Books

What If We Abolished Prisons?

Can decarceration work?

The following is an excerpt from Maya Schenwar's new book,  Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn't Work and How We Can Do Better(Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014).  Reprinted here with permission.

In 2006, a letter was slipped in through the door slat in Johnnie Walton’s cell. Johnnie was living—twenty-three hours a day—in a seventy-square-foot cell furnished with a concrete bed, a solid steel door, and a window through which little light traveled. Through the slat in the door, three times a day, Johnnie’s meals appeared. For one hour each day, Johnnie was permitted solitary “recreation” in a small pen just outside his cell.

The same routine went for the roughly 250 other prisoners in Tamms, the supermax prison that had opened in Southern Illinois in 1998. Practices at Tamms were similar to those in other supermax prisons and “Secure Housing Units” (such as the one Abraham Macías occupies at Pelican Bay) around the country: The prison, with no yard, no chapel, no dining hall, no library, and no phone calls (unless a close relative was dying), was designed to extinguish the outside world for the men trapped within.

By the time the letter came, Johnnie had already been living in isolation for more than two years. He tore open the envelope and stared. Tucked inside was a poem. An accompanying letter explained that the sender was a member of the “Tamms Poetry Committee,” a group that had come together to provide some contact for these men deprived of almost every type of human connection.

Johnnie was touched but bewildered, he tells me over the phone, almost eight years later. “I got that letter, and I thought, ‘A poetry committee? Men are mutilating themselves, slitting their wrists here.... What do we need with a poetry committee?’”

Johnnie wrote back with a thank-you note—but the note went further: He asked for help, for advocacy. So did several of the other men who received poems that year. Artist and activist Laurie Jo Reynolds, who was part of the group that initiated the poetry committee and later led the effort to fight for the rights of Tamms prisoners, told me, “Not to insult us, but at the beginning, it was sort of a social club. It was the men who wrote to us and told us, ‘It’s time to do more. You have to tell people what’s happening to us in here.’”

Doing more meant mounting a broad-based organizing effort to confront the conditions at—and, later, the existence of—Tamms. (They dubbed the campaign “Tamms Year Ten,” referencing the fact that, though there was supposed to be a one-year limit on prisoners’ stay at the supermax, many had remained there the entire ten years of its existence.) It meant meeting with legislators at every chance possible and graphically describing the conditions in the prison, guided by the words of the men inside. It meant vigils, press conferences, lobbying days at the capitol, and a community picnic complete with a parsley-eating contest. Tamms Year Ten partnered with dozens of other organizations and sympathetic legislators, mobilizing for a reform bill limiting terms at Tamms and requiring prisoners to be told why they were transferred to the supermax. At the forefront of the struggle were family members of men hidden away in the prison. As several Tamms prisoners were released (by way of parole, appeal victories, or the end of their sentences), they became leaders in the campaign.

In fact, the day that Johnnie got out, he swallowed his postrelease anxieties and spoke of his years in Tamms to a large crowd at a fundraiser in a Chicago nightclub. “It was scary,” he says. “There was lots of noise ... but I had to start right away, speaking for the people who didn’t have a voice. I had to speak about the torture of Tamms.”

Reginald Akkeem Berry, another former Tamms prisoner, says that advocating for the men he’d left behind in the supermax was tough at first, partly because they were essentially invisible, knocked off the map at the bottom of Illinois without so much as a phone call home. “Most people didn’t know the town of Tamms, Illinois, even existed,” Akkeem says. So when he spoke about the prison, he invoked people on the outside instead. He spoke of family and the ways that solitary confinement harms poor black and brown communities—especially at a time when the Illinois prison population was still rising and supermaxes were multiplying across the country. “Every time I went to a community meeting, I said, these people in Tamms—this could be your brother, your son, or your father. This is what’s in our future. We have to stop it.”

