If I believe in prison abolition, and I do, I don’t get to shift my philosophy when it suits me

I’ve been listening to them talk about 40 years for Lori Loughlin, a person I don’t think I’ve ever spent 10 seconds thinking about before this. I understand the outrage and frustration. Black parents have been thrown in jail for lying about where they lived so their children could attend a better public school. I understand the vulgarity of privilege and have been hurt by it. Often white women who do not acknowledge that privilege have been the very heart of that harm. 

But if I believe in prison abolition, and I do, then I don’t get the option of shifting my philosophy when it suits me. Either I have a principle, or I don’t. Either I believe in transformative justice, which centers the idea that no member of society exists in a vacuum or external to that society and addressing a harm must not be grounded in individual revenge but returning all involved, including the broader community, to whole. Prisons and jails are a failed, lazy response to social disruptions. No matter what the crime. All these people doing time and every harm still stalks us: sexual assault, murder, larceny. Whatever. 

I’m interested in working with people who are less about turning up and more about turning in, considering what is needed to have a society where equity and health and compassion and safety and joy are the norm. And yet even from people who say they honor these things, I more hear anger and revenge, emotions I understand well, but ones that I refuse to allow guide any decision I make or position I take.


(Image Credit: Empty Cages Design)

We need to abolish prisons

As candidates for the US presidential election begin to creep out of the woodwork, an all to familiar issue is being presented from a new angle. With presidential hopefuls such as Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton leading the charge, politicians are coming out in strong opposition to the United States’ current problem with mass incarceration. Backed by political heavyweights such as Van Jones and the Koch Brothers, bringing an end to mass incarceration and the over criminalization of the United States of America has become a hot button issue.

That the state of the United States criminal justice system is highly present in the campaign should come as no surprise. As Americans continue to call for the legalization of marijuana, the extreme failures and high casualty rate of the War on Drugs have become abundantly clear. Additionally, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow provides an immediately identifiable comparison for the majority of Americans who have at least a semblance of shame for our nation’s history of segregation. However, as politicians call for the decriminalization of marijuana and applaud the presidential pardon of 22 non-violent drug offenders, no politician has stood in support of the abolition of prisons.

People rightfully blaming the War on Drugs for the reason so many people are behind bars in the United States are missing the complete picture. The crisis of mass incarceration goes far beyond “Reefer Madness” and the War on Drugs. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore states in her book Golden Gulag, “There are more people in prison in order for the ‘state’ to help rural areas hungry for jobs; in this explanation of prison expansion, prisoners of color presumably provide employment opportunities for white guards”. For Gilmore, and others like her, prison is not merely a place where the government has sent criminals in droves; prison is used as a means to help alleviate the drawbacks of crises inherent in capitalism. Gilmore argues “crises are spatially and sectorally uneven, leading to different outcomes for different kinds of people in different kinds of places”. The prison population growth is a spatially uneven response to crisis. For example, the devaluation of rural land in California led to the incarceration of people of color in order to provide white rural Californians employment opportunity.

Because of this connection between prisons and the response to capital crisis, prison reform must not be the end goal. The end goal must be the abolition of prisons.

I recently joined a Washington, D.C. based coalition to oppose the privatization of jails in Washington. We led a successful campaign against a contract that would grant the provision of healthcare to inmates to Corizon Health, a for-profit corporation with a rich history of malpractice and negligence. The victory was a major accomplishment for the blossoming movement towards improving the local criminal justice system, whose jails are privately operated and predominately African-American. However, while Corizon will not be able to exert their negligence on the lives of D.C. inmates, the fate of D.C. Jail healthcare remains unknown, and herein lies the problem of reform as the end goal. While Corizon did not win the contract, ther is no clear consensus on the best health care option. Another equally harmful company could end up with full-control over these people’s lives.

As more groups are working to make prisons look nicer, a powerful group of people continues working to make prisons worse. Take, for example, Oklahoma. In pursuit of an acceptable method to carry out executions, Oklahoma recently passed legislation that legalized the use of gas chambers executions. This news may seem shocking, despite decreasing numbers, the majority of Americans still support the death penalty. In addition to the shocking methods being used in Oklahoma, or Utah’s return to firing squads, the population of death row inmates mirrors the general population of prisons in America. Black defendants are three times as likely to receive the death penalty, and nearly 90% of death row inmates were too poor to afford an attorney.

Californians voted in Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for drug related crimes. No matter how many Proposition 47s there are, as long as prisons exists, states like Oklahoma will find new ways to kill prisoners, and we will continue to use prison as an all-purpose response to fill vacant land and create jobs. We need to seriously consider the abolition of prisons.


(Image Credit: Katy Groves / Prison Culture)