Some Reflections on Prison Abolition

Abolition is about building. Not everyone is on the same page, and that’s okay. We spar it out as we build.

“It’s important to spar, and to work out our differences.” This line came from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who was making the important point that not everyone in the room — and certainly not everyone in the abolitionist movement — is on the same page, and that there’s no need to pretend otherwise.

Those on the outside must be in contact with, and actively supporting the organizing of, those on the inside.

Perhaps one of the most important recurring themes of MUMI was the necessity of being in direct contact with those who are in prison — writing to them, supporting their organizing, meeting their material needs through mutual aid, and working to get them out.

Ask for what you want, not what you think you can get — and fight to win.

Too often, we’re not fighting to win. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore noted, one of the frequent failures of campaigns is that we don’t think about what will happen if we win — we’re not saying “If we get this thing we want, what do we do the next day? What are the new challenges, and what are the new opportunities?” How, Gilmore asks, will what we’re doing now set us up for what we want to do then? Do our “wins” produce freedom?

You have to ask for the impossible to get the half possible. Don’t pre-compromise yourself, and then call something a victory that you didn’t even want in the first place.

— Mariame Kaba

The conference was a reminder that as we fight for what we want, language matters, and we need to think about how what we’re fighting for — and how the language that we’re using in that fight — meshes with our vision for the world.

Harm, not “crime.”

“Crime” is politically constructed. This is a hard sentence for many to read, as most of us grow up with the notion that crime is synonymous with harm. But the work of abolitionists and critical criminologists detaches the two, noting that many harmful things — and particularly large-scale, systemic forms of harm— are not crimes, whereas many things that cause no harm are labeled crime. As one speaker highlighted, it’s a crime to poison someone’s cup, but it’s not a crime to poison the city of Flint, Michigan.

Some other takeaways


As Mariame Kaba stressed, the word “accountability” is increasingly misused, and “we often say accountability when we mean punishment.” That’s a fundamental distortion of accountability, Kaba explained: accountability can only be taken, not imposed. Which means you can take accountability, and you can hold space for someone to figure out whether they want to be accountable for what they’ve done. But accountability cannot be coerced — coercion is fundamentally carceral, which means that carceral abolition must be fundamentally opposed to coercion.

Lawyers, “Progressive Prosecutors,” and Abolition

For those planning on attending law school, Derecka Purnell had some things to say: first, “don’t go to law school to become a cop — that is, a prosecutor.” Derecka offered some of the clearest thinking on “progressive prosecutors” I have seen thus far: a) “progressive prosecutor” is an oxymoron and you shouldn’t plan to be one, but b) organize with people, and if they decide that electing someone to be a prosecutor is an effective strategy for the work they’re seeking to accomplish, then do it. Second, Derecka noted that we don’t need lawyers who will seek to uphold the constitution, because most of the violence of prisons is constitutional; instead, we need lawyers who will betray the power of the constitution.

Public Desire for Incarceration?

It’s not uncommon for politicians and others to say that the public demands incarceration and punishment. Amanda Alexander pointed out, however, that this might have less to do with a desire for punishment, and more with a lack of alternatives. As Alexander noted, when you sell people police and jails as the only form of safety, that’s what they’ll say they want. But what people really want is accountability, an end to the harm, to find healing, and to understand why harm happened.

Identity and Analysis

“Just having an identity that is oppressed is not the same as having an analysis of the forces that oppress us.” — Mariame Kaba

Indigenous Incarceration

Max Mishler made the important point that military bases have long served as sites of incarceration for indigenous people. If we view military bases as prison camps, we begin to see a much earlier emergence of the “federal carceral archipelago.”

Philanthropy and Foundations

I’ll just leave this tweet here:

Private Prisons as an Opening

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor made an important point: it’s tempting for abolitionists to dismiss those who come to the issue of mass incarceration through the lens of private prisons. While most of those who are engaged in anti-prison work know that private prisons account for a very small percent of the prison population, and that they are parasites rather than drivers of mass incarceration, learning about private prisons is nonetheless an entry point to abolition for many (it was for me!). So, when others focus on private prisons, use it as an opening to educate on why private prisons should not be the focus in the fight against criminalization.



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