Sonali: This is Rising Up with Sonali and I’m your host Sonali Kolhatkar. You can watch this program on Free Speech TV and listen to it on community and independent radio stations nationwide. The injustice of the carceral state remains high with violent police arrests, unfair criminal courts and a dehumanizing prison system. Abolitionists are playing the long game however, and in spite of lowered media coverage, the demands made during the 2020 racial justice uprisings remain alive. Today we turn to Noelle Hanrahan. She is the founder and director of Prison Radio. She is a lawyer, a licensed private investigator, investigative journalist, researcher and radio producer, and she has been ensuring a platform for incarcerated individuals to speak out for decades now. She has produced Mumia Abu Jamal’s radio commentaries. So wonderful to have you on the program Noelle, thanks for joining us.
Noelle: Really happy to be here.
Sonali: So, you’ve had a sort of front row seat for decades to the injustice of the criminal justice system, and particularly the courts, and I’m wondering if you can sort of lay out for me how badly broken our legal system is, from the perspective of minimizing harm to individuals and communities. It’s supposed to be the place that justice gets, you know, decided and meted out. But is it really?
Noelle: I think what we’re all really trying to come to grapple with, and we’re really trying to come to terms with is, the system is designed to function exactly as it was planned. It is not broken. It is doing a service for the ruling class, the capitalist class, those who want to manage people who are demanding food, work, and bread and humanity. So I think it’s working exactly as it was intended. It’s not broken. I think that we have suffered, in particular in our number of decades that we’ve all been alive. And our children are currently suffering from an escalation of the tactic of incarceration, of the response to people’s demands for liberation was to criminalize and to incarcerate. One of the you know, I learned a lot from reading a number of different people, but including Mike Davis, about how, and Ruthie Gilmore, about how class interests are being served by managing people who deserve work and deserve health care and deserve humanity. And so I think that is the response, it’s working exactly as its planned.
Sonali: So it’s a very terrifying place, I imagine for individuals. Of course, we don’t hear as much about the experience of individuals in the court system. We do hear about, of course, the violence of policing. And it’s, you know, the word abolition is kind of a generalized term, it originated with the discussion around abolishing slavery. Some, there have been prison abolitionists for many, many years, there have been folks who have been talking about abolishing police, for you know, a lesser number of years and occasionally we hear people talk about overhauling or ending even the entire criminal justice system as we know it. So there’s a bit of a spectrum, where do you fall on the spectrum of abolition?
Noelle: It’s been an evolution, but I am firmly 1,000% an abolitionist to defund the police and to completely transform the criminal justice system, including the courts, any entry level. It’s like, I think every morning when I get up in the morning, I think what’s the Jenga piece that can come out from the bottom of the puzzle, because it’s the whole system that’s corrupt, that’s trying to reproduce itself. It’s like cancer. The criminal justice system is criminogenic. It creates crime. A number of years ago, I went to get my Master’s in criminal justice because I wanted to understand the boiling pot of water that we were in. It was in the last forty decades, we’ve had an immensely, larger growth of mass incarceration, and we’re in the middle of it. And so I was studying with a lot of cops and a lot of guards who are calling in or zooming in from Bagram Air Force Base. And they were thinking people, they probably also wanted the pay bump for getting a Master’s, but people thinking about this system, it creates crime in and of itself. If you, I wished and I was trying to get this Master’s program to look at any other country, any other country, no one else on earth does this. They do not control their population through mass incarceration. Or yeah, so it’s, and we couldn’t, we weren’t studying anything outside of the US. They were tinkering with the machinery of death as Blackman, Supreme Court Justice said Harry Blackman, “tinkering with the machinery of death”. And so you can’t tinker with a system that has to be completely overhauled. And it’s a public health crisis. I mean, the only way that we are going to get people to have a decent, equitable future, is to completely re-envision this entire rubric that is suffocating and killing our people. And we all feel it. I mean, everyone feels it. Whether they can see it and identify it as the thing that’s choking them and their children to death, that may be like the illumination, the light bulb, but it is the thing that is allowing us to not be able to fund schools, to not be able to fund health care that’s driving down our standard of living in terms of not so much standard of living, but our life expectancy. It is driving down our life expectancy, across all categories. And the violence that’s perpetrated by frontline police officers, by people in the system, both on both sides of the wall, prisoners and the guards, destabilizes our entire culture. And so when the system fuels that, they are privileging that violence, and that violence is everywhere, as is the number of diseases that, Tuberculosis doesn’t respect prison walls, Hep C doesn’t respect prison walls. I mean, there are epidemics, that our communities are facing. Violence, the violence inside and outside, the guards are not immune from the violence. People in general are not immune from the violence that has wreaked havoc on our communities. So all of that needs to be looked at in terms of how is it affecting how we live and breathe every day?
