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Abolition Is a Project of Human Liberation That Must Be Ongoing

Let’s amplify the efforts already in progress to demolish the prison industrial complex and move toward liberation.

A protester projects ''Defund The Police'' on the wall of the Oakland Police Department as people gather at the Frank H. Ogawa Plaza following the police-perpetrated killing of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police, in Oakland, California, on January 29, 2023.

Part of the Series

One of the most common misconceptions about prison abolition is that it’s “unrealistic.” However, in Rachel Herzing and Justin Piché’s new book, How to Abolish Prisons: Lessons from the Movement Against Imprisonment, they show not only that abolition is an eminently practical project, but also that it is already happening. Organizers are practicing abolition in large and small ways, every day, as they work toward a future when prisons and policing no longer exist.

In her foreword to the book, Mariame Kaba writes, “The stories and campaigns featured in this book are examples of hope in action.” Indeed, this book is about the action, the doing, rather than focusing on theory or hypothetical scenarios. What makes How to Abolish Prisons hopeful is its emphasis on the nuts and bolts of organizing, with deep attention to the stories of specific organizations building coordinated campaigns in the United States and Canada. The book shares key histories of abolitionist efforts that have shifted culture, policy, practices and conversations — and freed people from cages. How to Abolish Prisons shows what is possible when we imagine expansively and put those ideas into collective practice. I was thrilled to have this conversation with Herzing and Piché about why and how they wrote this necessary book.

—Maya Schenwar

Maya Schenwar: Why did you decide to write this book about the how of abolishing prisons?

Justin Piché: I won’t say the “how” of getting to abolition has been totally absent in the literature, but we thought it was something that needed to be fleshed out more. How do we dismantle, and how do we build? What’s the space in between? One constant critique that gets leveled against prison abolitionists is that this is just pie-in-the-sky, that it’s utopian; that abolition is impractical. Our book, I think, demonstrates that it’s very practical. People are doing it every day. They’re organizing and working toward decarceral futures every day. In our book we talk about five pathways to prison abolition.

There are groups involved in anti-expansion efforts, such as Critical Resistance, that are organizing to stop the construction of new prisons because we cannot get to abolitionist horizons if the capacity for human caging is growing. These organizers are also working to close existing sites of confinement.

There are groups, such as Black and Pink and the Prisoner Correspondence Project, that work in solidarity with imprisoned people through corresponding with them to build relationships across prison walls, as well as identify issues that are of immediate concern to address in the short-term, like gaining access to gender-affirming health care while working toward the ultimate goal of liberation.

We take steps in the direction of abolition that give us the best chance of gaining the most ground on it. That means we do what we can to delegitimate it.

Art and cultural work also play a role in prison abolitionist struggles. For example, Termite Collective is a group comprised of incarcerated and non-incarcerated people in Quebec, engaging in political education on both sides of prison walls. Such work is critical in passing on knowledge about past and on-going efforts to expose and organize against the brutality of the prison industrial complex (PIC), like Prisoners’ Justice Day.

In this struggle, we cannot forget that there are human beings who are being caged and subjected to draconian conditions of confinement in jails, prisons and penitentiaries, both old and new. They are people who need to be freed through diversion and decarceration efforts. Such organizing often involves the kind of legal advocacy that Justice Now did with incarcerated women in California to challenge the use and harms of imprisonment in the courts.

The punitive criminal legal system is held together by a number of public policies that too need to be dismantled, and so policy advocacy is also a pathway that is utilized to work toward decarceral futures. For instance, even as the Chicago Community Bond Fund was raising money to post bail for people, they were also engaged in the Coalition to End Money Bond to secure legislative change that would see an end to cash being a consideration when the courts consider whether to release someone or hold them in pretrial detention.

As these examples highlight, prison abolition is a praxis and many are doing this work in various ways to weaken the structure of the PIC that will one day crumble to the ground.

Rachel Herzing: As Justin’s examples highlight, and as we explore in detail in the book, we don’t have to start from scratch. We were interested in amplifying the fact that people have been trying this for a long time already, putting these politics in motion. This is not some newfangled thing that is only ideological, where we have to start from scratch to make it go. There’s decades of organizing history to draw from.

