December 10, 2021 | NEWS | By Charlotte Blum | Photo courtesy of author
Charlotte Blum, co-leader of Prison Project, talks about prison abolition, the problem with true crime and what’s changed since her first year. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“I think I got to CC and was looking for somewhere that felt like some outlet for my political ambitions slash imagination.
I remember sitting in my FYE and we had gone to this recycling facility where incarcerated people are sorting all of CC students’ recycling and getting paid between 50 cents and five bucks an hour. I remember in class, probably more articulately than this, being like, oh, that’s kind of fucked up, people should make a living wage, and then getting way more backlash than I was anticipating in my class.
Everyone told me that CC was really cool and progressive and this fun place to discuss those kinds of ideas you have that maybe don’t fall into the norm in other spaces, but here like people will give you the chance to float. Then they didn’t really give me the chance to float, and I was like, oh, shoot, okay, I might have to actually think more intentionally about where I want to spend my time on campus.
There’s kind of this operating assumption amongst the students that they’re all really left wing and super progressive and like social justice warriors. I say all this with some level of irony because it’s hard for me to say those things without feeling like I have to say them ironically. That kind of didn’t feel like my experience here. Despite that being the way that people describe CC, I feel like in my classes, a lot of things were still really up for debate.
Then I went to Prison Project with a friend. I sort of vaguely knew what prison abolition was, and I definitely heard the word thrown around before. Underlying that was kind of this moral tug that I don’t even think prisons should exist at all, but I sort of thought that idea was so far out there that I wouldn’t really express it or name it specifically.
It was cool actually being exposed to people who were like, yeah, this is how we think about the world and had no shame in the fact that that’s what they believed in. Whether or not people thought it was quote-unquote “realistic” didn’t really matter to them.
I started initially working on direct action stuff, so I still have this pen pal named Omar. Having pen pal relationships is important to limiting the boundary between inside and outside. Prisons always operate on invisibility.
It was also cool because when you’re starting college, I feel like there’s a lot of questions about the way you’re presenting your sexuality and the way that you’re just expressing yourself more broadly.
Going into spaces that were named as queer spaces, I think, gave me a lot of weird imposter syndrome because, especially as a freshman, it was kind of important to me to stay straight passing. But I feel like going to Prison Project, it was still this place where there were a lot of queer people, but I didn’t have to be in a space with that was labeled queer. I didn’t have to tell anyone that that’s what I was doing.
Something that I’ve been thinking about is how it feels like at the same time as people seem to be having more anti police state sentiment, true crime is also growing as a genre, which is sort of a fascinating dynamic since true crime a lot of the time feels like cop propaganda.
I also listen to true crime sometimes; I think it’s addicting. I like being hooked on the mystery. But I always feel a little bit gross afterwards and disconcerted by the dynamic of, especially thinking about podcasts like Serial which are so famous, the question that’s always set up: were they guilty or not?
The underlying premise to that being they either deserve to be in prison or not. I feel like that’s kind of a frustrating framework to be constantly caught in and one that you don’t really realize you’re reiterating to yourself by listening to true crime.
My ways of thinking about the world in freshman year were really black and white and just lacked a lot of nuanced ways of understanding things. I think I had a really hard time holding a multiplicity of options or possibilities or meanings for something in one moment. That’s definitely something that I feel like my college education has been amazing for.
Part of it’s just age, being young. It’s easier to think about the world in those terms, and it feels less overwhelming to have things be less complicated. Having a moral binary in your head of things being good or bad is a much easier way to frame things for yourself. I think with age it’s hard to think that way anymore.
I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable on campus. I sometimes can’t tell if I’ve gotten a lot more confident or if I just don’t know anyone here anymore, and I don’t really give a fuck. It’s sort of hard to tell the difference sometimes.
I generally miss the weirdness of our freshman year. Everyone says this. I remember when we were freshmen, seniors would always be like CC used to be so weird and now it’s so normal and all you guys are bland.
And now I’m like CC used to be so crazy you guys. People would just wear flair all the time and like walk around with boom boxes and be bananas and like now everyone’s so normal. But I do feel that way. Yeah, I miss people showing up in weird costumes at places all the time and just bizarre interruptions to your day that started to become normal by the end of freshman year.”