This essay appears in the current issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, N. 28, on the topic of Justice. The full issue is available from AK Press here!
Since the publication of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in 2012, there has been much talk about the need to end mass incarceration. More and more people are speaking publicly about the moral and financial implications of maintaining the world’s largest prison system. However, what it means to end mass incarceration, and what it would take to end it, is less clear.
Mass incarceration plays a central role in maintaining state and capitalist power in the United States, and abolishing the prison system must play a central role in movements for radical change. Mass incarceration allows the state to perpetuate unpopular economic policies that would not be possible in the face of strong resistance movements. While reform efforts might cause the structures of mass incarceration to shift, and lead to decreases in the prison population (as is already happening in some places), a more fundamental transformation is necessary if we hope to see an actual rather than cosmetic shift in the meaning and practice of “justice.”
Our efforts to end mass incarceration cannot be rooted in reform, but must instead address the structural roots that have given rise to the world’s largest prison system. We must create movements that thrive on our differences and build on our strengths. The prison system sits at the nexus of multiple forms of oppression, so we must generate analysis and resistance that is intersectional. Supporting political prisoners, developing the capacity to withstand state repression, and embracing meaningful forms of justice and healing, horizontal models of sharing power, and feminist and queer ways of understanding the multitude of possible futures are all part of this struggle.
Many of the ideas put forward here come from people organizing against mass incarceration, and these movements are on the rise. Unfortunately, so is state repression. For example, in 2013, the FBI announced that they had added Assata Shakur to the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorist” list, along with a $2 million reward. A former Black Panther and member of the Black Liberation Army, Assata escaped from prison in 1979 and has lived as an exile in Cuba ever since. Assata’s placement on the list, while certainly bad news, also tells us something about the power, or potential power, of radical and revolutionary movements. Does the FBI think Assata Shakur is about to launch an attack against the United States? No. But she is worth $2 million to the state, dead or alive, because of what she represents. Assata is a global symbol of the Black Liberation movement. The FBI is targeting her because they know that the legacy she represents is powerful enough that it is worth $2 million to try and destroy it.
We need to recognize the power of our movements too. Not just because history is important, though of course it is, but because we need this power to chart a different future. The persecution of political prisoners, the rise of the surveillance state, and the mass imprisonment of poor people and people of color are all part of a system designed to prevent exactly the kind of revolution Assata and so many others have fought for.
The last few years have seen small steps forward, with massive strikes within state and federal prisons and detention centers, as well as the release of political prisoners Lynn Stewart, Marshall Eddie Conway, Eric McDavid, Sekou Odinga, and Herman Wallace (just days before his death). Grassroots campaigns targeting sentencing and parole practices have won reforms in states across the country, and protests against austerity and authoritarianism continue to erupt across the globe.
In the same month that Assata was placed on the “Most Wanted” list, in my own small corner of the world, I was embarking on a 100-mile march with Decarcerate PA, a grassroots campaign working to end mass incarceration in Pennsylvania. We were marching from Philadelphia to the Capitol in Harrisburg to protest the $400 million expansion of Pennsylvania’s prison system and demand that resources instead be directed towards community needs.
As part of the march, we tried to create many avenues for people to participate, and to unite many different visions of a future without prisons. We worked with people across the state, children and adults, people inside and outside of prisons, to make hundreds of flags with visual representations of what we would build instead of prisons. Responses included schools, mental health treatment, teaching real history, transformative justice, freedom, swimming pools, and “family dinners with no one missing.” We brought these flags to Harrisburg with us to present as our “people’s budget.” Although not everyone could physically march with us, their ideas and visions walked alongside us.
Many Decarcerate supporters inside of Pennsylvania’s prisons also sent statements to be read at rallies, brought to the governor’s office, or shared with marchers on our breaks to help motivate us to keep going. Many people wrote to us to say they were marching with us, in spirit if not in body. They eloquently and fiercely expressed the problems with the system as it is, and offered visions for the world as it could be. This is just part of one of these statements, from Eduardo Ramirez:
“My words, my soul, I share with you all. I offer myself in solidarity with your struggle as you have offered yourself to mine. I cannot march alongside with you, but know that my spirit is there – as yours is here. I hope to comfort you, as my brothers and I are comforted by your presence and commitment. ‘If the abolition of slave manacles began as a vision of hands without manacles, then this is the year’ … Let this be the year that hunger is met with the Bread of Angels, ignorance is confronted by the understanding hands of love, and greed is overcome by the will of The People who believe that investments should be made in the liberation of people rather than their confinement.”
Eduardo’s words remind us to take seriously that every day we must not just “hold the vision of hands without manacles,” but take the necessary risks – big and small – to make this a reality.
The Rise of Mass Incarceration
In the US there are over 2.4 million people in state and federal prisons, jails, and detention centers; millions more are on probation or parole, house arrest, or some form of supervised release. And all of us are subject to an ever-increasing amount of data tracking and scrutiny under the vast and sophisticated surveillance state. This system of surveillance and punishment is designed both to keep people down and to give us a sense of inevitability about the state’s omnipresence, dampening ideas about a different set of possibilities, redistribution of resources, or more equal social relations. At the same time as the repressive apparatuses of the state have grown, a politics of austerity in response to real and manufactured crises has stripped away many of the remaining vestiges of the welfare state.
Incarceration rates began their dramatic increase in the late 1970s, in the wake of the Black Liberation movement and the other social movements. From the 1950s onward, revolutionary movements across the globe were rising. From 1957 to 1975 alone, independence movements had toppled colonial governments in 15 countries in the Global South. These waves of revolution shook the foundations of the capitalist, imperialist system, and helped spawn similar movements in the US. The Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, the Chicano movement, the Puerto Rican independence movement, and the movement against the war in Vietnam, all put forward a radical critique of the way things were, and painted a vision of what a different kind of world could be.