Sonali: I want to pick up on what you said earlier in your answer around how there aren’t other countries that try to control their population through incarceration. I mean, is that really true? I mean, I’m thinking about, do you mean, just democracies in the West? Don’t those countries have prison systems?
Noelle: We incarcerate the most people, per capita of any country on Earth. So that is just a fact. We also are doing it in certain kind of way, that’s systemic in a way that there may not, there aren’t, we have to study other, like other countries deal with crime and drugs and criminalization in far different ways than we do. Like you can name any country. You know, there are a couple of countries that are right below us on the incarceration spectrum, that probably I wouldn’t go to those. But we need to look at other models of how people police and other it’s, you know, may very well be true, I think it is that no other country privileges the access to guns that we privilege. The way in which they saturate the community with armed police officers, that’s very unusual, is not generally in response to health issues or community issues or so I think, yes, this country creates crime through its criminal justice policies. And then it creates the courts and the justice system to have an appearance of finality and approving those unjust arrests, the criminalization of entire populations. It’s criminogenic. So it is criminalizing and penalizing people through fines in vast ways, as was demonstrated in Ferguson, when most of the population had outstanding fines and could be picked up at any time. The way in which the system is designed, it’s designed to control people.
Sonali: And, and generally, it’s, it’s poor folks, it’s people of color. It’s people who are, and some would say that this sort of translates in a direct line from what policing and the courts stemmed from historically as a way to control black people, as a way to control enslaved folks, or as a way to control people after slavery during Jim Crow segregation. Would you agree that it’s basically an extension, we’ve never really truly built the system from the ground up to, to to, to deliver justice and therefore, since it was built on injustice, it remains that way?
Noelle: I think it was designed to keep the inequities. To privilege only a few certain things and to gloss over with colorful language, the essence of liberty. That it was not designed to liberate or empower all, it was designed to privilege few and predominantly white men. And I think it’s true that those systems have been evolving. But if you look at it, the 13th Amendment privilege to slavery in prisons, unduly it, you know, slavery is abolished except upon commission of a crime. So, that is just one example. But all of it, the US Constitution is littered with racial language that that privileges inequities, and it was those inequities that benefited a certain class that have been continually privileged. And it comes down into the very specific. Larry Krasner, our progressive revolutionary district attorney said in The Atlantic magazine. I know, everyone knows, everyone knows it. And here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, everyone knows the reason why we have overincarceration, and we have such corruption in our police department, is because they are arresting poor and people of color in order to increase their pay bump for overtime when they visit the courthouse the next morning. Those warrants are fabricated, and everyone knows it. And it was going on for decades where they train each other, a majority white police force. We have 6500 active police officers, majority white in a majority black city, where they’re-and they have very little education and they were going to arrest people who were perceived as not having enough power to fight it. The brown and black bodies were being an assembly line through the Juanita Kidd Justice Center, the Juanita Kidd Injustice Center. And the courts were just approving it.
Sonali: This is in Philadelphia specifically?
Noelle: It, to this day it’s in Philadelphia. So they come in the next day for police overtime, so they get a pay bump. So I said to Kenyatta Johnson’s legal director, I said, “What’s up with this?” And he goes, “Oh, everybody knows that’s what’s happening because they have to pay their Jersey mortgages. They have summer homes in Jersey, where they have to home in Jersey,” or, “Oh, it’s their last three years, and they have to get that pension bump. And so they need to really stack up the hours.” But that’s why we can’t fix anything. That’s why we don’t have any money. I mean, everyone knows that the system is completely corrupt here.
