By Red Schulte and Alisha Walker
with contributions by Mihika Srivastava, Astraea Communications Program Officer
Image credit: Commissioned as a gift to the Support Ho(s)e Collective by Matilda Sabal, a pen pal and comrade of Alisha’s, this beautiful piece was created by Amira Lin
June 2, 2021
This year, the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice is commemorating International Sex Workers’ Day by sharing a personal essay from fellow sex worker organizers and close friends, Red Schulte and Alisha Walker. Red is a community organizer currently based in New York. They coordinate the Justice for Alisha Walker Defense Campaign and are a member of Survived & Punished NY, Hacking//Hustling, and the Support Ho(s)e Collective. Alisha is a 28 year old former sex working person originally from Akron, Ohio. She was criminalized for an act of self-defense when a regular client threatened her life and the life of a fellow worker in January 2014.
Told through personal narrative and reflecting on years of visits to Alisha that have been mediated by prison technologies, Red reveals the violent ways these technologies seek not only to disconnect those on the inside from those on the outside but to further punish them. The piece illuminates how sex workers and political organizers (and most often, individuals at those intersections) are no strangers to attempted and successful stigmatization, infiltration, entrapment, criminalization, risk of arrest, jailing and/or incarceration, and the ways in which those experiences prepare them to creatively navigate these complex systems of surveillance as a form of resistance.
This piece is part of our ongoing political education and advocacy work to highlight the intersections of criminalization and surveillance, centering movement and organizers’ voices. This work began with our report, Technologies for Liberation: Toward Abolitionist Futures which launched in December of 2020. The report explores the ways in which queer, trans, Two-Spirit, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and sex worker communities in the U.S. are disproportionately impacted by criminalization and surveillance, and highlights the powerful community-centered technologies and interdependent networks of care and solidarity they are building to fight back.
My entire friendship and comradeship with my fellow organizer Alisha Walker is mediated by prison technologies. Our knowing each other initially in this life was determined by state violence, and our friendship has been maintained in spite of it. The mutual care and love that we continue to foster and grow between us is routinely scrutinized, accessed, recorded, and used to further punish her while she’s incarcerated. We’ve been communicating and dis/connected, for over five years now.
Alisha is an artist, inside organizer, criminalized survivor and former sex worker currently incarcerated at a state prison in central Illinois. She was sentenced to fifteen years for an act of self-defense, saving herself and a fellow sex worker from a violent attack on their lives while working. Alisha and I have used every available outlet for sanctioned communication: ConnectNetwork, JPay, Western Union, Securus Tech, GTL Network, the United States Postal Service, FreePrints, Amazon, etc. Each of these methods falls short, intentionally, of allowing for unfettered, authentic connection because of the prison gaze.
Communication Technologies, Weaponized
Prison technology is state violence. The same modes of sanctioned communication to “connect” people outside to those inside also exist to alienate, exploit, and disconnect. This dual communication experience is meted out through prohibitive costs, intentional obsolescence, scrutiny, surveillance, and censorship.
I can never really shake the first time Alisha described the full body cavity search before our first video visit. That thought hadn’t actually occurred to me, that they’d force the same visitation protocols for a remote visit, but then again (like Mariame Kaba reminds us) prisons are sexual violence. The digital obstacles to video visiting are immense. Lost connections equal lost time and visits altogether—once I blew a fuse at my apartment, lost power, and had to use a personal hotspot to stay connected to Alisha; it shot my phone bill through the roof. Pixelated versions of ourselves greet one another each video visit. My beautiful friend is transfigured into small, disparate squares that jarringly jump on my computer screen. My partner and I were once almost banned from video visiting because of the t-shirts we were wearing: me something sleeveless and him an undershirt; the prison gaze creeps into your home.