These movements were deeply threatening to the US government and generated a repressive crackdown. In 1956, the FBI launched the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to infiltrate, disrupt, and destroy radical and progressive movements and their leaders. Between 1968 and 1971, the FBI was implicated in forty murders of Black Panthers. Even more brutal repression was directed at the American Indian Movement and its supporters. Between 1973 and 1976, the government had a hand in sixty-nine murders on the Pine Ridge reservation alone. And thousands of people across the country were subjected to lower level forms of repression – harassment, surveillance, incarceration, threats, and general disruption of movement activities. Many remain in prison as a result.
This overt repression went hand in hand with a buildup of policing and prisons generally. State and corporate interests saw revolutionary movements, and Black Liberation in particular, as a direct and immediate threat to their power. In addition to (and often in conjunction with) the direct targeting of revolutionaries, they built up militarized police forces and expanded prisons and jails across the nation. The first SWAT teams were designed to target the Los Angeles Panthers, and the early supermax prisons and control units were built to house political prisoners. But these tools of repression were quickly deployed on a mass scale as a way to deter future organizing efforts in oppressed communities. Mass incarceration was, in part, a direct response to radical and revolutionary movements, specifically because those movements were powerful. The purpose of this was not just to repress existing movements, but also to prevent future movements from emerging.
From Welfare State to Carceral State
As the prison industrial complex was expanding, major shifts were also taking place in the structure of the global economy. These occurrences were not unrelated. Anti-colonial struggles and victories across the globe and an increasingly militant working class at home made old ways of extracting profit untenable. Simultaneously, technological innovation meant production could happen in a dispersed way that made it easier to control workers and harder for workers themselves to seize the means of production. US-based manufacturing industries moved overseas in search of cheap, exploitable labor. Union power was undermined and union membership in the US declined from almost 35 percent to 11 percent. Deregulation and privatization were promoted as the answers to economic growth, and social services, while always unevenly distributed and often used as tools of social control themselves, were stripped away. The shift to neoliberalism meant that employment prospects and the social safety net were more precarious. Wealth was redistributed upwards.
In order to consolidate and maintain these gains for the ruling class, a certain amount of buy-in was needed from the population at large – and the white middle class in particular – even if their economic self-interest was not being served. The right wing, and later neoliberal politicians across the political spectrum, began to mobilize around “tough on crime” politics. These politics were designed to generate racist fears amongst white people, mobilizing a political base to vote for increasing domestic militarization and expansion of the carceral state that dovetailed with expansions of economic policies benefitting wealthy elites. This also had the dual function of incarcerating those most likely to resist this economic and political restructuring in the first place – poor and working class people of color.
Poet and anti-prison activist Emily Abendroth comments on the pervasiveness of the prison state, writing that,
“It is an element so grotesquely enlarged that at this point it has a hand in shaping nearly every dynamic of our social, cultural, and physical environments with or without our recognition of its doing so … In the face of this reality, one goal of our contemporary poetics must, of necessity, be to sound out the catastrophic and debilitating reverberations of living in a society that has effectively criminalized our most basic characteristics of livelihood and requirements for existence (our youth, our old age, our poverty, our needs for housing or a doctor’s appointment, our hunger) and instead fed them back to us as dangerous behavior and/or unsustainable, unassuageable demands.”
If we cannot yet unmake this landscape, we can at least illuminate its existence and call its inevitability into question. The carceral consequences of unmet needs loom large for those who lack resources, and the examples of these consequences at times feel endless and insurmountable.
Even for people with relative degrees of race and class privilege, the saturation of prisons, police, and surveillance encroach on many aspects of life, from the media to the streets. As incarceration rates increase and the war on drugs continues, even the white middle class is not unaffected. Statistically one out of every 17 white men will be imprisoned at some point (compared to one in three Black men and one in six Latino men). The criminalization of drug use, mental illness, and sex work all play a role in the system’s long reach.
The surveillance state shapes this landscape. The revelations by Edward Snowden, which confirmed that the National Security Agency’s PRISM program had almost unlimited access to data from Apple, Google, Facebook, and others, merely confirmed what many already suspected: we are being closely watched, and transgressions, real or imagined, have dire consequences. The combination of austerity and precarity, along with the physical infrastructure and psychic weight of the surveillance state, condition our response (or lack of response) to injustice.
What Drives Mass Incarceration?
If repression and the consolidation of power is why the carceral state was so dramatically expanded, there is also the question of how. Mass incarceration is constructed by a series of policies and practices, from systematic divestment in public education to legislation, sentencing, and law enforcement tactics. The major drivers of mass incarceration have been thoroughly documented elsewhere, so I will just touch on them briefly.
- The War on Drugs: The Drug War was officially launched by Ronald Reagan in 1982 at a time when drug use was actually decreasing, and has led to massive imprisonment of people of color and, to a lesser extent, poor whites. The Drug War has been funded in part though a series of federal programs that reward police departments for making drug related arrests. This has also resulted in highly militarized police forces that employ high-volume arrest strategies, such as stop-and-frisk, to harass and terrify Black and Latino communities in particular. The war on drugs is a clear effort to mobilize racist backlash against people of color and to criminalize economies of survival.
- Mandatory minimums, “three strikes,” and lengthy sentences: The explosion of mandatory minimums and three strikes laws means people are getting longer sentences and judges are not able to consider any mitigating factors. Since elderly people released after serving long sentences for serious felonies have an incredibly low recidivism rate (1.3 percent), it is abundantly clear that these policies are purely punitive and have no relationship to stated goals either about rehabilitation or public safety.
