Two Million Imprisoned = Too Many

News & Politics

On August 13, thousands of people from around the nation are expected to march in a "Journey for Justice" to our nation’s capitol. Times have certainly changed since the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, but this year’s march still has everything to do with what many view as institutionalized racism.

Lois Ahrens, a participant in the 1963 March and a local Journey for Justice organizer, hopes the march will "make the connections between the promise of that march and that movement for civil rights and mass incarceration."

The U.S. is the world’s leading jailer, imprisoning around 22 percent of the world’s prison population in spite of representing only around 4.6 percent of the world’s population. Of black men in their 20s and 30s, one in eight is imprisoned in the U.S., compared to only one in 63 white men. Yet Justice Department statistics show that from 1994 to 2003, violent crime fell by over 33 percent and property crimes by 23 percent.

This year, family, friends and allies of the more than two million people in U.S. jails and prisons will convene to voice their opposition to what is known as the prison industrial complex (PIC) -- the ever-expanding web of relationships among institutions, individuals, and corporations that benefit from continued reliance on mass imprisonment.

Roberta Franklin, director of Family Members and Friends of People Incarcerated in Montgomery, Alabama, and her group are the main organizers of the march and have obtained sponsorship from over 70 other organizations in their fundraising efforts for the event.

These include diverse prison reform groups targeting specific aspects of the criminal justice system, such as capital punishment, drug-related sentencing and juvenile justice.

The march has also secured sponsorship from groups with broader, more radical critiques of the PIC and the oppressive systems that drive it. These include groups with a long-term vision of a world without prisons, where everyone could thrive regardless of race, class, sexuality or gender.

This unprecedented alignment of organizers with politics ranging from liberal and progressive to radical and revolutionary speaks to widespread consensus on the severity of the current crisis of imprisonment.

Despite all this, the U.S. continues to push "tough on crime" rhetoric and invest in punishment and surveillance rather than nurturing local communities that have survived years of systemic oppression on the basis of race, class, sexuality and gender. This means that the mass imprisonment of communities of color and poor communities of all races only exacerbates existing inequities by taking loved ones away from families and communities.

Challenging mass imprisonment can be a tough sell even in leftist and progressive crowds, so opportunities like the "Journey for Justice" are important steps in amplifying these common demands to end imprisonment as the primary response to poverty and a lack of mental health care or effective responses to addiction.

But as with any social movement of activists who share deep concern about an issue, this one also harbors internal contradictions between those who seek "damage control" -- prison reformists -- and those who seek to challenge root causes driving the problem -- prison abolitionists. Enabling reformists and abolitionists to engage with each other allows them to focus on the common goals.

Reform and Abolition

Abolitionism is grounded in a vision of radical social and cultural transformation in building a world beyond the PIC. Prison abolitionists have been critiqued by reformists for prioritizing concerns with systemic harm experienced by groups of people -- for instance, institutionalized or state violence like policing and prisons and economic violence -- over harm experienced by individuals, as in incidences of interpersonal violence. Reformists also criticize abolitionists for prioritizing political theory over the actual conditions faced by people in prison.

Abolitionists, on the other hand, reproach reformists abolitionists for emphasizing conditions of confinement in the here-and-now at the expense of a longer-term vision of what a safer world without cages would actually look like. Abolitionists have thus argued that reformist efforts have historically failed to address the root causes underlying the PIC.

When it comes to day-to-day work, the lines between abolitionist and reformist strategies are certainly not black and white. Anti-prison and prison reform activists often easily agree on the need to offer drug programs, employment opportunities, affordable housing and mental health care, all of which would drastically reduce our nation’s prison populations.

But many reformist efforts that at one time seemed necessary or logical have caused anti-prison and prison reform activists to evaluate whether these are causing more harm than good today. Reform efforts, for example, have historically advocated prisons tailored specifically to the daily needs of women. But such efforts have easily fed into arguments for bigger and "better" facilities -- and more of them.

It is true that most people who get locked up are convicted for nonviolent offenses, contrary to what the media and politicians would like us to think. But reformist rhetoric that uncritically accepts this divide between "deserving" nonviolent offenders and "undeserving" violent offenders only perpetuates the fundamental stories we are taught about safety and the need for continued punishment and confinement.

Projects that use such rhetoric stop short of questioning how the state constructs "crime" in response to poverty, institutionalized racism, heterosexism and gender oppression in order to disappear people whose lives are deeply impacted by these social problems.

Strengthening the movement

Anti-prison and prison reform activists and organizers have begun working to challenge mass imprisonment without undermining each other's preferred approach. Sitara Nieves, an organizer with Critical Resistance (CR), says that day-to-day organizing against the PIC at local and national levels provides opportunities to discuss how "fixing things a little bit is often subverted" and ends up strengthening the system. Zein El-Amine, who also organizes with CR, recognizes that engaging in these conversations is difficult. El-Amine says he has learned a lot from years of these often-heated debates. Today, he says that, "the way I personally work is to highlight abolition in the building process."

Palak Shah, editor of Defending Justice -- an activist resource kit published by the Political Research Associates to help "progressive activists understand and resist the Right, the State, and other forces" that contribute to the growing PIC -- agrees. Shah facilitated a series of workshops in conjunction with the recent release of Defending Justice. In each of these conversations, Shah says, it was "interesting to see how people respond to the abolitionist line. ... How you start talking about it is really important."

People in the anti-prison and prison reform movements have also begun carving out spaces specifically to dialogue with each other. For instance, the Progressive Communicators Network (PCN) recently sponsored its first Strategic Prison Reform and Abolition Communications Gathering. According to Alice do Valle, a member of PCN and the campaign coordinator at Justice Now, anti-prison and prison reform activists analyzed the potential harm and effectiveness of messaging currently used by their groups and movements. To do this, they examined whether groups’ messages challenge or reinforce mainstream myths about the effectiveness and role of prisons.

This August’s Journey for Justice provides yet another opportunity for the anti-prison and prison reform movements to reinforce each other. It also gives anyone concerned about the crisis of mass imprisonment a chance to support ending the suffering of people in prison today and abolishing the system in the long run.

Journey for Justice is scheduled for Saturday, August 13, from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., starting at Lafayette Park on the north side of the White House. March participants will have the opportunity to meet each other ahead of time at a welcome reception at City Hall on Friday, August 12 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. (1350 Pennsylvania Ave NW, 1st Floor Foyer in Washington D.C.)

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