In 1992, formerly incarcerated women created Sisters Inside to advocate for the rights of women and girls behind bars in Queensland, Australia. While other grassroots groups and ad hoc campaigns had formed to work with incarcerated women, Sisters Inside remains the country’s first organization founded and run by formerly incarcerated women. Over the last 31 years, the organization has provided legal and logistical support to currently and formerly incarcerated women and pushed to end policies that cage people, such as imprisoning people for nonpayment of fines.
In November, Sisters Inside held its 10th conference, inviting organizers from across Australia and overseas to brainstorm and strategize under the theme “Abolition Feminism Now.” Both of us flew in from the United States, where mainstream media hypes every individual act of violence as part of a so-called surge of crime. In recent years, anti-prison organizing, and even mild reforms, have faced a well-funded backlash, particularly after nationwide uprisings and organizing efforts to defund the police in 2020. Being surrounded by both veteran organizers and those new to anti-prison organizing was the reinvigoration we hadn’t known that we needed.
In Brisbane, surrounded by lizards, loud birds and warm spring sunshine, hundreds of people gathered for three days of plenary sessions, workshops and tabling to connect and learn about organizing. The breadth and depth of the workshops reminded us that issues are intertwined — that ending the family policing system, borders and prisons must go hand in hand with developing meaningful and non-carceral responses to gender and sexual harm, and that ending gender and sexual harm requires challenging the false beliefs that borders and police make us safer.
Here are 10 things that fired us up during our time in Brisbane — and beyond. They reminded us that not only can we build a world in which people thrive, but that organizers are doing so daily.
Grassroots Networks Are Crucial!
Small projects and networks are practicing abolition. In Melbourne, Flat Out celebrated its 35th year of supporting people both during their incarceration and after release. The group not only provides necessities, such as menstrual supplies, clothing and food that people desperately need after being released from prison, it also fights against the rising criminalization of women with its active campaign to stop the expansion of a women’s prison in the state of Victoria.
In Aotearoa (New Zealand), People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA) began as an ad hoc protest against police marching in a 2015 Pride parade. The group started working with queer people behind bars before expanding its support to all people in prisons, regardless of sexual and gender identity. Like many other abolition feminist organizations, Flat Out and PAPA deepen public dialogues about abolition and feminism, through panels, posters, and other forms of critical community-based political education. The work is often labor-intensive and frequently run on a shoestring budget, but it also builds community. Each year, PAPA brings together people from all walks of life — from residents of a neighborhood nursing home to younger anarchists — to write holiday cards to incarcerated people.
Directly Impacted People Are the Core of These Movements.
The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, originally formed in the United States, has expanded to incubate the International Network of Formerly Incarcerated Women. Under the demand “Free her!” they are mobilizing to free women from jails and prisons and advocating to end the long-standing injustices, such as poverty, criminalization and racism, that push women into prison. In some U.S. cities, recognizing that poverty is a direct pathway to prison, groups have organized pilot programs providing guaranteed income payments. In Massachusetts, currently and formerly incarcerated people are demanding a five-year moratorium on all jail and prison construction or expansion and that those funds instead be channeled into resources enabling people to flourish.
The conference highlighted organizing spearheaded by formerly incarcerated women, both in Australia and overseas. In 2020, Sisters Inside Founder and Director Debbie Kilroy created the National Network of Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women & Girls, bringing together women, girls, feminine identifying and nonbinary people from across Australia to end incarceration. Kilroy closed the conference with the powerful reminder: Nothing about us without us.
Organizing Spans Generations.
Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal octogenarian, artist and academic, recalled visiting the United States in the early 1970s, where she marched to free Angela Davis, who had been jailed on highly politicized murder charges. After a worldwide freedom campaign and a much-publicized trial, Davis was freed and became an international inspiration for generations of abolitionists. Half a century later, Davis sat in the audience while Watson recalled this connection.
Organizers born years, and even decades, after Davis’s well-publicized legal victory continue the fight to end criminalization and incarceration. In North Queensland, near Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef, organizers launched the End Toxic Prisons campaign to stop the construction of two new youth prisons. Instead of pushing to raise the age of criminal responsibility, the campaign, guided by young First Nations people, counters media misinformation about youth crime and galvanizes local opposition to incarcerating young people at all.
We Need to Reach Across — and Dismantle — Borders.
The U.S. continues to export its mass incarceration model across the globe. States in Australia are building new prisons based not on the Scandinavian models that are increasingly popular among prison administrators and politicians (and often touted as more humanitarian), but on the U.S. model of supermax prisons. The imprint of the prison built for the “worst of the worst” was clearly visible in our visit to the austere Southern Queensland Correctional Centre, where 300 women were warehoused in newly built concrete, cyclone fencing and coils of razor wire more than 100 kilometers outside of Brisbane. As in prisons across the globe, many were already survivors of gender and sexual harm before arrest and, behind bars, are continually retraumatized by dehumanizing practices, such as routine strip searches.
The State Cannot Fix the Problems It Creates.
