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Are prisons obsolete?

On the abolition of the prison-industrial complex

content warning: mentions of abuse, incarceration, anti-Indigenous racism

In July 2016, Bresha Meadows, a 14-year-old girl in Ohio, allegedly killed her father, who had inflicted years of violent abuse on her and her family. Charged with aggravated murder, Bresha was criminalized for what many consider to be self-defense. She was sentenced to one year in juvenile prison (with 10 months served), six months in a mental health facility, and two years’ probation after her release. After months of active community mobilization, she was finally returned to her family on February 4, 2018.

Bresha is another survivor of the powerful connection between girls’ experiences of domestic and sexual violence and their forced entry into carceral systems. Once arrested, Black girls like Bresha face disproportionately high rates of incarceration, and once incarcerated, Bresha joins the 84% of girls in juvenile prisons who have experienced family violence prior to arrest.

There are currently around 41,000 adults in custody in the prison system in Canada, and roughly 2.2 million in the United States. The demographic makeup of this population has been a topic of discussion for over a century, and there are a number of reports that testify to the fact that almost all minorities (disabled, TLGBQ2S+, and racialized people) are overrepresented within prisons. Indigenous adults account for a quarter of all admissions to correctional services in Canada, despite only representing 4 per cent of the Canadian population. There are 70 per cent more Black and Brown inmates in Canada than there were ten years ago, and 48 per cent of TLGBQ2S+ victims of violence report experiences with police misconduct.

Many internationally renowned organizations, such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Coalition, publicly advocate for and endorse prison reformation efforts. These organizations often engage in activities such as improving prison conditions, working to diversify guards and police officers, and reducing racial bias. Many of these efforts are supported by the public, with a common, uncontested assumption that prisons and police are necessary institutions in a safe, democratic society. However, the illustrious and important history of prison abolition movements is often overlooked or ignored . For over a century, a vast number of different groups have been working towards dismantling the prison system, and trying to educate the public on why the prison system is inherently harmful and unnecessary.

10 per cent of the average police officers’ time is devoted to dealing with violent crime. The remaining 90 per cent is spent dealing with administrative infractions, such as where you must sit, eat, drink, drive etc. If two people pull knives on each other, it is statistically unlikely that the police will get involved or be called in time to prevent a crime for occuring. Not to mention, nearly 75 per cent of convicted prisoners are in prison for nonviolent crimes.

What’s more, 70 per cent of all prisoners in the U.S. have not even been convicted of a crime, costing 27.3 billion dollars a year. Unconvicted prisoners are being held in jail awaiting trial, 50 per cent of whom were not able to afford to post bail amounts of $2500 or less when first incarcerated.

The origins of the prison-industrial complex

The prison-industrial complex (PIC) is a term used to describe the overarching and interconnected systems that “use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” The PIC operates to “maintain authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges.” By perpetuating deviant/criminal stereotypes of people of colour, TLGBQ2S+ people, Indigenous people, and economically disadvantaged people, the PIC both produces and reproduces its control. This system has been created and fine-tuned over many decades.

The origins of policing in the West can be traced back to cities like New Orleans and Savannah, where full-time officers in uniform were accountable to local civilian officials, and connected to a broader justice system. These early police forces were not designed as a watch system, however; they were instated to patrol enslaved people. These patrols violently enforced prohibitions on enslaved people holding meetings, harbouring fugitives, and learning how to read and write. From these informal  patrols emerged the professional urban police, who were in charge of managing the mobile urban enslaved population. Even after slavery was abolished, these patrols set the groundwork for materializing the modern-day police force. For many years after the civil war, police officers maintained racial inequality through incarceration and prosecution based on flimsy to nonexistent evidence. Local police also worked closely with (and were populated by)  groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

The questions that must then be asked: who do prisons benefit? Who are the police working for?

Who does the PIC protect?

Modern day policing has technically distanced itself from its origins, but its legitimacy and means of operation must still be called into question. Critical investigation of the basic mission of the PIC reveals how the modern-day prison system continues to reproduce both classist and racist inequalities. Within a racialized, capitalist society, there are communities that are protected, and others that are policed.

