, and she was dragged, and she was beaten to within an inch of her life, and she was raped, and it was a despicable, horrible, evil crime, and the anger people felt about that made sense — but, but, but, but, what do we do with that anger? What do we do with that wrath? What happened when we all got whipped up into the wrath? When we channeled that feeling inside us that wants to see the perpetrator suffer? What kind of things do we do? In that case, we committed a grave injustice, and we put five kids in prison for years for crime they didn’t commit.
But, in a broader sense what we did, when that wrath was being whipped up, particularly in the 1980s, and the peak years of the 1990s, is we put hundreds of thousands of poor, predominantly black, and brown people into prison, sometimes for nonviolent offenses, sometimes for violent offenses, but we built the largest incarceration machinery that has ever been known in modern civilization. That’s what we did, and there is a direct connection between that feeling in us even when we feel like it’s righteous, and those policies. That’s kind of the subject of today’s conversation, because today’s conversation is a conversation about policy. On its face it’s a conversation about the criminal punishment system, and I’m using that term advisedly, because my guest uses it, because she definitely does not want to call it a criminal justice system.
Today’s conversation on one level is a policy discussion about the criminal punishment system, but it’s a deeper conversation about why we punish, and what we want punishment to do. It’s a deeper conversation about what actual justice looks like, and at its base, it’s a conversation exploring some truly radical notions that force all of us to question some of those deep instincts we have towards wrath, towards punishment, because the guest today envisions a world that she’s working towards in which prisons don’t exist, in which police don’t exist. She calls herself a prison abolitionist. She has a vision of a world so remotely different from ours, almost impossible to conceive of, and yet, as you’ll hear in the conversation, she does a really, really persuasive job of talking about why maybe that’s the reality we should be working towards.
Her name is Mariame Kaba. She’s the Founder and Director of Project NIA, co-founder of Survived and Punished. You can find her on Twitter, and the handle @prisonculture, and you may know her from her work there. She’s an educator, and an organizer, and an activist, and she’s done all sorts of different things. She was a grad student for a while on sociology. She’s worked with youth who are in conflict with the criminal punishment system, or in conflict with the law, she’s worked in prisons, she’s worked with folks outside of prisons, she’s worked with family members. She is a really unique voice, and I have to say, has changed the way that I think about criminal punishment, and the system as much as almost anyone, and I quote her several times in my second book of “A Colony In A Nation.”
And, she just has a way, as you’re gonna see in this conversation, what she does is she has a way of expanding your horizons of what you think the possible is, not to operate within some of the cramp confines, even the discussion about reform take place, because even as we were having a discussion about reforming the criminal justice system, and we have the First Step Act, which was passed, and we talked about getting rid of nonviolent drug offenders, and letting them out of prison, there’s this entire superstructure that’s built out there, and Mariame forces all of us, I think, to think about the deeper ways in which we are perpetuating that system.
It’s hard, sometimes you encounter an idea that is coded as radical, and you have this kind of immediate reaction to it. Like, we can’t get that, obviously, we have to have police, we have to have prisons. Mariame’s one of those really rare thinkers and communicators who can take an idea that sounds really out there because she’s thought about it so much, because she’s lived it, and talked about it so much. By the end of this conversation, I’m curious you’ll feel the same way — and that idea doesn’t sound quite so crazy.
You first caught my attention several years ago, I think it was in the wake of some mass shooting, I believe, and you had a thread about gun control, and it was a thread about gun control from a perspective of someone who was extremely wary of any measures —
MARIAME KABA: That’s right.
CHRIS HAYES: That would increase the possibility of more incarceration.
MARIAME KABA: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: And the kind of punitive way we immediately look towards those solutions. I remember it was the very rare Twitter thread that like changed my mind, because usually you read Twitter and you’re like, I hate that person, he’s just so dumb. I’m not gonna, okay, I’m not gonna tweet. I will eat that tweet, or you, you’re like, “Yes, oh, yes. That’s right.” Because, we agree, and I read and I was like: This really made me think. And you’ve got a kind of practitioner, and a theorist part of you. How did you develop your politics, your views of the criminal justice system?
MARIAME KABA: I developed it in two ways. I developed it through experience, having friends who ended up in the system, and family members who ended up in the system. And I also developed it through study, through reading a lot of people’s work, and kind of ingesting their thoughts, listening to other people having conversations. But I would say mostly from having seen what was going on in my community growing up, because I grew up in New York City in the 1970s as a kid. And then came of age in the early 80s, and mid-80s, which was a different New York than the current New York we’re in right now.
CHRIS HAYES: Boy was is it ever.
MARIAME KABA: It was really different. My politics kind of were shaped by the moment that I was living through at that time, which feels strangely like the moment young people who are coming of age today are going through in the sense that Michael Stewart had been killed in 1983. We had in 1986 Howard Beach, then in 1989 we had the Central Park Five. And so we had these kind of conflagrations of racialized violence. I remember very specifically Eleanor Bumpers, not when she was killed, but I remember when the trial happened —
CHRIS HAYES: Who was, I’m sorry, who was that?
MARIAME KABA: Eleanor Bumpers was a black woman who was mentally ill, who the cops barged into her home and ended up shooting her just over something really petty and ridiculous. She had a knife, but she wasn’t threatening them in any way. But they carried her body out of the house with her housecoat. I remember very specifically, her housecoat was up, so she was exposed when they were leaving the space. There was a lot of protests about her killing, which was rare, because we really never protested black women’s death in New York City. We protested black men who were harmed and killed.
I came into my own, and around my politics really thinking about race and gender, but being gendered male. So those are the things that really kind of shaped me and made me start questioning why my friends that I went to high school with at a privileged Upper West Side French high school were doing worse things than my friends where I grew up on the Lower East Side. But those people were ending up going to juvie, and my friends who were on the Upper West Side, literally were taking more drugs, doing more shoplifting every minute of the day. When you got caught you got a talking to, I mean, it was a whole different experience. And I didn’t have an analysis for it, but I did see that there was a disparity.
CHRIS HAYES: You’re coming from, you grew up in the Lower East Side, you said?
MARIAME KABA: I did.
CHRIS HAYES: And, you’ve gone to Lycée Francais.