Akkeem was the first released man to be interviewed about Tamms, he says, for a 2008 Chicago Reader feature titled “Hell in a Cell.” At that point, “solitary confinement” was a phrase most folks on the outside hadn’t often heard. Media attention intensified. In 2009, the work of Tamms Year Ten caught the attention of Amnesty International, which condemned the prison as “incompatible with the USA’s obligations to provide humane treatment for all prisoners.”

The folks of Tamms Year Ten spoke before legislative budget hearings. In addition to denouncing the human destruction occurring behind Tamms’ walls, they pointed to the prison’s staggering price tag: holding one prisoner at Tamms cost $92,000 per year. Momentum against Tamms caught fire—and increasingly, caught the eye of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. Meanwhile, the prison guards unions and the town of Tamms fought hard to keep the prison, and the struggle unfolded in the media and in the streets, with prisoners’ families lobbying at the state capital and leading marches in Chicago.

In 2012, despite the many legislators vying for Tamms to stay open, the governor performed a rare line-item veto and simply budgeted Tamms out of existence. Despite challenges by the legislature, the Illinois Supreme Court decided to permit this move, and in January 2013 the prison was shuttered. Tamms Year Ten had triumphed.

There’s more: When Quinn performed his act of line-item rebellion, he also ordered the closing of three other Illinois prisons, citing cost savings. Those included two youth prisons whose elimination had been advocated by Project NIA and other groups, through efforts like a hunger strike, legislative advocacy, and community organizing. Also included was Dwight, a maximum-security women’s prison. The Illinois prison system seemed to be shrinking.

Decarcerate!

Shrinking: In a country where more than 7 million people are bound up in the “correctional” system, this is how many people working against incarceration frame their goal. You can’t pop this balloon with just one pin. Not everyone working to close Tamms was interested in abolishing all prisons, but many were. They were simply starting with one.

Historian and activist Dan Berger points to the importance of such concrete change-making—closing buildings, reducing prison populations, slashing budgets, dismantling policies that confine people even after release—to the overall goal of freeing ourselves from the prison nation. He defines this movement as decarceration: “reform in pursuit of abolition.”

The word “incarcerate” stems from the same root as the word “cancel”: Both mean to cross something, or someone, out (whether with bars, or lines, or actions). Decarceration, then, is also a movement toward un-canceling people—not just by fighting for their release, but by recognizing and supporting their humanity.

The strategy that drove the Tamms Year Ten campaign was about making visible the lives of people who’d been “canceled” in the most extreme way. And Tamms was not the only place in which people in solitary confinement were finding ways to come together and speak out. In fall 2012, more than a year after they’d waged two three-week hunger strikes, prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay SHU announced a historic Agreement to End Hostilities, which was then signed and publicized by thousands of people inside and outside of prison, building a coalition across the state. It read, in part:

Beginning on October 10, 2012, all hostilities between our racial groups ... in SHU, Ad-Seg, General Population, and County Jails, will officially cease. This means that from this date on, all racial group hostilities need to be at an end ... and if personal issues arise between individuals, people need to do all they can to exhaust all diplomatic means to settle such disputes; do not allow personal, individual issues to escalate into racial group issues.... Collectively, we are an empowered, mighty force, that can positively change this entire corrupt system..., and thereby, the public as a whole.

Prisoners emphasized that their actions extended beyond a pursuit of reforms. They were challenging the prison nation’s assumption of—and instigation of—ongoing “racial warfare” behind bars, which is used to justify solitary confinement and other restrictive policies meant to isolate prisoners from each other.

In June 2013, when prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU waged a nonviolent hunger strike to demand better conditions and more opportunities to connect with people on the outside, building networks that fostered both action and visibility were key. Tens of thousands of California prisoners fasted in solidarity. An outside movement led by family members of the strikers rose up across the state and across the country to support the prisoners with letters, phone calls to the Department of Corrections, and rallies. The strike garnered unprecedented media attention, appearing in many major newspapers and on radio and television stations.