Sonali: Speaking of money, it is a huge resource sinkhole- policing, prisons, the courts, and the idea of abolishing police for that very reason, was accompanied by a call to defund the police to start moving resources away from policing into the things that would make policing obsolete. You know, such as providing people with all of the things that they need: shelter, food, healthcare, etc. So what about from the court system, the criminal courts in the justice system, but specifically the court system- From an attorney’s perspective, what are the legal resources that could benefit from funding that we could, you know, transfer money from the courts and toward resources that would make the courts themselves obsolete?
Noelle: Everything that is currently being funded has to be reimagined, and they have to justify what they’re doing. And we need social workers, not police officers. We need the community to have health care and jobs. We do not need incarceration and policing, and the courts are just there to put a rubber stamp on it. They, you know, we would have a lot less of that if we could address the social inequities and also the problems that have been stoked by defunding our schools, and defunding our health care, and not having enough jobs for people. That’s what we need. We need that behemoth of a police budget, the billion dollar police budget, to be completely defunded. And it needs to be reallocated in a way that’s going to actually support people in their lives. And, you know, there’s other things that the criminal justice system does. They commodify everything. They commodify everything. They commodify the mail, they commodify phones, they commodify people’s bodies, and they do that by, anybody who in Pennsylvania is convicted and sent to state prison, they lose their vote. But the rural county that they’re incarcerated in, gains their vote. And even after they’re released, it keeps their vote. So it’s transferring the votes, like they get more Congress people in rural counties because they have three big prisons. That kind of commodification, that stealing of people’s agency has to stop. And, yes, it may be our dream, but we get to dream. We get to dream about a future that doesn’t kill our children. And we get to dream about a future that’s equitable, where we don’t have to watch and witness police brutality on a routine basis. And the democracy that I want to live in doesn’t exist yet, but it will be better if we fix these things ever, not so much fix them, but reimagine them, become them. And we have to have the vision. Thank God for Ruthie Gilmore and Angela Davis, and the law for Black Lives Matter. So as a lawyer, lawyers need to show up, and the only reason I became a lawyer was because we didn’t have people showing up in court for the people I was representing, a juvenile lifer, doing a mitigation packet to get him home was arrested when he was 16. And also, for people who had Hep C in prison. People were dying with Hep C, which is a curable disease, because they didn’t have someone advocating for them. So that’s why I went to law school. I also went to law school, because at Prison Radio, we privilege people’s voices inside. And it wasn’t enough to just be a journalist to broadcast their voices. I also had to bring our correspondents home to do everything I could to get their release, not just work with them as a colleague.
Sonali: So the earlier you were saying that the court system is one that really does not, or we were discussing how it really does not validate and foster justice. What could a reimagined legal system look like? Because it is important delivered when we live in a democracy to have legal accountability. I’m thinking of, you know, corporate criminals or war criminals. I’m thinking of corruption in the highest levels. It is important to have a court system in a functioning democracy, what could one what could a functioning democracy’s legal system that actually fosters justice look like?
Noelle: I think having radical and revolutionary DAs who prosecute police and who prosecute people for the crimes they commit against people, I think that’s super important. I think we need to elect our own judges. I think we need to know what happens.
Sonali: That happens in some places like in Los Angeles, local judges are elected.
Noelle: Mumia Abu-Jamal, many judges are elected and Pennsylvania, Mumia Abu Jamal said that things would have been different if we had started electing judges back in the day, because it doesn’t take much, but we need to do it. And they need to be people who we vet and trust and who are not going to participate in the assembly line, that it has become the criminal justice system. Do I believe that the, I think that system is like a cancer and it is very capable of adapting. And reform is always nice and sort of sounding word but it is not what we need. We need radical systemic change. And it has to happen, because reform is only going to tinker with it. And also, they won’t do the reforms in a way that is going to challenge the system.
Sonali: So electing judges and bringing on, electing radical DAs those are, those are reforms toward a reimagining?