MARIAME KABA: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay, Lycée Francais, I know Lycée Francais, because that was near my my high school.
MARIAME KABA: It used to be called Gucci Heaven
CHRIS HAYES: Exactly, it was like real tony. Lots of cigarette, like —
MARIAME KABA: Lots of smoking, including pot.
CHRIS HAYES: Girls in uniform smoking cigarettes —
MARIAME KABA: Outside-
CHRIS HAYES: It’ss basically my image.
MARIAME KABA: Exactly, wearing gray, and white, and blue. You know what I mean? Like, yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
MARIAME KABA: Yes, and they were doing drugs, and they had money to do drugs, right? Because like, we would go to our friends homes, and their parents were not around ever, and they had, the parties that were there had every kind of drug. Remember, this is the 1980s, had every kind of drug available, because they had the money to buy it. Whereas, my friends on the Lower East Side were doing drugs on the street corner that costs almost nothing to get, but would make you really, really high really quickly, and they would end up arrested, and then, they would end up in juvie.
CHRIS HAYES: So, you’re moving between these two worlds, and seeing the way that…
MARIAME KABA: That’s right.
CHRIS HAYES: That these identical, essentially identical behaviors.
MARIAME KABA: Same age —
CHRIS HAYES: Same —
MARIAME KABA: And, same behaviors, completely treated differently, but it wasn’t until I frankly graduated from college that I had an incident occur. I was teaching a student of mine and ended up in a violent situation. They wanted to try him as an adult and that was my introduction to the system, because all of a sudden I was like, this is not right. Like, he’s not actually a monster. What are we gonna do to help make sure that he doesn’t end up getting railroaded? And, that was the beginning of like, knowing even that a prosecutor, I had to talk to prosecutors with the family of the victim, and all this stuff happened that made me really understand the system in a brand new way which I hadn’t done before.
CHRIS HAYES: Would you want to talk more about that case?
MARIAME KABA: Well, it was a killing, unfortunately, between two young people in a teen dating violence situation. Again, they were potentially going try him as an adult. He was 16, but thankfully, because of intervention from the family of the victim, they agreed to keep him in the juvenile system, which made all the difference, right? Because if he was going to be in the adult system he was facing 25 to life. If he was staying in the juvenile system, he would be there basically for five years till he was 21. A huge difference, and he got to stay in the system, and I still know him today. And he’s a social worker, a father, somebody who’s made a life for himself, even after having done something really horrible and having felt terrible about what he did, right? Because, he actually loved the person he harmed.
That also was the beginning of my acknowledgement and understanding of the possibility of restorative justice, through that experience that pushed me into leaving what I was doing. I went to work at a domestic violence organization. I started to create curricula for teens around dating violence, and that kind of took me on my trajectory that has led to this moment today.
CHRIS HAYES: You talk about domestic violence, and that’s a place where there’s these really, it’s a little like gun control, right?
MARIAME KABA: That’s right, it is.
CHRIS HAYES: Where there’s these two goals that are in tension with each other.
MARIAME KABA: Absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s one goal, which is, there is a system of patriarchal violence against women, not exclusively against women, because it happens in —
MARIAME KABA: That’s right, across the board-
CHRIS HAYES: Across the board.
MARIAME KABA: Different degrees.
CHRIS HAYES: Different degrees.
MARIAME KABA: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: You want to create a society that reduces that, protects people, particularly women. And at the same level, the way that the system has dealt with it through say the Violence Against Women Act, is the same kind of carceral ratchet that we deal with everything else.
MARIAME KABA: That’s right.
CHRIS HAYES: How do you resolve that inherent tension?
MARIAME KABA: Yeah, I think it’s always instructive, because I’m an amateur historian to look at the history of stuff. and I think when you look at domestic violence, and sexual violence in particular, the feminists of the 1960s, and 70s who were pushing for a more serious addressing of gender violence, particularly, racialized gendered violence, were asking for the system to take that more seriously. But their solutions were decidedly non-carceral. They were talking about funding rape crisis centers, funding shelters, funding counseling services, funding all sorts of other stuff.
When law enforcement kind of came into deciding it would take this more seriously, they also came with money, which was the only place a lot of people could actually get money to support those other services. They ended up in a kind of parallel relationship that over the years got stronger, and closer together. And so that’s why today you can’t imagine a domestic violence organization that offers a solution to addressing violence, for example, that doesn’t include a law enforcement angle to it. But the first people were not thinking about it that way. The system stepped in, and said: “Yeah, we’re gonna join you, we absolutely will, but the way you’re gonna be able to get funding for these other things is to get it through law enforcement funding.”
And so that becomes a way in which the solutions get tied into law enforcement, as being the primary response to these form of violence. I think it’s important to understand that even during that time it was contested. Mostly, I would say radical lesbians as well as black and brown women were saying: “We shouldn’t start taking funds from law enforcement for addressing these issues, because we’re gonna then be at the mercy of law enforcement, and as black women, we’re not calling the cops in the same way that white women are because the cops end up harming us, and our loved ones which we don’t want to have happen.”
The conversation is never as simplistic as the way it’s presented. Which people have seen like the talk about domestic violence and sexual assault is it’s carceral feminism, and that’s part of it. But carceral feminisms were actually intention with other people wanting to just address basic needs.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s a section of James Foreman’s book “Locking Up Our Own,” which I think is a really good book where he talks about the ways in which the demands, and the politics of black political organizers and black political leaders in the period of high crime, and elevated homicides, and violent crime in the crack years was, we want A through Z, and then, they go to the State Capital, the State Capital says, “Here’s more money for cops.”
MARIAME KABA: That’s exactly right, that’s the result.
CHRIS HAYES: That’s like, we have all these needs in our community, and the political system says, “This is the thing we can give you, we will give you.”
MARIAME KABA: Absolutely, I remember being in a church basement Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem in 1993 when the crime bill was being sold to the community by Clinton’s people.
CHRIS HAYES: In that church?