Schenwar: I like that while the book is radical — it’s aimed at this expansive vision of abolition — you’re also looking at how these movements and organizations are making changes and providing support to benefit human beings in the here and now. When people are new to abolitionist work, they sometimes think about it as all or nothing, as if you have to be actually dismantling all of the prison system or it’s not abolitionist. Could you share a little bit about how organizing for things like improvements to conditions or mutual aid are part of the abolitionist struggle?

Piché: As abolitionists, sometimes we do engage in non-reformist reforms: reforms that don’t accept the inevitability or necessity of imprisonment, reforms that don’t contribute to empowering the system. These are reforms like putting an end to solitary confinement or strip searches that aim to reduce some of the pains of human caging, while recognizing that we cannot ultimately humanize the deprivation of liberty. And because we cannot humanize this fundamentally inhumane practice, we must organize to dismantle policies and practices in the interim as we strive to eradicate human caging.

We’re not here to fuck around. We’re here to win.

But there are also perils in trying to make any kind of reform within the system; there’s always a need to try and push further. A lot of the groups we talk about are trying to build connections and actively counteract the fact that prisons are set up to forcibly separate people not just from society, but from their loved ones and their communities as well. They’re doing that work through making demands with and for incarcerated people, and fighting with them but from the outside, to try and take away things that make imprisonment even more harmful than it already is. That work is crucial.

Herzing: Those projects — like correspondence projects or ride shares or mutual aid — also acknowledge the presence of currently imprisoned organizers and understand them as a key part of our movement. They need to be in their best fighting form on the inside, the same way that we need to be in our best fighting form on the outside. And we use those same things outside of cages to strengthen our ability to fight. We do mutual aid on the outside to make sure that our people are able to show up at the meeting or show up at the demo or do the work that’s necessary. We do political education together, which is another one of those projects that’s maybe not a campaign, but that fortifies the capacity of organizers. That’s a really important element of some of those projects as well.

Schenwar: You write in the book about how, for abolitionist organizers in particular, it’s sometimes really hard to recognize a win. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what winning means to you in the context of abolitionist organizing, and maybe share some insights into this that you’ve gleaned from the projects you wrote about in the book.

Herzing: Winning is important. I know that in the period we’re in right now, that can be a little contentious. There’s a question about whether winning is capitalistic or coercive or whether winning, or saying you want to win, is too aggressive. And it’s like, No, I absolutely want to win. I want to beat the prison industrial complex, period. We should do everything in our power to beat this thing if we want to live, and I do not mean that hyperbolically. The prison industrial complex represents one of the greatest barriers to a meaningful, well human life. We need to eliminate it to give ourselves a good chance. So winning is really important.

But there are tensions there, because the horizon of prison abolition is pretty distant and has very broad goals, and the practice of moving in the direction of that horizon also has to interact with the dynamics of the real world. I tend to talk about abolitionist steps rather than non-reformist reforms. We take steps in the direction of abolition that give us the best chance of gaining the most ground on it. That means we do what we can to delegitimate it. We do what we can to take the tools away from the agents of the prison industrial complex. We take resources away from it, whether that’s bodies or buildings or money. We weaken it as much as we can.

We’re constantly having to assess whether we are getting more of what we want or less of what we want if we take a certain step. And not every “more of what we want” is a wholesale victory. I don’t think we should claim every kind of abolitionist step in the direction of our goal as a victory, but I do think we need to get better at claiming the things that we actually win. When we get people out of prisons, that’s a victory. When we prevent a state or a municipality from building something new, that’s a victory. When we get money diverted from construction or expansion of prisons, that’s a victory, and we should call them victories, even if it does not mean the complete eradication of the prison system.

“I take the cooptation as a victory. I want you to coopt me until you wake up one day and wonder why the fuck you ever thought a cage was a good idea.”