Isaac Ontiveros of the prison abolitionist organization Critical Resistance tells me about the group’s participation in the strike: “They hollered at us before the strike and said, ‘We’re going to do this thing on the inside, and we need your support from the outside’.... They came up with solutions for how to resolve harm and conflict inside, without violence. They won some demands, but they also showed us—if it’s possible to do this in solitary, think of what’s possible for people in less restrictive conditions.”

What’s more, many of the same arguments raised against the scourge of solitary can also be used against imprisonment itself, though with different connotations: Isolation, dehumanization, deprivation of contact, and violence are characteristics of incarceration everywhere. And as Isaac mentioned, the strikers’ actions—the historic commitment made through the Agreement to End Hostilities, and the project of coordinating nonviolent resistance despite enormous communication barriers—also point to exciting possibilities for resolving harm and conflict without (in fact, in spite of) law enforcement and prison.

However, much media coverage reduced the strike’s significance to a protest against specific conditions alone, creating the illusion that prisons, and even solitary confinement, can be made “humane”—that they are fixable. Suddenly, mainstream voices were issuing calls to cease the “cruel and unusual punishment,” pointing to certain brutal practices as “out of the ordinary” modes of discipline. Of course, ameliorating conditions is always an important goal: It’s crucial, for example, to provide nutritious food and allow prisoners to call their families. But in framing these improvements as ends in themselves, the terms of “ordinary” punishment are solidified: Caging people is “usual,” so it’s fine!

Additionally, small concessions are sometimes used to divert attention from larger ongoing injustices. Several months after the 2013 hunger strike, Dolores Canales of California Families to End Solitary Confinement noted in a MintPress News interview that, despite a few reforms implemented by the Department of Corrections—such as changes in criteria for placing people in SHUs—the basic picture hadn’t changed. “They can still use solitary indefinitely,” Canales said. “They don’t see a problem with it, with leaving somebody for thirty or forty years in their cell. They won’t acknowledge it’s a problem.”

And so, doing decarceration-focused work means bearing in mind long-term impacts. For instance, California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement sets ending the practice of isolation as its ultimate goal. And as the LGBTQ prison abolitionist group Black and Pink’s mission statement puts it, “Any advocacy, services, organizing and direct action we take will be sure to remove bricks from the system, not put in others we will need to abolish later.”

“There’s Too Many People in This Prison”

Closing prisons and reducing populations don’t blaze a straight path to freedom. It can be jagged. It can be messy. When Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announced in February 2012 that Dwight Correctional Center would be closing along with Tamms, decarceration activists both inside and outside were jubilant. The closing of a prison heralds the possibility of the entire system’s crumbling.

But when I received the news of Dwight’s closing through an elated press release email from an activist group, my own elation wasn’t based on the anti-prison victory alone. It also stemmed from the fact that my sister was living inside that prison.

Dwight served as both Illinois’ maximum-security women’s prison and also the “intake” center for prisoners newly received into the system. Kayla was holed up in Dwight, waiting to be bussed off to a minimum-security spot a little farther south. Even if they closed Dwight the instant I opened the email, Kayla wouldn’t be freed—she would be whisked away to another joint. Still, the image in my mind of the prison shuttering its windows looked something like hope.

A year and a half later, in fall 2013, I reflect on that sense of hope while pacing the waiting room at Logan Prison, impatient to be called in for a visit with my sister. Phones and reading material are prohibited, so people are milling around the vending machine. A hazy tension hovers in the air; we have no idea how long we’ll be waiting, and the guards on duty won’t drop a clue. One simply says, “There’s too many visitors, because there’s too many people in this prison.”

A short, graying man in a denim shirt who’s leaning against the wall near me comments, “I bet you we wait here another hour, two hours. We might not even get in before visiting hours are over, no kidding.” Like my family, this man drives four hours to get to Logan, he tells me, sometimes to wait about the same amount of time. When he finally gets in to see his daughter, she says she can’t get an appointment with the prison dentist to get a severely aching tooth pulled; the waiting list is too long. I describe the way Kayla has been neglected since giving birth; she’s suffering a kidney infection, writhing in pain, with little medical attention.

