The prison system is ‘a gendering, killing machine’
Ash Williams by Sherronda J. Brown

Centering LGBTQIA+ Black, Indigenous, and people of color, Prism’s Gender Justice for Liberation series draws from current events and lived experiences to explore the roots of today’s most urgent issues and oppressions, and highlight how we are reimagining a world transformed by gender justice and all of its joy, abundance, community, diversity, and promise.

The gender binary is a carceral ideology. It seeks to cage us in immutable identity categories that we are assigned according to our anatomy—man and woman, male and female. This  biological essentialist understanding of bodies and identities is reinforced in nearly every arena of our society, and gender is policed at almost every turn. One space where this happens significantly is in the prison system. 

Not only does the criminal legal system continue to increase gender-based violence, but gender-based anti-trans and anti-abortion laws also seek to funnel more people through the criminal legal system. The purpose of both anti-trans and anti-abortion bills is to limit healthcare access and criminalize those seeking it. Criminalizing health care in a nation that uses policing, surveillance, and carceral punishment to control its citizens is a form of state-sanctioned violence. 

Abortion-seekers, providers, and people who provide abortion support are criminalized, and so too are those who provide gender-affirming care and support. Many anti-trans bills include prison as punishment for providing or facilitating care for trans and nonbinary youth. Meanwhile, the surveillance state extends its arms to invite civilians into the apparatus. Citizens are deputized—encouraged and incentivized—to be informants for law enforcement by reporting people seeking abortion care. Because of these connections, we have to simultaneously approach reproductive justice and gender justice with an abolitionist framework and approach abolition with a reproductive justice and gender justice framework. 

As a Black trans abortion doula who also organizes against police and prisons, Ash Williams is deeply interested in the connection between gender policing and the prison system. With his varied organizing experience and unique positionality, he brings into sharp focus how central gender justice and trans liberation are to abolition and sexual and reproductive health care. 

In 2016, Williams became one of the architects of Charlotte Uprising, an abolitionist collective formed in response to the state murder of Keith Lamont Scott. That same year, he interrupted one of Hillary Clinton’s private fundraisers to demand accountability for her 1994 statement calling Black children “super-predators” and the Clintons’ larger role in normalizing and escalating the incarceration of Black people across the U.S. 

Ash Williams interrupts Hillary Clinton’s speech at a private fundraiser in 2016. Image Source: YouTube 

Over the years, Williams has also worked with various organizations focusing on abortion access and reproductive justice, proudly serving low-income, undocumented, racially marginalized, and queer and trans communities. Currently, he works with the Mountain Area Abortion Doula Collective (MAADCo), a western North Carolina grassroots organization that supports people seeking abortion care and trains abortion doulas using a reproductive justice lens. 

Through his work with MAADCo and as an independent abortion doula, Williams offers tangible support to people who have had abortions, uses mutual aid networks to help fund abortions, and helps people in need of abortion care find providers. Williams recently spoke to Prism about the links between reproductive injustice, gender, and the carceral system.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Sherronda J. Brown: What sets you and MAADCo apart from many others working in this space, particularly when it comes to supporting trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming abortion-seekers? 

Ash Williams: We’re sharing information about gender-inclusive language and pronouns and about why those things are important. We’re also covering the gaps in quality care that trans people and gender non-conforming people receive as it relates to all types of health care.

That means talking about the impact of those gaps, like how it feels to enter a health care appointment and witness someone being deadnamed or gendered incorrectly. When these things happen, it’s yet another barrier in a cisnormative and transphobic health care system. It makes decision-making in that space more difficult and limits self-determination for trans and nonbinary abortion-seekers. It’s in moments like these that abortion doulas can speak up and advocate on their behalf. 

We also work to make the trainees aware of the disparities that exist within abortion care and health care in general, and help them to develop a deeper understanding of the medical-industrial complex

Brown: How would you describe the prison system in a few words? 

Williams: I describe the prison system as a gendering, killing machine. It really enforces gender upon every person who has to pass through or even just enter a prison.

Brown: How are anti-abortion and anti-trans efforts connected to the prison system? 

Williams: The violence of prisons, in terms of how they force gender upon people, sometimes looks the same as the violence of gender outside of prisons. Outside of prisons, there are continued attacks on trans people as we try to access what we know is medically necessary gender-affirming care. 

It saddens me to witness the criminalization of parents, caregivers, providers, and other adults who want to support trans and nonbinary youth. But it also further highlights the connections between the healthcare system and the prison system. 

Brown: So the prison system’s enforcement of gender is why organizing against police and prisons means also working toward gender justice. What are the ways you have seen gender enforcement show up in your work? 

Williams: I have seen gender enforcement show up in my organizing alongside and with trans women and intersex women who are in places of incarceration in North Carolina. One of the incarcerated people I connected with is Ashlee Inscoe, an intersex trans woman who has spent more than three years in a battle with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS). Inscoe has not only been imprisoned in a men’s facility, but was also denied life-saving care for over a year. 

She advocated for herself to receive gender-affirming and medically necessary care in the form of an orchiectomy. For months, Inscoe thoroughly documented how not having this procedure [to address undeveloped reproductive tissue in her abdomen] caused her debilitating pain and decreased her quality of life. She was finally granted the surgery [by the Transgender Accommodations Request Committee] in September 2022. 

According to Inscoe’s surgeon, she is probably the first trans or intersex person in North Carolina history who was allowed to receive gender-affirming care surgery [while in prison]. As the NCDPS continues to be confronted with the existence of trans people, they are deciding what constitutes medically necessary and gender-affirming care. 

Brown: Given all of these things, would you say it’s essential for us to understand the medical-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex as two sides of the same coin?

Williams: There’s definitely a connection there for me. I’m aware that the medical-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex both want to impose this binary when it comes to medically necessary care and gender-affirming care.

We are clear, but they wanna get it twisted. They want to make it seem like medically necessary care and gender-affirming care are two different things. But as we continue to live our trans lives, both inside and outside of prisons, we continue to push back against this idea.

I’ve been talking about this intersection of medical-industrial complex violence and prison-industrial complex violence as a matter of reproductive oppression for some time now. I’m happy that more people are starting to want to talk back to me, and listen with me, and talk about what it means for us.

We have to take seriously the connections between the prison-industrial complex and the carcerality of gender and sexuality under white supremacy and cisheteropatriarchy. We deserve something different.

Brown: Who should we be looking to and listening to as we work to address the combined violence of the medical- and prison-industrial complexes?

Williams: What I know about abolition is that some folks are uniquely impacted by the prison-industrial complex and its harms, and that has everything to do with gender, sexuality, and race. If we want to imagine a world without prisons and police, and if we want to disrupt and dismantle carceral logics, we have to pay attention to what Black trans and queer people are doing and saying. Both reproductive justice and abolition ask us to pay attention to these connections and the people who are uniquely impacted by these systemic oppressions.

Sherronda J. Brown is a Southern-grown essayist, editor, storyteller, and the author of Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture.