On April 16, in the Rose Hills Theatre at Pomona College, the 5C Prison Abolition Collective held the final event of its semester-long speakers series. The discussion, titled “Femme Futures: Beyond Carceral Institutions,” brought together three panelists, Jessica Gonzalez Rodriguez, edxi betts and Victoria Perez, who spoke about their direct experiences with the prison system and their resulting prison-abolition activism.
Michaé de La Cuadra, a Los Angeles-based policy maker and trans activist, served as the event’s moderator. La Cuadra’s work has included lobbying for and passing AB2218, the Transgender Wellness and Equity Fund, a state law that funds holistic health services for trans, intersex and gender non-conforming people.
A student-run group, the 5C Prison Abolition Collective works to engage, educate and activate the community in order to create alternatives to imprisonment. This spring, the organization has brought multiple speakers to campus to educate students and faculty about the damaging effects of the prison industrial complex.
“I hope that from the series as a whole, people took away that abolition is at the intersection of several movements,” club member Blessing Roland-Magaji SC ’24 said. “The hope is that people go beyond thinking about abolition as just about policing and prisons but to think about how abolition is necessary for liberation when thinking about, for example, reproductive justice.”
Panelists explored the impact of the intersection of carceral systems, gender and sexuality, with many speakers describing how being trans leads to greater exposure to imprisonment and abuse within the system.
Perez, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and is just 20 years old, was formally incarcerated for four years. She explained how her incarceration experience was made worse as a trans woman.
“My activism started in the juvenile system as the only transgender woman in the juvenile prison up north,” Perez said. “I wasn’t taken seriously, you know, like, ‘you’re young, it’s just a phase,’” she said. “I was more prone to sexual assaults or sexual harassment. When I started, we weren’t separated … I was in the men’s institution.”
“A lot of the time, many of the people who are incarcerated, especially those that are part of our community, end up incarcerated for reasons that are related to survival or because the systems that exist outside of carceral institutions haven’t been set up to support us.”
Similarly, betts, who identifies as an autistic Afro-Indigenous transfeminine and is a multi-disciplinary artist, organizer and 2020 Mellon Foundation Artist-In-Residence for the Feminist and Gender Studies Program at Colorado College, was also incarcerated. She explained that her experience of being unhoused forced her into desperate situations where she felt the only way out was to steal and engage in sex work, which led to her arrest.
“I’ve been to jail … being on my last legs, being houseless [and] not having any resources,” betts said. “Having to go to male prison looking like this, looking like me, do you know what that was like? That was crazy. The dudes that I was in prison with were like, ‘what is this? There’s a girl in here, y’all.’”
Rodriguez is a community organizer and digital strategist whose work was described by 5C Abolition as being “at the intersection of trans, queer and migrant justice to see a world without prisons, borders and binaries.” Rodriguez described the hardships many trans and queer immigrants face when seeking asylum, partly because they often face family rejection because of their identity.
“One of the challenges of getting released from Immigration Detention Center is that you can be put in full flight risk, which means that you have to have family ties in the United States. We know that for queer and trans people that those ties get severed, especially because of transphobia in the family,” they said.
Many of the speakers addressed the nuance of abolition work: how even as they expand resources and rights within prisons, jails and detention centers, the end goal is to eliminate the prison industrial complex altogether. For example, betts clarified that while being forcibly housed with people of a different gender is traumatizing, they don’t think simply reforming the existing system is sufficient.
“I don’t think the solution to the uptick of trans people going to prison is more trans-inclusive prisons,” she said.
Instead, betts and the other panelists advocate for what they called “transformative justice,” which puts conflict resolution in the hands of individual communities rather than in the hands of the state, where it has historically been mismanaged.
“A lot of the time, many of the people who are incarcerated, especially those that are part of our community, end up incarcerated for reasons that are related to survival or because the systems that exist outside of carceral institutions haven’t been set up to support us,” explained La Cuadra.
5C students attending the event expressed eagerness to learn from the speakers.
For audience member Nithya Kumar PZ ’24, a moment that stood out was when betts asked the audience if they believed human trafficking is wrong.
“Obviously everyone raised their hands,” Kumar said. “And then the speaker said, ‘well, think of the prison system as human trafficking but legalized’ — I think that’s how everyone should think about it.”
Others were eager to find out how they could further their work and ideas. Another audience member asked panelists what the role of student organizations or academic institutions can be in abolition work. Panelists encouraged students to continue having conversations about prison reform, learning from each other and exposing students to important work that can lead to positive change.
“We don’t want to be like Florida where they’re like, ‘let’s not talk about slavery, you can’t say gay,’” Perez said.
Additionally, panelists spoke about the struggles of balancing activism and school. However, they encouraged students not to give up, pointing to historical student involvement with groups such as the Black Panther Party or support for the Chicano movement at UCLA.
“Bring people who are directly impacted who you can learn from. Pay community members.
There’s a lot of money in the university, in this institution, that you can literally grab and reallocate,” Rodriguez said, suggesting opportunities for future dialogue.Students interested in learning more about the Prison Abolition Collective can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.