Issue 33 of The Abolitionist features pieces on the COVID-19 pandemic and introduces the newspaper’s new structure, including a section of new, regular columns. The feature pieces of this issue offer critical analysis, reflection, inspiration, and resources for collective strategy and struggle in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a sneak preview to this issue, we’re sharing a feature column, “Abolition Requires Disability Justice,” by Katie Tastrom. Katie discusses the disproportionate and devastating impact COVID-19 has had on communities deemed most disposable by capitalism and the prison industrial complex (PIC). She argues “disabled folks – including/especially those who are or have been locked up – have a unique insight into how we fight the state and win, or at least how we try to survive.” Katie’s piece is an important reminder that disability justice is necessary for PIC abolition.
Read Katie Tastrom’s piece below and subscribe to The Abolitionist today to read the full issue. Your paid subscription helps us send the paper to thousands of prisoners in jails, detention centers and prisons for free. Once you subscribe to the paper, you will receive a full copy of Issue 33 in the mail or online (your choice), as well as a year-long subscription for 3 more issues in 2021. Your subscription also sponsors a free annual subscription for a prisoner.
Abolition Requires Disability Justice
By Katie Tastrom
Abled activists often forget about bodies. Or rather, they make assumptions about how they work, the speed and whether they march, how they take in information, how long they can be in meetings, how they communicate, etc. This is ironic, especially for abolitionists, because a huge function of the carceral state is to punish nonconforming bodies.
Carceral control of bodies takes many forms beyond prison, including forced medication, barriers to gender-confirming surgery, institutions, locked psych wards, and coerced “weight loss surgery”. The state lays claims to disabled bodies in so many ways. Disability justice understands this, and abolitionists need to understand this as well if we truly want to attack the carceral state in all of its forms.
Solidarity Across Congregate Settings
As I write this, 985,000 people have died from COVID-19 worldwide, 203,000 of whom died in the US. COVID-19 especially kills those with underlying conditions, which means disabled people. It also spreads quickly in congregate settings, whether jails or nursing homes or group homes. It doesn’t care whether you are locked up for punishment or “treatment.” COVID-19 shows how society sees disabled people as disposable, as those of us in congregate settings are left to get sick and die.
Further, since the medical care in most kinds of institutions is so bad, it’s also likely those underlying conditions are not adequately treated (if at all). If someone gets sick in an institution, they are at higher risk of death. The correlation between disability and imprisonment means that lots of people are caged in prisons and jails due to their disabilities. As a personal example, (like many others) I’m a sex worker after becoming too disabled to work traditional jobs, so I am at frequent risk of arrest because I’m forced into a criminalized economy.
Disability justice is a complementary theory to abolition. It is a set of principles that came out of the collective Sins Invalid, articulated by co-founder Patty Berne. One of the tenets of disability justice is intersectionality. Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to initially describe the way Black women experience racism and sexism in ways that are more than just the sum of their parts. This has been expanded to include other multiply marginalized people. In the context of disability justice, intersectionality reminds us of the importance of reading disability into an analysis that includes race, gender, etc., rather than focusing on just disability as a general concept (which inherently means centering whiteness).
People who are in institutions aren’t in there by chance—it’s disproportionately those of us marginalized by other identities as well. These are all related, since you can’t talk about abolition and disability justice without also talking about race, specifically the way Black and Indigenous people are both imprisoned and disabled at much higher rates than non-Black and non-Indigenous people. It’s not enough to just acknowledge intersectionality; one way we embody it is through leadership by the most impacted.
Leadership of the Most Impacted
At the time of writing, it also seems that COVID-19 may make more people disabled as reports on long-term symptoms come in. COVID-19 is also making many disabled people more disabled and a lot more disabled people (especially those living in congregate settings) end up dead. Even if our bodies make it, we won’t. And we can’t forget how they are letting us die, which I mean in both an activist way and a trauma way. While COVID-19 has (re)radicalized and (re)energized us, it has also traumatized us and broken us and proved for certain that they see our bodies as disposable.
This is why it’s so important for movements to be led by those most impacted, which sounds a lot easier than it is because abolitionists have not always been great at this. To begin with, so much of the abolition movement is inaccessible. I have two graduate degrees, and I sometimes have a hard time not feeling alienated by a lot of the language we use. This is not to mention the ways activism itself, especially leadership activism, is inaccessible to most disabled people. For example, many organizations require and are based on in-person meetings that may not be in places that are wheelchair accessible, and even if the venue is wheelchair accessible, is the stage? Will members listen with an open mind to someone who is showing signs of mental health disabilities? Accessibility goes far beyond this, but these are just a couple examples. When you don’t have disabled people involved in and leading the movement, we get ignored. Of course disabled people need abolition. But the abolition movement needs disabled people even more.
Shared Vulnerability and Solidarity
COVID-19 has been a really interesting time for disabled people. In one sense, it lays bare our shared vulnerabilities, both generally as people in bodies, but specifically for those of us at greater risk of death from COVID-19 due to disability and/or some kind of institutionalization.
Disability justice can turn this shared trauma into solidarity, like disabled people do all the time—so often without even realizing it.
Disabled folks, including/especially those who are or have been locked up, have a unique insight into how we fight the state and win, or at least how we try to survive. Abled abolitionists need to start listening to disabled people and understand that we have been doing abolition work for a long time—though sometimes it’s called deinstitutionalization or sitting with our friends at the doctor’s office to help them resist pressure for weight loss surgery. We know about vulnerable bodies, and we know how to make that a strength. Disability justice understands this as an opportunity for solidarity. It’s never been more important to fully understand the connections between the different places disabled people are imprisoned, and to focus on the way the carceral systems impact all bodies and minds, disabled or not.
This is exactly why one of the principles of disability justice is leadership by the most impacted. Like the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin, disabled people take the straw of trauma and turn it into gold. And right now we are drowning in straw. Now we need the rest of the abolition movement to see it and understand that the dismissal of disabled people and disabled experience is a manifestation of the carceral state.
- Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition by Liat Ben-Moshe (University of Minnesota Press)
- Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with cure by Eli Clare (Duke University Press)
- Beyond Survival: Strategies and stories from the transformative justice movement edited by Ejeris Dixon & Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (AK Press; 30% discount when shipped to correctional facilities)
- Prison by Any Other Name: The harmful consequences of popular reforms by Maya Schenwar & Victoria Law (The New Press)
- Skin, Tooth, and Bone: The Basis of Movement is our People: A disability justice primer by Sins Invalid (Sins Invalid)
Katie Tastrom is a writer, sex worker, and artist. Her work focuses on the intersection of disability justice and abolition; and she is working on a book. She used to be a lawyer until she found a less shameful profession and until recently was the co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild Disability Justice Committee. She’s based in her bed in Syracuse, NY.