“They’re not just surveilling my body, but images and words and relationships too,” says Alisha. She has frequently alerted us to correctional officers’ name-dropping outside loved ones and comrades’ social media names and profiles, and mentioning things that they could only know if they were watching our online posts and clicking through to find out more about our other online personas. Another way this played out was as Alisha was building networks of care and social support inside: “They [the correctional officers] were watching my (and of course everyone’s) relationships inside to use against me, and when you get punished they find what hurts you most, they find the thing you need most and take it away.”
Alisha has frequently noted the stressful impact of the rigid and ever-shifting policies the prison enacts against phone use, making it harder for those inside to reliably communicate and organize with loved ones. “Rigid policies since the pandemic began have shifted from no calls, to 15-20 minute enforced call times at various times during lockdown, to housing unit specific call days or times, to “odd and even” call days or nights, and of course everything is subject to the mood of the correctional officers on duty.”
Alisha says, “Most of my mail gets sent back or is heavily censored or disappears due to retaliation from the correctional officers. Mostly we don’t have the kinds of pens, sharpened pencils and paper we need to correspond available when we shop [commissary]. Mail is so important to us, and it’s a terrible feeling to get your mail and see it torn open every time or to wonder how much mail is actually being kept from you.”
Sex workers’ resilience in navigating systems of surveillance
Alisha and I are no strangers to creative modes of communication catalyzed by state surveillance. Outside political organizing and sex work can come with their respective experiences of attempted and successful stigmatization, infiltration, entrapment, criminalization, risk of arrest, jailing and/or incarceration. I learned early when I was becoming radicalized about the history of informants, watch lists, and raids on dissenters, community leaders, and movement people. I experience(d) first hand overt and covert attempts by state agents to disrupt and destroy movements and campaigns I was organizing amongst. Community organizers engaged in work that challenges or opposes state violence and unaffiliated radicals are accustomed to being vigilant about communication, actions, and identities because of the level of state surveillance. From these experiences I’ve developed gut checks, careful vetting of what I share, and with whom, and shared security culture with trusted comrades. I’ve translated much of learned personal and work safety protocols I use while organizing from those passed to me through sex working community.
“I can’t speak freely, I’ve been locked up for 5 years, I’m forced to learn new ways to speak, I guess I’m institutionalized…” For Alisha, who is currently incarcerated, her relationships are not only mediated through technologies, but her communication has also been institutionalized, meaning that she has been forced to learn new ways of speaking and behaving in order to avoid retaliation and further punishment from correctional officers, prison counselors, and the administration in general. “I have a voice, but it’s not always my own voice,” Alisha says.
Because of these overlapping shared lessons, experiences, and strategies for mitigating all the harms and dangers they can bring with them, Alisha and I were fire-tested and (un/fortunately) better prepared to creatively code our language and gut check when communicating and trust building—radical community organizers, formerly incarcerated activists, and sex working people taught us. That being said, the violent obstacles, frustrations, and impediments were (are) still many.
As the Astraea Foundation’s report, Technologies for Liberation: Toward Abolitionist Futures, finds, “Platform moderation, or the policing of a platform’s content, is a critical site where the criminalization of sex work intersects with threats to internet autonomy. The 2018 congressional bills FOSTA-SESTA further police sex work online and exacerbate existing platform policies and practices that censor online sex work and suppress digital organizing efforts, such as shadowbanning, content moderation, and deplatforming.”
As sex workers, we are accustomed to our relationships being mediated by (surveillance) technologies, but that certainly does not engender a complacency with this violence. Whether the relationships be monetary or exchange-driven (i.e. between worker and client), social (in public or virtual space), marketing (between worker and potential clientele), romantic, or one of banking (between worker and financial institution), each of them is monitored and poised to be terminated by an algorithm, a new online content policy, a processing discrepancy, stigma fueled by rescue industry narratives and violent, discriminatory legislation, moral and social “policing,” and good old fashioned bodily harm, trauma, and incarceration.