MARIAME KABA: In the church.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
MARIAME KABA: And, it was a community based meeting, and a bunch of people were there, and I remember the arguments that were happening at that time in that room, which is why I always think like, the way that history gets told is basically one side won, so they get to like tell you that that was what was going on, but in fact, there’s always tensions in contest, tensions in the moments that we’re in. We just lost, we just lost the fight over saying, don’t get in bed with these people, this is not gonna do what you think it’s gonna do. It’s gonna have unintended consequences, they’re gonna be all these results as a result of a bill that’s $30 billion, of which nine to $10 billion are for constructions of new prisons, right?
Like, what do you think is gonna happen? How are they gonna fill all these prisons? They have to fill them if they’re going to build them, right? It’s the same fight that’s happening right now with Close Rikers in a different kind of way, which is, let’s close this horrible hell hole zone, but let’s build for new jails. What do you thinks gonna happen when the four new jails are built, they’re gonna need people to fill them there. They’re not gonna leave empty $10 billion jails. People were fighting all the way through at that time, and I remember the crime bill era, I remember saying at the time, “This is not gonna turn out well.”
People knew, it wasn’t like everybody was going along. There were people in that meeting saying, “This is not a good deal. We should not go along with this.” And then, there were a lot of scared people who were like, there are drug dealers on my corner, and I want them gone, and so this bill is not gonna help. Okay, then we are gonna sign on, and support it. I think it’s important to understand context, and also, important to understand that wherever there is something being offered, there are many views.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, I think that’s such an important point. Like there’s conflict in every like, if you get four people in a room.
MARIAME KABA: That’s right.
CHRIS HAYES: People are fighting, and one of the things that our politics does right now is paint with a broad brush. Particularly, in these like demographic categories. It’s like, well, the black people want X… tens millions of people there. People —
MARIAME KABA: Of course not.
CHRIS HAYES: Who’ve got different views.
MARIAME KABA: Black people are not a monolith! Yeah!
CHRIS HAYES: Right and what I think that debate gets to in both the domestic violence context and the crime bill context, and something that I think you write about and talk about a lot, which is the trauma and the fear are extremely real.
MARIAME KABA: They’re real. They’re real.
CHRIS HAYES: You got to start there, right, because the people that are in the Church of Abyssinia in 1993 in New York —
MARIAME KABA: They’re scared.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s really horrifying traumatic things happening all around them all the time. They are losing people they love, they’re terrified to leave their homes, that’s not some invention.
MARIAME KABA: That is not an invention. And I think the reality is that people’s traumas are valid and they are important for us to consider, however society at large cannot be governed by making decisions about how to address things mainly by people’s traumas and their fears. So one of the things I always talk about is the importance of your individual traumas being transformed into political commitments. So you have an individual trauma that you experience and then you have a political commitment that may be separate from that trauma.
Here’s an example of what I mean. So I’m a survivor of rape. And I was a reactionary survivor. So there was no reason, when immediately after I was raped for me to be on a panel talking in a dispassionate way about sexual violence and sexual assault. Number one: I did not have an analysis for what had happened to me. I was just incredibly hurt and harmed and I just wanted violence against the person who hurt me. I wanted revenge. That was important. I had to process that. I had to go through that. I had to study and learn about sexual violence as a political act and as a structural issue and I had to get some information. But if you had put me right on a panel after that and said what should we do to rapists I would have said we should kill them. That would have been the response.
But that is not the way to govern in a society to have a bunch of people just going around saying lets capital punishment everybody. You have to think about the political commitment you develop from the experience you’ve had that’s a personal and harmful experience and then you have to think about how to apply that across the board to multiple people and major different contexts.
CHRIS HAYES: That is so in tension with the moment we’re in politically.
MARIAME KABA: It is completely in tension.
CHRIS HAYES: The political moment right now is about —
MARIAME KABA: It’s about immediate visceral response.
CHRIS HAYES: To give the articulation the most charitable articulation of it. The way I think it’s communicated and the way I think a lot of people pursuing it are communicating it’s about centering the experience of groups —
MARIAME KABA: Which were directly impacted —
CHRIS HAYES: Were directly impacted.
MARIAME KABA: Absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: And who experienced trauma and as opposed to people being like eh, you got to put them in the center. What you’re saying is the unfiltered way that is expressed as politics can be destructive.
MARIAME KABA: It’s often it’s very destructive. Because here’s what we know is that you can’t just govern by your feelings about shit. You know what I mean? That is not just, you cannot do that in a polity —
CHRIS HAYES: You can’t say that to people.
MARIAME KABA: You can say that to people. You have to build enough relationships to people that you can have those conversations.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes okay right.
MARIAME KABA: So at the basis of what I’m saying is we have to be in community with each other enough to be able to say to our friends you’re being reactionary as hell. This is not, I understand your pain and I want to be here with you in your pain, but that is not the way to make policy. We’re not going to extrapolate your personal harmed feelings of fear and anger and turn that into a policy that then is going to govern a whole bunch of other people who did nothing to you. This makes zero sense. So that is part of where I think at least, if we’re doing criminal punishment policy work and we think we’re just seeking to people’s personal feelings about stuff and their personal fears, that’s how come we get the policies we get. That’s how we get X law, Sharon’s Law.
CHRIS HAYES: Megan’s Law.
MARIAME KABA: Megan’s Law. Based on individual cases that happened to individual people that then get generalized to huge amounts and swaths of our population which should not be the case.
CHRIS HAYES: And in fact there’s a whole victim rights movement.
MARIAME KABA: There is.
CHRIS HAYES: That was at the center, that was inextricable bound up with mass incarceration.
MARIAME KABA: Absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: Victim’s statements that are given —
MARIAME KABA: Certain victims though.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
MARIAME KABA: The victims that got to be heard and got to be spoken came from a race, class, particularly gendered set of people whose pain was seen as politic, as useful politics. And that to me is really important for you to keep in mind, which is that there were a whole bunch of other survivors. They could have come to me and asked me what they should do about sexual violence and two years after my situation they would have gotten a very different answer from me than the day after this happened. And victim rights, actually a lot of victim rights groups are now filled with people who are talking in very different ways about criminal punishment. This is true in New York State where people are now saying things like: “We don’t want to be locking everybody up. This is not the way we’re going to solve it.” Because guess what, they’ve had years of seeing how that policy’s actually not worked for anybody in a good way.
