Prison Abolition In Practice
--Part two of an interview with Criminal Injustice Kos
By Angola 3 News
Focusing on the prison abolitionist movement, we interview two co-editors of an exciting new
series at Daily Kos, called Criminal InJustice
Kos, a weekly series "devoted to exploring the myths of 'crime',
'criminals', and criminal justice and the intersection of
race/ethnicity/class/gender/sexuality/age/disability in policing and
punishment. Criminal Injustice Kos is committed to furthering action
towards reducing inequity in the US criminal justice system."
Look for Criminal InJustice Kos every
Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Here, in the second part of our interview, we focus on the practicality of prison abolition and look at
alternatives to the US
prison system. Read
part one here.
Kay Whitlock (whose online name is “RadioGirl”) is a Montana-based writer, organizer, and
activist long engaged in progressive struggles for racial, gender,
queer, environmental, and economic justice. She has written extensively
on the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and class in relation to
police and prison violence, most notably in her former position as
National Representative for LGBT Issues for the American Friends Service
Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization. Her publications for AFSC
Justice: A Primer for LGBT Communities on Racism, Violen... and In a Time of
Broken Bones: A Call to Dialogue on Hate Violence and .... With Joey L. Mogul and
Andrea J. Ritchie, she is the co-author of Queer (In)Justice:
The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States,
forthcoming from Beacon Press in February 2011 – an analysis of queer
criminalization, centering race, class, and gender, from colonial
contact to the present.
Dr. Nancy Heitzeg (whose online name is “soothsayer99”) is an activist educator and Professor
of Sociology and Co-Director of the interdisciplinary Critical Studies
of Race/Ethnicity program at Saint
She has written and presented widely on the subjects of race, class,
gender and social control. She is the author of Deviance:
Rule-makers and Rule-breakers, and several articles exploring issue
of race class gender and social control including: "Differentials
in Deviance: Race, Class, Gender and Age" (in The International
Handbook of Deviant Behavior, Routledge, forthcoming Summer 2010);
"The Case Against Prison: in Prison Privatization: The State of
Theory and Practice (forthcoming Fall 2010), "Education
Not Incarceration: Interrupting the School to Prison Pip...(Forum
on Public Policy, Oxford University Press, Winter 2010); "The
Racialization of Crime and Punishment: Criminal Justice, Color...(with
Dr. Rose Brewer, which appeared in a special volume co-edited by Dr.
Heitzeg and Dr. Rodney Coates, of American Behavioral Scientist:
Micro-Level Social Justice Projects, Pedagogy, and Democratic Movements,
Winter 2008); and Race,
Class and Legal Risk in the United States: Youth of Color and... (Forum on Public Policy, Oxford
University Press, Winter 2009).
Angola 3 News: What are practical alternatives to the current prison system? What
examples do we have when looking from an international perspective?
Examples from here in the US?
Kay Whitlock: Accumulating overreliance on more policing, harsher punishments, and an expanded prison system to
allegedly produce “safety” in our society has effectively shuttered our
collective ability to think about justice outside the framework of
prisons. There are very few real alternatives for that reason. Clearly,
the prison system is not going to be abolished in one fell swoop –
that’s not realistic. But we also lack strategic capacity for thinking
clearly and synergistically about how to begin interrupting the
revolving door, self-perpetuating nature of the criminal legal system.
And how to divert resources that otherwise might to into more policing
and prisons into broader community safety strategies that also address
the needs of communities of color and other groups most likely
experience violence within families, communities, and the criminal legal
system. These include undocumented immigrants, poor and homeless people
in general, people with mental illness, women, youth, queers who
challenge middle-class heteronormativity,
people with addictions, and more.
There’s no funding for real alternatives. No political will to find them over time. No broad-based faith leadership that calls us to new
directions. Possible options are being choked to death by political and
religious cowardice and failure of imagination. So that’s our challenge:
to find inventive, intriguing, and constructive ways to shake up public
discourse and get practical about new directions. To reach outside of
that long shadow of prison that deadens our public imagination in order
to think in fresh ways about these things and start creating more
community capacity to confront multiple kinds of violence – at the hands
of individuals, the state, corporations, and a whole host of
Thank goodness, pockets of real imagination are found in a growing number of more locally based groups and organizations, often led by
people from the communities who historically have borne the systemic
brunt of police/prison violence. Focusing on strategies that seek to
interrupt the revolving-door nature of the criminal legal system and how
to divert resources that otherwise might go into more policing and
prisons they tackle specific issues such as violence against queers,
women, and children in ways that open up broader discussions about the
creation of community safety.