That’s one of the ways I think about winning, but it’s not the only way. We win if we bring more people in and strengthen our base, and we win if we’re able to make these politics more commonsensical. We win if we’re able to engage more imprisoned and formerly imprisoned people and their loved ones. We win when we are able to delegitimate the system. I think if you are maximalist in your understanding of what abolition means, you will constantly be disappointed. We have to think about all of the wins that it takes to move us toward the broader horizon. We can aim as high as possible and then move things around to think about what we’re able to do right now, given the capacity of our organizations and our movements.

Piché: I agree with Rachel that abolition is somewhere on the horizon. It’s a long struggle. It’s been a long struggle. And we have to get there. We have to continue to grow a movement and sustain the fight. How do we build structures within our own groups to try and beat out the system? Of the various actors who are implicated in this system, some have lifelong careers in it, but others are in there to make a quick buck, or because they’ve temporarily been appointed to some position in this giant bureaucracy. So how do we wait them out? How do we build ourselves up to be able to win the long fight?

A lot of the groups that we talked to for this book have been able to build organizations. Sometimes those organizations wane and become new organizations or new formations. There are some groups here that we interviewed that are now no longer in the formation they were when we met them. New folks have come to replace those that we originally spoke to, but previous members did the important work of building the structure to carry on the fight. We need to build structures that make abolition, and other kinds of organizing, doable — and fun. If you’re not organized and you’re not enjoying what you do, you’re not going to be doing it very long. You’re not going to be able to accomplish as much as you could if you try and break things down step by step and make it workable. We’re not here to fuck around. We’re here to win.

Schenwar: That’s real. I also like winning, and want us to win, and also think it should be fun. I maintain that part of the reason that Love & Protect, the collective I organize with in Chicago, is still around, is because we laugh a lot and are actively enjoying each other’s company. When Mariame Kaba was in Chicago in the early years of Love & Protect, she would always encourage us to celebrate when a victory happened. She said, “We’ve got to do this to keep ourselves together for the long haul.”

Now, I would love to talk for a moment about cooptation. Often, organizers talk about cooptation as a terrible thing. Our movements get used and our words get exploited and manipulated by the powerful to justify all kinds of things. But one thing that came up a couple times in your book was how cooptation can take forms that are maybe not so terrible. This quote in particular stuck with me: Misty, who was formerly with Justice Now, said, “I take the cooptation as a victory. Thank you. I want you to wake up. I want you to coopt me until you wake up one day and wonder why the fuck you ever thought a cage was a good idea.”

You take an unfinished approach to thinking about social change, with each win, you ask: Now what? It’s a perpetual struggle.

Herzing: How you framed it is really helpful. Because sometimes cooptation is just somebody stealing your shit. And sometimes cooptation is people coming over to your side, whether or not they do that well. When things are being metabolized and adopted by new people, you don’t want to find yourself in the situation of being like: Only what I say is abolition. You do want more and more people to take up the ideas and move them forward. As we say in the book, 20 years ago, you could go to an organizing meeting and have somebody tell you, quite literally, to shut up, because they thought the politics were too out there and that it would discredit the so-called “serious” work other people were doing. The fact that now you can show up somewhere and everybody’s “an abolitionist” — that’s a win. It’s a win that I think we should claim.

That said, I also want to win well, and I want our politics to be durable over time. As you pointed out, that’s the key to the book. The cooptation organizers are facing that undermines their capacity to reach their goals is an issue that we should take very seriously. We should think: What is the end game? What’s the articulation of the end game? And then, what are the strategies and tactics that lead us as close to our end game as we can get? That’s when the distinctions become very stark.

Schenwar: I wanted to ask about the concept of the unfinished, which you talk about in the book. By that you mean a sense that transformation is never totally finished, that there’s not a complete endpoint. And there’s also not a specific blueprint or roadmap to where you’re going. It’s more, as you say, a movement toward a horizon. Could you talk about what that means? How did this concept of the unfinished inform how you approached the book, and what do you mean by a “movement toward a horizon?”

Piché: I can start with the concept. Thomas Mathiesen, a sociologist from Norway, was involved in the Norway Association for Penal Reform. They call themselves the “KROM,” and they were organizing toward prison abolition starting in the 1960s. It was a group of imprisoned people, formerly imprisoned people, academics, and even people within the punitive injustice system that were interested in dismantling it. They would talk about different things they could change immediately, while working toward this longer struggle to end imprisonment in that country.

