“What’s Going On?”: Exploring Race, Sexuality, and Genders in the Ever-Growing Battle against the Prison System

Dan Berger. Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 





     In Captive Nation, Berger argues that the prison was a helpful institution for making sense of politics and race in the era before the rise of mass incarceration. He explores the role black prisoners such as George Jackson and Angela Davis played in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements as well as the role these movements played in bringing attention to the health as well as safety of incarcerated people from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s. Through his research, Berger demonstrates that the corrupt foundations in which mass incarceration was build on were not just products of the war on drugs but also used as weapons against social justice movements such as black radicalism and gay liberation since at the 1950s.       
      Captive Nation speaks to a number of works such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America by Naomi Murakawa. It especially engages with the edited volume Captive Genders Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. It includes voices from activists, imprisoned people, and scholars who engage in the discourse on gender, sexual normatives, and mass incarceration. The overarching argument is prison abolition must be one of the centers of Trans and queer liberation struggles.” This volume places the intersectionality of gender, sexuality, race, and nationality at the center of the scholarship on activism and the prison system. In an interview, one of the editors of the volume, when asked about queer individuals being victimized by the prison system, Eric Stanley responded by saying, “While the gay mainstream scrambles for a place at the table, we must be working for prison abolition. Campaigns for inclusion like gay marriage and gays in the military must be destroyed and in their ashes, we must and are building a radical trans/queer politic that believes queer liberation and prison abolition are part of the same struggle. Queer struggles against the prison are nothing new. It was fighting against police harassment (not for wedding cake) that sparked the Stonewall rioters over 40 years ago.”
     Two weeks following after the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin, prisoners at Attica participated in four days of rioting. One of my subjects, Miss Major Griffon-Gracy, was involved in these riots in 1971. Her involvement stemmed from the brutal treatment she received while imprisoned. Her participation in the Attica Prison riots and the Stonewall riots two years prior sparked her career as a social and political activist. This inspiration is evident in the organization she helped to establish and currently serves as the executive director of. The Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) was created to assist transgender individuals who have been disproportionately incarcerated under a prison-industrial complex. 

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