- Erosion of rights, conditions, and programs inside of prisons: In the last few decades, people in prison have seen their rights eroded at a judicial level and have also experienced diminished access to programming, educational opportunities, and mental and physical health services.
Why Fight Prisons?
If we are interested in creating radical movements that become the messy and generative process that we could understand as revolution, challenging the prison system is a good starting point. Prisons are a symptom of the capitalist state’s desire to consolidate wealth and power. They provide a way for the state to continue functioning effectively and are one phase in a lineage of slavery, dispossession, and genocide. To abolish capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, we must work to end mass incarceration. To get at the roots of mass incarceration, we must take on the broader system that produces the logic of keeping millions of people in cages.
Prisons are a specific response to a moment of instability and crisis in the capitalist system. The destabilization and containment caused by the prison industrial complex allows the state to perpetuate unpopular economic reforms that would not be possible in the face of strong resistance movements. Activist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains how the prison industrial complex helped save the state from an economic and social crisis: “The expansion of prison constitutes a geographical solution to socio-economic problems, politically organized by the state which itself is in the process of radical restructuring. ” She goes on to say that the state’s “modus operandi for solving crises has been the relentless identification, coercive control, and violent elimination of foreign and domestic enemies.” “Enemies” in this context are anyone who has an investment in subverting these systems of domination.
Prisons are not alone in the state’s arsenal of responses to such crises. But unlike military “intervention” globally, prisons are inwardly focused, domestic solutions to domestic “problems.” And the comprehensiveness of these responses dramatically curtail the capacity of homegrown resistance to this kind of violence and militarism both within and outside of the US. Whether we address it or not, prison is where we may end up if we are successful in mounting a real challenge to state power. Such a challenge inevitably provokes a repressive response from the state, and the targeting and imprisonment of activists is a likely result.
Prisons are an example of where systems of power become most legible, brutal, and concrete. They sit at the nexus of so many oppressive systems of power: white supremacy, class exploitation, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, the criminalization of poverty, of difference, of survival. The racial disparity (to use a woefully inadequate term) in the legal system is well documented, with Black people incarcerated at a rate almost six times higher than whites. Incarceration rates for women are on the rise, and women in prison face specific hardships – like being forced to give birth in shackles – that are often left out of narratives about incarceration. Queer and trans people are incarcerated at higher rates than heterosexuals, and are more likely both to be abused in prison and to be held in solitary confinement. People struggling with mental health issues are funneled into the prison system instead of being given access to treatment. According to the National Association for Mental Health, between 44 percent and 64 percent of prisoners have a documented mental health diagnosis. And the vast majority of people in prison are poor.
Clearly the prison system is targeting already marginalized people, and particularly people who live at the intersections of multiple forms of oppression. So if prisons are an example of “bad intersectionality,” a place where marginalized people are funneled together, then we have in our resistance to the prison system the opportunity to build movements that embrace a positive and powerful intersectionality. According to activist and author Dean Spade, who writes extensively about trans people and the criminal legal system, “[s]eeking to understand the specific arrangements that cause certain communities to face particular types of violence at the hands of police and in detention can allow us to develop solidarity around shared and different experiences with these forces and build effective resistance that gets to the roots of these problems.” This sort of solidarity thrives on our differences and build on our strengths, and responds to the prison system’s rigid policing and categorization with a refusal to be defined by the very systems that try to box us in. Fighting back against the prison industrial complex can be one site where we build new forms of alliance (and build on old ones) to mount a broader challenge to the forces that create and benefit from oppressive systems.
Bringing Down the Prison Industrial Complex
Building a movement strong enough to bring down these systems won’t happen overnight. The US state is very strong, and movements, especially on the radical Left, are very weak. One approach that has been gaining some traction in recent years is a strategy of “decarceration.” Decarceration involves chipping away at the policies and practices that build up the criminal legal system. Efforts to roll back mandatory minimums, rewrite sentencing policy, decriminalize drug use and reform parole practices all fall in this category. At their best, decarceration strategies win real victories that bring people home from prison or keep people from going to prison, while building a bigger and more powerful movement that can mount larger challenges to the prison system itself.
Decarceration as a strategy is used both by prison abolitionists and those that believe in reform. It can be challenging, as someone who believes in a world without prisons, to figure out how to create decarceration strategies that can lead to that world, rather than just building a kinder, gentler prison state. What follows are some possible stepping stones toward structural change.
There is often tension between prison abolition and reform. It makes sense that these tensions exist, as the goal of getting rid of prisons all together has vastly different implications than, for example, the goal of getting shorter sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Reform movements can be so focused on short term goals that they fail to consider (or don’t care about) the broader implications of their demands. Many anti-death penalty organizations are supporters of Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentencing, based on the idea that people will only accept an end to the death penalty if LWOP is a sentencing option. While this might seem pragmatic in the short term, in the long run it actually reinforces the idea that people in prison are irredeemably “bad,” and that the harshest punishment is an appropriate response. On the other hand, abolitionists are often critiqued for being out of touch, and too caught up in a utopian vision to deal with peoples’ actual immediate needs or engage in reforms that, while far from perfect, mean that some people get out of prison.
While we shouldn’t gloss over major political differences, these things don’t have to be diametrically opposed, and we can sometimes pursue reform goals in the short term in order to build radical movements in the long term. After all, there are really only two ways to get people out of prison. We can break them out ourselves or we can convince, pressure, or force the state to let them out. If we lack the capacity to do the first, we should do the second. And in reality there are many anti-death penalty activists who don’t support LWOP, and many abolitionists engaged in messy on-the-ground reform struggles.
