On Police & Prisons
I offer the following thoughts on police and prison abolition to facilitate a larger discussion about these goals.
I will not pretend to have the answers. There is much I have left to learn. Regardless, I have chosen not to wait around to reach the optimal level of political education on these issues before taking action. I hope you will join me in doing the same.
I am an abolitionist because I am committed to the struggle for collective liberation. I am critical of the narratives of white women (I am both) that are used to uphold systems of state violence and I see the pursuit of police and prison abolitionist goals as a necessary way to subvert these narratives and practice community accountability.
Critical Resistance provides a thorough definition of policing, it begins:
“Policing is the practice, empowered by the state, of enforcing law and social control through the use of force. The roots of policing in the United States are closely linked to slavery, the capture of escaped slaves, and the enforcement of Black Codes and Jim Crow. Police forces were also routinely used to keep in immigrants to the U.S. ‘in line’ and to prevent the working class from making demands.” — On Policing, Critical Resistance, 2009
Policing is exercised by officers of the state, institutions, individuals, and communities. In addition to calling for an end to policing from the state, it is important that we interrogate the ways we police ourselves and those around us in everyday social interactions. The racist, sexist, ableist, and heteropatriarchal power dynamics embedded in our society at-large also exist within our smaller communities and personal relationships, no matter how woke we think we are. Those who attempt to subvert these inequitable power dynamics make space for those around them to do the same.
Prisons exist to exert control over marginalized groups, repress dissent, and serve as sites for legalized slavery.
The Prison-Industrial Complex (PIC) parallels President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s articulation of the Military-Industrial Complex. Eric Schlosser offers the following explanation of the PIC:
“Three decades after the war on crime began, the United States has developed a prison-industrial complex — a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need. The prison-industrial complex is not a conspiracy, guiding the nation’s criminal-justice policy behind closed-doors. It is a confluence of special interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum. It is composed of politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the fear of crime to gain votes; impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development; private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market; and government officials whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population.” — The Prison-Industrial Complex, published in the Atlantic, Eric Schlosser, 1998
Prisons do not exist because we need them, they exist because they serve capital interests and maintain our current, coercive social order.
Prisons are sold to us as the solution for crime but our judicial system has already acknowledged the contradiction between this framing and reality. In the 1987 case, McCleskey v. Kemp, the Supreme Court ruled that statistical evidence showing racism in judicial sentencing and the application of the death penalty could not be considered in court because:
“[if] taken to its logical conclusion, throws into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system.” — Opinion of the Court, McCleskey v. Kemp, 1987
Additionally, those familiar with the 13th amendment also know that slavery was never truly abolished. Instead, slavery was legalized as long as it exists within the prison system.
The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Section 1 states:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Policing and imprisonment are, at their core, oppressive, dehumanizing, and integral parts of capitalist exploitation in the United States. We’re not organizing for socialism if we’re not organizing against them.
These violent systems affect the incarcerated, their loved ones, and society at-large. It is important that socialist work focus on improving the material conditions for those most affected by state violence. Mutual aid projects and material support are important ways to make a difference. Other, longer term projects are also important. Diverting municipal funds away from police departments and training programs back into the community is achievable.