Incarcerated people are limited to pushing prison reform, while the unincarcerated have the privilege to advocate abolition.
“Many folks sentenced to life without parole are women who were not the perpetrator of the crime.”
In this feature, we ask abolitionists a few questions about their work. This week’s featured activist is Romarilyn Ralston. Ralston is the Program Coordinator of California State Fullerton’s Project Rebound.
Roberto:Can you please tell readers of the Black Agenda Report a little about your background and the work you do?
Romarilyn: I am a Black feminist activist and scholar. While serving 23 years in prison I found my voice and my passion to fight against racial and gender injustice. Spending 23 years in a California women’s prison, I saw firsthand the factors that bring women to prison and what needs to be changed. Quickly learning that the best way to sustain change within the prison system was to change policy, I became a leader in the prison serving on several inmate committees, as chairperson, vice chairperson and in other leadership positions. During my time in prison, I worked alongside peers, wardens and state officials to improve living conditions and to develop gender-responsive practices for women in prison.
“I saw firsthand that the best way to sustain change within the prison system was to change policy.”
After release from prison, I earned a B.A. from Pitzer College in Gender & Feminist Studies then went on to complete a Master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis. I was also awarded a Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs which helped me learn civic responsibility and leadership skills, build civic coalitions, consensus and solutions across various sectors of local, regional and national government and business. After graduate school I returned to California for a staff position at Cal State University, Fullerton as Program Coordinator for Project Rebound. I also returned to community organizing with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) and have recently become an alumna of JustLeadershipUSA and Women’s Foundation of California, Women’s Policy Institute.
In your specific context, when are goals of reform and abolition compatible with one another? When do they conflict?
Prison reform and prison abolition are always compatible and in conflict with one another.
We need both prison reform and prison abolition to eradicate a broken and failed criminal legal system that cares more about exploiting the labor of those incarcerated bodies they hold captive than healing them emotionally, psychologically, and socially. These two strategies, reform and abolition, both have ways in which they transform the structures that are in place into spaces where some people can get out of prison and reduce the number of those returning to or entering prison for the first time. Basically, reform and abolition are the two sides of the same coin. They are compatible when they work in concert from the inside and from the outside. Incarcerated people can help to reform the practices and policies they are subjugated to while inside and abolitionists can help us reduce the number of people behind bars and the number of prisons in our society.
It’s a lot more likely for state violence to be at the center of one’s analysis if state violence is at the center of one’s experience. That said, what are the most important insights you’ve learned from the people you work with?
I became involved in community activism in St. Louis after the police killing of Michael Brown sparked a global conversation about race and policing black communities. I volunteered with the Ferguson Commission attending town hall meetings, hearing community members’ testimony and listening to local leaders initiate and influence activism which encouraged my sense of civic duty and a role of advocacy in pursuing social justice and change. My past experiences with prison have not trapped me or prohibited me from becoming my best self through earning advanced degrees and social justice involvement.
What recent successes would you like to highlight?
As an organizer and policy coordinator for the California Coalition for Women Prisonerswe held a DROPLWOP campaign on the steps of the California Capitol urging Governor Brown to commute all life without the possibility of parole sentences to life. This work is critical in reducing hopelessness within the prisons and many folks sentenced to LWOP (life without parole) are women who were not the perpetrator of the crime. We believe the Governor will commute many of these sentences prior to leaving office.
As a Women’s Policy Institute Criminal Justice Team Fellow we were able to get three bills passed through the legislation this week. Thesebills will provide relief to tens of thousands of my comrades currently serving time and those with prior serous conviction.
AB 2533 – Indigence (Dignity & Care Act)
SB 1393 – Sentencing (Fair & Just Sentencing Reform Act)
SB 960 – Suicide Reporting and Family Notification
Are there any new articles or other publications you’d recommend to readers of the Black Agenda Report?
* Sarah Haley’s book, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity.
* Corrections to College CA.
What can readers of the Black Agenda Report do to help?
Vote and push elected officials to do right by the poor and communities of color.
In the face of so much state violence today, what gives you hope?
My comrades in the struggle who everyday remind me that we are all worth the struggle and when shit ain’t right it needs to be corrected…Power to the People!
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for thePolitical Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: The Fake News of Wall Street, White Supremacy, and the U.S. War Machine.
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