Unchained: Inside, Outside, Freedom Side

From the May/June 2018 PNL #860

by Derek Singletary and Emily NaPier Singletary

A new abolitionist movement is underway in the US. This movement dares to envision a world without the institutions of police and prisons, which function primarily as tools of racial and economic oppression. Just as ending slavery was at one time considered unimaginable except by a minority of bold abolitionists, the idea of eliminating police and prisons seems far out of reach to most. And just as people who were themselves enslaved led the abolitionist movement by organizing rebellions and escapes, this new movement, if it is to be successful, will be led by the people most harmed by the criminal injustice system. We launched our new organization Unchained to build an organized and sustained abolitionist movement in Syracuse and across Upstate New York.

As Co-Founders and Co-Executive Directors who are married but come from what could be described as two different worlds, our goal is to bridge the gap between the streets and prison. We are a Black man in state prison teaming up with a white woman with a Master’s degree, and the combination of our perspectives is the foundation on which Unchained is built.

Derek earned his GED as a teenager at the Jamesville jail and is now pursuing his Bachelor’s degree from inside Elmira state prison. He has a lifetime of experience dealing with oppression, having personally lived through the school-to-prison pipeline and various elements of the criminal injustice system. Emily has worked to dismantle systems of punishment for over 15 years as an organizer, advocate, researcher and educator. She played a lead role in the campaigns to remove the criminal history question from SUNY admissions applications and to stop automatically prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in NYS, and now brings her experience as a prison wife to her work. Together, we are reimagining our legal and education systems to promote racial and economic justice. Our mantra for Unchained is, “We’re inside. We’re outside. We’re on the freedom side.”

Unchained approaches its work with an analysis of the criminal injustice system and education system working in tandem to maintain white supremacy. When the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865, it intentionally abolished slavery, except as punishment for being convicted of a crime, and the country adapted to conform to the newly accepted version of white supremacy. Slavery was out, Jim Crow was in, and prison was waiting in the wings. Now commonly referred to as “the new Jim Crow,” the consequences of getting caught up in the so-called justice system have relegated millions of Black and brown folks to a life of fighting barriers erected not explicitly because of their race, but more insidiously as part of criminalizing their very existence.

This criminalization often begins as early as preschool. Barriers to learning like over-crowded classrooms, poorly trained teachers, lack of resources, standardized testing, curricula that are not culturally relevant, punitive discipline practices, and police presence in schools are ingredients of the poison that propels the country’s reliance on incarceration as a panacea for all social problems. Instead of engaging a disinterested student with lessons in which they can see themselves and their culture portrayed in a positive light, or providing counseling to a student who is distracted by problems at home, children are labeled discipline problems and pushed out of school, often straight into the criminal injustice system.

Once they are branded criminals and subsequently denied education and employment, barred from voting, and relegated to substandard housing, children grow into adults and become resigned to a feeling of inescapable doom. This breeds resentment and desperation, and without the education and resources to effectively resist their oppression, people continue to support themselves by whatever means necessary, even if technically illegal. They may promote a subculture that makes school as they experienced it seem unattractive and unnecessary while obscuring the permanent disadvantage conferred upon them by the very systems they are shunning. This “die in the streets mentality” is a direct result of feeling like all legitimate options have been closed off to people due to their criminal record.

While everyday rhetoric would have the general public believe that poverty causes poor academic performance and illegal activity, Unchained frames the issue differently. Poverty is not the cause of these social problems but a symptom of them. White supremacy is at the root of the failings of schools and the criminal injustice system, and concentrated poverty among Black and brown folks is the natural byproduct of those failings.

What sets Unchained apart from other organizations is our two-pronged approach to ending incarceration by tackling the country’s penchant for punishment in its education and criminal injustice systems, and our ability to bring currently incarcerated people into the movement. In recent years, there has been growing awareness of and commitment to the importance of including formerly incarcerated people in the work, but currently incarcerated people remain largely invisible and silenced. At Unchained, directly impacted people are not tokens or an afterthought like they so often are in other organizations. We are committed to having people impacted by the intergenerational oppression of our failed education and criminal injustice systems at the forefront of our campaigns and the larger movement, and being co-led by someone in state prison stretches our network into places previously unreachable. We invest in people these systems have harmed to chart a path toward racial and economic justice.

Unchained was also formed with the explicit purpose of bolstering the abolitionist movement in Upstate New York. While a relatively robust network of organizations in New York City has addressed these issues for many years, groups in Upstate New York working on them are few and far between and under-resourced. We hope to strengthen and link together groups already doing the work while simultaneously doing our own organizing and advocacy with folks in jails and in our communities. We will launch and support campaigns for system change at the local level and bring local groups into statewide and national campaigns.

Unchained envisions a world without police and prisons, where schools nurture children of color rather than funneling them into the criminal injustice system. This is a world without white supremacy and where economic freedom is possible for everyone. It is a world where safety is measured by the availability and quality of resources in a community, not the number of police officers patrolling its streets and schools; a world without disadvantage hiding in the fine print. We envision a world Unchained.

To join us or learn more, contact Emily at emily@weareunchained.org or 315.243.5135 or drop by the Unchained office in the Syracuse Center for Peace and Social Justice (2013 E. Genesee St., Syracuse) – contact her for hours. You can write to Derek Singletary #11B2347, Elmira Correctional Facility, PO Box 500, Elmira, NY 14902. Please keep in mind that all mail sent to Derek will be opened and read by prison staff before he receives it.