At the same time, we cannot be so caught up in the short-term goals (for example, repealing specific policies that lead to mass imprisonment) that we allow our struggles to be coopted. In Decarcerate PA, we talk a lot about using language that is “abolition compatible.” That is, we may all have different ideas of what ending mass incarceration looks like and how to get there, but we never want to use language or messaging that reinforces the idea that some people deserve to be in prison. Many prison reform groups make arguments that basically say that prisons should only be reserved for “violent criminals” and that people with low-level offenses should be released. This kind of language accepts as a given that prisons play an important social role, and merely critiques the way that is applied. It dehumanizes people convicted of violent crimes and erases the racist structures that dictate who gets charged with and convicted of those crimes and what kind of time they serve.
We also have to work to decrease the weight of the prison walls, even if we are not yet capable of destroying them physically. This means undermining the alienation of imprisonment and “social death,” doing the work of eroding both the legal and psychic barriers that separate those in prison from the tenuous rest of us. It means forging real and collaborative relationships and political, social, artistic and cultural projects with people in prison. It means creating networks of support that undermine isolation and alienation. It means spending a lot of time writing letters. It means developing real relationships with people behind the walls.
It is also worth taking a moment to think about what abolition means. In some academic and activist circles, abolition is talked about as a given, as something that we hold as part of a collective politics. This is a sign of progress, of the hard work that groups like Critical Resistance have done to popularize the radical idea that a world without prisons is not just possible, but desirable. But with the idea’s popularity comes the risk that our understanding of abolition becomes superficial. We must take seriously what abolition asks of us. Because of course there are many, many injustices, harms, and acts of violence that must be dealt with, in one way or another. These harms happen interpersonally, and also systemically.
What is a reasonable response to the taking of a life, the violation of a body? How do we create structures capable of holding people accountable and also leave room for transformation and healing? How do we understand interpersonal harm within the bigger context of centuries of white supremacy and patriarchy that have imbued every corner of our histories with violence and unimaginable loss? Of course there is no reasonable response. There is no reasonable response to the harms of capitalism, the trauma of slavery, dispossession, and displacement. What does accountability look like in the face of countless wrongs, both at an individual and a systemic level? These are the questions we should be grappling with if we are serious about abolition.
What we do know is that the current system is not working, or that it is working very effectively at destroying communities, but not at creating justice and healing. Astronomical rates of violence, from interpersonal partner violence, to gun violence, to the violence of militarism and war, present an urgent problem that, by almost every possible lens of analysis, incarceration has abjectly failed to address. Philadelphia has one of the highest incarceration rates of anywhere in the world, yet some years we average more than one homicide a day. Studies show that rates of imprisonment do not correlate to crime rates, and in fact states that have reduced their prison populations over the last several years have also seen a drop in crime. Locking people up in oppressive, violent institutions with limited access to education and treatment, and restricted communication with the outside world further traumatizes people. Incarceration perpetuates, rather than breaks, cycles of harm. In the face of this reality, it becomes more possible to imagine abolition as a realistic alternative. But abolition will only become popular on a mass scale when we are able not just to point out how prisons don’t keep us safe, but also to point to real alternatives that do.
State Repression, Surveillance, Solidarity
Broadly speaking, the prison system serves two main functions. The first is actual containment: the physical act of removing people from their communities and locking them in cages. The second is to create an omnipresent threat of containment. The fear of containment can prevent us from taking the very risks that might be necessary for systemic change. Grappling with this fear means demanding that the prison system relinquish its hold on our minds.
Non-cooperation can make the price of repression much higher for the state. Non-cooperation can mean a lot of things – for example, refusing to cooperate in a police investigation, not testifying at a grand jury, or any of the myriad ways we can withdraw our consent from an unjust system. Many political prisoners and dissidents have been exemplary in this regard, and show us why non-cooperation can be effective in the long term even if it does not get individual people shorter sentences. The seeds of non-cooperation exist in our communities, but collective solidarity doesn’t necessarily emerge organically. It must be cultivated and nurtured by the work that we do.
For example, in the early 1970s, as police repression against radical activists intensified and many leftists engaged in militant actions that carried the weight of lengthy prison sentences, some people made the decision to change their identities and go underground. As a result, the communities around them were often subject to increased FBI surveillance and police harassment. Rather than give in to this pressure, an untold number of people refused to cooperate with law enforcement and as a result, the fugitives were able to spend years beyond the grasp of the state.
In 1970, after participating in a bank robbery that resulted in the death of a police officer, radical activist Susan Saxe was put on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted“ list. In the ensuing years, Saxe lived underground, coming out as a lesbian and taking refuge in lesbian feminist communities throughout the country. Late one night in 1974, lesbians in Philadelphia got word that the FBI would be coming into Philly’s lesbian community looking for information about Saxe. Grand juries related to Saxe had already been convened, sewing disruption and distrust in lesbian communities. A group of radical lesbians in Philly wanted to make sure the same thing didn’t happen in their community. They quickly put together a leaflet outlining why you should never talk to the FBI even if you believe you have nothing to hide. The leaflets stressed that the FBI was not just gathering information about Saxe, but was trying to map the whole network of people with whom Saxe might associate, and once this information was collected there was no knowing what law enforcement might do.
The women then fanned out across the neighborhood, going door to door to distribute information. Working all night to ensure they reached as many people as possible before the FBI’s arrival, they encouraged people to protect their community and stand in solidarity with Saxe by not providing any information. Although Saxe was a controversial figure within the lesbian community, and many did not support her actions, no one cooperated with the FBI’s investigation. Though the late night leafleting did not prevent Saxe from eventually being apprehended, this proactive approach to anticipated state repression did help inoculate Philadelphia’s lesbian community against the possibilities of intensified surveillance and future indictments. In fact, resistance to the FBI went well beyond Philly, and several women went to jail rather than testify in a grand jury that was seeking information about Saxe’s whereabouts.