The questions that must then be asked: who do prisons benefit? Who are the police working for? If you’re white, upper-middle class, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied, the prison-industrial complex probably protects you. For the rest of us, not so much. Black, Indigenous, brown, TLGBQ2S+, and disabled communities all report feelings of unease rather than safety when they see police officers patrolling areas. With the threat of unjust arrest and incarceration, marginalized communities are right to be wary of the prison-industrial complex. Assata Shakur, a former member of the Black Liberation Party, writes: “Who are prisons for? They certainly aren’t planning to put white people in them. Prisons are part of this government’s genocidal war against Black and Third World people.”

Hundreds of reports reveal how economically disadvantaged people are more likely to commit a crime for survival and out of desperation. Furthermore, a critical analysis of criminal law in North America can make it very clear that most crimes are designed to police the poor. Under capitalism, the PIC maintains power and safety for the privileged in society by both igniting and perpetuating the oppression of marginalized communities.

In her book “Are Prisons Obsolete,” Angela Davis argues, “The prison […] functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers […] It relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”

Violence vs. non-violence

Many argue that perhaps the solution is to focus on prosecuting violent crimes rather than nonviolent crimes. Shouldn’t prisons still exist for violent, inhumane criminals? Yet invoking a violent/nonviolent dichotomy ends up being reductive, glossing over systemic issues. Take Bresha Meadows, for example. At face-value, she too was charged with a violent crime: aggravated murder. Ignored are the context and circumstances of those who are implicated in crime. Where was the judicial system when Bresha faced domestic abuse? Who protected her and her family from the crimes of her father? And who is benefitting from her incarceration? Bresha’s history of domestic and familial abuse was repeatedly ignored in her prosecution, as is common for communities whom predominantly white juries judge to be inherently violent, due to the deep-seated, racist history of the PIC.

This is what allows the system to solely prosecute and imprison marginalized communities. At its heart, the PIC is constructed to hide away racism, mental illness, and poverty instead of addressing them. White-collar criminals, businesspeople, murderous cops, and lawmakers molding racist structures continue to walk free because the PIC is simply not configured to criminalize them. Examining what is criminalized and what is not reveals the illegitimate core of the carceral system.

What does the PIC achieve?

“The War on Drugs” and the “War on Crime” are both systemically targeting non-white poor people, and increasing the percentages of their populations that are jailed. First and foremost, stigma and institutional oppression lead to marginalized groups being unfairly targeted by the entire PIC. Second, if non-white and/or poor people do, in fact, have higher rates of drug use and other crimes, the PIC does nothing to address the institutional and social processes that produce these statistics. Moreover, poverty exacerbates and increases crimes, as people are forced to find alternative methods of survival at the hand of capitalist hegemony. It is claimed that everyone has freedom and agency to make their own choices, but Angela Davis rightly asks: “if you are free in a political sense but have no food, what’s that? The freedom to starve?” Time and time again it has been proven that prisons do not have effective rates of rehabilitation or reformation, and do nothing to reduce crime rates. The PIC does not address systemic problems, such as racism or poverty, that result in marginalized communities turning to crime, and instead creates a place where they can be removed from the sight of white, privileged society.

Once imprisoned, a capitalist carceral system is designed to dehumanize prisoners, “to turn people into things.” Prisoners have no stable educational opportunities and widely insufficient living conditions; they are forced into labour; they are referred to by numbers rather than names. Devyn Springer argues that “a system rooted in that act of racist, capitalist thingification can never be reformed into allowing humanity of its subjugated people to exist or flourish. Along with this, realizing that in most cases crime is a social construct created by the arbitrators of socio-economic conditions, the need for prisons becomes, well, obsolete.”

Abolitionist Movements

For over a century, groups and organizations have mobilized against the PIC, in an attempt to both dismantle and remove the need for prisons and the carceral system. Organizations such as Critical Resistance, co-founded by Angela Davis, work to “end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe.” Black and Pink, founded in 2004, is another organization that advocates for the abolition of the PIC, focusing and mobilizing around TLGBQ2S+ issues.

