Be a prison abolitionist

I am an aspiring prison abolitionist.

Being a prison abolitionist does not mean that I believe that all prisons should be destroyed.

It does mean that I believe that the fact that United States uses prisons and policing to solve problems in health care, education, and justice is itself criminal and must be abolished. It means that the way prisons are used to enforce white supremacy and anti-Blackness is a crime against humanity and must be abolished. It means that I believe we have the capacity to imagine ways that cities and communities can be rebuilt, supported, and valued in ways that promote safe and healthy lives. It means the terror that is inflicted upon Black and Brown bodies by policing as currently implemented — on graphic display across all major U.S. cities now, but so much a daily part of how Black and Brown life is lived — is a crime against humanity and must be abolished. Being a prison abolitionist means that I refuse to accept that things must be the way they are now.

I am going to share the personal anecdotes and reflections that brought me to this point, but let me first share the eloquent and to-the-point words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore that lay out the case far better than I could. Be a prison abolitionist.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore discusses abolition with Naomi Murakawa

When I was in grade-school, we would spend some Sunday evenings driving my grandmother to a small correctional facility for young women. She worked there a few hours a week as a counselor. She would tell stories about the young women there, most had been placed there due to petty crimes like shoplifting. Most had not completed high school. If you are a prison abolitionist, you believe that better schools should be an alternative to prison. If you are a prison abolitionist, you believe that punitive discipline in schools, and other practices that force out young Black girls and women from schools into prisons should be abolished. If you are a prison abolitionist, you believe that ready access to support systems, to the kind of counseling and encouragement that my grandmother provided should be the alternative to prisons. If you are a prison abolitionist, you believe that sex work should not be punitively criminalized. That protections for sex workers should be one alternative to prison.

It turns out that my uncle carried on his mother’s work and spent his career as counselor at a correctional facility in Georgia. Many of the Black men that he would speak to had not finished high school. His clients had deep emotional and psychological problems, addictions some, that had brought them to the prison system. If you are a prison abolitionist, you believe that the answer to the alarming incarceration of Black youth is to build better schools, not bigger prisons. You believe that access to health care is a critical step. You believe that restorative justice in the high school and in courts is a start. You believe that people who have resorted to petty crimes like check forgery deserve viable alternatives for earning a living wage, not death at the knees of police. You believe that Black youth deserve to have their souls elevated in schools, not their souls crushed. You don’t believe we need military equipment and predator drones in the hands of our police.

When I was a graduate student, Ambassador Andrew Young, one of the iconic leaders of the U.S. Civil Rights movement paid a visit to the university. He had been the second Black mayor of the city I grew up in, and was one of the people we looked up to growing up. I asked him what I could contribute as a computer scientist. Immediately he responded that educational software in the prisons was essential — there are so many young brothers in prison he said, and they don’t have access to education. I think about that often. Don’t my brothers deserve schools, not prisons? I thought to myself. If you are a prison abolitionist, then you believe that we need to build schools that can educate the Brothers, that we need to build systems that distinguish between the “crimes of desperation” and the criminals that are committing large scale voter suppression, murdering innocent runners, or trying to arrest bird watchers. If you are a prison abolitionist, then the Black and Latinx people imprisoned for attempting to sell or distribute marijuana should be freed and those dealing with addiction should have access to adequate mental and emotional support. Why do we imprison Black folk while former elected officials make millions from their involvement in marijuana growing initiatives?

We know that incarceration rates in the United States are an injustice to all

We know that Black men are “six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men”

Racial disparities in imprisonment — this is how we enforce white supremacy

If you are a prison abolitionist, you believe that someone shouldn’t be locked up, brutalized, and exposed to COVID-19 because they can’t afford to pay a parking ticket.

Seven of the 10 largest outbreaks in the country have been at correctional facilities

Equal Justice Inititive

Let’s be prison abolitionists.

You can start by supporting the following organizations

You can start by reading

Just start somewhere.

Update 6/14/2020

Last night (6/13), there was violent police repression of a protest following the police murder of Rayshard Brooks.

It underscores the urgency of police and prison abolition.

Please donate to if you have the reaources

One thought on “Be a prison abolitionist

  1. Charles,
    I resonate with every point you’ve made.

    Since my early 20s, when a mentor Architectural Professor, Head Honcho of City Planning and Urban Studies, invited me to his office to open me up to something I was naturally doing, though I had no idea of how powerful it was…

    “Jordan, head up to my office this afternoon when you’re done with your other coursework. I have an observation that I would like your response to.” “Cool, see you at 3p.”

