In her 2003 book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, scholar and activist Angela Y. Davis wrote, “Prison abolitionists are dismissed as utopians and idealists whose ideas are at best unrealistic and impracticable, and, at worst, mystifying and foolish.” Those who oppose prison-industrial complex (PIC) abolition partially see it as a fantasy that can’t be realized. “This is a measure of how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and families. The prison is considered so ‘natural’ that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it,” Davis writes.
But activists and organizations have been imagining life without prisons for decades. The Prison Research/Education/Action Project’s 1976 pamphlet “Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists” laid out the pillars of abolition: “moratorium,” “decarceration,” and “excarceration.” “Moratorium” calls for an end to the building of prisons, jails, and detention centers; “decarceration” works to have nonviolent offenders released from prison; and “excarceration” involves diverting people away from interacting with law enforcement through decriminalization. In 1997, Davis and City University of New York professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore cofounded Critical Resistance, an international organization that aims to dismantle the pic by using these three pillars. A year later, 3,500 people convened for a three-day Critical Resistance conference to discuss the limitations of the PIC in the United States.
Other organizations with similar goals have also been erected: Decrim NY wants to decriminalize sex work in New York City and in the state and decarcerate sex workers. The Black Youth Project 100 uses a Black, queer, and feminist lens to work toward the liberation of all Black people, including those who are currently incarcerated. No New Jails NYC calls for an end to the building and funding of new prisons and jails in New York City. All of these organizations are working toward a common goal: ending the pic.
Justice Is Not Served
The United States incarcerates more people than any other country, with 2.2 million adults in prisons or jails at the end of 2016. Nearly 60,000 children under the age of 18 are also incarcerated in juvenile jails or prisons, and about 10,000 more children are held in adult jails or prisons. Citizens pay the high price for this system because our tax dollars are funneled into policing and incarcerating the people in these systems—predominantly Black and Brown people. This is by design. Slavery legally ended in 1865 with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, but the language of this amendment still allowed slavery as punishment for a crime. The carceral system revived slave labor, allowing the United States to continue disenfranchising and enslaving incarcerated Black people. Now almost every aspect of Black and Brown people’s lives is affected by the carceral state—from extra surveillance and imprisonment to disenfranchisement upon release. The entire system is built to maintain white supremacy, which remains the status quo in the United States.
“It might be challenging to envision a world without policing or imprisonment because we’re constantly being told that these systems are natural [they’re not] and have always existed [they haven’t],” says Mohamed Shehk, the national media and communications director of Critical Resistance. Though some Americans have difficulties imagining a world without police or prisons, communities who don’t rely on the PIC do exist. Shehk says the Palestinian village where his mother grew up doesn’t have a police force. Problems there are resolved by “bringing in the elders of the community to come up with a resolution.” In 2011, the indigenous Purépecha town of Cherán banned political parties, gangs, and police. Since then, they boast the lowest murder rate in the entire Michoacán region, which is historically one of the most violent regions in Mexico. What’s more, since Cherán abolished the corrupt police force, they haven’t had a single kidnapping.
Some communities within the United States are also accustomed to policing themselves. Shehk says it’s “important to remember that many communities don’t call the cops because of rightful mistrust.” He also points out that “you can also visit Beverly Hills or the Golden Triangle or the other elite, wealthy, white neighborhoods of this country to see what a community without police or prisons looks like.” When a student at an elite private school in Orange County, California, is found with weed in their backpack, teachers don’t call the police—and there isn’t an active police presence within the school itself. Instead, teachers call the student’s parents, believing it’s an issue that can be solved within the family. Black and Brown students, on the other hand, are funneled from school into the criminal justice system in what is commonly known as the school-to-prison pipeline. These students are increasingly accused of crimes, suspended, or reported to the police compared to their white counterparts, which often creates a lasting connection with the carceral state.
Reducing interaction with law enforcement would allow students the space to make mistakes and learn from them, and would encourage teachers to build better relationships with parents. It also moves resources away from metal detectors, surveillance equipment, and onsite police and toward quality educators, better school supplies, and extracurricular activities. “Policing exists to manage the consequences of inequality in ways that benefit those people who are creating the inequality,” says Alex S. Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and author of the 2017 book The End of Policing. “The decision to use police to manage the problems of the poor is inherently unjust in most circumstances and actually racist because this burden so falls most heavily on communities of color.” Many wealthy white communities have already abolished police forces because they don’t want the criminal justice system solving their intercommunal problems. Why is this option not available to all of us?
What Does Abolition Look Like?
Abolitionists are often asked to explain what will happen to people who commit murder or rape if police and prisons are abolished. Shehk responds with a similar question: “What are we doing now with people who commit those harms?” Some of the high-profile assault stories that surfaced during the #MeToo movement, including Chanel Miller’s rape at the hands of Brock Turner and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony of her assault by Brett Kavanaugh, revealed that survivors of sexual harassment and assault aren’t being protected by this system. Instead, the criminal justice system protects and maintains agents of the patriarchy, including students like Turner, police officers, lawyers, Supreme Court justices, and presidents.
Since the United States locks people up at a higher rate than any other country, you’d assume this “would be the safest place, virtually free of harm or violence,” Shehk says, but that’s obviously not the case. The president of the United States and two Supreme Court justices have been accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault on multiple occasions. Less than 1 percent of rapes result in the incarceration of the perpetrator, while at least 89 percent of survivors face emotional and physical consequences. Often the rapes reported to police aren’t even investigated, considering the 200,000 rape kits the federal government estimates are sitting—submitted, yet unopened—in police storage. That’s not justice.