This action helped foster a sense of solidarity that was able to outweigh fear of the consequences of noncooperation. Solidarity in the face of repression (and in the context of internal ideological disagreements) is all the more important in the contemporary moment. Though surveillance cameras track our movements and the NSA reads our emails, law enforcement still needs actual qualitative information to do its job effectively. Now more than ever police departments and intelligence agencies across the country and military operatives across the world are relying on network mapping, community policing, and door-to-door information gathering to prevent “insurgent” movements from taking root.
And sometimes state repression backfires. Sometimes we can use moments where the state is coming down on us or our allies to build something bigger than we had before. An example is the story of Angela Davis, a lifelong revolutionary activist and scholar who was arrested in 1970 because of her involvement in the campaign to free George Jackson and her role as a prominent Black radical intellectual. She was charged with murder, kidnapping, and criminal conspiracy. The state’s blatantly racist persecution of Davis touched a nerve and galvanized people to join the movement for her release. Within a year of her arrest there were 200 committees to free Angela Davis in the United States and sixty-seven in other countries across the world. She was eventually acquitted of all charges. Today, Davis is a leading voice in the movement to abolish prisons.
Many people were politicized, radicalized and brought into the movement during the international campaign to free Angela Davis. Similarly, many got involved because of the international effort to free Mumia Abu Jamal or had their eyes opened by the Attica uprising. State repression is never positive, but when it happens we can respond in a way that unveils deep injustices and contradictions within the state and bolsters our movements’ ability to resist. Repression illuminates the role of the U.S. government, and when that role becomes more visible, it is possible for us to build on that consciousness.
In these moments, the scales are tipped so that repression and imprisonment breed resistance rather than complicity, despite fear of the consequences. How do we replicate the conditions where such fears can be countered? Some of the answers are simple, though none of them are easy. We build strong, supportive communities, both inside and outside of prison. We foster a spirit of noncooperation with the state, withholding vital information, refusing to collaborate with government in all of the creative, brave, big, and small ways that we can think of. We can look to models of resistance inside of prisons for inspiration. We fight the ideas and practices that uphold the prison system and the forces that dehumanize people within its grasp.
What We Can Learn from Political Prisoners
“If we take the ‘tell no lies’ approach to organizing, then we take the time to build the foundation for a movement that is destined to bring us the victory we say we’re fighting for. Then there would be no need to organize separate programs to educate the community to the existence of political prisoners. No. Because while we were working to organize rent strikes and take control of abandoned buildings – to create decent housing in our community through our sweat equity – we would be talking about how Abdul Majid and others organized tenant associations such as the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Tenants Association in Brooklyn. While we’re organizing around the issue of quality education that teaches our true history and role in this society, we would be talking about Herman Bell and Albert Nuh Washington and their work with the liberation schools. While we’re organizing food co-ops and other survival programs, we’d be talking about Geronimo Pratt, Sundiata Acoli, Robert Seth Hayes, and all the other political prisoners and prisoners of war who worked in the free health clinics and day care centers – and who went to prison as a result of their active participation in organizing efforts around issues that directly affected the Black and oppressed communities” – Saffiya Bukhari
Political prisoners are not just part of our movement’s history, they are part of our present. The actions, words, and thoughts of our political prisoners can help ground us in a revolutionary politics even in reactionary times, because fighting for freedom of political prisoners is also an avenue to talk about actions and ideas that are more radical or militant than most social movements in the US today. Showing strong support for political prisoners is an important part of creating movements that do not cooperate with the state, because people who end up facing politically motivated repression and criminal charges know that the movement will have their back, not just at the outset but for the duration of their potential prison sentence.
There are almost 100 political prisoners serving time in US prisons, many from the Black Liberation Struggle. Here in Pennsylvania, Russell Maroon Shoatz has served forty-two years, mostly in solitary confinement, for his participation in the Black Panther Party. And Mumia Abu Jamal, perhaps one of the world’s most famous political prisoners, was recently released from death row but remains in prison despite ample evidence of his innocence and a global movement for his release. Across the country there are political prisoners from other liberation struggles, like Oscar Lopez Rivera, who has been in prison since 1981 for participating in the Puerto Rican Independence Movement;  American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier, who has been incarcerated since 1976 based on evidence fabricated by the FBI; David Gilbert, a white anti-imperialist serving a seventy-five year sentence for supporting the Black Liberation Army; Marius Mason, serving twenty-two years for fighting for environmental justice; Chelsea Manning, serving thirty-five years for passing on classified military documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there are so many others.
As the movement against mass incarceration grows, the issue of political prisoners can sometimes get pushed to the side as being too specific or too radical. And on the other hand, movements in support of political prisoners have sometimes exceptionalized political prisoners at the expense of talking about mass incarceration as a whole.
Movements in support of political prisoners and movements working to end mass incarceration have everything to gain from working together. Political prisoner support is essential to creating the context where militant resistance is possible. Political prisoners are often people who took huge risks to advance the work of the movement. While we may not agree with every tactic or strategic decision they made, we stand on the shoulders of movements that came before and owe it to the people who made up those movements to honor their legacies. In our efforts to create large scale social change in the US, we know we are up against incredibly long odds, and that we challenge this system at great risk to ourselves and our communities. Fostering movements that are up to this task means creating the context where people feel that they can stand up in the face of repression. When people take risks, it is important that they can do so knowing they have support regardless of the consequences.
Supporting political prisoners can help us learn about and from the history of the movements that came before us. In the words of former political prisoner Ashanti Alston, “When you connect with the political prisoner, you’re saying you are honoring the dreamers of the past, whose dreams you’ve taken on now, and you’re honoring the future, because you’re saying that we can’t move with real integrity unless we’re working for their freedom.”
