Instead of Punishment, You Need a Movement: Why RAPP Leaves No One Behind

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Jose Saldaña and Laura Whitehorn in RAPP's office

There came a time in prison when I began to see people I was close to die in their late fifties, early sixties. I remember watching one of my early mentors, Albert Nuh Washington, get sick. They took him to a terminal illness facility. When we heard he'd passed away, that devastated me. Then Bashir Hameed, then Abdul Majid, then many others. Nobody thought these guys were going to die so young. So I'm approaching my sixties, and I'm wondering if I'm next. – Jose Saldaña

Jose Saldaña, born and raised in East Harlem's impoverished El Barrio, was a Puerto Rican kid dealing drugs on street corners when, in the late 1960s, the Young Lords Party changed his life. He stopped selling drugs but, in 1981, was sentenced to 25 years to life for the attempted murder of a police officer. Jose spent 38 years in prison, and tried several times, unsuccessfully, for parole. Finally, in 2018, with the help of a New York organization called Release Aging People in Prison [RAPP], Jose, age 66, walked free.

In prison, Jose never stopped developing his political intellect and humanitarian awareness. He read up on Marxism-Leninism, studied the works of George Jackson and Angela Davis; he participated in countless (unauthorized) discussion groups; he converted to Islam; he learned from and befriended many political prisoners. In fact, the people whose deaths he mentions were all sentenced for political acts directed against state-sanctioned poverty and racism. You might suppose that, once he got out, given his age and radical politics, Jose would never find a job. But today, he is the Director of RAPP.

Release Aging People in Prison, by combining state-of-the-art political savvy with the history and lessons learned from past liberation movements, is responsible for New York State's releasing unprecedented numbers of "long-termers." These incarcerated people – mostly poor, mostly Black people and people of color – have spent decades behind bars on convictions of murder or other violent crimes. If their cases were noticed by the tabloids, headlines called them out with names like "animals" who should "rot in jail." But RAPP's founding principle is that no one, regardless of their criminal conviction, should be denied consideration for release.

RAPP was founded in 2013 by three formerly incarcerated people. Two, Laura Whitehorn and Kathy Boudin, spent years in prison on political charges; the third, Mujahid Farid, became a renowned jailhouse lawyer during his 33 years inside and was finally able, on his tenth try, to get out on parole. He lived seven years in the broader world and died of cancer in 2018.

Farid used to say that RAPP is "the voice of reason." After all, its initiatives, including legislative bills that address the escalating number of elders in prison, are legally sound and would save billions of New York State dollars annually. But RAPP has also not forgotten the political prisoners from liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s – mostly veteran members of the Black Panther Party and the Black liberation movement – some, in prisons across the country, now facing death inside. In fact, RAPP carries the best of its politics forward as part of an abolitionist project to move from a racist system of punishment toward a world without repression and prison.

Recently, Jose Saldaña and Laura Whitehorn sat down in RAPP's office and talked about their work. Here are some of their words...

JOSE SALDAÑA: Being 14 years old, selling drugs on street corners is how I got my first perspective of where I stood in this society. Inside prison, I continued my political education. I had seen how people in poverty treat each other, so I'm searching for ways we can have better relationships. Inside, I met some of the brothers I'd been hearing and reading about: Sheik Nuh [Albert Nuh Washington], Dhoruba bin Wahad, Bashir Hameed, Abdul Majid, Seth Hayes, Jalil Muntaqim, Herman Bell, Sekou Odinga… I also did time in the feds with brothers from the FALN [Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña]. Very good people: Eddie Cortes, Alberto Rodriguez, Oscar López. We got real, real cool.

I went through different phases during this period, having political discussions. Dhoruba was challenging the eurocentrism, especially in the United States, of some of the early communist and socialist movements that were rooted in racism. So I started questioning Marxist-Leninism as a liberation philosophy. Not that I abandoned it completely; there were some things there that I truly valued. This is why I turned to Islam. It provided that missing link for me, for my intellect.

Islam had the universal theme that there should not be any oppression. There are some verses that I clenched on to. Like, “Fight oppression wherever you see it,” and “Those who are silent when they see oppression are just as guilty as the oppressors.” Then there's Islam's non-racial order. You know, in practice we see racism in the Muslim world, the Arab world, but in the Quran, we don't see it.

This hit me so hard. I said, This is what I'll live my life with.