Here are just a few groups working from various angles to create community safety without reliance on more policing and prisons:
Creative Interventions (Oakland) (This link is to an interview with CI
founder Mimi Kim; I've had trouble recently linking to the Creative
Interventions website, which is found here.): Developing
community-based responses to domestic and sexual violence in communities
of color, queer, and immigrant communities without involving police, as
well as strategies aimed at promoting the healthy transformation of all
people involved and the larger community.
The Audre Lorde Project: a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit, Trans and Gender Nonconforming People of
Color center for community organizing, focusing on the New York City area. One area of
emphasis is working to create neighborhood safety for queers of color.
FIERCE: Building the leadership and power of LGBTQ youth of color; addressing the
criminalization of poor, young queers of color in gentrifying areas in
NYC by bringing those voices into the center of discussion about
planning and safety.
But there also are a few systemic changes that could help enormously.
Nancy A. Heitzeg: During the past 40 years there has been a dramatic escalation the U... The rate of
incarceration for women escalated at an even more dramatic pace. The
increased rate of incarceration can be traced almost exclusively to the
War on Drugs and the rise of lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences
for drug crimes and other non violent felonies. It is important to note
that 75% of all those imprisoned are incarcerated for a non-violent
A similarly repressive trend has emerged in the juvenile justice system. The
juvenile justice system has shifted sharply from its’ original
the 1990s, nearly all states and the federal government enacted a
series of legislation that criminalized a host of “gang-related
activities”, made it easier and in some cases mandatory) to try
juveniles as adults, lowered the age at which juveniles could be
referred to adult court, and widened the net of juvenile justice.
These harsh policies have proliferated, not in response to crime rates nor any empirical data that indicates their effectiveness,. They
have proliferated due to our unfounded fears and the profit motive that
is increasingly wound up with the prison system.
The most immediate practical solution is decriminalization of a multitude of lesser and "victimless" offenses and a wholesale return to community
corrections – probation,
restitution and community service.. Prior to mandatory minimum
sentences, these were the primary sentencing options for non-violent
offenders. Probation has been used effectively for over 100 years.
Community alternatives have long been associated with both much lower
costs than incarceration and higher “success” rates as measured by lower
recidivism rates. It
costs an average of $ 25000 per inmate per year local state fed ...
In addition to these well-tried traditional methods, there is also a move to consider restorative justice models. In the context of the
community and presented as true alternative to other criminal sanctions,
justice models offer a method for actually addressing a...
There are also international examples we can learn from. Decriminalization of drugs and other lesser offenses reduces stress on
legal systems and removes an entire class of offenders form legal
control. Prisons are used rarely and sentence lengths are much shorter.
Perhaps the best example of how prisons may serve a rehabilitative and
reintegrative purpose is Norway's
new Halden Fengsel prison, described as the most humane prison in
There are many options available to us other than prison and certainly many uses of prison that are less draconian than those offered
in the United States. We merely lack the will to change.
A3N: What examples of organizing against the PIC do you find most inspiring?
KW: The struggle for abolition would not be gaining the ground it is without the vision and relentless persistence
of Critical Resistance
and INCITE! Women of Color
Against Violence Other groups such as the Institute for Community
Justice are taking on the challenges of community-led solutions to
the crisis of mass incarceration.
I also have a special love for groups that have a genius for refusing to get caught in the “single issue” trap that characterizes
much of nonprofit work today by building strong bridges to the challenge
of resisting the prison industrial complex. They prove that a single
issue is an entry way to cross-issue, cross-constituency movement
building. In addition to those groups already named earlier, the groups
that most inspire me are:
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project
Queers for Economic Justice
Project Unshackle of the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (C...
Committee on Women, Population and the Environment(CWPE Task force ...
Not surprisingly, these groups are multiracial, center the experiences and voices of people of color and poor folks, and often have
strong participation – and leadership - by people who have been
NH: I am inspired by the work of Critical Resistance, The Prison Activist Resource Center and The Real Cost of
Prisons Project. All these grassroots groups require justice
activists, educators, artists, justice policy researchers and people
directly experiencing the impact of mass incarceration to work towards
change. These powerful coalitions are the basis for real change.
Davis (1997: 71-72) identifies three key dimensions of this work –public
policy, community organizing, and academic research;
“In order to be successful, this project must build bridges between academic work, legislative and other policy interventions, and
grassroots campaigns calling, for example for the decriminalization of
drugs and prostitution, and for the reversal of the present
proliferation of prisons and jails."
I am inspired always by the writings of those who are imprisoned -- Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal, Assata and Sundiata, George
Jackson, , Angela Davis, Huey
P. Newton, and www.tookie.com/abtook.html">Stanley
“Tookie” Williams, Marilyn Buck, Jimmy Santiago Baca Kathy
Boudin and Rita Bo Brown, Wilbur
Rideau, and many more.
