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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

Constructing an Archive and Deconstructing Carcerality

Stories of South Asian Americans Affected by Incarceration
By Savannah Kumar |
FEBRUARY 15, 2021
Sohan Singh Bhakna, second from the right, was arrested and jailed for his role in the Ghadar Party's revolt against British rule in India. The former St. Johns mill worker, a major organizer and leader of the party, is shown here in 1938 at Amritsar Railway Station.” (Photo: Kesar Singh, Courtesy of Amarjit Chandan Collection. Source: Portland Tribune)
Though rarely discussed, incarceration has affected South Asian Americans throughout our history. South Asians were regularly incarcerated in their own homelands by the British and sent to penal colonies, especially for contesting colonial rule. Then, when South Asians migrated to the United States between 1910 and 1940, many were detained at Angel Island Immigration Station for months at a time. During that same period, the U.S. government collaborated with the British to surveil and incarcerate members of the Ghadar Party who advocated for India’s independence from the British. Even Bhagat Singh Thind, whose struggle for citizenship led to a landmark case in South Asian American history, was incarcerated and subjected to dehumanizing treatment by jail officials.

Today, South Asian Americans are largely erased from racial and ethnic demographic data about incarceration because county jails and state prisons often classify them as “Other” rather than as South Asian Americans or even Asians. But our stories are not “Other”; they are ours. Documenting our stories will allow us to understand our role in a system that erases our identity. The “model minority” myth further obscures information about incarcerated South Asian Americans because it portrays South Asian Americans as model citizens who are not impacted by the carceral state. In fact, many South Asian American communities are over-policed, with community members incarcerated in immigration detention facilities, jails, and prisons.

As a civil rights lawyer, I’m new to the archival process. I appreciate that control of the stories in the archive belongs to the storytellers. In contrast, the legal system controls whose stories are told, when they can be told, and even how many words can be used to tell them. Courts usually don’t care about which spices are available to incarcerated people in commissary, whether they are allowed to talk in their Nani’s language on the phone, or what traditions they must reinvent. Legal advocacy can uplift and address specific rights-based struggles. However, I intend for my archival project to do what legal briefs and court hearings often do not: allow people affected by incarceration to tell their own stories in all of their fullness and complexity.

For my Archival Creators project, I am documenting the experiences of South Asian Americans affected by incarceration. A wide range of South Asian Americans have been affected by incarceration. Some have spent time in jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers, or immigration detention centers; others have loved ones who have been impacted by these systems. Some have had court involvement with the threat of incarceration, even if they never ultimately spent time behind bars. Some of us are descendants of South Asian American elders who were incarcerated in South Asia during colonial rule or were detained when they first came to the U.S. in the early 1900s. In many cases, the intergenerational impacts of incarceration began abroad but continue in the United States today. The archive has space for all of these stories. If your life has been impacted in any way by incarceration, you can share about your experiences using this FORM.
The stories I’ve already recorded describe the deep isolation that accompanies incarceration. Carceral spaces are designed to be alienating. Incarcerated people are transported away from their communities and have severely restricted visits and communications. Furthermore, many South Asian Americans find it difficult to openly discuss incarceration because our community has historically shamed and stigmatized incarceration and other experiences that shatter the model minority myth. I hope my archival project will create opportunities to build solidarity in sharing and witnessing stories that have been suppressed by the state and by our own community.

Documenting experiences of incarceration is sensitive work with potential legal and social consequences, especially if a person’s legal case is still pending. Interviewees participating in my archival project can document their stories anonymously through pseudonyms, voice alteration, or transcripts instead of traditional oral history interviews. I am also working with local organizations to make this project accessible to those who are currently incarcerated by creating ways for people to send in letters documenting their memories and experiences.
Signs made in support of the Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Afghani asylum seekers on a hunger strike at an ICE processing center in El Paso, Texas in 2015.
When I was a teenager, a group of incarcerated organizers in California invited me behind bars to participate in a fundraiser to raise money for trauma-informed youth programming that served teenagers like me. Despite earning just cents for each hour of their labor, the organizers contributed hundreds of dollars towards youth scholarships that have transformed the lives of countless young people. I returned to the prison year after year to learn directly from them about organizing to meet my community’s needs. I don’t have lived experience of incarceration, so it’s critical that I continue learning from people who have been incarcerated. I have a wonderful community advisory board for this project composed primarily of people whose lives have been intimately impacted by incarceration. I’m grateful to learn from them.

South Asian Americans cannot be silent about surveillance, policing, or incarceration. We must confront the anti-Black racism that fuels the carceral state and that is present in our own communities. As Angela Davis writes, “Since people who are inside are not allowed out, the people who are outside need to knock on the gates of the nation’s prisons and jails.” Through this archival project, I will work with my community to continue the critical work of knocking, witnessing, and documenting to preserve the memories made behind bars and barbed wire.
Savannah (she/they) is a civil rights lawyer and community artist working on decarceration. Savannah's fellowship project involves bearing witness to South Asian Americans whose lives have been impacted by incarceration in jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers, and immigration detention centers. Savannah is collecting these intergenerational narratives and offering them back to the community to facilitate healing and solidarity. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.