What We Mean When We Say Abolish Prisons

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Commentary Violence

What We Mean When We Say Abolish Prisons

K Agbebiyi

The prison industrial complex targets and harms Black people, immigrants, disabled people, sex workers, queer and transgender people, and poor people.

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Amid the nationwide protests for Black liberation following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, activists are demanding more than just an affirmation that #BlackLivesMatter. We’re demanding a massive shift in our criminal justice system.

At this moment, more people are talking about prison abolition than at any other time in recent memory. Calls to defund the police and eradicate prisons are met with deeper questioning and critical engagement instead of being immediately shut down. Well-intentioned people are reaching out for resources, holding difficult conversations, and, most importantly, beginning to honor the humanity of incarcerated people.

As an organizer working to end incarceration and abolish the police, I can only describe this moment as exhilarating. I also believe it is extremely important to have a clear analysis of what abolitionists mean when they call for the end of prisons. While this moment holds the potential for massive amounts of political education, I’m worried that abolition is being watered down into easily digestible reforms that do nothing more than preserve the anti-Black status quo.

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Those who are criminalized deserve nothing less than full abolition. Here’s what we mean when we say abolish prisons.

What is the prison industrial complex?

Coined in 1997 by grassroots abolitionist organization Critical Resistance, the term “prison industrial complex” (PIC) describes the connection between the government and corporations as they work together to control and oppress people by subjecting them to surveillance, incarceration, and even murder. As it stands, the United States is peerless when it comes to imprisonment, with over 2 million people behind bars costing the country $182 billion per year. A racist and classist institution, the PIC routinely targets and harms Black people, immigrants, disabled people, sex workers, queer and transgender people, and poor people through police violence and torture. It tightens its grip on society through a parasitic relationship with our lawmakers, and it’s maintained in various ways, including through mass media that empowers the public to normalize and actively support the carceral state.

There is money to be made within the prison industrial complex. Communication between people inside and outside of prisons is privatized, along with things like cash bail and e-carceration (like electronic ankle monitoring). The PIC maintains ownership over the idea of “safety” and “accountability,” encouraging people to believe that justice is served through the imprisonment and suffering of others. Black people and other oppressed groups routinely live in fear of the PIC, as they have seen it destroy their families and communities.

What do prison abolitionists want? 

To be an abolitionist is to work to end the prison industrial complex through organizing, mutual aid, direct action, and advocacy. Abolitionists trace the origins of prisons to slavery and slave patrols. We identify the criminal justice system as an anti-Black apparatus that works to other and disappear people from society, instead of providing meaningful solutions for handling harm and conflict. We recognize that crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum and is often a result of poverty and necessity, along with the steady decline of social services.

Abolitionists believe in accountability, but we also know that prisons do not provide that.

As abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, abolition isn’t solely about wanting to close all prisons. It’s about world-building, working to create different ways for humans to interact with each other. It is as much about building up as it is about tearing down.

Abolitionists believe in accountability, but we also know that prisons do not provide that. Instead, prisons serve as sites of gender and sexual violence, where people are sentenced to suffer in unthinkable conditions. If incarcerated people do choose to speak up and advocate for themselves, they fear retaliation and torture from prison staff.

To be an abolitionist is also to complicate. We challenge the notions of “criminality” and “innocence,” and interrogate why certain forms of harm are acceptable for one group of people and not another: why some people are granted innocence before they’re found guilty and some are born criminalized.

Why not prison reform? 

While many people may think that abolition and reform are the same things, they come from different schools of thought. Reformers support legislation like mandating that police officers wear body cameras or creating civilian review boards to investigate police brutality. Reformers believe that some people should be in jail, and that the prison industrial complex can be changed to work better for everyone. Abolitionists disagree. While reformist ideas sound good in theory, abolitionists recognize that these short-term solutions have been proven to be ineffective. They also do nothing to actually end the PIC.

Abolitionists are in favor of shrinking the PIC’s control and legitimacy, and so we support calls like defunding the police and capping the size of police forces. Meanwhile, reformists focus on small changes that are widely acceptable to the public and digestible for lawmakers. Rooted in decades of work by Black feminists like Angela Davis and Mariame Kaba, abolitionists do not worry about appeasing those in power.

Where do we go from here? 

Abolitionists are all around you, working to create systems that address harm while also honoring the humanity of everyone. We are organizing to stop new jails from being built in our towns and to get cops out of our schools. We are talking to our loved ones about actual methods of accountability and practicing nurturing interpersonal relationships with each other. We are resolving conflict without the state, and actively promoting transformative justice rather than criminal justice. We are pushing lawmakers to not settle for milquetoast reformist demands.

Abolitionists are inside and outside of prisons fighting for the world that we want, and building with others along the way. We are creating a world beyond prisons, and we hope you will join us.