Some Reflections on Prison Abolition
This week, I attended “Making and Unmaking Mass Incarceration: The History of Mass Incarceration and the Future of Prison Abolition,” a conference held at the University of Mississippi.
As conference organizer Garrett Felber announced at the start, the conference would be “unapologetically abolitionist.” And unapologetically abolitionist it was, bringing the imaginative power of the abolitionist project into the unlikely space of slaver-named Ole Miss.
In reflecting on the past couple days, I want to highlight some key takeaways from my time at MUMI.
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.
To be clear, I don’t think that Gilmore meant that there are no standards for or core tenets of abolition — in fact, I think that those such as Gilmore are actively working against the watering-down of abolition.
Instead, she was encouraging us to spar it out, to disagree, to work out our differences as we build together. But the last part is key — as we build together. As many speakers noted during the course of the conference, abolition is about building. Abolitionists are builders. And what we’re building, as Max Mishler said, is “a society where incarceration would no longer even be possible.”
In this way, MUMI was a reminder that “abolition” is a verb: it is the dual-pronged project of tearing down and building up, the dismantling of life-sucking systems alongside the construction of life-giving ones.
As Ashon Crawley recently noted on Twitter, rather than an identity to claim, abolition is about doing. And if you look around, many people are already deep in the doing. Mariame Kaba drove this point home when she noted that “Abolition is in the present. We are doing it every single day in multiple kinds of ways. It’s not just a horizon we’ll arrive at some day. It’s constantly being made.” Similarly, Elizabeth Hinton reminded us that practicing abolition means creating — creating — communities of care, within and outside of prison.
In other words, abolition isn’t something that we sketch out on paper, and then implement wholesale — it’s something that we test, try, pioneer, and pilot. We spar out our differences as we go. And it’s probably good that we’re not all on the same page, not just because different places will require different solutions, but also because abolition is a bottom-up, locally driven effort — and hegemony is antithetical to abolition.
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.
Alice Kim was one of many to say: “If you’re doing work around prisons, you need to be connected with someone who is currently incarcerated.” Similarly, Dwayne Betts asked, “How can we have a movement that is deeply invested in abolition if people aren’t visiting prisons?”
Communicating and working with those on the inside is crucial in part because, as Kathy Boudin noted, different kinds of knowledge are produced in different places. Many in prison are theorizing and organizing for a wide range of changes, and many are working toward abolition. Those in prison are on the ground, and many are actively resisting the carceral state and making, in Dan Berger’s words, “a meaningful life in fundamentally violent conditions.” They deserve our material support and solidarity.
Stevie Wilson, a currently incarcerated man and a prison disorganizer who called into the conference, spoke to the importance of this inside-outside collaboration. As Wilson noted, outside and inside activists are like two wings of a bird — both are needed to fly correctly.
Alongside urgings to be actively engaged with prisoners, however, were warnings not to exploit those in prison, even if unintentionally. For those involved in or looking to start prison education programs, Michelle Jones made especially important points: if your program is not offering real credit, don’t offer it as a college program. Incarcerated students deserve continuity in their college experience, both in case of transfer to a new prison, but also upon release — which means that college institutions working with students in prisons must also be willing to accept those students once they are out of prison (ban the fucking box!). And, if your program’s rule is that volunteers cannot have contact with students once they are out of prison, then keep at least one program staff member from going into prisons, so that they can have contact with and provide support to students coming out of prison.
Syrita Steib-Martin followed up with another important point on this: too many in-prison programs become extensions of the Department of Corrections, withheld from students as punishment. So, if you’re going to go into prisons, don’t operate from a place of fear, and take every possible action to protect students and avoid DOC cooptation. As Alice Kim put it: “Going inside and teaching offers an opportunity to build community with those who are incarcerated. How are we shining a light on the love, hope, and dreams of those who are inside?”
In other words: prisons are not places for vanity volunteerism projects, so if you’re going to go in, do so with a plan for how your work will support the short- and long-term goals of those in prison.
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?
These are questions that are at the heart of non-reformist reforms, or “measures that reduce the power of an oppressive system while illuminating the system’s inability to solve the crises it creates.” At their core, non-reformist reforms remove power, authority, and funding from carceral institutions — they do not expect the injection of more resources into, nor the provision of better trainings and procedures for, prisons and policing to solve problems of violence.
In other words, as abolitionists often say, we don’t want our work to build structures that we’ll later need to dismantle. Working from Dean Spade, Kaba offered four questions against which to test ideas for reform: 1) Does the reform provide material relief? 2) Does it leave out a particularly marginalized group? 3) Does it legitimize the system? 4) Does it build power, mobilizing the most affected for ongoing struggle? These are guiding questions for all to consider in our work.
Ask for what you want, not for what you think you can get — on this, Mariame Kaba said something that will stick with me forever: “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.”
Put differently, Orisanmi Burton quoted Attica prisoner-revolutionary Samuel Melville, who argued that short of total abolition, “we must always be certain our demands will exceed what the pigs are able to grant.” We must not let those in power dictate what we need, and what we are willing to fight for.
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.
