From Prison Reformist to Abolitionist
I had always considered myself someone who knew the “system” was bad from a young age. Being around family members and older friends, and often hearing on TV and hip-hop that the “system” was to blame for many of our problems, I knew from early in life that there were structures and institutions designed to work against me, even if I did not yet have the language to properly label them. I had several family members who found themselves constantly in and out of jail, and a few who remained in prison for several months and years, so my indictment of the prison system stemmed from these experiences around junior high age.
I tapped into Assata Shakur’s autobiography in 10th grade which is when I really began to form a radical politic around prisons, cops, and prison guards — three entities I’ve always been weary of, but had not yet adopted a conclusive and well-developed politic around them. And then, a few years later, I read Michelle Alexander’s world-renowned “The New Jim Crow” and gained a more inclusive politic surrounding the system of mass incarceration. Admittedly, the book did not fully equip me, not even closely, with a politic that fully indicted the prison system, and the larger system of capitalism it is situated within. In fact, many people have made similar critiques of Alexander’s work; that it did not offer any solutions, did not fully indict or truly transgress against capitalism (or even use the word “capitalism” once), that it whitewashes the issues of mass incarceration to create a palatable reading for white middle-class readers, and that it largely avoids a large field of abolitionist work. It is largely a comfortable, and possibly even not threatening, reading of societal carcerality and how it relates to white supremacy.
While I do think the book in general, as a source of information, statistics, historical analysis, and, honestly, receipts is a good thing. I would cautiously recommend it in the same way I would Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent” or “On Palestine” — to be read for information, facts, statistics, historical receipts, and opinion-garnering, but not to follow with the authors political positions, ideologies, or proclaimed solutions (or lack thereof). For a few years after The New Jim Crow was released (2010), Michelle Alexander had not aligned with a more radical abolitionist movement that’s largely growing, and much speculation existed around her stance on abolition; in the book, she states that the “to-do list for reformers” is lengthy. She asserts: “If we [reformers] become serious about dismantling the system of mass incarceration, we must end the War On Drugs.” Thus, including herself in the phrasing as a reformer, while also speaking of dismantling the “system of mass incarceration” but not systems of incarceration as a whole.
In a 2016 interview, however, she finally stated “I consider myself a prison abolitionist, in the sense that I think we will eventually end the prisons as we know them.” And in many of her recent speeches and panels, many have noted her drastically altered stance and use of language around prisons. The point is that within the book, and with some of her early speaking events I saw live as well, there was a constant speaking of abolishing mass incarceration and wars on drugs, but not the entirely violent capitalist prison as whole, which made me believe in a certain kind of distinction between the two; as if the former can be abolished without a proper abolishing of the latter. Of course, I am not upset, confused, or non-understanding of what seems to be Alexander’s growth into a newer, more radical politic. It took me time to get there as well, and her book is one that actually inspired me to look further into the literature of abolitionst activists and writers and seek out the name of the system (see:capitalism) that may have been lacking.
Thus, having read Assata’s biography, where she speaks in language that indicts whole systems, backed by her beautifully detailed experiential analyses, and then reading Alexander’s The New Jim Crow at a young age which functions as a primer of sorts, the two books and their respective messages seemed conflicting for me. Assata spoke with fire, Black rage, and words seemingly written in her own blood about the need to do away with the pigs in their entirety; she wrote about the conditions she saw and experiences of women inside prison, solitary confinement, abuse and neglect from guards and cops. And the intention of this is not to compare the two women nor their books — both are incredibly valuable in their own respects. But it is certainly my intention to analyze and illustrate the difference in responses to, and takeaways from, both pieces of writing which helped form my politics at a young age. Moreover, in speaking with several people casually about the two books over the years, the takeaways seem to be the same.
The outcome of my studies of both of these pieces of writing at a young age, around the time that I began to step into organizing spaces, was that prisons are horrible places that are “out of control” and need to be reformed into some more tamed and respectable creature. I believed that they’d simply gone awry somewhere along the way, like someone had left the door open and too much cold air crept in, and all we had to do was turn the heat on and patiently reform until this cold air was pushed back out. I thought that, in my protesting and organizing and public messaging and writing and photographing and family support work, the goal of all this energy around me was just to reform the beast of the prison-industrial-complex. And boy, was I wrong.