    What was that thing? It steps right up to pair with your comment about better schools and environments at every scale. And, it steps up to even more pair with a non-punitive approach to learning.

    He opened up with, “Jordan, you’re a 4th-year senior in this 5-year program. Your former boss (Architect) from your after school work in high school and internships in the summer until that GODAWFUL event you had…not at his firm, though, I gather you gather… He and both graduated from here in ‘55. We didn;t like each other one bit, always at odds, though we looked forward to those at-odds times to grow with mutual respect.

    He went on to start his own firm. I went on to be a Fulbright Scholar, Oxford, take my Masters from Columbia. He didn’t need all that. I did. Plus, when I came back here, I met my beautiful vigilante for good firecracker of a wife. You’re quite the benevolent vigilante, too, aren’t you?” He paused. I smiled, cocked my head with a smile and, “Well, be peaceful, but let motherf***ers know is what I do.” “Yes, you do that, though as I mentioned, your 1st mentor boss and I graduated together. He called me when you made the decision to come here 4 years ago. Not to creep you out, though I’ve been watching you. I say, it’s a sight to see.

    So, here’s why I asked you here today. Your freshman class 4 years ago started with 444 people. Was 187 the 1st day of 2nd year, and here you are 1 of 35 left in 1st of 2 senior years in Architecture. (We ended up graduating 26 total, only 23 from my fresh class). But, do you notice at all the Design critiques it’s almost like the prof’s job is to try and break people down and make them cry and crumble?” I just started laughing. He did, too. “Yup, that 1st year when Bob Perl rang out to an Intro class of 250 in the Business auditorium class, “Look to your right. Look to your left. Those people won’t be here next year.” He started laughing even more. “I was standing at the back just watching. Didn’t know where you were, and THEN I did. WOO Boy didI! You bolted straight up of your chair and said, “Well, THAT’s a moronic way to begin a 5-year tenure here… though it SUCKS to be you guys,” pointing both hands to the guys sitting next to me. They bolted up, too, and almost in unison, “YES to what he said.”

    “Do you remember that?” “Yes.” “Hutzpah! Though, do you notice what’s happened, what you did. Those 2 guys sitting next to you were men again instead of freshmen. They are 2 of your closest friends to this day. That moment wasn’t what caused that. Do you notice how some of your classmates are getting angrier from the trauma of the program year after year, and you And your friends get brighter and happier the further you endure the sh*t?” “Yes, we take it in stride.” He starts bellowing laughing. “Oh Jordan, that’s full of sh*t and you know it. You take NOTHING in stride. You respond with grace and wit, and sometimes a bit heavy-handed. Just last week you said something in a critique to one of the jurors. I was one of the jurors, and it gave me a little impish joy to watch him squirm. Remember what it was?”

    “Oh, most likely it was walking right across the room to put both palms on their table and express, “Whey the f**k do you try to fuck us up so?! There are NO mistakes. Only OFLs, Opportunities For Learning. Some people flinch, though, bad parentage or childhood trauma a? Who knows. BUT, when you make them flinch, you deflate them a little. And, in doing so, you rob them of fully embracing their education here to learn how to learn. FURTHERMORE, when you, and especially YOU in particular (pointing to another) Get so pedantically and didactically fussy with that shaming behavior about people’s mistakes… That does NOT teach them to not make them. It teaches them to hide them.” And I lifted my hands, picked up my model and drawings, and left the room.

    The point I was getting to, and I hope not too much context to set it up is: Shaming and being punitive does NOT teach people to not make mistakes. It teaches people to hide them. And, punitive is simply not wise. It’s a reaction rather than a quality response born of processed experience.

    That was my bent that I wanted to contribute, initially, to being a Prison Abolitionist. I’m glad I contextualized it the way I did though, immersing myself and that experience in the larger context of potentially being a Prison Abolitionist. Why am I glad. Because, immersed in both, letting them inform one another unconsciously, relate, make their community fabric together internally, something else came to me.

    Prisons are places of highly traumatized people in highly violent and sexualized environments… and to be frank like pond of same-sex frogs where Nature flips the gender on some of them if the balance gets out of whack. Humans don;t transform that way, though here’s what came to me.

    A question in regards to rehabilitation implementation: With all the rape and violence in prisons, would the rapes in themselves be considered to be cruel and unusual punishment consequent to the place to subject people to “learn the error of their ways”? Most people are in prison because they were already traumatized. Prison just makes it worse, yes?

    Have you seen the “Step Into the Circle” prison system video?

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