Do we want less explicitly brutal forms of incarceration, or do we want no incarceration — and which path does what we’re doing right now put us on? For example, as Kaba noted, we’re in a moment where people are looking for “alternatives to incarceration.” But how does keeping “incarceration” at the center of what we’re looking for impact our work? Why are we looking for other ways to punish and coerce, rather than other ways to prevent harm and provide healing?
Similarly, Gilmore identified our problematic tendency to propose “silver bullet” solutions — for example, calls that equate ending cash bail with ending the problems of pretrial detention, or campaigns that locate the problem of criminalization in private prisons, thereby distracting from the vaster networks of public punishment. The campaign to end cash bail, as James Kilgore noted, has led in part to the massive expansion of electronic monitoring or “e-carceration”— a “reform” that now presents another form of criminalization which needs to be torn down.
In short, we need to fight to win, and we need to do so with an eye for what the morning after victory looks like.
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.
This is why, I think, Mariame Kaba noted that for abolitionists, the unit of analysis is harm, whether that harm is labeled criminal or not. And it is precisely because of abolitionists’ focus on harm that they are against prisons — because prisons, as a rule, harm people. In Kaba’s words, prisons are a “central organizer of racialized gender violence,” abusing and violating people by design.
A quote that I frequently come back to here, from criminologist Todd Clear, is this: “The point is so obvious that it is generally ignored: punishment, in the classic sense, involves a government’s organized infliction of harm upon a citizen.”
While Kaba made this point explicitly near the end of the conference, I think it’s also demonstrated by the first part of the conference, which focused on the “making” of mass incarceration — the histories of slavery and gendered racial capitalism that gave birth to mass incarceration, shared by panelists such as Dionne Bailey and Walter Johnson. These histories show us that criminalization did not emerge as a form of accounting for harm, but rather as a way to perpetrate harm — to facilitate mass accumulation at the cost of mass suffering.
As Paddy Hillyard and Steve Tombs write, “Unless we have a story about what is crime and who is a criminal, it is impossible to recognize either.” The historical roots of mass incarceration are important then not because we want to know them for the sake of knowing them, but because they illuminate our story of criminalization — the logics of gendered racialized oppression that persist throughout time — and thus allow us to identify and dismantle criminalization’s core tenets.
The history of mass incarceration unequivocally teaches us that embracing criminalization in any form means embracing anti-Blackness. It teaches us that if we want to combat harm, we must attack and dismantle, rather than put any faith in, all systems of criminalization.
And while criminalization takes many forms, Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reminded us that criminalization is an active process of the state demonizing actions for which it does not want to take responsibility. As Taylor explained, we see this today with the criminalization and demonization of immigrants — those who “come here because we went there.”
Criminalization morphs and re-invents itself across spheres — which is why, as many panelists pointed out, we must not fall for the attempts of criminalizing institutions to reinvent themselves as therapeutic. The only hope is to divert resources away from these institutions. As Amanda Alexander noted, “Most of the problem with justice reinvestment thus far is that the cops and the wardens always have an idea for how they’ll claw that money back.”
In short, focusing on harm, rather than meeting the carceral state on its hyper-individualizing terms of “crime,” is essential to the project of abolition.
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.
Amanda Alexander of the Detroit Justice Center offered an especially-helpful model of what lawyers in the fight for abolition can do, with a three-pronged approach her organization takes: defense, offense, and dreaming. Defense focuses on alleviating suffering and reducing harm, doing concrete work such as fighting fines and fees; Offense means working proactively to “hold clients’ freedom dreams as sacred,” and translate them into reality; and Dreaming means concretely piloting abolition as presence, imagining and implementing projects that might, in Angela Davis’ words, “eventually start to crowd out the prison.”
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
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.
I’m grateful to those who made MUMI happen, not only because it was a time of deep learning and community, but because it was emboldening. Prison abolitionists are so often put on the defensive (“well what would you do instead?”), but as many speakers (and especially Mariame Kaba) made clear, my being a socialist abolitionist doesn’t mean I have to have an answer for every instance of harm you can possibly think of.
Is the capitalist who demands answers willing to account for the unimaginable devastation that our existing capitalist system has caused? Is the prison preservationist who demands solutions willing to account for the unthinkable harm that the punishment system has caused? I don’t think so — and you don’t need to need to have every answer in order to know that an existing system is immoral and untenable.
I’m excited to move forward with the conviction that abolition demands that we keep building, that we be in community with those who are in prison, that we work with them to free them, that we focus on harm, and that we oppose criminalization in all its forms. As we build and spar and find answers, I’ll be committed to what Ruth Wilson Gilmore stressed multiple times:
“Abolition is about presence, not absence. It has to be green, and in order to be green, it has to be red (anti-capitalist), and in order to be red, it has to be international.”
I want to end on two moments from the conference, one of sobering urgency, and the other of inspiring hope, that should be held in tension:
“There is cause for weeping, and us being in a room together is not itself cause for celebration. My hope is tempered by the truth that many people who are loved will die in prison.” Dwayne Betts
“Prison has to be abolished. I see it happening. I see it so closely within my lifetime that it motivates me to do what I’m doing now because I want to be free…My worst act is not my best act or the greatest thing I’ll ever do.” Antoine, currently incarcerated organizer.