There Is No Mass Movement Without Prison Abolition

By Alexis, Drew D, Elizabeth K, Jesse W, and Zoey M, Boston Refoundation

A socialist revolution cannot occur without prison abolition. As socialists, we must fully commit to abolition as a cornerstone of our movement.  This commitment is not an issue of just a rhetorical choice to use the term “abolition.” That term has real-world consequences for our movement. Anything less than abolition will be seized on by reformers who only offer ways to strengthen the carceral system.

Angela Davis has stressed that we need to develop a new vocabulary in order to describe a world without prisons. The words we choose in this movement will be crucial. This vocabulary will be ever evolving as well. For instance, we welcome the criticisms by Dylan Rodriguez on the term “mass incarceration.” The “mass” in that term implies that the prison problem is one of scale; reformers believe if we can only cut the imprisonment rate by a third or half, our problem will be solved.

If our analysis of the prison system is historically grounded, though, we know that it is a foundational institution in America’s white supremacist capitalism. From the practice of imprisoning recently freed slaves and convict leasing following reconstruction, to the origins of the police in both slave patrols and the suppression of labor movements, to the rise in political prisoners in the 1970s alongside growing power of black nationalist movements, policing and prisons have always evolved in service of the capitalist state’s need to control and repress people of color. They will always be used to oppress the black population, and lowering the rate of incarcerated people will not change this. A fluctuating rate of incarceration does not signal its slow end—the state still has the ability to ramp it up when it is politically expedient.

Reformers can easily seize on a rate cut that has no lasting impact: a perfect example of this occurred recently in our own state of Massachusetts.  The landmark case of Diatchenko v. District Attorney, for the Suffolk District in 2013, ended in a life without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles. Diatchenko was paroled, along with several others who first went before the parole board after the decision. Liberal reformers in MA cheered the decision as a proper reform for juvenile justice. However, once the spotlight turned away from the issue, zero out of the next 16 juvenile lifers were granted parole, rendering the decision essentially useless.

There are even instances where reformers actively grow the carceral state in an attempt to regulate it. The Vera Institute of Justice led an initiative to make city police forces more “efficient,” a misguided attempt to make police forces smaller. In the process, they created the groundwork for CompStat, the epitome of neoliberal urban policing. A combination of big data, broken windows theory, and tech-driven police solutions, CompStat has only lessened police accountability in working communities.

If we are going to be serious about abolition, we must put this new vocabulary describing a prison-free world into action NOW to disentangle our lives from the carceral state. We must stop allowing law enforcement to be lionized. We must understand the brutality of law enforcement as a totality: it is constant in the lives of the working classes. Although a unifying political vision of abolition may not be currently articulated across the wide range of working class people and neighborhoods with divergent experiences, the material reality of the destruction and trauma that the system causes is ever-present.

Prison abolition should always be our overarching goal; however, there are steps that we can take in order to substantively disentangle our lives from the carceral state. We can begin to do this in all sorts of ways, big and small. For instance, we can refuse to offer material support to anyone who explicitly associates themselves with the carceral state, for instance by providing discounts to law enforcement, as is common practice in many industries.

We should be offering our communities resources for who to contact in emergencies besides police, even if only to function as a means to widening our political imagination. The carceral state maintains such a wide sphere of influence in our lives because we are encouraged to call the police before we speak to our neighbors, reach out to our community members, or try to find non-violent resolutions for everyday conflicts. Capitalism has deeply entrenched alienation in our communities, and police have stepped in to replace interpersonal connections, finding only the most violent and repressive solutions to our social problems. In contrast, a key tool within an abolitionist framework is restorative justice, a process that rejects an outright punitive approach to addressing crime and violence, and instead prioritizes repairing trust and community relationships while truly holding perpetrators accountable to reckoning with and understanding the harm they’ve caused.

There are abolition skeptics in our movement who state we cannot explicitly claim an abolitionist politics while building a mass workers movement. Even if the working classes do not articulate an abolitionist politics, the material injustice of the carceral state is felt across working class communities and communities of color. This is not only apparent in the creation of new prisons, the militarization of the police, or the expansion of the surveillance state, but also inversely appears as lost funding from schools, health centers, parks, libraries, infrastructure projects and other public goods, which enrich and sustain working class communities. It is our job as socialists—and for many of us—members of the working class, to organize around this material injustice. Likewise, while socialism is not always articulated by working class communities, the material injustice of capitalism is felt consistently. It is our imperative to organize around both.

The struggle for prison abolition is not a symbol to be used or evaluated on the basis of whether or not it is rhetorically effective in organizing work within DSA. The movement for prison abolition has a rich history and makes a revolutionary call for change. The prison industrial complex reaches far beyond the walls of prisons and jails and thus abolition is not merely about getting rid of prisons or police, but changing the very fabric of the society that we live in.  As well put by Dan Berger, Mariame Kaba, and David Stein, in “What Abolitionists Do,” “Whether in response to private property and nineteenth-century chattel slavery, or the prison industrial complex of the last half century, abolitionist movements have unsettled not only conservative critics but liberals, progressives, and even some radicals. The stubborn immediacy of the demand disturbs those who hope for resolution of intractable social problems within the confines of the existing order.”

It is difficult to imagine precisely what a future without prisons looks like, but what socialist abolitionists call for us to do is recognize that to win any long-term goal, one must name that goal and begin to fight for it today.  Abolitionists do not settle for that which the capitalist system seeks to convince us is realistic or possible. Instead, we seek to change the landscape of possibility. Abolitionists have changed the landscape of what is possible in prison reform movements, by critically examining reforms and calling for those that weaken state power and empower incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and communities most impacted by criminalization. Abolitionists have changed the landscape of what is possible in the collective political imagination by redefining violence to include violence perpetrated by the state through law enforcement. We connect a radical critique of capitalist oppression, state violence, and law enforcement with a transformative vision for a socialist future.

A socialist revolution without prison abolition can never be a mass movement. Without abolition, we are ignoring and excluding not only the 2.2 million incarcerated prisoners, but the tens of millions of people on probation, parole, out on bail, or otherwise entangled in the carceral state. Without abolition, we are also ignoring the problems of trauma that prisons cause in our working class communities. We need to offer a politics that humanizes everyone, and without abolition, we are buying into the capitalist dehumanization of the ”criminal” in our society. We are not just othering the criminal, but we are allowing our movement to be poisoned by the very idea of othering/dehumanization. The promise of liberation that socialism brings must be liberation for all.

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