And I am inspired by those who work to carry these voices to the outside. The writings of many political prisoners/prisoners of
conscience might have remained suppressed were it not for the efforts of
scholars to bring them forward. This coalition between what Mumia calls
“organic and radical intellectuals” is crucial to the uncovering of the
deep structural connections between race, political economy and crime.
The work of Angela Davis and Joy James is exemplary here. Their extensive writings on these matters and their
careful attendance to connecting with those inside prison walls serve as
a model for future work. In Imprisoned
Intellectuals (2003), James gives voice to the range of political
prisoners and traces the common thread of resistance across generations,
nationalities, racial/ethnic differences, genders, sexual orientations,
and political causes. She hopes that writing and reading will force a
transformative encounter “between those in the so-called free world
seeking personal and collective freedoms and those in captivity seeking
liberation from economic, military, racial/sexual systems.”
A3N: Andrea Smith, co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence argues
that “the criminalization approach proffered in the mainstream
anti-violence movement doesn’t work. And, also, this criminalization
approach obfuscates the role of the state in perpetrating gender
violence.” What do you think is the best way to reduce and prevent
violence against women both inside and outside prisons?
KW: Andrea is right, and over the past dozen years or so, there has been a growing challenge from women of color
working on anti-violence issues to challenge the rush by white-dominated
anti-violence groups to embrace more policing/harsher punishment
approaches. (See some exceptional resources here, here, and here.
Similarly, I am part of a growing movement of progressive queers who
are challenging mainstream embrace of more policing and “get tough on
crime” approaches to anti-LGBT violence; several progressive queer
groups spoke out on same here.
The mainstream analysis leaves state violence out of the picture – but in fact, women (especially women of color who are low income) are
often on the receiving end of mirror image forms of violence in their
homes and communities and in the criminal legal system.
There’s no single solution to the problem Andrea names. What might work for one community may not work for another. But I do know some
ingredients for approaches that might work better:
•address state violence – including the violence of the policing and punishment systems – in all anti-violence
• center the leadership and perspectives of people and communities most affected by state violence – people of
color (including immigrants), poor people, prisoners and their families,
former prisoners – in the work. Otherwise, we just replicate the idea
of white people believing we are able to decide “what’s best” for
communities of color.
• recognize that we can never just police and punish our way to safety. The overarching challenge is addressing
systemic forms of violence, exclusion, and injustice in our communities.
We need to build within a framework of strengthening community well
being in which commitments to racial, gender, and economic justice has
real, vibrant, ongoing meaning.
• shift the meaning of “criminal” simply from “dangerous individuals” to a more expansive vision that
includes the harm done to individuals, entire communities, and whole
nations by corporations, governments, and other public/private
• openly confront and challenge the ways in which violence against women – in families, communities, prisons – is mainstreamed
into popular culture and marketed as a profitable media commodity.
NH: While the overall prison population has increased exponentially over the past 40 years, the female prison
population has absolutely exploded. Women,
especially black and brown women, are the fastest growing se...
Tragically theses women are re-victimized by prison.
We must resist rape culture. Rape culture describes a culture in which rape and other sexual vio...
Acts of sexism are commonly employed to validate and rationalize normative misogynistic practices; for instance, sexist jokes may be told
to foster disrespect for women and an accompanying disregard for their
well-being, which ultimately make their rape and abuse seem
"acceptable". Examples of behaviors that typify rape culture include
victim blaming, trivializing prison rape, and sexual objectification.
Our propensity for violence and sexual objectification are part and
parcel of the hostile environment which leads to both rampant sexism and
A3N: In her recent book Are Prisons
Obsolete? , Davis
writes that "a major challenge of this movement is to do the work that
will create more human, habitable environments for people in prison
without bolstering the permanence of the prison system. How, then, do we
accomplish this balancing act of passionately attending to the needs of
prisoners -- calling for less violent conditions, an end to sexual
assault, improved physical and mental health care, greater access to
drug programs, better educational work opportunities, unionization of
prison labor, more connections with families and communities, shorter or
alternative sentencing -- and at the same time call for alternatives to
sentencing altogether, no more prison construction, and abolitionist
strategies that question the place of the prison in our future?" How do
you think we can best walk this line?
KW: We need to be careful in thinking about “reform” as end and in and of itself. Too often, “reform” means that
we’re buying time to make sure that nothing fundamentally changes. For
example, in the 1970s, many of us argued that indeterminate sentencing
was being abused and demanded “reform.” What we got was a series of “get
tough on crime” measures: 3-strikes laws, mandatory minimums, so-called
“truth in sentencing” laws, and the bogus “War on Drugs.” Hundreds of
thousands of people were swept into prisons for longer periods of time -
and it's still happening.