Mobilizing around political prisoners can also be an important part of bringing pressing issues and radical ideas to the forefront, even at a time when movements are far from achieving broader goals. The Puerto Rican independence movement’s work to free their political prisoners is a good example. In 1999, eleven former members of the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, or Armed Forces of National Liberation) were released from prison after spending almost twenty years behind bars. The FALN was a clandestine organization fighting for the independence of Puerto Rico. They claimed responsibility for over one hundred armed actions within the US that targeted symbols of US military, police, and corporate power. By the early 1980s, many of them had been arrested and charged with “seditious conspiracy” to overthrow the US government. During their trials, the majority of the defendants took a Prisoner of War position, refusing to recognize the authority of the US government or participate in their own defense. They received sentences ranging from thirty-five years to life. However, in his final days in office, President Bill Clinton commuted their sentences.
Their freedom came because the independence movement refused to accept life sentences for their political prisoners, and worked for two decades to bring the prisoners home. They worked on multiple fronts, gaining the support of Nobel Laureates and religious and political leaders, staging protests and acts of civil disobedience, and building alternative institutions like clinics and schools that taught the history of anti-colonial struggle. It was these years of hard work – both by people on the outside and the steadfast non-collaboration of the prisoners themselves – that secured their release.
The campaign served (and still serves, as Oscar Lopez Rivera remains in prison) multiple functions. The first was the liberation of the prisoners themselves. But the campaign also provided a vehicle to raise issues of repression and independence in ways that might not otherwise be possible. The Puerto Rican political prisoners, imprisoned in the US, became symbols of colonialism itself and kept the issue of independence alive even as the broader movement was set back by the waves of repression initiated by counterintelligence operations and by the shifting context created by neoliberalism and globalization.
Political prisoner movements can also benefit from working closely with movements to end mass incarceration. While organizations like the Jericho Movement, Anarchist Black Cross, National Boricua Human Rights Network, and many others have done a good job of steadfastly maintaining support for political prisoners over many years, a huge shift in public consciousness and political will on a national level is needed to bring political prisoners home en masse. Movements against mass incarceration are gaining momentum in ways that might make that shift possible.
Prefiguring a World Without Prisons
Prefigurative politics means, in the words of the Industrial Workers of the World, “building a new world in the shell of the old,” embracing the idea that we not only need to topple the current system, but need to create the practices, projects, and institutions that would allow for more equitable relationships and distribution of resources. Artist and former political prisoner Elizam Escobar explains:
“we cannot wait for the day when the majority will rule in order to bring forward the structures needed for building a free, just, egalitarian, and non-classist society. We must build within the ruins and the hostilities of present conditions by creating transitional alternatives now. We must build socioeconomic, political, and cultural structures that are controlled by those struggling for change and the communities they serve. These structures, ‘schools’ for discussing all these problems, will put into practice the notion that only by confronting the reality of subjection can we begin to be free to create an art of liberation that frees people from the illusions perpetrated by dominant culture.”
At their best, prefigurative efforts allow us to model what a post-revolutionary society might look like. Prefiguration can meet the needs that people have right now and can also help withdraw power from the state, thereby undermining its ability to control our lives. Prefiguring different kinds of relationships, different modes of survival, different points of access to our basic needs can also create resilient communities and increase our control over our bodies, minds and lives. This kind of self-determination is always a threat to the state. Prefigurative politics allows us to imagine becoming ungovernable.
This is why the state responded so brutally to the Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program and other programs for “survival pending revolution.” Starting in 1969, the Panthers provided free breakfast to thousands of children across the country. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover went so far as to say that the Breakfast Program “represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.” By September of 1969, armed police raided the Breakfast Program in Oakland. Similar raids followed in Chicago. This repression coincided with the Federal Government launching its own subsidized breakfast programs. The state needed both to repress radical autonomous activities designed to meet community needs and to coopt radical service models into institutions that were controlled by the state. These actions are a clear acknowledgement that community self-determination and autonomy undermines state power, and the state will disrupt such programs by whatever means.
Of course, it can be somewhat difficult to figure out how one might prefigure a world without prisons when the prison system is so (literally) concrete and ubiquitous, and so often forces us to engage it. Three things come to mind in terms of what it means to engage in prefigurative anti-prison politics. The first is creating the structures and values within our movements that combat the forces that pit oppressed people against one another. The second is building transformative forms of justice that address the root causes of violence and harm in our communities. And the third, which exists in part at the intersection of the two, is leaving space in our minds, hearts, and movements for transformative possibilities that we cannot yet imagine.
Intersectionality and Horizontalism
Prisons are institutions that thrive on categorization and division, on violence and the threat of violence, as means of social control. The prison system is both an instrument of oppression and an aggregator of it. It is an instrument of oppression because prisons play an important role in “managing” potentially rebellious people by taking large numbers and locking them up. But it is also an aggregator of oppression, both in the sense that the experience and collateral consequences of incarceration further marginalize people, and because the prison itself becomes a specific location where oppressed people are criminalized and pushed together.
At the same time, these constraints can make prisons a source of creativity and ingenuity. Surveillance and lack of access to everyday materials mean that people in prison find new ways to make art, to learn, to make food, to help each other, and to resist. This does not mean that prisons are doing anything good, only that there is something to learn from the creativity that comes with everyday survival and resistance. And just as prisons can be places where intense divisions are enforced, they can also be places where people come together across differences to fight for justice.