Noelle: I think we need to vet those people and we do make sure that they’re really going to do the job that we want them to do. I think that it’s difficult to form this system. I think that we need to find like, what I think in the morning when I get up is we need to find that little mechanism, that lever that’s going to change everything. I was reading a book this morning and it was talking about how the Obama administration recognized that the Ferguson issue, the legal issue of making almost all the residents have criminal records, they weren’t going to fix it wholesale. We need wholesale amnesty. I don’t need an innocence project or a district attorney letting 20 people out of prison. I need all of the arrests that were unjustly done. All of the arrest warrants, all of the police people incarcerated who were done, who were done through corrupt means, the whole class of people, I need all them to get relief out once, no piecemeal, one person gets released, we feel better, because that’s just not how the system worked. The system worked to incarcerate whole classes of people. And so the rollback needs to equal, be an equal response. There was a truth, justice, and reconciliation announcements from our district attorney’s office, Larry Krasner’s office in Philadelphia. Those need to have teeth, they need to both acknowledge what happened, hold the people accountable, and free the people that were unjustly convicted. And that needs to be on mass, not piecemeal.
Sonali: It seems as though our criminal justice system specifically is designed to let wealthy folks off the hook because they can hire the fanciest lawyers and criminalize poverty. Should we be looking at reimagining our court system in a way that poverty is never criminalized, that any crime that arises from someone’s, you know, financial inability, or from their financial distress, is automatically not seen as a crime and is seen as something that needs to have a systemic change, you know, either figuring out the right kind of restitution and proper rehabilitation, long term economic justice approaches? And then if you are wealthy, that you’re the one who gets stuck with a public defender, who might have a huge caseload, because your wealth shouldn’t privilege? Is their way to turn it upside down, so that the rich aren’t the ones who are taking advantage of the system that’s been sort of rigged for them?
Noelle: You know, the rich are never arrested. And if we see them, it’s just a, an illusion, it’s a mirage. It’s like something that…
Sonali: Like the college admission scandal where it, with the celebrities being trotted out?
Noelle: You know, I wish that when crime is analyzed about what’s deeply impacting and hurting the most people, that the the budget and the police budget, whatever is left of it is organized to go after the people that are hurting the community the most, right? And that is very much not going to be all the people that are currently arresting. You know, it’s going to be people who are have a much more systemic access to, you know, pollution and, you know, guns and crime you know. There’s, there’s a, there’s a lot going on, that is not looked at, it’s privileged because it’s supporting the system. So it needs a radical revamping of how we look at crime. And it’s like a chicken and an egg, like, we have to take all the money that we spend on these slave catching police patrols and we have to take all of it, and invest in the people and in the community and in the culture, and in providing jobs and housing and a minimum income and why not? We’re a rich country. We don’t need to be just taking all this money out of the community, and giving it to people who live in other zip codes and who are wealthy. We need to keep the money in the community and it needs to be of service to the community that is fundamentally going to change how much crime there is. When people have access to really their humanity, you know, when it’s not such an amazingly hostile environment to breathe in and live in. And when we don’t have police who will criminalize protests, who will criminalize people who are disabled, who will criminalize the mentally ill and who will make them so vulnerable, you know, that’s what we need. We need to eliminate police and we need to invest all of that money directly in the community.
Sonali: Finally Noelle, how has your work with incarcerated individuals for so many decades, influenced you and helped you articulate this vision of abolition? Why are you, what has made you an abolitionist? I’d love to sort of end with that personal question for you because I think it’s important to hear people’s stories and how they, what their trajectory has been.
Noelle: I think we grow. And I think our experiences teaches us, and I understand that the abolitionist movement, the work that we’re seeing now, the changes in our culture are often coming from the inside out. That these ideas have been studied and realized on the inside, prior to being motivated in the outside. So I’m doing a book right now helping Mumia Abu Jamal and Jennifer Bleach edit a book on, it’s an anti prison reader. It’s called “Beneath the Mountain.” And it’s Angela’s in-prison writings and Nat Turner’s writings and throughout the centuries writings from inside that have really illuminated both what’s happening and the path forward. And that’s what I see, I see that the work has come from below.
Sonali: Noelle where can people find out about your work? Give out the website for Prison Radio.
Noelle: www.prisonradio.org is our website. Prisonradio.org. And I’m doing a lot of casework. I’m doing investigations and they can reach me at Noelle Hanrahan law @gmail.com. So NHanrahanlaw@gmail.com. And basically, we’ve got to get people out and we’ve got to be the abolitionists reality. We’ve got to envision that and demand it and make it happen.
Sonali: Thank you so much for all you’re doing Nolle, and for joining me today. I really appreciate your time.