Murder clearance rates aren’t much better, with police reportedly solving only about 60 percent of murders. When the victim is Black—as the majority of homicide victims are—the clearance rate declines to the lowest of any other racial group. In communities that are particularly disenfranchised, those rates can be in the single digits. These figures don’t instill much faith in law enforcement’s efficacy. Believers Bail Out (BBO) is an organization hoping to combat this disparity. It’s a community-led effort to bail out Muslims who are being held in pretrial incarceration and ICE custody. BBO is also working to abolish the use of cash bail, which Dania Daoud, a Palestinian Muslim woman organizer with BBO, describes as an “incremental but necessary step to abolishing prisons overall.”
Daoud says we must “come to terms with the fact that the state, through police and prison perpetuates sexual harm. Not only are Black and Brown women, queer folks, and trans folks, vulnerable to sexual violence while in jail and prison, they’re also criminalized and imprisoned for escaping violent relationships under what’s known as ‘accountability laws.’” Prisons become sites of sexual violence, where people are violated every single day. Kristina “K” Agbebiyi, a social worker who also organizes with Survived & Punished, points out that incarcerated people “are assaulted daily by prison staff, medical professionals, and sometimes other people on the inside. This happens in blatant ways like rape but also more subtle ways like invasive strip searches, people being forced to shower in front of others, [and] even people being denied menstruation products.” How can we look at the prison system as just and fair when that very system perpetuates the harm it’s meant to stop?
We have to analyze the conditions that lead people to commit murder or rape and change those conditions to change the outcomes. As Vitale puts it, “serial killers don’t just fall out of the sky.” According to him, treating criminalization as the only option for deterrence is one of the reasons nothing is done to help children or teenagers who, despite the threat of prison, still exhibit violent tendencies. That violence might be prevented through robust social services, mental healthcare, and support systems. Shehk also lists “restorative and transformative justice practices, healing circles, or community accountability models” as examples of nonpunitive ways of addressing harm. “Rather than trying to cage away the problem, one key part of these models is an attempt to address the root cause of the harm and to change the conditions in which it occurred so that it doesn’t happen again,” he says. “Many of these are informed by Indigenous practices, and all of them seek to uplift the humanity of the parties involved.”
Being an abolitionist is the most realistic position because it is based in statistics and logic along with empathy and respect for human dignity.
This type of change takes time, but that shouldn’t stop us from working toward it every day. In Washington, D.C., for instance, ordinary citizens can hold the city accountable for protecting the rights of the houseless population by personally overseeing houseless encampment cleanups. In New York City, you can participate in Swipe It Forward actions to protest the crackdown on fare evasion. You can circulate the phone numbers of mental-health services among your friends and family so they’re equipped to call for help if they see someone in crisis. No step is too small.
Burn It All Down
Some suggest that reforming the current system is a feasible alternative to abolishing it, but previous attempts have proven unsuccessful: In 2002, New York City famously augmented the stop-and-frisk program, which allowed the NYPD to target people who they deemed “suspicious”—mostly Black and Brown people. When they abolished the policy, crime fell, suggesting it wasn’t effective for anything apart from perpetuating racism. Though New York implemented policies to curb stop-and-frisk in 2013, the NYPD is still targeting Black and Brown people. There’s also been a recent push to abolish private prisons, but this doesn’t even begin to repair the damage created by the PIC. Less than 10 percent of all incarcerated people are held in private prisons, so abolishing private prisons isn’t nearly as effective as abolishing the entire system.
Prison abolitionists believe that dismantling the PIC is the only way forward because stop-and-frisk and private prisons are just a part of a larger system that surveils, polices, prosecutes, sentences, and incarcerates Black and Brown people. Shehk argues that we shouldn’t “improve a machine that was built to wage war on our communities by ‘fixing’ it through reforms.” Instead, abolitionists want to “break down the PIC until it’s completely dismantled.” Mass incarceration costs $182 billion a year, when considering policing, court costs, and the operating costs of prisons and jails—and it doesn’t even effectively deter crime, achieve justice for victims, or rehabilitate perpetrators. Rather than funneling money into the PIC, the United States could fund an education system that invests in mental-health services instead of policing and surveillance. We could use those billions of dollars to finance living accommodations for houseless people and provide them with mental healthcare and drug rehabilitation as needed. This money could be used to train crisis intervention teams or violence interrupters to deal with escalated situations.
The possibilities are endless, if we allow ourselves to dream bigger than criminalization and bondage. “Being an abolitionist is the most realistic position because it is based in statistics and logic along with empathy and respect for human dignity,” says Agbebiyi. To Daoud, “over-policing creates a system of engineered conflict and perpetuates harm. As such, she—and others at BBO—believes that abolishing prisons must be coupled with radically caring for your community in many forms, including cop-watching and bystander intervention. The dream of abolition is being realized every day by people working for a more equitable world. “If you’re doing work to advocate for a living wage, that’s abolitionist work. If you’re doing work to advocate against environmental racism, that’s abolitionist work. If you’re working to make sure folks have access to affordable healthcare, that’s abolitionist work,” Agbebiyi says. Moving abolition from a fantasy to a reality is going to happen incrementally, but we can certainly make it happen. Vitale confirms this, saying, “Abolition is embedded in tons of movements all over the country and it’s happening right now.”
LifeLines is an ongoing media and cultural project conducted in collaboration with eight people serving life sentences without parole or death by incarceration sentences in Pennsylvania. The project uses interviews, creative media interventions, and sound installations to support an emerging statewide campaign to abolish death by incarceration. The term “lifelines” is used to refer to highlighting the stories and analysis of those serving life/death sentences and to point toward the many collective relationships and infrastructures of support (familial, community, activist, and beyond) that are forged in resistance to mass imprisonment.