Now, obviously, there’s still imprisonment in Norway, but there is less of it, and that’s not an accident. The “unfinished” is that group’s theory of social change. Originally, they started trying to work toward reforms to diminish the pains of imprisonment. Then they noticed that their work would be coopted to preserve the status quo or written off as being something that could maybe be done in the future, but now is not the time or some other discursive maneuver to prevent social change from happening. There are all these ways that the system neutralizes critiques, as well as different kinds of reforms and alternatives to incarceration.

The horizon is not a fixed point; it’s a point that we keep moving toward because even when we win, there’s the maintenance, the continual adjusting that we have to do to live with each.

Mathiesen, being a researcher amid all of this, started documenting the process and how to win campaigns in ways that aren’t going to result in more chains. Take, for instance, the case of vagrancy, which they fought to abolish as a crime. They decided they weren’t going to endorse any kind of alternative to incarceration or alternative sanction that could be taken up in the system and make it stronger. They instead worked to completely reframe the debate, to use an unfinished approach that conceptualizes how we could respond to things differently. Vagrancy, they said, is not a criminal justice issue at all; it’s an issue of poverty and our socioeconomic system that structurally produces it. Putting people in cages isn’t going to address it, this is a social justice issue. This framing gets us closer to the horizon without prisons. That’s what Mathiesen encourages us to do. And if you take an unfinished approach to thinking about social change, with each win, you ask: Now what? It’s a perpetual struggle.

Herzing: There’s making gains, and then maintaining gains. We are foolish if we think that when we win, our opponents’ response will be: OK, cool, that’s done and we’re going to move on now. Regardless of who our opponents are, they’re going to be like: They took something from me. I want that back. Whether that’s legitimacy or resources or land or whatever. There’s this push and pull that’s always going on where we’re contesting for power, or legitimacy, and that is part of the organizing horizon. The horizon is not a fixed point; it’s a point that we keep moving toward because even when we win, there’s the maintenance of that, the continual adjusting that we have to do to live with each other as human beings and with the natural world. That shouldn’t ever be a finished project.

The good news is that even the most repressive systems are also unfinished. They’re incomplete projects. That’s a little bit of a beacon to us as organizers, that there is no permanent system. The prison industrial complex is also unfinished and will continue to have vulnerabilities that we can attack.

Schenwar: Absolutely. That makes me think about the fight to abolish money bail. I did not think that was going to happen in my lifetime, and the fact that it did happen in Illinois is such a testament to organizers, but also requires constant vigilance. Of course, as soon as it happened, right wing and centrist legislators were immediately like: How are we going to prevent this from being implemented? How are we going to take it down if it is implemented? Then at the same time, there are these other expanding systemsfor example, in some places, organizers worry there might be an expansion of electronic monitoring in response to the success of bail struggles, or that new risk assessment tools may be used to lock people up without a possibility of bail. So the recognition of the unfinished on both sides is so important.

Herzing: It’s also a testament to how the political goals or horizons of an organization can alter how they do their thing. There are plenty of bail reform groups out there that are interested in tinkering with how bail happens. That’s why we were so interested for the book in speaking to the Chicago Community Bond Fund. It wasn’t just that they’re a bond fund, so therefore automatically abolitionist. It was that there was this particular group of people that has broader political aspirations and sees ending bond as a pathway to achieving some of those aspirations.

We try to make this point frequently in the book, that the political end game is what determines whether or not something is an abolitionist project. There’s nothing inherently abolitionist about mutual aid, and there’s all kinds of people who do it in ways that mess things up more than they lead to liberation. There’s nothing inherently abolitionist about writing to imprisoned people or taking loved ones to visit them. But if that’s a pathway toward a broader political horizon, then that’s what we’re interested in looking at. That’s the kind of work that strengthens this movement overall.

This interview is a copublication between Inquest and Truthout as part of our ongoing series Abolition in Action.