Prison Abolition: A Primer

Against the Current, No. 218, May/June 2022

Efrén Paredes, Jr.

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us
Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice

By Mariame Kaba
Haymarket Books, 2021, 240 pages, hardback, paperback and e-book.

AT A TIME when conversations about the carceral state and caging of human lives have reached fever pitch, Mariame Kaba offers us a thought-provoking guide to consider a constellation of forward-thinking ideas in We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice. It is edited by Tamara K. Nopper and includes a foreward by Naomi Murakawa.

The book is the first of the three-part Abolitionist Papers Series. The other titles include Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Abolition. Feminism. Now. by Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Beth Richie and Erica Meiners. Both are edited by Naomi Murakawa.

Kaba, a New York-based prolific abolitionist organizer, thinker and scholar, is founder of Project NIA, an abolitionist organization with a vision to end youth incarceration. She writes “Prison Culture: How the PIC Structures Our World,” a widely read blog she has published since 2010, and is active in movements for racial, gender and transformative justice.

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us is a compilation of interviews, speeches, and personal and collaborative writing that discuss a range of important issues related to abolition logic. The book is divided into seven parts, each beautifully written in language relatable to activists, community organizers, and anyone interested in making their communities safe.

Prison-Industrial Complex

In her opening chapter Kaba explains that prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition “is a political vision, a structural analysis of oppression, and a practical organizing strategy. … It is a vision of restructured society in a world where we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water, and more things that are foundational to our personal and community safety.”

She adds, “[it’s] a positive project that focuses, in part, on building a society where it is possible to address harm without relying on structural reforms of oppression or the violent systems that increase it.” (2)

Illogical Prison Deterrence

Critical Resistance describes the prison-industrial complex as “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.”(1)

The PIC has resulted in the incarceration of over 2.3 million people in prisons and jails across the nation. There are also approximately 3.6 million people on probation supervision, and another 870,000 on parole. This totals nearly 7 million people entangled in the criminal legal system. The number does not include the number of people in immigration detention.(2)

The United States is by far the largest incarcerator than any nation in the world, exceeding even countries like China and Russia. If incarceration were an effective remedy to crime, by the sheer number of imprisoned citizens  this should be the safest country on the planet.

The volume of crime and harm committed in this country, however, doesn’t reflect that presumption. We observe more crime and harm being committed in the United States than in other countries.

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us partially attributes the unprecedented level of incarceration in the country to a society that “celebrates criminalization, cops, and prisons” (21) which has taught us to fear one another and embrace social control. Our society has been “locked into a false sense of inevitability” (25) which mistakes emotional satisfaction with justice.

Kaba remarks, “A system that never addresses the why behind a harm never actually contains the harm itself. Cages confine people, not the conditions that facilitated their harms or the mentalities that perpetuate violence.” (24)  Merely locking people away in cages doesn’t prevent, reduce or transform harm.

When sent to prison people are dehumanized and subjected to myriad forms of mental, emotional and physical abuse and trauma by other incarcerated people as well as by those who work inside prisons. These are facts which receive little public attention.

Exploring Solutions

During my lived experience as an incarcerated person in Michigan during the past 33 years, I have never met an incarcerated person whom prison alone ever changed for the better. People in prison change because they choose to change, not because they are forced to do so. The impulse to be a better person is antithetical to the pathological nature of prison culture.

If not for people being intentional about wanting to change on their own, educate themselves and participate in rehabilitative programming, many incarcerated people would leave prison far worse off than when they entered the system.

No one in prison guilty of committing a crime was deterred by the threat of incarceration. There are death penalty states that have higher incidents of violence than non-death penalty states. With few rare exceptions, people don’t commit crimes with the expectation of going to prison.

Further evidence that prison doesn’t deter crime is also clear when examining the recidivism rates of people released from prisons. Nationally “68% of people released from state prisons are arrested within three years, 79% within six years and 83% within nine years.”(3)

Even experiencing the horrors of American prisons still served little deterrence to many not to return. When a system has a dismal failure rate that high, it only makes sense that other alternatives need to be explored.