CHRIS HAYES: How did you, if you don’t mind speaking about it, how did you make that journey yourself in the wake of your own trauma to work from there to —
MARIAME KABA: To having —
CHRIS HAYES: To analysis.
MARIAME KABA: It was literally the same thing that I just said about how I came to know about the system was that I read a lot of other people’s experiences. I looked for information in theories about rape and its causes and how people have addressed it over years and I talked to a lot of people who were survivors too. And that was critically important in the shaping of the way that I understood my personal trauma and created a new political commitment.
So my political commitment ended up being around transformative justice and restorative justice and around other things that made more sense to me because many of us who are harmed are harmed by people we care about. It’s not some stranger in the dark alley who jumps out at you, it’s your uncle, it’s your friend, it is somebody who is proximate. And so you’re dealing with so many issues around guilt and what did I do and how did this work, and these are things that you’re trying to process. I didn’t want the system involved. I knew that immediately. I wanted this person to have acknowledged what they did to me, I wanted them to take personal responsibility of trying to repair with me what had happened and I wished to God they wouldn’t do it to somebody else. Those were the immediate things after I got over my revenge fantasies.
My revenge fantasies were real. I think for about a good year all I could think about was killing this person. I would have waking dreams about taking a knife and killing them. I literally was in that mode. And I had no counseling because I didn’t tell anybody because I didn’t want this person, who was in our life, to get ostracized by the entire family. I didn’t want my family to know what had happened. It took a year for me to tell my mother. That is a reality in the lives of millions of people. Millions of people. This is what happens, particularly when it comes to interpersonal violence and so that’s the conversation that I wish more people were having if they were honest.
CHRIS HAYES: That basic reality, I mean we know it’s a statistical truth, it’s almost a cliché that violence is done by people you know.
MARIAME KABA: Absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: But one of the things that I keep having seared in my brain in the moment of Me Too is that the places we code as dangerous or safe are completely at odds with that reality. So a fancy hotel in Beverly Hills where Harvey Weinstein lures someone to be is safe, but it has been the site we now know of repeated violence. Over and over and over. That’s a place that has given, that has been a breeding ground for violence. No one would ever code that hotel as dangerous.
MARIAME KABA: No, or homes.
CHRIS HAYES: Or homes.
MARIAME KABA: Homes. So your home is your sanctuary. Your home is your place where you go to relax. For many people, your home is your most unsafe place. So how do you address those things with a policy solution? Those end up being about people having to take what has happened to them and transform that harm towards a positive end, if you can do it.
CHRIS HAYES: And I think there’s such an obvious, obvious race and class and gender component to this, who matters and who doesn’t. But what is striking to me is that even when you take the world of affluent, white, high social capital people, there is all kinds of s–t happening in people’s homes that they are not talking about, trauma they’re not dealing with. The uncle who people know to stay away from but no one is going to want to incarcerate. That s–t happens —
MARIAME KABA: All the time.
CHRIS HAYES: All the time.
MARIAME KABA: Happens all the time. But I think that tells you, that has a lot to do with the image of what we’ve created as the criminal. And it’s what Catherine Russel wrote about in her book called “The Color Complex” years ago. She created a term called criminalblackman, which was one word. That’s the trope of the criminalblackman is something that is so seared within our DNA — you wrote this in your second book about policing — those images are kind of the controlling images that everything else flows out of. So policy, your responses, your whatever are conditioned to a certain type of criminal and your Uncle Joe is not that person in the affluent township that you’re living in. It is not your Aunt Becky, who is out there selling favors to get their kid in college. That is not the image of the person. So then those folks are invisibilized and actually I argue that it actually works to the detriment of a lot of people because of the fact that so many harms are happening that then end up not having been addressed because people don’t see those people as harmful.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay that’s a term you’ve said twice now and I want you to explain it so we can talk about it. Right after this.
You said the term restorative justice. What does that term mean?
MARIAME KABA: Restorative justice is people with, say, a set of ideas, ideologies, visions of the world that determine the ways in which we will interact with each other when harm occurs. That’s kind of like very general view of what we mean by restorative justice. It means that people that were harmed are centered in terms of their harm being seen and valued and addressed. It means that bystanders are called to be part of encircling that person and it means that the person who has harmed is also called in to take accountability for what they’ve done. It’s a very different model than the adversarial system that we currently have where harms occur and the state intervenes. In this case, the idea is that you have a community of people who will intervene and so they ask usually a set of questions. A guy named Howard Zare who popularized the concept of restorative justice in the U.S. in the 1970s. They call him the father of restorative justice, even though what he’s talking about is basically coming from indigenous peace making that both happened on the continent here but also in other parts of the world, in Africa, in Australia, in other places where people were looking for communal ways to solve problems.
But he talks about asking the question of what happened, whose responsibility and obligation it is to actually heal that particular harm, and what is the form of repair that is necessitated by the harm that occurred. Because the idea of restorative justice is that harms engenders needs and that those needs should be met. And the issue is who’s going to meet the needs and how will people meet those needs? So that’s really the concept behind restorative justice. And I think the thing that many people have taken over the years now is that they’ve made it into a program because everything happens in this country turns into program. But what restorative justice is is a philosophy of life and a philosophy of community building and interaction with other people when harm occurs. Or to prevent harm. So that’s a little bit about what restorative justice is.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s very different than the model we have.
MARIAME KABA: It’s not the same at all.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s completely different.
MARIAME KABA: It’s completely different.
CHRIS HAYES: But it’s different in a way that almost seems incommensurable.
MARIAME KABA: No, because think about this. So let me give you an example. So let’s say your cousin, who has had a substance abuse problem for years, you know that he’s had this substance abuse problem for years, he’s borrowed money and stolen money from you for years. You bought a whole new TV set and entertainment system. And you have it in your house. And you come home one day and that is gone. And your first thought is it’s your cousin Bill who took it. What’s your first thing you’re going to do?
CHRIS HAYES: Call Bill probably.
MARIAME KABA: Call Bill, and if you can’t find Bill, who you going to call?
CHRIS HAYES: His parents.
MARIAME KABA: Exactly. You’re going to find Bill and you’re going to be like what the fuck, you took my stuff, sorry. You know, you’re going to try —
CHRIS HAYES: Track down Bill.
