Abolitionist zine offers view from ‘In the Belly’ of the beast

Launched to develop a deeper sense of connection among the incarcerated, the publication will celebrate the release of its first magazine at Parable Cafe on Saturday, Feb. 3.
The cover of the first magazine edition of "In the Belly"
The cover of the first magazine edition of "In the Belly"Courtesy "In the Belly"

In the Belly, a publication featuring the work of incarcerated people and distributed free to those within the prison system, launched in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic as a way for those inside to better communicate during a time of even more intense isolation.

In the years since, the publication has continued to evolve, growing from a small zine featuring poems, short stories, artwork and other submissions from the incarcerated to an expanded magazine that extends to features about current abolitionist-aligned work, such as the ongoing free Palestine movement.

“Inside of prison, there still exists a big magazine culture, because people don’t have social media access and things like that,” said Safear Ness, one of the publication’s editors, who will also be present at a magazine launch party at Parable Cafe on Saturday, Feb. 3. (The event features music by Obsessed With Sound and readings from authors Hanif Abdurraqib and Prince Shakur.) “Magazines are a way incarcerated people can stay current, so one of the things we’re doing a bit differently compared with previous [editions] is adding movement news. We have things on Palestine and Stop Cop City in Atlanta as a way of informing people about some of the things that are going on out here.”

The focus, however, has remained consistent on those inside – not only with the contributions, the bulk of which are solicited via a P.O. box, but also in terms of editorial control, which is shared equally with the incarcerated. Two members of the publication’s four-person editorial team are currently serving time, with the team utilizing an e-messaging service to keep everyone engaged with the workflow and sharing power in decisions that range from which submissions to include in print to how the budget can best be utilized.

“We’re interested in trying to organize around autonomy, asking what it means to give people on the inside the tools and resources they need to do the work they’re doing,” Ness said. “There are a lot of people who say they’re abolitionists, but I think a lot of times in practice it’s mere paternalism. And we want to challenge people. If you say you’re doing this work on behalf of incarcerated people, then when was the last time you gave a budget to an incarcerated person to organize? When was the last time you let an incarcerated person make a decision in your organization? I think a lot of what we're trying to figure out is how we’re sharing power with the people inside who are working on this with us.”

Ness can offer a unique perspective on this, having started their contributions to In the Belly while they were incarcerated at SCI Fayette in Pennsylvania, serving as an editor and penning book reviews that doubled as critiques of the prison system. In one early review, Ness broke down prison conditions and abolition via the lens of Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance, by Nick Estes, finding deep connective tissue in movements both ultimately centered on freedom.

While Ness grew up an avid reader, it wasn’t until 2019 that they started writing, taking inspiration from a zine they encountered amid incarceration that included the first three chapters of the Angela Davis book Are Prisons Obsolete?

“And in this book, [Davis] explains a history of where prisons come from, showing a lineage from chattel slavery in the South and then going on to make the argument that prisons do more harm than good,” Ness said. “I went into prison when I was 18 and spent a lot of years there, and this was something I was seeing already. … But coming into contact with this book, it started giving me the vocabulary, and it [fueled] my interest in writing about the conditions we were facing, and then more general political analysis about abolition and things like that.”

Oftentimes, Ness said, when public discussions are held about the injustices of the current prison system, the voice of the currently incarcerated is missing. In the Belly serves as a corrective, of sorts, offering a platform to people who too often go unheard. Conversely, the publication can also empower those serving time, allowing them to see something in themselves that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. When Ness was at SCI Fayette, for instance, they shared a cell block with several inmates who also subscribed and contributed to In the Belly (the publication is offered free to those inside and supported by donations), and Ness recalled the deep satisfaction that came with having their name in print. 

“There were a few of us whose writings were in the issue that came out … and I think that’s very empowering for people to see,” Ness said. “And I think it was a powerful organizing tool, as well, helping other people to become inspired, like, ‘You know, I can do this, too.’”

This idea resonates throughout “The Worlds in Which We Live,” a deeply moving essay penned by Randy “Ya’iyr” Carter that kicks off the new issue of In the Belly and serves as a stirring tone-setter. “I’m supposed to die in prison,” Carter writes in opening. “Probably from complications from heart disease, high blood pressure, or Alzheimer’s. Or maybe from being stabbed. Or possibly from ‘natural causes’ after a beating from the guards.”

From there, Carter relays his experiences within the system, and the way incarceration is engineered to sever ties – to family, to community and to the world at large. He also shares the challenge of growing the abolitionist conversation within the prison system, where discussions of social justice, politics and abolition can feel “fruitless” to some.

At the same time, these conversations, and the subsequent work being done to produce In the Belly by those both inside and outside of the system, have served as a needed anchoring point, and a place in which something akin to hope can finally take root. As Carter writes, “These are signs of life in the land of the dead.”

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