Kaba believes that “[o]ur failure to build a culture of care that nurtures human growth and potential, rather than incubating desperation, ensures that more ‘criminals’ will be created and subsequently punished, to the great benefit of those who profit from industries associated with incarceration.” (21)

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us urges us to create as many alternative experiments as possible to prisons, policing and surveillance to solve problems in our communities and make them safer. Kaba believes that many people don’t explore alternatives because we have limited our imagination to believing that the current apparatuses of government social control are the answer.

She writes, “If my focus is on ending harm, then I can’t be pro deathmaking and harmful institutions. I’m actually trying to eradicate harm, not reproduce it, not reinforce it, not maintain it.” (155) This means rejecting all forms of state violence, which include prisons and policing.

While it’s true that many experiments may fail, there are organizations and groups across the country that have created innovatie models which are operating successfully and making communities safer. We Do This ‘Til We Free Us peppers the reader throughout the book with some of those successful experiments.

By exploring alternative solutions to policing and prisons we are able to experiment with the use of transformative justice. Kaba cautions, however, that transformative justice isn’t merely a process of delivering an outcome we like.

Transformative justice “is a community process developed by anti-violence activists of color, in particular, who wanted to create responses to violence that do what criminal punishment systems fail to do: build support and more safety for the person harmed, figure out how the broader context was set up for this harm to happen, and how that context can be changed so that this harm is less likely to happen again.” (59)

The Invest/Divest Model

One of the most misunderstandings of prison abolition is that people will not be held accountable for committing crimes. The truth is that prison abolition seeks to create humane and moral alternatives to prison balancing  accountability, public safety, and repairing the harm caused.

It also strives to create a society that builds social institutions and conceptual frameworks which make our reliance on prison unnecessary. Prison abolition is as much a vision about building alternatives to police and prisons as it is replacing them with something better.

Most crime is the product of desperation in struggling communities. According to Kaba, “Understanding that harm originates from situations dominated by stress, scarcity, and oppression, one way to prevent violence is to make sure that people have the support to get the things they need.” (59)

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us suggests another way to reduce harm caused by police in our communities, utilizing the invest/divest framework. The concept reallocates money from systems that harm marginalized communities, and invests them in supportive community-based programs.

Not only can this reduce police shootings and other forms of police violence in poor and underserved communities, it can replace police with unarmed people who can respond to incidents by providing life-saving social services.

People in mental health crisis don’t need armed police to threaten or harm them; they need trained mental health workers to help them and others de-escalate conflict. People struggling financially also don’t need to be incarcerated and separated from those who depend on them for their care and survival. They need better jobs in addition to more community resources and opportunities.

If we are able to redirect billions of dollars of funding from militarized police forces to fund affordable housing, health care, education and good paying jobs, we would vastly reduce crime. We don’t see high crime rates in affluent communities where people’s needs are being met. We also rarely see them being occupied by a militarized police presence.

Society has generally focused its gaze on punishment rather than the causes of the crime problem, because it requires addressing a host of inequities for the poor and communities of color — two demographics that the power structure refuses to acknowledge, because it is necessary for the prison industrial complex to thrive.

Aggressive policing and caging members of communities is not solely a product of government’s failure to address the social ills that plague poor, low-wealth and underserved communities. It is also part of a racist legacy of oppressing Black and other people of color, with its roots dating to the days of slavery in this country which is discussed in We Do This ‘Til We Free Us.

Ultimately our focus must become trained on prevention and dealing with the causes of crime rather than its symptoms. If not, the PIC will continue being fed members of overwhelmingly poor and low-wealth communities, and disproportionately black and brown bodies, through hyperincarceration.(4)

Centering Women in the Conversation

An important aspect of this book is its emphasis on centralizing the experiences of women of color with the criminal legal system.

The book underscores the problem of women, trans and gender-nonconforming people who have survived sexual and other forms of interpersonal violence, being punished for defending themselves. These are important points frequently glossed over or ignored in critiques of the criminal legal system.

Kaba’s perspectives on gendered and sexual violence have been shaped by her own experience as a survivor of violence, doing anti-sexual assault work on her college campus during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and supporting and organizing with Black women and girls much of her adult life. Her views are also richly shaped by feminist theory which she illuminates throughout her book.