For example, during the Pelican Bay hunger strikes in California prisons in 2012, a group of strike leaders released an agreement ending racial hostilities in the prisons. The statement read, in part,
“If we really want to bring about substantive meaningful changes to the [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] system in a manner beneficial to all solid individuals, who have never been broken by CDCR’s torture tactics intended to coerce one to become a state informant via debriefing, that now is the time for us to collectively seize this moment in time, and put an end to more than 20-30 years of hostilities between our racial groups… we must all hold strong to our mutual agreement from this point on and focus our time, attention, and energy on mutual causes beneficial to all of us [i.e., prisoners], and our best interests. We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other for their benefit!! Because the reality is that collectively, we are an empowered, mighty force, that can positively change this entire corrupt system into a system that actually benefits prisoners, and thereby, the public as a whole…”
It is this spirit of unity that we must intentionally foster in our organizing, both inside and outside prisons. This means building movements where people’s different experiences can be recognized and where people’s specific identities are honored rather than pushed aside.
For victory against these systems of oppression to prevail, there must be more of “us,” those who recognize the harms perpetuated by the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy and who are willing to stand up to that system, than there are of “them,” those who benefit, or believe they benefit from the system. Many of us simultaneously benefit from certain privileges while being oppressed by others. The trick is to understand that although oppression impacts people in different ways, we all have something to gain by working together to overturn it. This means creating an expansive understanding of who “us” is. The system depends on divisiveness. We should not, and cannot, do the work of the system. We must acknowledge and value difference, confront racism, sexism, class privilege, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia in ourselves and in our movements, so we can build a united front against a system that would destroy us all.
We cannot escape by being less bad, less gay, less racialized, less radical, less brave. And if we try, what are we left with? Who are we left with? There is no appeasing the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. In the words of Audre Lorde, “the machine will try to grind us into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned, we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and still we will be no less afraid.”
As we work to counteract the ways that powerful interests create divisiveness, we can also build movements that do not replicate the structures of the state. One way to do this is to build organizations/campaigns/collectives that counteract the hierarchical models of the prison state with horizontal structures that share power. There are a few advantages to this. One is that creating horizontal modes of sharing power make movements harder to control or coopt. Diffuse forms of power are replicable and do not depend on individual leaders to drive them forward. Developing models of collective decision making can also be an important part in establishing more collective, non-punitive forms of justice and healing.
Nonhierarchical organizing allows for multiple and diverse opinions, generates consensus building, and creates many avenues for participation. Anarchist movements in the US and elsewhere have helped create models for organizations that share power collectively rather than consolidating it in the hands of a few leaders. Not coincidentally, anarchists have also been vocal critics of the prison system for at least the past hundred years, identifying prison as a system designed to contain dissidents and generate profit rather than addressing problems. Because anarchists and other antiauthoritarians are critical of the state, and because the prison system is a major part of consolidating state power, many antiauthoritarians have identified struggles against the prison system as of key importance.
Part of building this movement is creating participatory structures that give people the opportunity to participate in decisions that impact their lives. According to anarchist writer and former Black Panther and Black Liberation Army member Ashanti Alston, “Either you respect people’s capacities to think for themselves, to govern themselves, to creatively devise their own best ways to make decisions, to be accountable, to relate, problem-solve, break-down isolation and commune in a thousand different ways … OR: you dis-respect them. You dis-respect ALL of us.” The prison system functions by upholding isolation, and our resistance to that system must break it down. Building movements that combat, rather than reinforce, the oppressive and hierarchical structures of the prison system is part of undermining the logic that allow for such a system to exist. Creating nonhierarchical structures and participatory forms of decision-making can be part of this process.
In the movement against mass incarceration, the question that invariably comes up is, “If we don’t have prisons, how do we respond to harm and violence in our communities?” That question has many answers, but one that is particularly useful is the idea of transformative justice. According to Philly Stands Up, a collective that works with people who have perpetrated sexual assault, transformative justice
Developing transformative practices is challenging, especially in the context of existing punitive systems. But there are organizations doing the work of revisioning what community responses to harm and violence look like. One organization frames their mission in this way:
“is a way of practicing alternative justice which acknowledges individual experiences and identities and works to actively resist the state’s criminal injustice system. Transformative Justice recognizes that oppression is at the root of all forms of harm, abuse and assault. As a practice it therefore aims to address and confront those oppressions on all levels and treats this concept as an integral part to accountability and healing.”
Unlike the legal system, which focuses on punishment rather than healing for the people involved, transformative justice offers ways to deal with harm that opens up space for things to actually change.
“Creative Interventions assumes that the relationships, families and communities in which violence occurs are also the very locations for long-term change and transformation. It assumes that those most impacted by violence are the most motivated to challenge violence. It assumes that friends, family, and community know most intimately the conditions that lead to violence as well as the values and strengths which can lead to its transformation.”
Rather than “justice” imposed by an outside arbiter, a response to violence should be developed within communities who have the most knowledge and stake in creating a lasting change.
This thinking and work is happening within the prisons as well. As part of a project with the goal of ending mandatory life sentencing in Pennsylvania, I have been conducting written and audio interviews with people serving Life Without Parole sentences. Many of the people on the inside who are collaborating with us on this project have been part of the movement against mass incarceration for years. One of the men I have been writing with, among other forms of political engagement, leads workshops inside the prison on restorative justice practices. When I asked him how he would respond to people who argue that highlighting the voices of those convicted of crimes harms victims, he responded, “I’d say that it could also have the effect of liberating people who’ve been victimized from the prison of fear. Because of how prisons banish and isolate, victimized people usually live with a frozen-in-time image of the person or people who harmed them. Learning that people do change could bring about feelings of safety and can lessen worries about someone continuing to harm.” This points to the huge benefits of transformative justice, which take as a given something we intuitively know – transformation is possible.