In 2015, after a year of protesting and organizing in Atlanta around the death of Mike Brown, my entire politic surrounding prisons was radically shuffled left. I was at a protest for the death of Alexia Christian, a young Black woman who was fatally killed by Atlanta police officers. We were shutting down streets in downtown Atlanta, starting in front of the CNN Center and marching all the way to the Atlanta Police Department headquarters, with a stop at where she was killed along the way. Halfway through the march, just a few blocks away from where Alexia was murdered, it began raining and thunderstorm, and we asked Alexia’s mother and family who were leading the march if they wanted to stop or return to shelter somewhere outside of the rain.
“Hell no, we’re marching today dammit,” was the response of Alexia Christian’s mother, a woman who stands probably less than 5 feet 5 inches but speaks with a powerful voice that commands a host of emotions.
So we marched on, with the protest marshals working to stop traffic and keep marchers safe in the rain (a task that, if you haven’t done it yourself, you might not understand how difficult and dangerous this actually is). We had been chanting things like “pigs in blanket, fry ’em like bacon” and “cops and Klan go hand-in-hand,” but when we arrived at the spot where she was murdered, we naturally fell into a silence and stood behind Alexia’s mother. If it hadn’t been raining, we might have felt the hairs standing on the backs of our spines and the chills the power of the moment brought onto us.
“Alexia Christian,” she said. She said it two more times, growing louder “Alexia Christian. Alexia Christian.”
By now the crowd of us, marchers and marshals alike, had stood behind her and put ours hands on her, something like what I’d seen happen in church when I was younger. We all began repeating shouting in unison with her, “Alexia Christian! Alexia Christian! Alexia Christian! Alexia Christian!” Until, after a few moments, the only sound you could hear was that of Alexia Christian’s mother crying out the name of her slain daughter. We all circled around her, underneath the rain and increasing thunderstorm, and hugged and loved on her as she continued to loudly cry out her daughter’s name.
After minutes of this, she said “fuck this entire system! Fuck the police, the jails, fuck it all!” For that moment, her sadnesses had turned a righteous rage. And it resonated deeply with all of us. And it was in that moment, for me, that the notion of not only indicting the entire system of prisons and police — but working towards their eventual abolishment — became a reality in my mind I began considering. Having given support to various people in Atlanta who’d lost family members to police brutality, the weight of that trauma resting on their shoulders, a weight that no matter how hard any of us try to help alleviate will still remain so long as their loved one is gone, was such a powerful force for pushing me towards more radical anti-prison and anti-police stances. When I became best friends with Bridget Anderson, the girlfriend of murdered Anthony Hill, the conversations we had exposed a trauma and powerful sadness like no book or educational study material could properly describe.
I remember the week following the protest with Alexia Christian’s mother, thinking a lot about Assata’s words: “ Who are they [prisons] for? They certainly aren’t planning to put white people in them. Prisons are part of this government’s genocidal war against Black and Third World people.” I thought to myself, if the answer to “who are prisons for” will always be an answer that transgresses my being and the being of my people, then why do we need them?
I began talking to my mentor about this, having several dialogues over the course of two weeks about prisons. Their function, their history, what social ills they cover up and hide, but do not cure nor erase. He gave me several books, including two by Angela Davis “Are Prisons Obsolete” and “Abolition Democracy.” I instantly began reading them, and enjoying everything I read, feeling as if these seemingly wildly radical abolitionist words were synthesizing the space I’d previously left open between Assata’s autobiography and the New Jim Crow.
I began to become comfortable around the theory and organizing history of prison abolition, and began to set into comfortability around its rhetoric. I began to reflect on the various local movements and initiatives I’d helped on surrounding police brutality, prisons, policing, immigrant detention centers, and realized such a large portion of the rhetoric commonly used by organizers was deeply reformist, even if it didn’t always appear to be so or even if that was not necessarily the intentions. I thought about the moments we praised when bad people got put behind bars, or how my alternative to the death penalty had long been the idea of life sentences for people, or how we all suddenly turned into fans of the state when cops were on trial — a strange but understandable contradiction.