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us also discusses the need to reject the dehumanizing practice of victims and survivors of sexual crime being “flattened in the service of perfect-victim narratives” (37) or being cardboard cutouts people can project their distorted narratives onto.

Too often the media devalue women and trans people of color and their lives. Once objectified, an environment is created wherein “innately inferior bodies can be debased, punished, and killed without consequence.” (32)  It’s the primer for a litany of subsequent abuses.

Kaba writes about the #MeToo and #SayHerName movements as well. She discusses the police killing of Breonna Taylor, court cases involving high-profile sex offenders, and how she views the approach to these subjects through an abolitionist lens. She realizes the importance of this conversation because of the pleas for extreme punishment in these instances, reminding us that justice isn’t synonymous with our feelings.

As a cisgender Mexican-American male, I appreciate Kaba educating us about the number of women, trans, and gender nonconforming people being subjected to sexual violence so that men and boys can do our part to help stop the harm caused by heteropatriarchy(5) and toxic masculinity. Her book is not only an important educational tool but also a bold call to action.

Rather than seek vengeance to solve gendered and sexual violence, Kaba proposes solutions that help victims truly heal and repair the perpetrators of violence to prevent them from committing future harm. Solutions also include valuing the lives of every member of our community, protecting them, and creating a culture of care.

Toward Meaningful Change

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us discusses the wisdom imparted to the author by her father Moussa Kaba, who said “You have a responsibility to live in this world. Your responsibility is not just to yourself. You are connected to everything.” Her father also told her, “Everything that is worthwhile is done with other people.” (177, 178) She says these “became the soundtrack” in her head and a lodestar that has guided her life’s work.

Kaba shares that she has constantly employed the wisdom of her father by reminding those she teaches the importance of working together to engender change. Without working collectively it’s impossible to create solutions to problems that affect us all.

No single individual knows all the answers to the myriad challenges we face. Without working together we deny ourselves the vast resources and collective reservoir of wisdom we have to share with one another, which is absent when people are separated into silos.

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us calls on us to engage in what Tamara T. Butler calls faithful witnessing, “an effort to dismantle oppression … [and] a practice of seeing, hearing, and working alongside in ways that are resistant and attentive to colonial violence.”(6)

Readers will appreciate Kaba’s authenticity and straightforwardness. She uses her fierce and illuminating truth-telling to deliver unflinchingly honest words to anyone striving to create a more safe and peaceful world.

This book is as much a brilliant critique of policing, prison, and surveillance as it is a guide that anyone interested in abolition logic should read. There is much to learn and teach found between the covers of this timely and trailblazing book.

Notes

  1. Rafi Reznik, “Retributive Abolitionism,” 24 Berkeley J. Crim. L. 123, 129 (2019).
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  2. Wayne S. Mckenzie, “The Carceral State as a Civil Rights Issue,” 36 Crim. Just. 1, 1 (2022).
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  3. “5 out of 6 State Prisoners Arrested Within 9 Years of Their Release,” Bureau of Just. Stat. (May 23, 2018), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/18upr9yfup0514pr.cfm.
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  4. “Hyperincarceration” is a term coined by Loic Wacquant. I prefer the term over “mass incarceration” because Wacquant states it “captures more clearly the idea that increased imprisonment has been targeted at particular racialized groups … and others marginalized into a liminal existence between prison and community, including people with mental health disorders and drug and alcohol addictions.” (Loic Wacquant, “Race & Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America,” 140 Daedalus 74, 78 (2010).
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  5. “Heteropatriarchy is generally defined as a system of power and control based on compulsory heterosexuality, patriarchy, and imposed gender-binary systems.” (Blanche Bong Cook, “Biased and Broken Bodies of Proof,” 85 UMKC L. Rev. 567, 572 (2017); see also Angela P. Harris, “Heteropatriarchy Kills: Challenging Gender Violence in a Prison Nation,” 37 Wash. U. J.L. & Pol’y 13, 17 (2011).
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  6. Tamara T. Butler, “#Say[ing]HerName as Critical Demand: English Education in the Age of Erasure,” 49 Eng. Educ. 153, 160 (2017).
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May-June 2022, ATC 218

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