While many abolitionist groups do advocate for a physical, symbolic, and, if necessary, violent dismantling of all prisons, others maintain that abolition can be achieved through alternative practices. In general, abolition aims to build institutions that undo damage done by racist, capitalist structures, and work against them. By improving education as a form of resistance and mobilization to limit the scope of the PIC, we can render prisons useless and empty. The goal of many abolitionists is to create a society in which prisons are no longer used, or at the very least, are no longer the primary source of punishment/reformation for crime.

“A system rooted in that act of racist, capitalist thingification can never be reformed into allowing humanity of its subjugated people to exist or flourish.”

Abolition vs. Reform

When I first began engaging with criticisms of the prison-industrial complex, I thought, as many do, that prison reform was the way to go. There are many things wrong with the way prisons operate, but I never considered the possibility that they weren’t necessary. Yet it soon became apparent that arguing for prison reform presents many contradictions. Celebrating and advocating for murderous cops to go to prison or for the prosecution of upper-class businessmen stirs a feeling of unease. If these are the same oppressive systems that marginalize non-white, lower-class, and TLGBQ2S+ people, how can we continue to sustain their legitimacy? If we are trying to incite change, what does the continued advocacy and promotion of the use and abuse of these systems do? Why are we suddenly so supportive of the PIC and the state when oppressive men are on trial?

Time and time again it has been proven that prisons do not have effective rates of rehabilitation or reformation, and do nothing to reduce crime rates.

Ever since the first prisons were erected, the PIC has undergone near-constant reformation. Yet it remains systemically oppressive. Prison reform has continuously created “fairer” prisons, but only at the expense of increased surveillance and reach of the PIC. We are told that prison is a place where bad people go, yet by not abolishing prisons, we never have to ask further questions. Why did that person do that? Why is this person bad? Why are these types of crimes so common? Who are these people hurting?

By advocating for reform, we both accept and reinforce the necessity of a system that is built upon and stems from oppression. The system isn’t changing, so we must look for alternatives.

A common argument against prison abolition is one of replacement. What is the alternative to the police surveillance and prison containment? The authors of “Octavia’s Brood” claim that all movements for justice must start with the question: “what is a world we want to live in?” rather than, “what is a realistic win?”

Nobody claims to have a perfect solution or alternative to the prison-industrial complex. A common theory amongst abolitionists refers to “transformative justice” : a multi-pronged approach to crime in society. Transformative justice includes simultaneously coming up with individualized strategies to address abusive/violent behaviour and supporting targeted community members, as well as working to transform the political conditions that allow oppression and violence. This approach has shown to be effective in rehabilitation, while also addressing institutional problems to reduce crime rates.

The goal of many abolitionists is to create a society in which prisons are no longer used, or at the very least, are no longer the primary source of punishment, or even reformation, for a crime.

What you can do

Start thinking critically about the prison-industrial complex. Has it become obsolete? Who does it work for, and who does it work against? If you decide to support the PIC abolition movement, consider joining or donating to community organizations, like the Prisoner Correspondence Project (PCP) in Montreal, that are working to resist the PIC. It’s also understandable that as a university student, you often don’t have the time, money, or energy to physically/financially engage with activist organizations such as these. One new, affordable way to support abolition is through a software called Bail Bloc. Bail Bloc is a cryptocurrency scheme against bail that uses a small part of your computer’s unused processing power to mine a cryptocurrency called Monero. This cryptocurrency is then converted by the Bronx Freedom Fund to USD, and used to post bail for low-income people awaiting trial. While this does mean your Hydro Quebec bill might go up by a couple of dollars per month, the program can be adjusted to use more or less of your processing power, depending on your needs. If necessary, consider only running the program while your computer is plugged in at, say, McLennan Library. This way, although McGill’s hydro bill may rise, the university will finally be engaging critically in some of the institutions it has historically, implicitly supported.