From Data Criminalisation to Prison Abolition

Community Justice Exchange organisers Ana María Rivera-Forastieri and Puck Lo about their work

Never accept the state’s logics!

Puck Lo

 During the Allied Media Conference, the Abolish Carceral Tech track is filled with great sessions. It features hands-on workshops, meet-ups for community-building, and epic sessions of strategising and dreaming. In this series,  Justice, Equity, and Technology Table member Safia Oulmane speaks with session organisers about their work. Ana María Rivera-Forastieri and Puck Lo share more about the session From Data Criminalisation to Prison Abolition.

Data Criminalization Interviewpg

The session

Ana María Rivera-Forastieri and Puck Lo work in migrant justice and research at Community Justice Exchange (CJE). In their session, the CJE reports on the interlocking machinery of migrant surveillance and “data criminalization;” the creation, theft, archiving, resale and analysis of datasets culled from state and commercial sources that supposedly designate threats and risks.

CJE asserts that these datasets are inherently illegitimate and that creation and use of them should be abolished. Petitioning legislators and corporations for increased oversight and to respect privacy rights is not enough. In this age of biometric theft and digital extraction, it is now more than ever that we ought to rethink community safety and health. 

Ana and Puck tell more about their work, background and the reasons they organised this session. 

Please introduce yourself in your own words.

Ana María: "I’m the Migrant Justice Organizing Director at the Community Justice Exchange and I’ve been organising at the intersection of the criminal legal system and immigration system for about a decade now. Before coming onto CJE, I worked for community-based organisations and used to run a community bail fund in Connecticut.

For the past two years, Puck and I have been digging into data criminalization and the surveillance of migrant communities in the US, which is going to be the focus of our session at the Allied Media Conference."

Puck: "I’m based in New York and I’m the Research Director at CJE. I’ve been swirling around the abolitionist milieu for about two decades. I remember when a lot of these technologies were new on the scene, so I was both gratified and horrified to find out more about them when writing this report, which will be the basis of the workshop."  

What got you involved in this work?

Ana María: "For me, it started about a decade ago when I volunteered to do "know your rights" work within an immigration detention centre in Louisiana. I had never been inside of an immigration detention centre before and this experience pushed me to be more curious about how the immigration system impacts people. 

I’m originally from Puerto Rico, so my relationship to the U.S. is very different from many people in terms of colonialism, but I still have American citizenship — “first American” citizenship I’d say — so when I moved to the US in 2009, my encounter with immigration detention was new. Then, people inside immigration detention were sharing with me that many of them had come to Louisiana to rebuild the city of New Orleans after Katrina. But then they have endured horrible policing, abuse, harassment and just all sorts of issues — only to end in immigration detention centres. That’s how I felt moved to learn more, to talk to more people and build relationships, and to organise specifically around tech and surveillance. 

Years later, I was doing community defence campaign work supporting people in deportation proceedings and witnessed the growing number and intensity of ways that ICE surveilles communities beyond the physical cages of prisons through the alternative detention programs. At the time, we were organising against police and ICE collaboration and we found that, although we were slowing that process down, we weren’t really stopping it because people would get out of pretrial detention, only to be arrested in court a couple of weeks later. We knew that this was because of the regular communication between police and immigration — not only between people but also through data sharing.  

This report with Puck came to be because we were having conversations with folks who run immigration bond funds who were noticing an uptick in the number of people being forced to wear digital ankle shackles. So Puck went down a rabbit hole and that’s how we got here! But really, it was rooted in conversations and relationships and seeing how the system was expanding. We want to offer our perspective on it as well as perhaps some frameworks to think about new targets and how to organise."

Puck: "I am Chinese-American and within my own family there are ample opportunities to see the disparities that exist within the US immigration system. Part of my family got here decades ago and had no official rights to be here. Other members of my family were issued Green Cards almost right away and had enrolments at universities. The economic differences are very stark and persistent even decades later. So that was a piece of it for me." 

"My mother is institutionalised, " she continues, "So I have a lot of contact and familiarity with criminalized systems of psychiatric health as well as jails and prisons. 