Inquests are judicial inquiries to determine the circumstances and cause of a sudden death. In Australia, where inquests are mandatory for deaths in custody, the coroner conducts the process, which includes calling and questioning witnesses. For years, family members whose loved ones have died in police custody or while incarcerated often leave these hearings without answers, closure or accountability. Latoya Rule, whose brother Wayne Morrison died after police restrained him and put a spit hood over his head, noted that inquests do not prevent future deaths, result in more transparency for loved ones or compel accountability from police. Their family waited five years for an inquest into Morrison’s death only to see prison guard after prison guard refuse to answer questions. They remain no closer to learning what happened in his final moments. Still, mobilizations led by loved ones have procured some wins, such as the decriminalization of “public drunkenness” and the banning of spit hoods, tactics that have long been used to criminalize and kill Aboriginal people.
New Technology Is Not a Win.
Queensland’s new prisons employ some of the latest technologies, including digital fingerprinting for visitors and, for those behind bars, “smart” toilets that restrict the number of flushes per day. These new technologies provide no opportunities for rehabilitation or transformation. Instead, they give the perception of modernized facilities, deepen surveillance and allow more public funds to be poured into incarceration rather than social safety nets.
In Canada, several prisons now utilize body scanners, allegedly to detect contraband. Yet these scanners have not replaced prisons’ dehumanizing strip searches. Not only are the scanners used in addition to these retraumatizing practices, officers, unable to accurately read these scans, have misidentified body organs as drugs and sent people to solitary confinement as a result of these errors.
We Must Name and Recognize Our Wins.
In 2019, lawmakers in Aotearoa (New Zealand) sought to arm police with guns in response to the shooting in Christchurch. At that point, police officers did not carry guns, but kept them locked in their cars. When police enacted a trial period for armed response teams, PAPA organized its Arms Down Campaign. With art created from people’s stories of police violence, PAPA graphically illustrated the dangers of even non-militarized policing, particularly against Māori and Pasifika communities. They urged New Zealanders to call police and public officials in opposition to the measure. The campaign only gained real traction in 2020 when footage of U.S. police murdering George Floyd flooded news and social media feeds worldwide, allowing New Zealanders to see the dangers inherent in policing. Although the trial period had ended by then, police officials had scheduled a review and decision on permanently implementing armed police for June 2020. Bowing to public pressure, they scrapped the plan altogether.
In Australia, family members have fought to end policies that have killed their loved ones. April Day’s mother Tanya died in jail after police arrested her under its public intoxication law. Recognizing that the law allowed police to disproportionately target Aboriginal people, Day and other family members fought for years to decriminalize public drunkenness in Victoria. The law went into effect on Melbourne Cup Day, long known as the day when many white Australians are drunk in public without being arrested or even harassed by police.
Sometimes When We Fight, We Don’t Win.
Not all organizing results in victory. In 2020, Aotearoa held a referendum to legalize marijuana for personal recreation. PAPA members mobilized in support. The ongoing pandemic prevented in-person organizing and conversations, so the campaign pivoted to “letter boxing,” or putting informational brochures in mailboxes. It was a mighty task for a small, grassroots group, but they connected with people across the country to ensure the widest possible reach. Still, the referendum failed to pass with only 48.4 percent voting in favor of legalization. But even losses can provide us with valuable insights on what to do next time. They can also forge new starting places and connections for future campaigns and actions.
Movement Assessment Is Critical. So Is Joy.
As two people who have attended a number of conferences over the past few decades, we know that bringing people together can be chaotic, tiring and fraught with conflict. Yet it remains crucial to movement building. Sharing both space and experiences raises critical questions while also deepening analyses and coalitions. Coming together, we strengthen connections between seemingly disparate campaigns, time periods and regions. In a video clip, Erin Miles Cloud, a co-founder of the U.S.-based Movement for Family Power described how the U.S. child welfare system is actually a family policing system that punishes rather than helps vulnerable families. Her message resonated with an audience still reeling from the intergenerational traumas and devastation wrought by the Stolen Generations, a century-long government policy in which Aboriginal children were taken from their families.
Beyond sharpening our analysis, convenings also have the power to cultivate community and joy. From the sizzling poetry of Lorna Munro, to the smart and rollicking performance and music of Hot Brown Honey, to the fierceness of rapper Barkaa, art, music, poetry and dancing show us that abolition feminism isn’t just necessary — it’s also sexy and fun.
Support for Palestine Is Worldwide.
Calls for a free Palestine were a consistent thread throughout the conference. Speakers drew parallels between the violence of colonialism in Australia and across Palestine: Aboriginal women in Australia are incarcerated at more than 20 times the rate of non-Aboriginal women, while the state of Israel, a newer colonial power, has long used, and is now drastically increasing, incarceration to silence Palestinian dissent. Outside the conference, #FreePalestine and #LandBack street level organizing took place under the twin flags of Palestine and Aboriginal Australians. Across Australia (and the planet) growing weekly marches, direct actions preventing military weapons from being shipped to Israel, graffiti and posters wheatpasted on lampposts, were constant reminders of the deepening and international solidarity for an end to colonization and for a free Palestine.