MARIAME KABA: You’re going to track down Bill, but your first thought was not I’m going to call 911.
CHRIS HAYES: No, no way.
MARIAME KABA: So, in our lives, we are much more restorative about people we care about often than we are about strangers. Right? And that is by necessity in part because who would you call if it’s a stranger? You’re like how am I going to get my stuff back? I guess the cops will help.
CHRIS HAYES: Right because I can’t track down that person.
MARIAME KABA: I can’t track that down. But there’s something about restorative justice that says proximity and relationships make it so that you are willing to engage in a different form of dialogue with that person. And if you couldn’t find Bill and you called your aunt and you were like “Aunt Jenny, what the hell? Get Bill.” Or you say “Aunt Jenny, you’ve got to pay me back for that. You got to pay for it yourself because Bill took it. He’s your kid.” There’s going to be some restitution and repair that’s going to happen as a result of the community that you’ve built coming together to solve the problem that you are dealing with. So I think people just often think about restorative justice as alien to them until they have to actually manage conflicts and issues within their own circle.
CHRIS HAYES: And people, I 100 percent agree with that. But just to play out the thought experiment, so there’s other things that we want out of the system at a theoretical level. So one is deterrence. So if the idea is that you go to your aunt and she’s like you’re right, my addict son, god d—-t, okay and then she writes you a check and you get a new TV system and Bill’s still out there and he’s still abusing, then it’s like well, has that deterrent function been served? And in fact, this is a very, very, the deterrence question is an extremely real question to anyone who has dealt with an addict in their life. Because they have been through the cycle. Give them money, give them money, then try to cut them off, then they —
MARIAME KABA: Tough love.
CHRIS HAYES: All these people have cycled through these will addicts in their life with people. How you deter the behavior? How do you change the behavior? So that’s one thing. And then the other thing is how do you make sure that Bill doesn’t go steal other people’s TVs because we don’t want a world in which everyone is going around being victimized?
MARIAME KABA: Exactly. So those are great questions and great thoughts and I would just offer this. Is the current system that we have set up/ So let’s say you call the cops and let’s say on some whatever situation they find Bill. Is Bill necessarily going to get prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and end up incapacitated as a result? Probably not. Because there many more serious quote unquote things that people have to handle other than Bill. Plus, if we dealt with all the Bills, the system couldn’t survive.
CHRIS HAYES: No.
MARIAME KABA: It would just crash because we couldn’t take on all the harms that are caused on a daily basis. So that’s one. Second is let’s say Bill is caught. Let’s say Bill goes into prison or jail. Is that going to offer him the treatment that he needs to be able.. or is he going to come out from that situation 10 times worse than he went in? Possibly based on my, not just anecdotal but also research, I’m going to tell you that Bill’s going to come out worse. So the systems we have in place don’t actually solve the problems that we say we want solved.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s also so apparent, if you’ve ever, and I have done this, and actually the way that I think about this has changed, I think honestly partly with your influence to be completely honest about this, and partly writing the book, but I have had a bike stolen and called the cops. And the cops come to take your report. And it feels like a ridiculous, it’s a ridiculous undertaking for everyone. They know it’s ridiculous. They’re almost like pissed off about it kind of. And you’re like this, and you’re thinking this is kind of a big deal in my life. That bike cost a lot of money. This is sort of what you’re here for, but what a freaking joke this entire undertaking is. You’re never going to find the bike.
MARIAME KABA: You’re never going to find the bike. And the cops are not looking for it.
CHRIS HAYES: They think it’s so ridiculous.
MARIAME KABA: I promise you if it shows up at the precinct the next and they are not doing it.
CHRIS HAYES: But that’s actually a real genuine point of contact where you’re like okay well now I’m using the system. This is a thing. A harm was done to me.
MARIAME KABA: Who do I call? I call 911.
CHRIS HAYES: They take the thing.
MARIAME KABA: They take it down. And even if I know I’m never getting that bike back, the feeling of just I told on somebody. It’s that basic. I told that this happened to me. I needed an outlet for this to happen and they were my outlet. Now imagine if you had other outlets that were not the cops. Perhaps your neighborhood tenant association group. And you all thought together are bikes being stolen is a thing. How are we going to solve this in the neighborhood? So my case, for example, when I was living in Chicago, one of the things that happened were bunch of kids in the neighborhood were buck wilding in the alleys in the middle of the night. The white gentrifying people who came into the community who were pushing those kids out calling 911. Those kids kept getting arrested. And who was getting called? Ms. Kaba. Come to the station and get these children out. Because you do this work so come over and get these kids and divert them to programming.
So I finally said to my building people, I’m like: Y’all we need to sit down and have a conversation about what you’re doing. It is a) a chain reaction that is putting these kids in contact with the law, making their lives immensely worse. Making it more likely that when they come out, it’s not your bike that’ll get stolen, it’s your car that’ll get keyed. Or your house that’ll be broken into. I promise you that’s where this is going. So lets think of another way to address this. Let’s say you hear this thing happening and the loud music. Let’s say we have a phone tree. And let’s say you know that you can call me and three other people. And that we know these kids and that we’re going to go outside, I’m going to tell Jamal turn that goddamn thing off, it is two in the morning and you are disturbing me. And I have a relationship with him already. And he looks at Ms. Kaba so differently than he looks at white girl from the suburbs who’s moving in to do good in the, you know what I mean. He just has a different connection to me. And he will turn down that music, I promise you. And sure enough, we were dealing with that.
And I used to do it anyway. I would go and preempt. I would go downstairs and I would be like, y’all know the cops are about to come, what are you doing? And I’m not getting you next time. I’m leaving you in jail because I’m not trying to be there at three a.m. in the morning. And that is the kind of thing we talk about when we talk about a neighborhood response to addressing various forms of harms that are occurring in the neighborhood. It’s just people doing that. Instead of being afraid of him, he is a 16 year old. I’m sorry, I’m not scared of him. Okay. I can do more to him than he can do to me. Any freaking day. And he kind of knows that, which is why he’s puffing his chest up. So if you show respect, you get respect back. That’s just, these are facts. These are facts.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s also, and you say this because when we see, you know we saw the Starbucks, the infamous Starbucks situation and the “Barbecue Becky” situation and so much of that is just about not wanting interpersonal conflict. You can say, if someone is doing something, and believe me, I am the biggest goddamn wimp about this, so I’m like, but the idea that I’m judging anyone for this. But we’ve all been in public spaces where a stranger’s doing something that’s making people uncomfortable and—
MARIAME KABA: Nobody moves.