LAURA WHITEHORN: Mujahid Farid was very similar, politically. I'm not sure he'd have put it the same way, Jose, but Islam really influenced his commitment to fight oppression. That's where RAPP comes from - our unwavering principle of including everyone. There's a way Islam reflects something about our principles, a sort of morality that's not only about political strategy or tactics. It's more about the kind of world we're building, and part of what makes us abolitionists.

In my career path, I was supposed to be a professor. But it was the era of Two, Three, Many Vietnams, when people were trying to make revolution. So I wanted, politically, to affirm the right of oppressed peoples to self-determination and to fight by any means necessary, including armed resistance. I was part of white solidarity groups that did armed actions – mostly bombings of buildings, where no one was injured or killed – to make the point that the state is not invulnerable. So that's what got me to prison.

And in prison, I saw genocide. Quiet genocide against Black people, Latinx people. There were so many women whose families were being destroyed, who were in prison during their childbearing years. They couldn't have kids, couldn't take care of the kids they had. We saw it from the inside, the entrails of the beast, in a very pure form.

JOSE:  I was in prison from age 28 to 66. During that time, I became a prison activist, trying to change conditions. But there came a point in my transformation when prison conditions became secondary. I could live with being locked down, the disciplinary proceedings, little punishments for going against the rules, I could handle going to the box. But the one thing left to fight for was to get out. So we became parole reform activists. Inside, all of us were fighting the New York State board.

There were some racist commissioners, and we tried to expose them for being the bigots they were. But everything we did went to nothing. We were sending actual transcripts and court decisions to attorneys, and no one was listening. Then we heard about RAPP.

In prison, I never ran into Farid, but we knew about the extraordinary life he lived inside as one of the prominent litigators. So we said, "Damn – RAPP, man! This group here is for the same thing we talk about, only they can be more effective because they're out and free." RAPP was able to send evidence of the board's bigotry to the governor's office. So it was through RAPP that we started to challenge the parole board composition.

LAURA: We got a meeting at the governor's office and took transcripts of parole hearings. We started quoting to them the racist things the parole commissioners said. For instance, a white person would come before an officer – one of those upstate, former law enforcement guys, also white – who would say things like, "Oh, you used to caddy at the club where I play golf!" And then to a Black applicant, he had no comment; he'd just treat him like dirt. And the brutal ways they’d drag people through the details of their crime, berating them and calling them names. So we were able to get some new commissioners. Once we expose what they're doing, it makes it harder for them to keep doing it. We're still in that fight.

Also, some words in the executive law governing parole got changed in 2011, to add the phrase, "risk and needs principles." The long-termers convicted of violence all came up very low risk by those standards. So we started fighting to change the regulations the commissioners use, adding that they must consider “risk and needs,” rather than the original crime. We organized thousands of people and hundreds of letters; we went to Albany, New York to demonstrate; we had a lot of formerly incarcerated people speak about their experience of going before the parole board; we got media coverage. We did what movements do, you know.

And we devised two legislative bills: Elder Parole and Fair and Timely Parole. If the legislature passes those, it will effectively end life without parole and virtual life sentences in New York State. That's our central fight now.

We argue that the more you include in a bill or a law, the more change it will make – as opposed to something like the federal First Step Act that just makes the system look better. We totally respect abolitionist thinking, but sometimes, when we speak in colleges, we'll hear people say that working on bills or the parole board structure is somehow not abolitionist. But we're trying to shift power structures – to me, that's abolitionist practice.

JOSE: In prison, we read Angela Davis' Are Prisons Obsolete? – and we had hard, ongoing discussions on this. Here we are, in prison with people who have committed just about every type of crime, every offense, every harm there is – with the exception of mass incarceration. The greater harm is mass incarceration; we're not guilty of none of that.

But interpersonal harm, we've all done it. We know who we have among us. We know some people have not rehabilitated their thinking and transformed. But even then, we all came to the conclusion that prisons can't be the solution. They just can't. Upstate, we got what we used to call a bunch of farmers playing God. When you give people absolute power over others, they're going to misuse it – and get away with it. That's what troubled us. Who deserves this?

How can we, among ourselves, justify that the person convicted of a sex offense deserves this, but we don't? And we Muslims took personally that one should not mistreat even war prisoners. If you can't mistreat an enemy, who are we, then, to mistreat someone who inherited the same social and economic conditions we all did? Historically, the civil rights movement didn't exclude anybody, because, based on our history, exclusions have always been rooted in racism. That's why I formulated my abolitionist thinking to a point that no one deserves this. This was my beginning to accept the abolitionist movement.

