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.


A redistribution of crime and violence into a corrections facility is not ending violence in our society nor is it protecting “the rest” of our society from dangerous people. It’s performing the simple task it was invented to do: it redirects, like a magician creating an illusion of safety while making a mess of things behind the curtain. In “Part 3: What About the Dangerous People?,” Spade makes the point that the prison system itself is the serial killer and serial rapist:

“If we really wanted to reduce rape and reduce early death, we would get rid of the prison. That would be the biggest chunk we could bite out of those significant problems.”

As a result of this willful misdirection, primary causes of “crime” and violence go unaddressed, like poverty, and no actions are taken to effectively prevent violence or further harm.

Of course, we need to raise awareness about the economic and social power of the PIC and the massive hurt caused by the privatization of the U.S. prison system, like Shammas’ post and many others like it. But where radical action is truly necessary is in an interrogation of the accepted logic of prisons. Abolitionists take on the physical institutions of prisons themselves, condemning the violence inherent in a system and practice of punishment and imprisonment, but they also examine the violence in the ideology of prison culture—the violence in the very naming of someone as “criminal.” That pervasive “prison culture” logic—almost like an intuition, as if the existence of prisons is instinctive—allows us to rationalize the existence of prisons and to justify the violence that always exists in prisons, that permits us to condone one violent act as a “crime” and another as rational “punishment” or even “justice.” Think of the power and contradiction of the terms “drone strike” and “terrorist attack” to Americans. And, finally, the (often racially-fueled) logic that defines some in our society as “innocent” and others as “guilty,” some as “dangerous” and others as “safe” and leads to a whole host of avoidable, unnecessary, and self-reproducing violence. Think of the murder of Trayvon Martin or Stop and Frisk Policies—violence against people of color caused by the practice of racial profiling, and rationalized by a logic that determines people of color as dangerous. (Gossett and Spade talk about this topic in depth in “What about the dangerous people?”.)

It creates a cycle of criminalization, where incarceration disproportionately affects communities of color because they are already assumed to be criminals and are treated as such, and helps to explain certain facts about the PIC and race. For example, while people of color make up only 30% of the American population, they make up 60% of its prison population. And 1 in every 15 African American men is incarcerated, compared to 1 in every 106 White men who are behind bars. (For more sobering facts about race and incarceration, check out this article from the Center for American Progress.) To quote Angela Davis, the prominent prison abolitionist and academic, in our efforts to free society from prisons, “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.”

At its center, prison abolitionism is about abolishing violence. The abolitionist movement is dedicated to banishing violence from our policies, our behaviors, our culture. Much of the abolitionist analysis and approach is enlightening and fascinating, but familiar. The abolition movement is often focused on those individuals (LGBTQ people, people of color, immigrants, people who are disabled) who are often harmed and mistreated outside of prisons, and who experience disproportionate levels of abuse inside prisons. Prison abolitionists work toward eradicating oppression from all spaces of society, beginning with prisons.

Prison abolitionists “unpack” representations of the terrifying, dangerous model-prisoner/criminal (which just absolutely saturates our society—when was the last time you used the word “sociopath”?) in episodes of “Law & Order” or “Prison Break” in much the same way feminists examine Beyoncé’s music videos, the cover of “Seventeen” magazine, or other representations of women in arts and media, because in order to reach the “end game”—prison abolition and gender equality, respectively—an exhaustive, genuine interrogation of our culture and our habits must take place. We need to understand why and how sexism is rationalized and reproduced in order to shift cultural trends just as we need to understand why and how American society and culture needs prisoners in order to end prisons. Because by now—in light of the immense economic growth of the prison system in the U.S. and the obscene lengths taken to preserve and expand it—it’s pretty clear: American culture furiously demands prisons.

I think a fruitful place to start on an individual level, something I’ve begun to practice in my own life, is disallowing judgements or treatments of people based on a logic of “moral absolutism.” I’m borrowing this term from a Humans of New York subject who is quoted on the HONY facebook page as saying: “I can’t stand moral absolutism. You know, there’s always that guy who wants to point out that Martin Luther King cheated on his wife—as if he obviously couldn’t have been a great person if he did something like that. Or someone will bring out an inspirational quote, and get you to agree, and then inform you that Hitler said it. As if a good thought couldn’t come from Hitler. Moral absolutism keeps us from learning from the past. It’s easy to say: ‘Hitler was a demon. Nazis were all bad seeds.’ That’s simple. It’s much harder to say: ‘Is that humanity? Is that me?'”. As Gossett points out in the third video of “No One is Disposable,” no one is innocent. No one can avoid living their entire lives without hurting someone else, without participating in some act or system of violence. We, all of us, everyday, engage in a global economy that quickens the deaths and degrades the quality of life of workers and families around the world. The purpose of social justice movements, as Spade states, is to “change what is considered violent.” We must re-imagine culture and relationships so that the least amount of harm is caused, and that, for example, the political agendas of the state may build up communities rather than destroy them.

Reina Gossett + Dean Spade (Part 2): Practicing Prison Abolition Everyday from BCRW Videos on Vimeo.

Prison abolition is as much an activist framework for social and political change as it is a societal “end game,” very much like feminism. As Spade comments in “Part 2: Practicing Prison Abolition Everyday,” he sees abolition as a “set of principles to guide us to what will produce the least harm.” This is exactly my view of feminism; I can’t imagine a feminist utopia without first imagining a world of humans living as feminists. Cultures of violence intersect and overlap; they share similar techniques of oppression, habits of stereotyping, habits of discrimination. If the oppressive forces of society can embolden and bolster one another, then surely so can the activist movements. I guess what I’m trying to get at with this post, is that the prison abolition cause is the feminist cause, and that we, feminists one and all, can and truly should support prison abolition.

Carly Crane is a junior at Barnard College majoring in American Studies, and a BCRW Research Assistant.

Related:

Comments are closed.