CHRIS HAYES: Nobody moves and nobody says anything because it’s —
MARIAME KABA: I have trained myself over the years to be the person who always goes.
CHRIS HAYES: That is so hard to do that though.
MARIAME KABA: It’s hard. We got to do it.
CHRIS HAYES: No, I 100 percent agree with that.
MARIAME KABA: If we’re going to have a world without these systems we’ve got to train ourselves to do the work.
CHRIS HAYES: The craziest thing is that I think sometimes white people, particularly in these situations, they’ve got this crazy mix in their head of racialized suspicion and then white liberal guilt where they don’t want to say a thing because then it’s like “oh I’m a suspicious white person who’s a racist,” but then they call the cops to deal with the situation because they’re like I don’t want to show you that I think that you’re doing, you’re not be here because you’re black and I’m white.
MARIAME KABA: Oh my God. And by calling the cops, you’ve thrown a grenade. You’ve thrown a grenade and you didn’t need to. You could’ve just told Jamal not to do that work anymore.
CHRIS HAYES: But then we start escalating up the seriousness, right? So more and more people, I think, at this moment are keyed into the idea that for instance, going back to your original… The kids doing drugs on the Lower East Side and the kids at the high school, we shouldn’t be locking people up for that and noise disturbances and broken windows policing and fare beating. Right?
But when you start to get to violence and homicide, but violence particularly, because I think people underestimate. This is something you’ve talked about and people in criminal justice reform talk about, which is there’s a lot of violence in America.
MARIAME KABA: Half of people that are locked up in our prisons right now are there for technical violent crimes.
CHRIS HAYES: Technical violent crimes. And people talk about nonviolent drug offenders.
MARIAME KABA: That’s right.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s this category where it’s like, “Well, okay, yes.”
MARIAME KABA: That’s right.
CHRIS HAYES: But when you say assault, rape —
MARIAME KABA: That’s right.
CHRIS HAYES: Homicide, attempted homicide, manslaughter —
MARIAME KABA: Yep, they should go forever. Yeah, that’s right.
CHRIS HAYES: Then you hit this breaking point.
MARIAME KABA: I would just say this, which is, you know I’m a prison-industrial complex abolitionist, which means that I have a political vision and ideological commitments and belief in organizing, that we have to organize towards a horizon where we no longer have prisons, policing, and surveillance. That we figure out other ways of addressing harm within our communities. I’m clear that there are a lot of things that have to change. Almost everything has to change in order for that vision to come to fruition.
What I mean by that is, we live in a capitalist society. For me, capitalism has to go. It has to be abolished. We live within a system that’s got all these other isms, and we’re gonna have to uproot those. So we’re doing work every single day to set the conditions for the possibility of that alternate vision of a world without prisons, policing, and surveillance.
So long story short is, I always tell people, if the thing that you do in your life is to shorten the reach of these systems in the lives of people you know and yourself, you’re contributing to an abolitionist horizon. So an example of that is, somebody ends up hurting somebody else. There are restorative justice, transformative justice processes and practices that people employ to try to make sure that people take accountability for what they’re doing.
The key to that is that it’s consensual, right? And people always say, “Well, what about the non-consensual thing?” You have to be willing to take accountability. And in our culture, what actually makes somebody willing to take accountability? In the culture we currently live in right now?
Let’s say you killed somebody. Is the incentive in our culture and society at large that you should say you did that? Or is your incentive to be like, deny to the nth degree that you did it? And why is that? That’s because the thing that’s hanging over your head is that you go to prison for long periods of time. So it’s in your interest in an adversarial system to deny that you ever did anything. To always say you never did it.
Well, if that’s the culture we live in, then of course everybody’s going to lie about the harms that are caused and the people who were harmed are never going to get satisfaction. Because people are constantly saying that they didn’t do the thing that you know they did to you. Because they were the person that did that to you.
So you have to create different kinds of mechanisms through which we can try to encourage people to take accountability for harm that’s caused without the cudgel of potential prison for that to happen. That’s a longterm project that is going to take cultural shifts that I’m not going to be here to see the end of. But in the moment that I’m in right now, I believe that if we’re trying to do that, more people will pick up on what we’re trying to do, because they’re going to see results that they wouldn’t ever see in the criminal punishment system.
So for now, I always tell people who get mad at me about abolition and I’m like, “Well, why are you angry?”
CHRIS HAYES: Do people get mad at you?
MARIAME KABA: Oh, all the time. And not only get mad, but they just want to have debates and they want to come at me in this really very aggressive way. And I’m always like, “If the system that currently exists is a system you think should continue, then why are you talking to me?” Because then the system is doing exactly what you hoped it would be doing.
But the truth of the matter is, the reason people are mad is because the system that currently exists is such a mess. And they acknowledge it is. They know it is. They know that when something happened to them, they did not get what they needed from that system. But they need the system there, because they need something to hold onto because what else? It is going to be anarchy.
CHRIS HAYES: You’re literally reading my mind right now.
MARIAME KABA: Okay! People are just like, “We’ve got to have something! And this thing right now that we have is better than nothing.” And my thing is like, that’s actually a false choice, because where I’m working in the world, most of the people I know who need support and want an intervention didn’t ever avail themselves of the system in the first place. Can you imagine if…
What is it, the numbers that I heard recently where that a thousand people getting raped, that out of that number, I think it’s something like 200 people report. And from the 200 people that report, 20 are moved forward to a prosecutor. And out of those 20 convictions, less than five people. And out of those convictions, only maybe one ends up behind bars in a sexual assault. Out of a thousand cases.
So when people tell me, “What are we going to do with all the rapists?” I’m like, what are we doing with them now? They live everywhere. They’re in your community, they’re on TV being outed every single day. So the fact… You think that that system is doing a deterrent thing that it’s actually not doing.