I recall a time outside of the Dekalb Courthouse at one point, after we’d camped out and occupied the courthouse for four nights to put pressure on court authorities to place indict officer Robert Olsen on charges of murder against Anthony Hill. After several nights of occupying space and protesting in below-freezing whether, and on a day of several hours of courtroom deliberation, it was announced that officer Robert Wilson had been indicted on all six counts of murder and lying under oath. A crowd of around 100 protesters and occupiers were ECSTATIC at this news, jumping up and down and chanting “all six counts,” many folks breaking into tears. It was the first time that an officer had been indicted for murder in the state of Georgia in six years, and as organizers who spend countless nights and weeks and months catering to the Hill family and organizing on their behalf however they asked, it felt like a win.
But, in the midst of the justified excitement and joyful praising, a certain contradiction got caught in the back of my mind like a cherry pit trapped in someone’s throat. That we were praising the indictment of this murdering officer, which felt natural and I maintain is justified, but were at the same time cheering on the “justice” brought to us by the same machine that caused the initial injustice we were responding to. In a sense, we were cheering on some inadvertent reinforcement of the very system. And when it came time, in my personal study, to examine this contradiction it seemed prison abolitionists were the only ones interested in doing so.
Angela Davis wrote about the contradictions of prison reinforcement in the death penalty abolition movement. Paul Butler wrote about the cyclical nature we can get caught up in when praising the actions of the same system we’re fighting. I read threads on the subject by several abolition activists who explored in-depth the ways our in/justice system makes this happen by design — that our oppressors are also those we turn to for the justice we are so falsely promised. Exploring and exploiting this contradiction, through study and conversations, was key in my political development that lead to my current staunch prison abolitionist politics.
I came to understand and fully believe that the functions of prisons, especially under a white supremacist, capitalist society are always malevolent in essence. Down to their core, prisons are designed to hide, cover up, and make us forget the problems of poverty, racism, drug abuse, domestic violence, transphobia, global capitalism, and others, not cure them. And, while hiding these societal ills that are exacerbated by capitalism, prisons, both state-owned and private, and jails are also vessels of massive profit. As long as prisons and capitalist, racist policing exist, we will consistently have new mothers who want to cry out into the streets like the mother of Alexia Christian, and we will always have victims that want to burn the entire system down. Moreover, we will always have the cyclical contradictions of demanding justice from the very system that denies it to us so long as our “justice” system, based and rested on filling our prisons and protecting officers, is allowed to exist.
The final point of reflection I arrived at was what might be the most important: alternatives. There are several points to make here, but I will just go to the basics that I initially came to in my initial development. I first thought of the ways that carcerality under capitalism is the ultimate dehumanization machine, and realized that only through abolition and a creation of something entirely new can imprisoned people have their humanity restored. Incarcerated people are placed far out of sight, are almost completely restricted from outside communications and use of the internet, are forced to birth children chained to the bed, are placed in solitary confinement and abused by guards, are not allowed to seek high education while incarcerated, are not allowed to leave for reasons like parenting to their children nor religious holidays, and only get to see the sunlight for an extremely limited time of the day. I thought of Assata’s description of the process of giving birth to her daughter in chains, while battling with the doctors, and then being stripped from her daughter’s presence and not allowed to see her, and how several decades later this is still the same scenario for the so many people giving birth in prison — both incarcerated women and undocumented detainees are sometimes chained to beds and have their child almost immediately taken from them before they’re shipped back behind the bars.
And these things are truly just the tip of the iceberg for the conditions of dehumanization within prison. Every thing in our capitalist prison system is to deny humanity, to turn people from people into things; no sex, no control over what food they have, no windows to even look outside, no upward educational opportunities, extremely limited movement, forced and hyper-exploited labor, being sold and traded to fill prison and labor quotas, being given and even sometimes called by numbers rather than their names. It is an ultimate thingification, a state of outright and complete denial of humanity in the utmost form.
Not only knowing all of this, but rather realizing all of this, is what made me understand this monster of a complex was far beyond any meaningful reform. That a system rooted in that act of racist, capitalist thingification can never be reformed into allowing humanity of its subjugated people to exist or flourish. Along with this, realizing that in most cases crime is a social construct created by the arbitrators of socio-economic conditions, the need for prisons becomes, well, obsolete. A vast majority of crimes are done because of poverty; most studies show that 1) poverty exacerbates and increases crimes, as people are forced to find alternative methods of survival when capitalism forces them to, and 2) most crimes are designed to police the poor.
