No justice, no peace

“All Prisoners are Political” or How I Became an Abolitionist

Hannah L. Walker
Jun 9, 2020 · 10 min read

Hannah L. Walker

I wrote a book called “Mobilized by Injustice: Criminal Justice Contact, Political Participation and Race,” that was published earlier this year with Oxford University Press. In the book, I examine the conditions under which individuals become politicized by their experiences with criminal justice, and how people move from grievance with the system to taking action to create change for their families and communities. Like other scholars, I find that while these experiences do not lead to heightened voting, they do take people out into the streets, and to express political outrage in myriad other ways.

I’ve been working on this project for the better part of a decade. It was in its earliest stages when people took to the streets in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown and the failure to indict the white police officer responsible for his death; and the stories I collected from activists and advocates during and after the uprising served as its guide. I received the print copy in the beginning of March, about a week before lockdown. I would like to share with you some of the things I learned through writing the book, which is newly relevant two weeks into what is solidifying as a national movement to end the systemic oppression of Black Americans through state sanctioned violence. I would like to cover three topics: 1) reform versus abolition, 2) how the criminal justice system harms white people, and 3) voting versus protesting. This post will tackle reform versus abolition.

In a decade of researching the criminal justice system, talking to people about their personal experiences, working for social justice organizations on related issues, and going into prison to offer services to people inside, never, not once, have I found any reason to be hopeful that it could be redeemed or reformed. The deeper one goes into understanding the system, the uglier it gets. Every time I think I’ve reached rock bottom with the harm this institution does and the forces that entrench it in the landscape of American politics, I find out I’m wrong.

For example: Prison gerrymandering. The census counts prisoners as members of the communities where they are housed, rather than as members of the communities from which they come and will likely return. State legislators have the opportunity to draw district lines so that they include prison populations, who except in two states, don’t have the ability to vote. Prison gerrymandering leverages the warehousing of human bodies to inflate the representation of rural communities, consolidate power and limit competitive elections. Research also suggests this practice diverts funding to these same communities for stuff like schools and health care.

Another example: Leasing prison beds. You’ve probably heard a lot about private prisons, prison overcrowding, and likewise, the need to reduce prison populations. What you probably don’t know is that one way states do this is through redistributing prison populations to county jails. State and federal prisons lease beds from county jails, garnering significant funding for local law enforcement agencies. States can also lease beds from other states. New Jersey, from where I currently write, is one of them. By this means, states can appear to have reduced their prison populations, but really, beds are still full and states and localities are making money off the warehousing of human bodies.

Final example (for now): You may have heard about legal financial obligations (LFOs) that individuals who have become justice involved acquire as part of their sentence. Florida has been in the news alot lately because after their citizens passed Amendment 4 in 2018, which restored voting rights to people who had completed their sentences (with some exceptions), the state legislature passed a bill restricting access to people who haven’t fully paid off their LFOs. Yet, around 80 percent of people with felony convictions owe Florida money; most of them owe upwards of $1,000 dollars, many of them much, much more.

LFOs are not just part of sentencing — they also include charges the state decides to levy as a way to raise revenue. That is why the judge in Florida ruled that requiring people to pay off these kinds of fees amounts to a poll tax. The use of LFOs to raise revenue is not limited to Florida or to people with felony convictions. Every single state uses LFOs, and as was made painfully clear by the Ferguson Report issued by the Department of Justice, police on the street operate as revenue generators through the citations they issue to citizens on the daily, and legal financial obligations are regressive taxes.

I could go on and on. Seriously. How to choose what fucked up thing to tell you about next? These three things I’ve just outlined for you make the top of the list because they illustrate the political economy of the criminal justice system: it is hard to reform because at every turn, someone is making money or gathering power from its continued existence. Not just corporations that run private prisons. Not just corporations that employ prison labor to make goods. Public officials and administrators, elected and unelected, have a vested interest in this system’s persistence. Because this is a system predicated on warehousing human bodies and exploiting those bodies to maximize profit, it is also a system that requires the denigration of human life.

Talking about reform in that context is…weird. Unnatural. Dehumanizing.

In the context of the present political moment we’re hearing a lot about reforming the police. Instituting changes to help stop excessive use of force, police brutality, and especially the killing of unarmed Black people. Movements to demand that the criminal justice system deliver on its promise to provide public safety in ways that uphold human and civil rights for Black Americans have historical precedent. The NAACP developed in the early part of the 20th century to demand the federal government intervene in local criminal justice systems to end the lynching of Black people in the South, often carried out with police support. Black activists demanded intervention to provide substantive justice and protect their lives from the threat of racial terror.

In the wake of civil rights successes of the 1960s, where reforms focused on access to the vote and desegregating schools but failed to address broader problems socio-economic inequality and police brutality, activists again agitated for reform. Uprisings in cities like Watts, Newark, Detroit and many others were spurred by instances of excessive use of force by police against members of the Black community.

On each occasion, activists’ demands for substantive justice and the legal valuation of the lives of Black people were interpreted through the narrow lens of due process, and procedural changes to policing that policy makers hoped would sanitize the criminal justice system of racial inequality. Procedures like sentencing grids, which remove discretion from racist judges; the use of data-driven programs that leverage past criminal justice outcomes to decide where and how to deploy police; and the use of probabilistic assessments of the likelihood of recidivism to make decisions about parole and probation.