CHRIS HAYES: What you just articulated is the fact that the system as currently constituted both does way too much and too little at the same time.
MARIAME KABA: Too little, and also just too ineffectively.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. I mean the homicide clearance rate in Chicago is-
MARIAME KABA: 17 percent
CHRIS HAYES: 17 percent. So 83 percent of people are literally getting away with murder. So if there’s a single thing you want from the system, if you were to say, “We want a system that does one thing, and we want a system that does one crime, which is the worst crime you can do is murder a person, and the system should find the person who did that and punish them and lock them up.”
MARIAME KABA: It’s not doing it.
CHRIS HAYES: It doesn’t even —
MARIAME KABA: It’s not doing it.
CHRIS HAYES: To a preposterous degree.
MARIAME KABA: Hugely disproportionate. So I’m like, why are you mad at me for articulating a different vision? At least try it. See what’s going on. You’ve had literally 400 years of the other side, and people want us who offer different visions to come up with, first non-resourced… Because right now what are we spending? $172 billion between locking people up, law enforcement, and the criminal courts, every year on the federal side. What are you getting for that?
My organization is not getting $172 billion, I promise you. We are not getting $1 million. We are not getting proportions of those dollars to do what people then say, “Prove to us that your model will work.” I’m like, based on what? Based on shoestrings and some shoe polish? Because that’s what we have. Our resources are dwarfed by the state’s resources and as long as that’s the case, I’m not proving shit to you. If you give us $170 billion, then you can expect some results. Right now, you all who are down with this current adversarial, punishing, oppressive system are getting $172 billion every year and you’re not asking the prisons to show you results. No.
Does anybody go to their local prison and say, “Tell me how many people have left here and are okay and aren’t doing things in the community.” Nothing. You don’t ask the cops for results. We don’t ask anybody for results. They’re not responsible for coming with an evaluation plan to show how they’ve used the money. They get unlimited money every single year, more and more and more money, no questions asked. How come that system gets to operate with impunity in that kind of way? And you’re asking nonprofit groups on the ground who sometimes are not even nonprofits, just community groups in their neighborhoods, moms sitting on chairs… When they are trying to get a $10,000 grant, to show that they’re going to end all violence within five years.
So the whole entire system is set up to actually be just unbalanced in terms of where the energy should be put, in terms of telling that system that is doing the wrong thing, rather than advancing the alternative.
CHRIS HAYES: And it’s also not doing… People are victims and perpetrators of —
MARIAME KABA: Both.
CHRIS HAYES: Violence —
MARIAME KABA: All the time.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s extremely important for us, in the stories we tell about violence and crime, to basically have cops and robbers.
MARIAME KABA: Good people.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s a category over here… And the fact is all people —
MARIAME KABA: We’re all both.
CHRIS HAYES: Are all both.
MARIAME KABA: That’s very uncomfortable to talk about loudly.
CHRIS HAYES: Are perpetrators and —
MARIAME KABA: That we all harm people and we’ve all been harmed. Now the degrees are different, our accountability is different. But we’re all both. Danielle Sered has a new book out right now, who runs Common Justice here in Brooklyn. And Common Justice is the only program I know of that works with adults to divert adults from prison to the community for violent crimes. So they’re doing it. The thing, “I can’t wrap my brain around…” Well, they’re doing it. Okay? Are they getting $172 billion to do this? No.
What Danielle says in her new book is that no one enters violence for the first time having committed it. Meaning that something happened to you that led to that other form of violence of you either lashing out, using violence, because that’s how you learned how to be whatever. No one enters violence for the first time having committed it.
And just that very important thing should condition all of our responses to everything. And it’s not. It doesn’t. It’s the binary. You did something wrong. You’re a bad person. You did something … We all do bad things. We all do bad things. Whether it’s out in the open and we acknowledge those things, or we’re keeping it to ourselves because we know it’s bad and we don’t want to be ostracized or disposed of things like that. So we all do that. And I just think that’s what transformative and restorative justice allow. They allow for people to be both.
CHRIS HAYES: But there’s also… Just to push back slightly —
MARIAME KABA: Of course.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s a hierarchy of harm, you know what I mean?
MARIAME KABA: There is. We talked about that. We have different levels of bad things, degrees of bad things, but let me just tell you also, the people who are least likely to cause the same harm again are people who’ve killed somebody. I know nobody wants to hear that, but it’s because it’s very hard to kill people. Contrary to what television tells you about serial killers, those images of crime, those crime shows that have literally polluted so many people’s brains in this country.
Contrary to that, if you kill somebody, it is such a massively traumatic thing to have done to another person. Unless you are somebody who is evil without any sort of conscience, you are holding that the rest of your life. Go to any prison. And I’ve been to many, and I’ve actually taught in prisons, particularly a young people in juvenile facilities. When somebody killed somebody else, the level of remorse for that is something that is inexplicable to somebody who hasn’t experienced it and done that.
So this notion that people are just “sociopaths,” which I don’t like to use that term either because it’s very complicated and not directly linked in terms of mental health and violence. The ideas that people offer out there in the general public often take away that idea, the idea of that harm being so traumatic to the person who harmed you, too.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean the literature of army training, this is this sort of thing that happens. There’s this famous study and I think it happens in World War II, in which they find out that a huge amount of soldiers are never firing their guns.
MARIAME KABA: Because it’s so hard to kill somebody.
CHRIS HAYES: And they’re like, “Oh my God, what’s going on?” And the answer is, it’s actually very hard—
MARIAME KABA: To kill somebody.
CHRIS HAYES: To overcome. And the training in the United States Armed Services uses that to get around that natural moral resistance that we have.
MARIAME KABA: As human beings, it is hard for us to kill other people. That sounds like an anathema.
CHRIS HAYES: It does. Because the whole idea of the model is thin blue line. That basically we’re always on the edge of chaos, anarchy, and violence. And that the cops and the system are the thing that … that’s literally what they say.