So “ending the prisons system as we know it,” as Michelle Alexander put it, has to mean ending our capitalist system that polices, abuses, and demonizes poor people for conditions they did not create. My study and formulation of a prison abolitionist politic was deeply influenced by my own upbringing and current reality as a poor person, always noticing the ways that my hood was policed not protected, and knowing that prisons were filled with a vast majority of poor people. All the while we walk by business people, lawmakers, and murderous cops on sidewalks daily who rob us of millions, construct our deeply racist structuring of poverty, and violently police said poverty. If the notion of prisons is to “keep murderers, thieves, robbers, and rapists off our streets” (as one of my students told me in class last year) then why are so many of those same folks allowed to walk freely among us without any fear, all because we’ve created a carceral system that they are not criminalized within? We have to examine what is criminalized and why; that actions that are most criminalized are typically those that are, in some form, a threat to the state and to the capitalist apparatus.
I write all of this, in an admittedly stream-of-consciousness form, for the sake of analyzing the radical politics we arrive at. I believe in abolition of prisons and the abolition of police officers, two entities inextricable from capitalism that are both designed to perpetuate violence against poor people, Black and brown people, Indigenous people, disabled people, and queer and trans people. However, I did not always hold this politic, was not born with it, and surely did not begin organizing around this politic. There is a value in intentionally remembering, analyzing, dissecting, and critically engaging with the ways we come to certain politics that may feel like, or that we may pretend, we have held since birth. I think of the ways we arrive at certain knowledge, the way our feet eventually take us to a specific politic, and why more of us don’t write about this actual process more often. What would it look like for people to know what exactly made Michelle Alexander, or even those like Huey P. Newton, James Baldwin, and Du Bois, radically move their prison politics to the left, or what made any historical revolutionary, really, arrive at that place of being ready to burn the whole house down instead of trying to re-paint it? When it comes to prison abolition, it is a politic and a position I hold dearly, and only arrived at through organizing, education, and the wisdom of mentors and organizers around me.
If you are interested in learning more about prison abolition, see this awesome collection of resources, including books, essays, videos, letters, and more from the Empty Cages Collective. Plus, here is a wonderful reading list put together by Prison Culture. Finally, check out the Beyond Prisons podcast, the Prison Activist Resource Center, the Between the Bars blog, and of course the Black and Pink pen-pal initiative.
“Leftovers — What is Left”
by Assata Shakur
After the bears and the gates
and the degradation,
What is left?
After the lock ins and the lock outs
and the lock ups,
What is left?
I mean, after the chains that get entangled
in the gray of one’s matter,
After the bars that get stuck
in the hearts of men ad women,
What is left?
After the tears and disappointments,
After the lonely isolation,
After the cut wrists and the heavy noose,
What is left?
I mean, like, after the commissary kisses
and the get-your-shit-off blues,
After the hustler has been hustled,
What is left?
After the murderburgers and the goon squads
and the tear gas,
After the bulls and the bull pens
and the bull shit,
What is left?
Like after you know that god
can’t be trusted,
After you know that the shrink
is a pusher
and the word is a whip
and the badge is a bullet,
What is left?
After you know that the dead
are still walking,
After you realize that silence
that outside and inside
are just an illusions,
What is left?
I mean, like, where is the sun?
Where are her arms and
where are her kisses?
There are lip-prints on my pillow-
i am searching.
What is left?
I mean, like, nothing is standstill
and nothing is abstract.
The wing of a butterfly
can’t take flight.
The foot on my neck is part
of a body.
The song that i sing is part
of an echo.
What is left?
I mean, like, love is specific.
Is my mind a machine gun?
Is my heart a hacksaw?
Can i make freedom real? Yeah!
What is left?
I am at the top and bottom
of a lower-archy.
I am an earth lover
from way back.
I am in love with
losers and laughter.
I am in love with
freedom and children.
Love is my sword
and truth is my compass.
What is left?