The man shook his head. “It’s been like this ever since they closed down Dwight.”

It’s not an unheard-of opinion; Dwight’s closing wasn’t handled well. Before the shutdown, the prison watchdog group John Howard Association warned against rapidly closing Dwight: “Absent a clear plan to reduce population, the shuttering of Dwight is likely to exacerbate crowded conditions [at other prisons], which may further undermine the health, welfare and safety of staff and inmates,” the association argued, adding that Logan’s location—further from Chicago than Dwight—would make visiting more difficult for most families.

Laurie Jo Reynolds, who helped lead the campaign to close Tamms and also advocated closing Dwight, notes that shutting down a prison isn’t always a perfect tactic, nor should it be undertaken unilaterally without consideration for prisoners’ well-being. “Some people talk about it as a strategy where you close prisons and then there’s overcrowding, and that results in more pressure to reduce prison populations,” she says. “But then do you do that on the backs of the people there?”

Closing a prison like Tamms was an unequivocal victory for both the prisoners released from solitary and the overall shrinking of the prison system: The supermax was only half-full, and there were empty cells lying in wait at other men’s prisons in the state. By some standards, Dwight was a slightly trickier business. In addition to ensuring care for people involved, Laurie Jo urges that advocacy for prison closings be combined with pushes to reduce populations and change sentencing laws. In other words: Get people out.

Back in the waiting room at Logan, the man in the denim shirt shakes his head. “Six more months for my daughter. Really, I just hope she’ll just never come back here. That would solve this whole problem, wouldn’t it?”

Getting People Out

How to approach that towering goal of getting people out—and preventing people from going in? Well, if there were a sure way to do it tidily, it might already have been accomplished. As Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, who became an activist while incarcerated and now heads up the New York-based Campaign to End the New Jim Crow (named after Michelle Alexander’s book), puts it, “This system of power has a long history, from the genocide of indigenous populations, enslaving Africans, chain gangs, convict lease, now mass incarceration and perpetual punishment and collateral consequences. They’re not going to just let us take it down.”

The answer, says Jazz, must be to chip away at the edifice from many different directions, to unite community groups and build coalitions bent on halting the cycle. Local groups in New Orleans forged such a coalition to challenge that cycle in the wake of tragedy. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, it shattered most of the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), the city’s sprawling jail complex, leaving the people inside wading through chest-deep water for hours, awaiting rescue until after the storm was over. The hurricane drew attention to overcrowding and heinous conditions inside the jail, as well as to the racism that drove the system. Eighty-six percent of the people in the jail are black, and the coalition stated, “Subhuman conditions at OPP are intimately tied to the value that we as a city assign to African American life, and our staggering incarceration rate is fundamentally about our society’s fear of black people.”

And so, at a time when the city could have used the evident “overcrowding” as an excuse to build more space, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition seized the opportunity to advocate for a cap on the jail population, to force the release of some prisoners and prevent incarcerating new ones. (As Layne Mullett, a cofounder of the Philadelphia-based group Decarcerate PA, notes, “If they build it, they will fill it—and they will probably overfill it.”)

The coalition brought together faith communities, ex-prisoner groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, Critical Resistance’s New Orleans chapter, BreakOUT! (a group focused on the criminalization of LGBTQ youth), The National Lawyers Guild, and others. They pushed for a 1,438-person jail limit, and for the closing of all other jail buildings into which the city could transfer people.

After years of hosting public comment forums, conducting public education campaigns, holding press conferences, and delivering lengthy petitions to the city council, they won their limit: a city ordinance capping the jail size at 1,438 and mandating the closure of additional jail buildings.

However, says Audrey Stewart, one of the coalition’s organizers, “winning” doesn’t mean achieving a cap and stepping back. “There have been several recent amendments to the ordinance that have allowed for other buildings to remain open longer than specified,” she tells me. “We’re working to enforce the cap—and to push for reducing our still extremely high incarceration rate.” When it comes to decarceration, a victory is never the end.