Then, I came of age politically during the Anti-Globalization Movement, which looked deeply at financial structures and incentives that make things the way they are. I had the good fortune to meet comrades in Korea and China as well as other parts of the world and see how neoliberal policy transitions were systematically eliminating forms of livelihood for many millions of people. That formed the basis of my entry into prison abolitionism — thinking and looking both short and long term about how infrastructures determine what happens in people’s lives." 

What struggles have you encountered along the way and/or expect to encounter in the future?

Ana María: "One mistake that I made early on was to buy into the push toward ‘what’s politically viable’ that many organisers experience. You’re doing so much work to provide immediate support, you’re trying to organise against these systems and take them down. Then, someone who has more experience and more connections in politics or whatever says ‘Well, what you’re asking for is not possible, so push for this instead.' Then you feel stuck helping build something that is ultimately going to be harmful to our communities all because we somehow believe that dismantling that will be easier than dismantling the whole thing. It’s very difficult to hold the strong line while also experimenting. I’m not saying it’s going to be perfect. I think we have to experiment with tactics and name what didn’t work so that we can learn from it and try to be better."

What is the vision of your workshop?

Puck: "I am excited to share this report with this particular audience. I’ve been going to the AMC for the past 18 years or so, so it’s been a long time. There has been a great cross-section of people who are everything from widely creative and artistically inclined to the nuts-and-bolts policy people, and everything in between. There’s also been a lot of different extremely competent kind of tech-nerds over the years, literally engineers and the people who build radios out of their basements. That cross-section of people is perfect to discuss what we’re calling “data criminalization” and to ask how we break out of it. We’ve spent the last half-year really trying only to destroy the problem and that’s part of what this workshop does too, of course. But we’re also trying to pivot and AMC feels like the right place for that pivot; to collectively answer ‘what’s the liberation part of this is going to look like?’ and shift our thinking from the critical naming of the problem to a free, day-dreaming space."

Ana María: "During the workshop, we are going to use a tool that we spent a lot of time building and thinking deeply about. We will be experimenting with that tool — I won’t anything specific about it yet, but there’s an online tool that we’ll be using for the first time during our session at the AMC. And we hope that more people will be using it for education, organising, and thinking about new targets."

What does "Abolish carceral tech" mean to you?

Puck: "Thinking of it very literally, my association with the term “carceral tech” is a group called the Carceral Tech Resistance Network and they use “carceral tech” to describe a pretty broad range of technologies that are appropriated by or built specifically for policing. I think adding “tech” as a qualifier helps people think differently about the constant growth and reinventing policing technologies. Because cops’ surveillance is technology too. What it doesn’t necessarily do is name that all technologies can be potentially carceral. So, I think it may create a false binary wherein some technologies are carceral and some technologies are non-carceral. Whereas I don’t think that line exists."

Ana María: "I agree with that. Puck recommended that I read “Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness” by Simone Browne and it really made me think about technology in a different way. Because it’s historical. Since the age of slavery, technology has been used to incarcerate. Many people think about technology and imagine the internet and phones and things like that. Browne does such a good job of showing the ways in which low-tech has been used over the years and how important that is to understanding the current moment. I do think that describing the qualifiers “carceral tech” allow us to see the ways in which all technologies can become carceral, as Puck said. In a way, it historicizes it. But I also totally agree that there’s a debate about questions like whether there could be some technologies that aren’t carceral? Or maybe we could use facial recognition for good and what would that look like."

What are you hoping participants will gain from your workshop/one piece of information they should remember?

Puck: "Never accept the state’s logics!" 

Ana María: "I can’t compete with that. That is the goal! One thing that I have certainly learned during the past two years working on this is in regard to the state. And that is to never forget that it is the state that is pushing this. And that’s because it is a white supremacist state that’s trying to preserve itself. When we focus only on specific companies or the corporate profit-making side of things, we can forget the legacy of the state and why these things operate. We need to be able to see both. I’m hoping that, within the workshop, people will be able to make those connections. I’m not saying let’s not organise against [corporate profit-making] at all, but let’s not forget the role of the state and why these technologies have been used historically to control entire communities. My hope is that people will get that the workshop."


The session  From Data Criminalisation to Prison Abolition is scheduled Friday 1 July, at 08:00 PM CEST 

Registere here for the Allied Media Conference to join!