LAURA: You know, when we started RAPP, we didn't think of ourselves as abolitionists, because we didn't understand what abolition was. We only knew we wanted to go for the jugular of the system; we didn't want to pretty it up. We knew from being inside, you know, you get a salad bar and it's a little better than not having salad. But you're still not free. Perpetual criminalization of people through labeling them as their crimes – "the murderer" or "the rapist" – especially Black people and people of color, and imprisoning them forever, is the foundation of the system. Instead of punishment, you need a movement.

RAPP started after the Drop the Rock coalition. There was a huge movement around the [Rockefeller] drug laws, but it went away when they passed some reforms, and then you had fewer people willing to fight anything about prison. Plus, it only made a difference with the "nonviolent, low-level" drug cases. When we started RAPP, we realized that reforms that don't get to the foundation make it easier for the system to say, "What are you complaining about? Only the really vicious criminals are in prison now. The others have been let out."

You can see this clearly in the way prison administrations and lawmakers responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons. PPE was absent; it took enormous agitation to make vaccines and PPE available inside. Meanwhile, governors and legislatures only released people who had very short sentences or were about to get out anyway – not the most vulnerable people, the elders convicted of violent crimes. A public health lens would show that releasing these most vulnerable people would promote health and safety. But instead, a punitive lens was used, jeopardizing and killing numbers of incarcerated people.

If anything exposed the utter racist brutality of the prison system, it was this pandemic. The higher-ups just said, Let those people of color die; we don’t want to jeopardize our position by doing anything that might appear to challenge how “public safety” is defined.

JOSE: We're also involved in restorative justice programs. People who have survived crimes ask us, "What if the murderers and rapists only do 10 or 15 years, what about us?"

It's a legitimate question. People have a right to their property, a right to live. People have a right not to be harmed. When did we start thinking that doing harm is okay?

For close to two decades, I've been developing therapeutic and social programs that are alternatives to prison. One, called A Challenge to Change, took us two and a half years to develop. We studied your classic criminologists and sociologists, to dispel some of the myths they promoted. There's an 18-week workshop that has you look at "criminal" thinking in stages: How do we first become involved in not acknowledging the rights of others?

LAURA: The US State is one of the most violent systems ever created. Prisons are not separate from corporations and the government. One of the things I learned inside is that prisons increase violence.

Nonviolence, as a strategy, is fetishized in this country. Mass uprisings against injustice can be quashed, and the majority of liberal, progressive – or at least most white movements – will agree to that. You saw that in Ferguson, in Minneapolis, everywhere: cops killing Black youth. But as soon as someone breaks a window in protest, everybody takes a position against that violence. So I think that when we say we want to uproot the prison system, it's partly with that understanding of violence.

JOSE: Also, the violence/nonviolence analysis is fundamentally flawed. Early on, we, who lived that lifestyle, knew that drug dealing promotes greater violence on a larger scale than individual violence – that's why we don't accept drug dealing as a nonviolent crime. Or what they call blue-collar crimes – when you take somebody's pension, poverty is violence. This has long-term effects on literally tens of thousands of families.

Our alternative programs help us develop insight into the harm that we individually caused. We can't charge the state with violence and ignore interpersonal violence; that's not going to work. This compels us to repair harm. Not only the harm we've individually caused, but harm wherever we see it. Basically, we're demanding that justice be defined by the people who are impacted, and we do not define justice as punishment or revenge. We define justice as a system that transforms human beings. This is a great responsibility for us.

LAURA: RAPP’s analysis of mass incarceration is based on social movements and resistance. We understand that mass incarceration, which began in the late 70s, early 80s, was a response to the movements of the 60s and 70s, and the state's fear that there might be revolution. So mass incarceration destroyed communities of color, at the same time it eviscerated radical movements.

Not every person in prison is a political prisoner – because most people don't go to prison for political acts – but the function of prisons is political. Prisons maintain the economic and political structure of a country, certainly the United States. Looking at political prisoners helps you see that.

JOSE: If Malcolm X was alive today in prison, would we leave him? Would we let him languish in prison to die? We should never make it easy for the carceral state to imprison us.

LAURA: And there are new political prisoners from new movements; if we don't include them, then we are building a movement that excludes people. A few years ago, people said to us, "This is too hard, these people – political or not – are never going to get out, you can't build a struggle based on something impossible."

But, you know, if we consider justice impossible, then why are we fighting at all?

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– this interview was conducted, introduced, and edited by Susie Day. A special thanks is also owed to Citlalli Aparicio for all her work