Bail and Beyond

The New Orleans coalition’s focus addresses a population that often garners less publicity than people serving prison time: the nearly 750,000 people locked up in local jails, many of whom are simply waiting to be tried. A study of people in New York City arrested on nonfelony charges whose bail was set at $1,000 or less showed that 87 percent were in jail because they could not pay the bail amount. People of color are routinely assigned higher bail amounts. An inability to pay bail has reverberating consequences that extend far beyond the pretrial period. Those who are jailed while awaiting trial are more likely to be convicted and more likely to receive long sentences than their bailed-out counterparts, who are able to address their legal charges from within their communities. Plus, people who are jailed before trial may lose their jobs, housing, or custody of their children—and may feel forced to accept a plea bargain just to get out temporarily.

But recently a rare path to release emerged for a nineteen-year-old young man arrested on drug charges in Massachusetts, who was assigned a very low bail but still couldn’t pay it. The Massachusetts Bail Fund, a coalition of activists and social workers who fundraise and post bail for folks whose families can’t post their own, had recently been born. The fund paid the man’s bail, and he was released to a residential drug treatment program with which the fund connected him, Norma Wassel, the organization’s founder, tells me. Six months later, when his case reached its final hearing, the district attorney stated that through his progress in treatment, “The defendant showed me that he could stay out of trouble and get the help he needed.” Not only had this young man been spared six months of pretrial incarceration, but he’d also been granted the chance to help shape his own post-hearing future.

Groups doing other types of prisoner advocacy can cast a line out to the Massachusetts Bail Fund for help. Jason Lydon of Black and Pink says, “Working with them, we’ve been able to save people from many months in jail awaiting trial, and save some from getting sentenced to jail time at all, as they show up in court out of chains.” The fund also actively advocates for moving away from cash bail toward release and community accountability, in which services are provided by organizations based within the community instead of by state agencies—removing bricks instead of adding them.

Activism around bail, which usually happens in close collaboration with the person inside whose bail is being targeted, can serve another important decarcerative function. In lots of cases in which national campaigns have sprouted up around particular people standing trial, raising bail money is a dynamic step toward broader organizing and action. Consider Marissa Alexander, who was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for firing a warning shot to stave off an attack from her abusive husband, or Shanesha Taylor, charged with felony child abuse for leaving her kids in the car while interviewing for a job. Public campaigns to raise bail and/or legal expenses for them have exponentially raised the profiles of their cases—and raised awareness of the issues from which those cases stem: the criminalization of black domestic violence survivors, for example, or the utter void of support provided for poor, unemployed moms of color.

Of course, campaigns to end the confinement of certain prisoners—and thus draw attention to the social forces that ground and uphold the system—don’t stop at (or necessarily start at) fundraising. The ongoing movements to free political prisoners like Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Albert Woodfox, Herman Bell, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, Mondo we Langa, and many, many others continue to highlight the intertwined forces of racism and suppression of political resistance that power the criminal punishment machine.

The family-led fights to win clemency for prisoners such as Tyrone Brown—a seventeen-year-old incarcerated on a life sentence for smoking pot while on probation—and Richard Paey, a man who suffered from MS, sentenced to twenty-five years for using painkillers prescribed by his doctor—began to throw the drug war into a ghastly light, even for some of the most tenacious proponents of “Just Say No.” And recently, the movements to support women such as Marissa Alexander, Shanesha Taylor, CeCe McDonald (a trans woman convicted of stabbing an attacker in self-defense), and many others have become freedom campaigns in many senses of the word. They’re geared toward all-out release, but also toward a wider understanding of who is denied freedom: freedom from incarceration, freedom from gender violence, freedom from police violence, freedom from poverty, freedom from oppression.

Decarceration Nation

Lillie Branch-Kennedy of Richmond, Virginia, didn’t encounter the matrix of the criminal punishment system by choice. “I wish from the bottom of my heart that I never had to learn firsthand about America’s world record for mass incarceration, and about Virginia’s criminal system that targets and ensnares young black men,” says Lillie, who founded the Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged (RIHD), an advocacy group for Virginia prisoners and their families. Sixty-one percent of state prisoners are black; for every white person incarcerated in Virginia, six black people are behind bars. That number includes Lillie’s son Donald.