Many people call for reforms today. Let’s get rid of prison rape. Let’s reinstitute rehabilitation. Let’s repeal certain draconian
sentencing laws. All good and essential ideas. But very little – in some
cases, nothing - will fundamentally change unless those ideas, and
more, are advanced within a strategic framework of abolition. Why?
Because if we’re not thinking “bigger,” the so-called reforms inevitably
will morph into new ways of supporting the existing system. We need to
remind ourselves that the first abolition struggle wasn't "realistic" -
and originally, it was about as popular as the plague. White
abolitionists caught hell from family, friends, neighbors, and faith
communities. But it was the boldness and necessity of the vision that
encouraged historic persistence and began to gain support. The Right
knows the importance of the larger strategic vision that seems
outrageous at first, but mainstreams over time because of the relentless
pulse of national and local messaging/organizing that folds into the
vision over a long period of time. Liberals and progressives in the United States
so often seem to have forgotten this.
It is time for us to open up a fundamentally different and more expansive conversation around anti-queer violence and the creation of
safe communities. A conversation emphasizing the integrity of community
relationships and a radical commitment to community well being for all,
not just the most socially, economically, and racially privileged among
Within that larger framework, practical reforms can be strategic steps toward something new. But apart from it, you can count on
politicians, corporations, and do-nothing religious leaders to simply
tweak the status quo – to our ultimate disadvantage.
The late, great civil rights activist Lillian Smith insisted that the realization of genuine justice depends on
our willingness to pursue big ideas, to risk organizing for what we
truly long for. In time, she asserted, big ideas that are persistently
pursued will begin to take root. “To believe in something not yet
proved,” Smith said, “and to underwrite it with our lives: it is the
only way we can leave the future open.”
NH: The current conditions of incarceration in the US
are deplorable as are the roots of prisons in racism and classism. Both
are situations of injustice that we must name and oppose. Prison
conditions in the US are torturous. The United States has a long list
of standard police, prison and jail practices that rise to the level of
Included in this list are: racial profiling; excessive use of force – including use of dogs, kicking and beatings of
restrained suspects with fists, batons, and flashlights; excessive use
of dangerous chokeholds, "hog-ties", and dangerous
restraints - including four point restraints, the "hitchi...
excessive use of tasers and chemical sprays; excessive use of deadly
of pregnant inmates; use of nudity, strip searches and sexual
humiliation and assault as a source of social control; abuse
of transgender prisoners; failure to curtail sexual assaults on
both male and female inmates by other inmates and guards; denial
of medical care or treatment; confinement of the mentally ill;
medical experimentation on inmates; excessive use of "super
max" and isolation confinement and brutal methods of execution,
including lethal injection which fails to meet the standards set forth
by the American
Veterinary Association. These practices and conditions are in
violation of The
Geneva Conventions, International Covenant on Civil and Political
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial ...
Convention against Torture, Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All
Persons under Any Form of Detention, UN
Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners , UN Code of
Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, UN Basic Principles on the Use of
Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and the US
Amendment prohibition against cruel and unususal punishment.
This is surely unacceptable to civilized people anywhere and it is not incompatible to work for improvements of theses egregious human
rights violations which working towards the larger goal of abolition
We can and must do both.
Our current experiment in mandatory imprisonment for non-violent offenders and mass incarceration is a very costly one. The
prison industrial complex grows and profits at the expense of
t... We spend billions on torturous
punishment for “crimes” we could have prevented for a fraction of the
costs at the beginning.
Noted author and educator Jonathan Kozol observes: “At issue are the values of a
nation that writes off many of its poorest children in deficient urban
schools starved of all the riches found in good suburban schools nearby,
criminalizes those it has short-changed and cheated , and then
willingly expends ten times as much to punish them as it ever spent to
teach them when they were still innocent and clean.”
This is unacceptable. We must organize, continuing the legacy of struggle. We must come together across boundaries of national identity,
gender, race, class and ethnicity. The call to social justice,
especially when addressing complex and cloaked systems of racialization,
requires critical and systematic documentation, the surfacing of deep
political and economic structures, and bold confrontation. It requires
the analytical tools and methods of multiple disciplines, as we have
attempted to offer here. The dismantling of the white supremacist
patriarchal capitalist machinery of criminal injustice requires
coalitions between “intellectuals” of all sorts.
We must work in alliance to realize the vision that another world is possible.
--Angola 3 News is a new project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3.
Our website is www.angola3news.com
where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating
our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story
of the Angola
3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement
as torture, and more.