MARIAME KABA: Are the thing that stops it from happening. They’re the line between us and savagery and anarchy. And that is a lie, because we know that by talking to people who’ve harmed other people very seriously, who often are desperate for an attempt to try to be accountable for that. They want a chance to talk to the families of the people they harmed because they want to talk to those people, because accountability is a form of healing. To say you did something and it was terrible, and now you’re serving 50 years in prison with no chance of getting out. You want to be able to go to sleep at night.
CHRIS HAYES: I 1,000 percent agree with you that the storytelling and the policy rationale of the actual system is built out from the most extreme examples outward, right? So the pop cultural representations, the way we think about it like monsters, sociopaths, these immoral remorseless killers.
MARIAME KABA: But the question is, what about the remorseless?
CHRIS HAYES: That’s where I’m going.
MARIAME KABA: And my thing is, I’m going to tell you right now that the remorseless killer who is caught is probably currently locked up for life. Right? Because that’s where they’re going to end up. My thing is within the new paradigm of a world that I envision, because so many things will have been different, because people will have had their needs met from the time they’re a kid.
CHRIS HAYES: How did that remorseless killer get built?
MARIAME KABA: How did they get built? And so my thing is, I think we’re going to shift the paradigm in the end so that we have less “remorseless” people. And so we’re going to find a different way to handle those people who cannot in good conscience be within our regular society. But it doesn’t have to be a prison. It doesn’t have to be the prison as we’ve created it.
So that’s the answer for me to that, which is we’re going to figure it out. We’re going to figure it out. But for now, most people who are locked up are not those people. For now, most people who are…
CHRIS HAYES: That is — I want to just be clear on the record — I 1,000 percent agree with that.
MARIAME KABA: So let’s let all those people out tomorrow and then let’s argue over the rest, while we’re changing the other things that happen. And I’m going to say one last thing about this, which is the reason I can’t get behind the right’s criminal punishment reform models is not because they’re on the right. It’s because they refuse to fund and address all the things on the front end that would make the back end not possible. Because what they’re doing is saying, “We need shorter sentences for some people, not everybody. We need a better re-entry system by which people get training for jobs that don’t exist based on not having been educated from the time they were in the fourth grade in the first place.”
So we just fundamentally have an ideological completely different view of how the world operates. In that way, I don’t want Newt Gingrich out there doing criminal punishment reform. That is very antithetical to most of the reformers you’re seeing out there right now. Who value the “bipartisan” stupid policy.
No. I want them to fund our schools, to allow us to have a planet. I want them to be able to give universal health care to people, because I believe that all those things, will make all the other stuff that were “working on” in criminal punishment reform less likely to occur.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s one more thing in that list of ingredients that I maybe wanted to end on, which is basically therapy, mental health counseling, trauma assistance. A thing I come back to you time and time again, and I return to your Lycée Français neighborhood dichotomy, because I had maybe not quite as extreme, but a sort of similar situation. I went to public school in the Bronx. And then I went to this magnet school in Manhattan. It was sort of affluent, professional kids. Then I went to an Ivy League university. It seemed like different kind of levels of society.
And one of the things that struck me, and it’s been very important in my own life, is mental health interventions. I’ve just had people in my life from very affluent backgrounds suffer from intense mental health problems, intense substance abuse and addiction problems, compulsion problems, depression … And very expensive mental health interventions essentially giving them a totally new life.
MARIAME KABA: That’s right.
CHRIS HAYES: And of all the inequalities that I think about in, and particularly I’ve seen when we’ve done our reporting in Chicago is, there’s just a shocking amount of untreated trauma. I mean, it’s overwhelming to be around. It’s paralyzing.
MARIAME KABA: That’s right.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s nothing. People see their best friend —
MARIAME KABA: Killed in front of them.
CHRIS HAYES: Murdered in the street in front of them when they’re 10 years old and the next day it’s like —
MARIAME KABA: Well, I’ve had kids that I’ve worked with who’ve ended up dead, and I needed to go and talk to somebody about that. Do you know what I mean? But that doesn’t mean that the kids I work with have people. They have us, but we’re not trained counselors. We are friends and supporters and allies and people, mentors. But at least some of the kids that I worked with had that. They had a place in a circle to actually try to process those traumas.
And that’s part of what we’ve done, where we had a peace room in Chicago on Clark Street where young people could come to our peace room. And that’s how we started a project called Circles and Ciphers, which is a leadership development program for gang-affiliated and incarcerated young people that exists now on its own as its own organization, which I would encourage people to Google and look for Circles and Ciphers, because they do invaluable work, which is just that. Processing through peer support those traumas, not even accessing “treatment.” Even that makes a difference. Just that informal network of people who you can talk to about the harms that are have occurred makes a huge difference.
I would say this, though. I want to definitely make sure we don’t conflate mental health issues and violence-
CHRIS HAYES: No.
MARIAME KABA: Number one. And number two, I want to say, we should all have people that we can talk to who want to listen to us. And if we have to pay them to do that, we should do that. We should have the access to be able to do that.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I’m not sure there’s one model. I’m just saying that everybody needs —
MARIAME KABA: Absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: And this is just my belief, is that everybody needs to talk through stuff.
MARIAME KABA: Everybody. And our public clinics are being closed, like in Chicago, one of the first moves that Rahm Emanuel made when he came in was to shut down half of the public clinics in Chicago. Half of them. And then to expect that “people who were causing violence”, where are they gonna go? You close down half of the mental health clinics for people who need to have their PTSD discussed, how need to be able… So that’s a policy decision. That’s a policy decision that could be reversed if we wanted to invest actual resources in the things that will matter to the communities, rather than putting $172 billion into a system that is a death-making system and causes premature death on multiple levels. Those are choices.
CHRIS HAYES: Mariame Kaba is the founder and director of Project NIA. She’s a co-founder of Survived and Punished. You can find her on Twitter @prisonculture. I have to say, I have really learned a lot from you and I really find your work so valuable. Thank you so much.
MARIAME KABA: Thank you for having me.
CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Mariame Kaba. I really recommend if you happen to be on Twitter to follow her on Twitter. Although her account might be locked now. So you might not be able to do that. It’s @prisonculture, but you can also look up Project NIA. She’s the founder and director of that. She’s the co-founder of Survived and Punished. She gives talks and does events and you can definitely check her out out and about in the world. If you get a chance, it’s definitely worthwhile.
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