In 2001, Donald—who was attending Virginia State on a scholarship but had recently begun “running with the wrong crowd”—was arrested as an accessory to a robbery. For a crime that would ordinarily carry a sentence of 3 to 8 years, Donald was sentenced to 127.

As the summer before his junior year of college wound to an end, instead of returning to school, Donald was bussed off to prison: Wallens Ridge, a supermax in the Appalachian mountains, a steep eight-hour drive from Lillie’s home. With her son caged in twenty-three-hour-a-day lockdown and her life pinned to the commute to see him, Lillie couldn’t ignore the system. So she decided to take it on.

In addition to coordinating transportation for prisoners’ family members (providing monthly van trips to four Virginia state prisons), Lillie steered RIHD toward decarceration advocacy, traveling the state to rally family members against various manifestations of the prison-industrial complex, from “ban the box” campaigns (eliminating criminal background questions from initial employment forms) to ending mandatory-minimum sentencing to bringing back parole, which has been abolished in Virginia since 1995. Lillie’s not timid about her commitment to broad-scale decarceration; she rejects a recent Virginia bill aimed at reinstating parole for people convicted of nonviolent crimes only, which entrenches a sort of “good prisoner vs. bad prisoner” mentality. “It’s unfair and discriminatory,” she says.

Lillie knows that no single group can triumph over the prison nation—and RIHD isn’t going it alone. It’s part of a growing coalition of local campaigns called Nation Inside, which is sweeping the country by way of ground-level activism, Facebook, Twitter, email, blogs, “storybanks,” petitions, and a multifaceted website where new efforts are continually sprouting up.

It all started around the time Donald was incarcerated in 2001. Many of the prisoners at Wallens Ridge were listening to a hip-hop show called “Holler to the Hood,” launched by artist-activists Nick Szuberla and Amelia Kirby to serve the populations of central Appalachia’s prisons. “It was meant to culturally acknowledge the fact that there were folks being shipped into the region,” Nick tells me. Indeed, many people in these Appalachia coalfield prisons hailed from far-flung states—New Mexico, Connecticut, Wyoming. Many were people of color from urban areas, plunked down in a white, rural landscape. Soon, Nick says, prisoners began writing into the show, describing abuse by guards, the brutal conditions of their confinement, and their isolation from loved ones far away. Not long after, prisoners’ families began calling in, using the program to speak directly to their loved ones. Lillie Branch-Kennedy was one of those callers.

“From there,” Nick says, “people like Lillie started to use the show as an organizing tool. Family members laid the foundation for an organizing effort that went beyond the station.” Ironically, because the Appalachian prisons drew their populations from such disparate parts of the country, the radio show’s potential as a tool for activism was hugely amplified: Families in Virginia were linking up with families in Connecticut, New Mexico, and Washington, D.C., sowing seeds for a national network. Like Lillie, family members in other states were launching campaigns from the ground up, working with the support of their network to confront the urgent issues they witnessed—and felt—firsthand. They began to meet each year in person: a coalition of about forty people, geographically scattered but bound by shared pain and conviction. In late 2011, the coalition gave itself its name, Nation Inside—it refers to the “nation inside of our nation,” a prison population the size of some countries—and committed to building an online platform that would draw together grassroots, local campaigns like theirs: communities challenging the systems that fuel incarceration.

Prisoners wrote the press releases, drew the artwork, and collaborated in laying the plans that launched the coalition, which now unites more than 125,000 people and thirty groups, from a New York campaign working for the release of aging prisoners to a group fighting to stop the construction of a jail in Illinois’ Champaign County to an Oregon-based campaign calling for divestment from private prison companies.

Charting these kinds of networks, crossing neighborhood lines and state lines and the walls of prison, is not just preparation for decarceration; it is part of the work of decarceration itself. Making connections means refusing to isolate, to ignore, to hide, to replicate the patterns of the prison. It means refusing to be canceled.

