Exploring Prison Abolition

On February 7, BCRW will be hosting its first ever online event, No One is Disposable, a discussion with activists Dean Spade and Reina Gossett about prison abolition and its intersections with queer and trans movements. Videos featuring discussions between Gossett and Spade, produced by BCRW, are already on the website and they provide the background and context for the conversations of the February event. No One is Disposable and its accompanying videos work to sort out the harmful ramifications and violent nature of the prison industrial complex, specifically for the lives of transgender people.

But what does abolitionism mean for other social justice movements? How does the “prison industrial complex” (PIC) reach into peoples’ lives—both those in and out of jail—and cause harm? This blog post is like a “Part 2” to a post I wrote earlier on the BCRW blog with information and resources for a conversation on prison abolition. Now that we’ve laid the groundwork for action, where will the conversations take us? What could it really mean for our society if no one were disposable?

As a feminist and newbie social activist, I wanted to work out some of the topics involving prison abolition—ending the “War on Drugs,” for instance—for myself: How do feminists, and how do I as a feminist, feel about prison abolition? How does a prison abolitionist perspective and a radical opposition to “prison culture” relate to or possibly enrich more “mainstream” feminist causes like reproductive rights, workforce equality, or anti-rape and anti-abuse campaigns?

When I first started reading prison abolitionists’ blogs and writing, I was struck by their detailed documentation of US “prison culture.” The logic of mass incarceration, I learned, has seeped into our culture. Expanding prisons and booming profits for private companies is either entirely ignored by most of the American public, or quite literally counted as economic growth, entirely disregarding the reality of the human cost—or perhaps accepting it, as dealing in humans is how those invested in the American prison system makes money. A booming American business is a booming American business, right? As this post by Michael Shammas on the Huffington Post points out, there is a (largely unacknowledged) tension between public good and private interests when privatization of the prison system manipulates public mechanisms for private profit. For example:

“Corrections Corporation of America and other private prison companies motivated by higher profit margins have lobbied for mandatory minimums, ‘three-strike’ laws, and ‘truth-in-sentencing’ laws that drive up the prison population. Thus, one man’s incarceration—his ruined life—is another man’s livelihood.”

(For more information on how private prisons make money, check out this article from Salon.com.) As Shammas puts it earlier in his post: “Freedom lost is money gained.”

Reina Gossett + Dean Spade (Part 3): What About the Dangerous People? from BCRW Videos on Vimeo.

This is where prison abolitionists go deeper than those who are simply opposed to mass incarceration: these not-quite-abolitionists still maintain there is a place, indeed, a necessity for prisons in our society, and that they belong in the hands of the state rather than a privatized industry. Prison abolitionists, on the other hand, insist that:

  • prisons are always already violent;
  • that prisons themselves are perpetrators of crimes as bad or worse than those perpetrated by convicted criminals, and;
  • that the state’s practice of condoning and implementing imprisonment not only produces and reproduces violence in our society, but makes no impact on ending or preventing crime.

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No One is Disposable: Resources and Context for a Conversation on Prison Abolition

BCRW recently released a series of four short online videos produced in in conjunction with the upcoming online event No One is Disposable: Everyday Practices of Prison Abolition, co-sponsored by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. In the videos, activists Reina Gossett and Dean Spade discuss prison abolition as a political framework, exploring why this is a top issue for those committed to supporting trans and gender-nonconforming people. In their discussions, Reina and Dean quickly run through quite a few people, organizations, and concepts that are fundamental to the diverse and ever-expanding prison abolition movement. I created this blog post to serve as a reference for the videos and discussion, to provide broader context as well as a starting point for further exploration of the prison abolition movement.

Illustration by Talcott Broadhead - People sit around a table looking at a poster labeled "Trans State Pen. We will build one in every $tate." One person relies with a dialogue bubble, "If they'll build it for us, they'll fill it WITH us." Another says, "DON'T we want to get Trans people OUT of prison?!"

“Trans State Pen” by Talcott Broadhead used in Part 2: Practicing Prison Abolition Everyday. This illustration was originally used in Dean Spade’s trans politics manifesto video Impossibility Now.

What is the “prison industrial complex”?

Here is a definition of the prison industrial complex, often referred to as the PIC, as defined by Communities Against Rape and Abuse (PDF):

“The prison industrial complex (PIC) refers to a massive multi-billion dollar industry that promotes the exponential expansion of prisons, jails, immigrant detention center, and juvenile detention centers. The PIC is represented by corporations that profit from incarceration, politicians who target people of color so that they appear to be “tough on crime,” and the media that represents a slanted view of how crime looks in our communities. In order to survive, the PIC uses propaganda to convince the public how much we need prisons; uses public support to strengthen harmful law-and-order agendas such as the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terrorism”; uses these agendas to justify imprisoning disenfranchised people of color, poor people, and people with disabilities; leverages the resulting increasing rate of incarceration for prison-related corporate investments (construction, maintenance, goods and services); pockets the profit; uses profit to create more propaganda.”

The Prison Culture blog has a useful compilation of various definitions for the PIC.

Who are prison abolitionists?

Prison abolitionists are political activists who share the goal of eliminating the “security culture” of imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment. Abolitionists stress that the prison industrial complex  is not an isolated system (this documentary, The House I Live In, traces the privatization of US prisons and the connections between prisons’ massive profits and the “War on Drugs”). In order to effect real and sustainable change we must call for not only the abolition of prison cages, but also the reorder of a society and culture dependent on security, criminality, and punishment. Prison abolitionists challenge us to change the way we think about who is free and who is not. As Reina and Dean discuss, abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal. (Much of this information is drawn from the definition provided on the Critical Resistance website.)


INCITE! is a “nation-wide network of radical feminists of color working to end violence against women, gender non-conforming, and trans people of color.”

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