Break the Chains Off: An Introduction to Prison Abolition

by Staff Writer Noelle Janak

There is a fundamental problem with policing and incarceration in this country. According to 2016 Department of Justice statistics, 1 in every 38 citizens in the United States is under correctional supervision, meaning under probation, parole, or currently incarcerated. This incarceration rate is the highest in the world by far. Oklahoma outpaces every other state with its incarceration rate of 1,079 per 100,000 Oklahoma citizens. Additionally, Oklahoma is the highest incarcerator of women. Given these horrific numbers, what are we to do? Many scholars and activists have called for the criminal justice system to be reformed through public policy initiatives. Still, some believe the only way to create a just society is to abolish the criminal [in]justice system altogether. 

What We Mean When We Say Abolish Prisons 

Prison abolition is predicated on the idea that the criminal [in]justice system cannot be rehabilitated or reformed through policy intervention. A common misconception is that prison abolition is simply the eradication of carceral institutions like jails, prisons, and detention facilities. Alexander Lee, founder of the Transgender Gender-Variant and Intersex Project, a trans-centered abolitionist organization, argues that prison abolition necessitates “the creation of a society where systemic and historical oppression are wiped out so that everyone’s basic needs are met, where child abuse and domestic violence are zeroed out, and where war is absolutely not an option”.  Prison abolitionists, like Lee, are concerned not only with the eradication of prison buildings but of the prison industrial complex itself. The Prison Industrial Complex comprises the systems, industries, and mentalies that support surveillance, policing, and incarceration. For example, detention in schools are part of the prison industrial complex as detention mechanisms funnel more people into jails and prisons. Indeed, this expansive approach to political organizing and strategy requires a reconceptualization of fundamental structures, systems, and ways of life in this country and internationally. Within this framework, iron-clad doors of prisons and jails are not magically opened tomorrow.

Rather, prison abolitionists ask us to imagine and create a world that does not yet exist and that certainly would not thrive in this present moment. Prison abolition asks that no new jails or prisons be built and requires solidarity between causes from the occupation in Palestine to the uprising in Ferguson to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Prison abolition asks us to redefine public safety from a surveillance-controlled, punitive mechanism to a community-centered ethic of care that believes fervently that everyone, regardless of who they are or what they have done, deserves food, water, shelter, and love. This new world emphasizes safety for survivors of sexual violence and accountability for perpetrators without necessitating the dehumanization and legalized torture of individuals who commit these heinous offenses. The liberation project advanced by prison abolitionists may seem idealized, even foolish. That may be. Prison abolition in its intended form is not a popular political ideology. In fact, it may be treason. Nonetheless, we must fight for the world that should be and not merely accept the world that is. 

A Quick History

The concept of prison abolition may seem like a contemporary creation. In actuality, anti-carceral scholar-activists have been discussing prison abolition for decades. Though the roots of prison abolition lie in the slavery abolitionist movement that preceded it, prison abolition as we know it began taking shape with the Black and Brown anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. Unsurprisingly, considering their involvement in the de jure eradication of slavery, the Quakers also took hold of prison abolition as a non-violent political praxis. In 1983, Quaker activist Ruth Morris founded the International Conference on Penal Abolition with the explicit goal of providing an international forum to discuss the abolition of the prison industrial complex (PIC). Since then, Critical Resistance, a multiracial group comprised of scholar-activists as well as currently and formerly incarcerated people, formed in 1997 to actively study and work towards the eradication of the PIC in our lifetime.

In April 2003, Dr. Angela Y. Davis published the most well-known prison abolitionist text, Are Prisons Obsolete?, which illustrates the transformation of enslavement to share cropping to convict leasing to the War on Drugs and then, inevitably, mass incarceration. With the dawn of the Movement for Black Lives following the murders of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland, abolitionist endeavors such as No New Jails New York and Close the Workhouse STL have sprung up challenging local governments to close carceral institutions down and not rebuild them. As the prison abolitionist cause has recently gone more mainstream, The New York Times did a cover story on Ruth Wilson Gilmore, founder of Critical Resistance and professor at the CUNY Graduate Center. Since its beginnings, prison abolition as a field of study and political ideology has been able to walk the line between the ivory tower of academia and grassroots political organizing. Indeed, these questions of what constitutes public safety and what exactly is the “justice” in the criminal justice system have plagued minds for decades and, arguably, centuries. 

Symptoms vs. Roots

Solutions to mass incarceration have become widely discussed within political arenas over the past five years. Civilians continue to call for increased usage of body cameras by law enforcement, civilian oversight boards, and the abolishment of ICE and private prisons. Liberal, moderate, and conservative camps have come together at times to call for these important reforms to the penal system in this country. While these public policy interventions are noble, they represent antidotes to the symptoms and not the illness plaguing our world. Indeed, these reforms implicitly affirm a non-truth: that police actually protect and serve. Naomi Murakawa takes this argument even further by suggesting that the term police brutality is redundant as “all police interactions, by definition, occur under the threat of brutality.” Though reforms to address so-called police brutality have been adopted, Black and Brown people still get killed by the police, children are still separated from their parents, and the abhorrent conditions within carceral institutions persist. Reform initiatives are like putting a band aid on a gunshot wound: in some ways the band aid helps, but you will still likely die if that’s the only intervention taken. Prison abolition provides a much broader strategy for attacking these broad societal problems. 

Broad and Bold Political Vision 

Prison abolition is a way of living in the present while preparing for the future. This strategy for liberation is rooted in queer and trans justice. As Dean Spade states in “The Only Way to End Gender-Based Violence in Prisons is to End Prisons,” “Because of the nature of our criminal systems and prisons, there is not a fair or safe way for queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people, or anyone, to be imprisoned.” Prison abolition, a position advocated by the Movement for Black Lives and Black Youth Project 100 (a Black queer feminist organization), provides a road to justice for queer and trans communities, who for so long have been denied that. This political vision also provides a different perspective for immigration. As liberal advocates call for ICE (The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) to be abolished, prison abolition asks us to examine and reconsider why borders exist in the first place, who the enforcement of such borders serves, and the moral indictment of banning human beings. These sorts of questions lead us to a more expansive way of thinking that might lead us to create a society without borders and that grants reparations to Black people but also to the Native people from whom this land was first stolen. 

As the city of Tulsa and this nation finally reckon with their storied history of racialized oppression and settler colonialism, we must move on from conversations that center individual bias rather than the systems that produce systemic oppression. The “bad apples” discussion is merely a distraction from conversations of accountability that indict the very foundational pillars of this country. Prison abolition is one way forward to these deeper conversations. As founder of Boston queer and trans abolitionist group Black and Pink, Jason Lydon asserts, “Once there were no prisons, and that day will come again.” Ashè.

For more readings on prison abolition, check out the African American Intellectual History Society’s Prison Abolition Syllabus and Prison Abolition Syllabus 2.0

Photo credit: Associated Press