Beware the Women’s Villages

Over the past several years, the raised voices of anti-prison activists and scholars, coupled with the tightening of state budgets, have resulted in a shocking shift: Prison populations have slowly begun to decrease nationwide. Mainstream media outlets now regularly condemn the drug war and excoriate vile prison conditions. Laurie Jo Reynolds from the Tamms campaign tells me, “Six years ago, you’d say ‘solitary confinement,’ and nobody knew what it was! Now my accountant is making small talk about solitary.” But, she notes, that doesn’t mean most people are making larger talk about the place of prison in our politics, economy, and culture.

As Mariame Kaba from Project NIA notes in a piece called “Prison Reform Is in Vogue ... and Other Strange Things”: “Absent the large-scale, cross-sectional movement-building needed in order to uproot the oppressions that both give rise to the PIC and hold it in place, I’m afraid that this latest round of proposed prison reforms will only be another version of tinkering towards imperfection.”

That tinkering is happening from a variety of directions—including from within the criminal punishment system itself. Look at a prison website these days and you may not realize it’s a prison. Boasting of dog-training programs, culinary arts classes, cosmetology, “cake decorating” seminars, and an array of “volunteering opportunities,” many never use the word “prison” in their publicity materials, opting instead for the innocuous term “facility.” Isaac Ontiveros points out, “Massive numbers of dollars still go toward building new cages to target poor black and brown people, but they take up the language of reform, saying things like, ‘We’re going to provide “women’s villages” with services for underserved women of color’—this kinder, gentler rhetoric.”

Diana Zuñiga, the statewide field organizer of the forty-organization-strong decarceration coalition Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), talks of how policies that expand the prison nation creep in under the guise of confronting mass incarceration. In California, the state is carrying out a process of “realignment,” shifting large numbers of incarcerated people from prisons to county jails. The strategy, championed as a route to reducing the state’s skyrocketing prison budget and ending the “revolving door” of recidivism, has actually resulted in most counties moving toward jail expansion. Diana is often alarmed to hear CURB’s calls for shrinking the prison system echoed by officials calling for “mental health jails” and “social service jails.” She says, “We have seen our language be coopted so that law enforcement can appear to be doing the ‘right thing.’”

Diana is pointing to an even more insidious recent trend in addition to the production of “alternative” forms of confinement: A wide range of influential political groups, switching from a push for “tough on crime” legislation to a “right on crime” message, are advocating that money saved from reducing prison populations be spent on heightened policing and surveillance. The Texas-based conservative group Right on Crime touts “reforms” like increasing monitoring and records-keeping on formerly incarcerated people, scaling up the use of private security companies, and zeroing in on “crime hotspots” in cities: poor neighborhoods of color.

I broach the subject with Jazz from the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, who’s also been a leader in the struggle to end New York’s “stop and frisk” policy. Jazz points to the way that “targeted” policing tends to play out in reality: violence directed at neighborhoods of color, especially black neighborhoods. “Turning our communities into open-air prisons is not the solution to violence,” he says.

Where will we turn to deal with violence, harm, and conflict in a landscape that’s not fashioned around incarceration? Since right now, prison is society’s go-to “solution,” thinking beyond the prison means not only uprooting it, but also offering new answers to harm. Layne from Decarcerate PA articulates it like this: “Abolition is a complicated goal which involves tearing down one world and building another.”

They’re interconnected, of course—the communities and strategies and visions concocted while doing the “tearing down” provide a glimpse of that world beyond prisons. As the Pelican Bay prisoners demonstrated, strategies for connection and interrelation, for staving off harm and violence, can be forged mightily while straining against thick walls of injustice. But no matter how you swing it, decarceration comes with a healthy share of unpredictability. Without prescribed, violently enforced systems dictating how we move through the world, we’ll need to come together and pave our own roads forward.

Full footnotes to the above excerpt can be found in Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn't Work and How We Can Do Better. 

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