Transformative justice recognizes that real harm, violence, and trauma happen and deserve a meaningful and serious response, but that prisons and cops do not offer a sustainable solution. This must be at the heart of abolitionist practice. Every time we deal with problems of violence and harm in new ways that don’t involve the state (or at least minimize the state’s involvement) we are building toward what a world without prisons can look like.
Beyond the Quagmire of the Present
“Prisoners are dreamers, and what they dream about most is ‘freedom.’”
– Elizam Escobar
The ubiquity of the prison system and the repressive state make it difficult to imagine existence without them. Part of our work is to make that imagination possible, even though we cannot yet fully know the set of possibilities that will be opened up by overturning the current system. To quote Dean Spade:
“What would it mean to embrace, rather than shy away from, the impossibility of our ways of living as well as our political visions? What would it mean to desire a future that we can’t even imagine but that we are told couldn’t ever exist? We see the abolition of policing, prisons, jails, and detention not strictly as a narrow answer to ‘imprisonment’ and the abuses that occur within prisons, but also as a challenge to the rule of poverty, violence, racism, alienation, and disconnection that we face every day. … Abolition is the practice of transformation in the here and now and the ever after.”
This echoes the work of queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, who writes:
“Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.”
It is not a coincidence that Muñoz uses the language of “prison house” to describe the present. Indeed, a rigid adherence to what is possible in the present will always lead us back to the stagnant kinds of reforms that bolster, rather than challenge, the status quo. For abolition, much more is required.
I have tried to lay out some ideas about what mass incarceration is and what can be done about it. Mass incarceration, and the existence of prisons as the response to social problems, is neither inevitable nor indestructible. It is a planned set of policies designed to stifle radical movements and suppress marginalized communities. To combat this we need to build movements that foster multiplicity – multiple strategies, multiple identities, multiple modes of participation – and honor and fight for the political and politicized prisoners who have built these movements from within the walls as we have struggled to build them on the outside. We need to stand strong in the face of repression and know that we are stronger when we stand up for each other and recognize the stake we all have in this fight. And as we stay rooted in the practical concerns of our urgent daily struggles, we must remember to vision, dream, and imagine what new worlds can grow from our work.
To end on the final lines of the Martín Espada poem that Eduardo references in his words to the Decarcerate PA marchers:
“If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.
So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.”
For two years I worked as a legal assistant at a prisoners’ rights law project. During that time I read thousands of letters from incarcerated people across the state, detailing what were often brutal and grievous abuses against them. People were assaulted by guards, intentionally or carelessly put in dangerous situations, denied life sustaining medical treatment, stripped naked and put in solitary confinement as punishment, confined for days or even weeks in restraints, denied medication and mental health treatment, adequate food, and access to water. I read graphic descriptions of sexual assaults, and on one occasion a letter which described in vivid detail a time when the guards intentionally put an old man in a cell with someone who was having serious mental health issues and who had repeated that he was going to kill whoever was celled with him. The letter’s author, along with everyone else on the cell block, had to watch – locked in their own cells – as one man killed the other.
These stories, which I experienced only as the most distant witness to someone else’s trauma, come back to me at strange intervals, as waves of anger and despair. But there are other words that stay with me too.
I was opening the mail one day and received a letter from someone I had been corresponding with. The letter was to notify me that he had been transferred from one prison to another. When describing the new prison, he wrote, “the mountains are so close I can almost touch them.” I don’t know if the line had any particular significance to him, or if it was just a passing comment, a conversational aside in a business letter to a legal services organization. But something about the phrase stayed with me.
Mountains so close I could almost touch them.
So much in such a short phrase. The mountains, the mountaintop, a perpetual symbol of struggle.
In his last public speech, Martin Luther King Jr. said
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
We are familiar with the metaphor of the mountain. And sometimes the mountain is not a metaphor at all, like the mountains of Chiapas, where the Zapatistas spent ten years building their movement and their army before they emerged in 1994 to protest the signing of NAFTA and reclaim land that had been stolen from them. In that sense, the mountains are a refuge and a stronghold, contested, but still standing.
so close I could almost touch them.
But more than the mountains is the “almost.” The multitudes of possibility and geographies and failures and hopes that make that “almost” possible.
But in that almost too is the promise of what could be, how things could be different. For “very nearly” is really, by definition, not that far. For the vastness of the distance, the chasm of history that separates one reality from the next, there is also another set of possibilities, another set of futures, that is very nearly here. Because if it can be imagined, it can be created. Because prisons both are and are not more than the sum of their parts, of razor wire that can be cut, of concrete that can be chipped, of steel that can be reforged. Because prison walls are not the beginning and the end of anyone’s reality, much less their dreams. Because containment cannot exist without threats of expansiveness, of freedom. And because we are building, slowly, unevenly, imperfectly, to close the distance occupied by the not quite, the very nearly.
That is why the political prisoners are so inspiring, and the hunger strikers, the people who have taken the risks, put their bodies on the line, marched, sang, spent hours upon hours in long meetings. These actions say we have faith that at the end of the day we will be somewhere different than we started. Faith that we can transform ourselves and each other, that we can against all the odds tear down this destructive system and build something new. Faith that we can embody in our actions, our relationships, ourselves, the seeds of something else, something we can very nearly imagine.
Layne Mullett lives in Philadelphia and has been involved in organizing against gentrification, austerity, and the prison industrial complex and for the freedom of political prisoners. She is one of the founding members of Decarcerate PA, a group working to end mass incarceration in Pennsylvania. This essay was made possible in part by an IAS writing grant and IAS editorial assistance.
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 “Stop and Frisk” is a policing practice where police stop, question, and search pedestrians if they have “reasonable suspicion” that the person might commit a crime. Studies show that these practices overwhelmingly target Black and Latino communities.
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