Imagining community care, technology support, and resourcing
When people are released from jails, detention centers, psychiatric wards, and prisons, there are immediate, extensive material, communal, and emotional needs that must be met. Some of the most basic immediate needs involve accessing and using technology—including: hardware, systems, and support. Not everyone on this side has access to computers, cell phones, social media platforms, government and organizational websites, knowledge of search engines (to name a few), but our chance of access are exponentially higher than those who are currently incarcerated, and still higher yet than those people newly discharged from the state’s cages. As such, we take our respective levels of access for granted, and do not fully realize the extent to which technology support must be amongst the basic necessities of those coming back into community, back home, or charting a new course/building a new place for themselves after incarceration.
Alisha and I have been organizing together with the Support Ho(s)e collective for almost five years now. Support Ho(s)e is a small collective of current and former sex workers and trusted accomplices seeking to build radical community for sex working people in Chicago and NYC. During this time we’ve both also become more involved with another sex work focused collective, Hacking//Hustling, which has given Alisha and I the space and resources to try and imagine what comprehensive “tech support” could look like post-incarceration. Together with Support Ho(s)e, we’ve co-created a compensated opportunity to experiment and explore direct tech resourcing by piloting the Formerly Incarcerated Worker Support Program, funded by Hacking//Hustling and envisioned by mine and Alisha’s experiences with dis/connected tech while she’s been inside.
Upon Alisha’s release, this will be the first trial of the Hacking//Hustling Formerly Incarcerated Workers Support Program, naming Alisha as the first recipient. This program would span three to five months depending on the tailored needs of Alisha and her support crew. We intend to approach the program with the flexibility and understanding of post-release catch-up and also with an eye toward Disability Justice focused crip time. Post-release catch-up can mean a lot of things depending on how much time the state stole from someone—filling technology gaps, re-meeting friends and family, navigating a different sort of surveillance, taking time to explore adjustment and creating one’s own schedule, in brief, all that comes with absorbing the changes (or lack thereof) in the world on this side of the Wall.
The Formerly Incarcerated Workers Support Program works with comrades, and organizations that can help us acquire free/funded technology-focused training, computers and phones, college level or vocational school courses, ensuring that at all times the majority of the funding goes directly to the recipient, helping them re-establish financial independence. The program will be in direct collaboration with the needs of those it supports. After an initial trial period, Alisha can do an exit interview and/or remain on as part of the core collective team to become a mentor themselves.
The need for sustained support post-release cannot be overstated. Time and time again, when people are finally released from prison or jail stints, they have virtually no financial, technological, housing, or sustained community support. Basic needs, skill sharing and financial support must be made available to those folx establishing themselves after the violence of incarceration. We must also resource and build sustainable support programs that equip those of us on the outside (especially those who have been impacted by incarceration) to show up for those navigating life within and beyond prison/jail/detention.
The Astraea Foundation’s report finds that work and programs such as the Hacking//Hustling Formerly Incarcerated Workers Support Program are critical to helping communities learn more about the dangers of carceral technologies and creating interdependent networks of care and solidarity that disrupt the state’s reliance on punishment and policing. Yet, this work is resource intensive and at present movements, organizers, and movement technologists face significant financial barriers to implementing and maintaining digital safety strategies and community-owned and centered technologies.
Community-centered harm reduction technologies have always been an answer. The mutual aid, creativity, and the creation of networks of interdependent care and solidarity in the face of criminalization, censorship, surveillance, and punishment has long been a way of life and organizing for marginalized groups such as queer, trans, undocumented, rural, migrant, Two-Spirit, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and sex workers, survivors of gender violence (including online doxxing), and currently and formerly incarcerated people. These are the communities that have created community safety in the face of constant threats and danger, who have been forced into technological creativity.
We invite you to listen and learn from these community members and unapologetic resource makers. Imagine a world where technology isn’t synonymous with violence and exploitation, and the prevention thereof. Invest in this work. Dream alongside us, and support our people to build the abolitionist technologies and community-centered networks and systems we need to live fully liberated lives free from surveillance and state violence.
Read more blog posts on our Collective Care Blog!