And yet, racially unequal outcomes persisted (by design, following the civil rights movement). Moreover, the refined machinery produced by these procedural reforms are what activists now mobilize to contest. Modern policing is predicted on the idea that some people in some places have a higher propensity to commit crime than do others elsewhere, and that we can stop major crime from happening by intervening before minor potentially criminal behavior escalates. Moreover, it is predicated on the idea that physical markers like neighborhood, type of car, hairstyle, and dress are valid indicators of potential criminality.

These underlying assumptions are what lead to policies like stop-and-frisk, and the criminalization of low level behaviors thought to lead to more significant crime. They also contribute in no small part to the rise in mass incarceration. These processes routinize daily interactions with police, but not for everyone, just people who look like they might be potentially criminal. Markers of potential criminality are bound up with race and class and are thus unequally applied, and on their face violate the democratic principle of innocent until proven guilty.

So what is to be done? As the protests have gained steam, so has the #8CantWait campaign. The #8CantWait campaign is predicated on the fact that research demonstrates that a whole host of other (procedural) reforms, like anti-bias training for officers, making officers wear body cameras, hiring more Black officers, and so on, yield minimal improvement in how officers interact with the public. The argument made by advocates is that part of the issue with these types of reforms is that while they succeed in changing attitudes (in the case of anti-bias training), they do not include accountability mechanisms to hold officers responsible when they use lethal force.

This is a seductive framing because it’s true. The type of procedural reforms and light tweaks to how officers operate do not yield substantively meaningful outcomes. The reforms included in #8CantWait purport to rectify this by placing restrictions on how and when officers can use force, and ostensibly their success depends on the extent to which said policies are themselves enforced.

The other seductive thing about the #8CantWait campaign is that it is apparently grounded in research which demonstrates that enacting all eight policies can reduce police killings by 72%. Yet, digging into the research reveals that #8CantWait advocates oversell their findings, which rest on a weak correlation between an index of the eight reforms and diminished police killings within the context of a regression framework drawing on a very limited timeframe and without accounting for a variety of theoretically important confounding variables. The statement that enacting all eight reforms can reduce police killings by 72% assumes all reforms are created equal; that departments that enact said reforms are basically similar in terms of culture and so on to those that do not enact them; and that about six months yields enough data to actually give a clear picture of how policies impact outcomes.

But that isn’t the real problem with #8CantWait. The real problem with #8CantWait is that every reform listed suggests minor adjustments to police procedures that even if on the books does not in any way guarantee behavioral changes from officers. They include things like requiring officers not to shoot at moving vehicles; requiring officers to give a verbal warning before shooting their gun; requiring officers to file a report when they do use force. These reforms are procedural changes designed to free officers of culpability when the letter of the law is followed, irrespective of the consequences for racial equality and human dignity. One in 1,000 Black men are expected to die at the hands of a police officer, facing three times the risk of white men, and that is not because police are not always required to give a verbal warning before discharging their weapons.

The promise of #8CantWait is hollow. Because of our obsessive focus on refining the procedures and policies through which criminal justice is administered, without holding the substantive claims made by Black activists to human dignity as the central goal of reform, we have built a system geared to replace extrajudicial racial violence with systemic racial violence. We meet assertions that Black Lives Matter by asking police to make small adjustments to their attitudes and record keeping, predicated on the idea that if the policies are sound the outcomes are beyond reproach. In the words of the brilliant Naomi Murakawa, “to be killed by private persons or a mob was cruel; to be imprisoned or killed through due process of law preserved the nation’s moral fabric.” Today, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, another unarmed Black man at the hands of police, that lie is laid bare. The nation has no moral fabric to preserve. Why are we investing in reforming a system that is fundamentally incapable of delivering justice?

This current political moment has opened a window for transformative change not previously experienced in American politics. Activists are making seemingly radical appeals. In particular, in response to the #8CantWait campaign, abolitionists are demanding that we defund police, advocating for #8ToAbolotion. How do we make sense of this call? What does it mean to defund police, and how will that lead to increased racial justice? The call to defund police can be summed up this way: turn away from criminalization; divest from the criminal legal system; and re-invest in communities. Decriminalize homelessness, vagrancy, sex work, drug use, and remove police from places like schools. Stop making it profitable for anyone, anywhere to hold people in jail, prison, or on probation or parole. And provide housing, social services, physical and mental health care, and a basic standard of living for all people. Center the dignity of human life.

“We need police!” Who is we? If we center the voices of marginalized people most likely to come in contact with police in their daily lives, then we find WE don’t need police. To quote an activist interviewed for my book: “We don’t have any choice but to stand here and defend our space…it’s like just don’t kill us. The only way we have to do this — we don’t have the hope…that we will create a task force, and we are going to retrain police, and this and that — now it’s just like we want you out.”

I began this post by telling you I’ve never had reason to hope that we could right the wrongs perpetuated by the system. That’s not wholly true. Activists in the street agitating for change because their lives depended on it, the global movement to support Black lives, and the disbanding of the Minneapolis police department make me feel hopeful. The marginalized are not a monolith and I do not purport to speak for them. I’m simply passing on the message.

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Hannah L. Walker

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Assistant Professor of Political Science, UT Austin

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3Streams is a blog for anyone interested in the convergence of politics, policy & ideas. It elevates the work of scholars interested in reaching a wider audience on timely topics with novel perspectives. To write for the blog, just leave a message or email 3Streamsblog@gmail.com.