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Let 2023 Be the Year of Dismantling Incarceration

I asked organizers working to dismantle incarceration what is giving them hope for 2023. Here’s what they shared.

Demonstrators demanding the closure of Attica Correctional Facility hold signs while participating in a rally in New York City, on September 9, 2016.

Part of the Series

Over the past year, organizers across the country have been working nonstop to free people from jails and prisons — and yet, of course, millions remain behind bars. Faced with this reality, it can be easy to slip into discouragement at the outset of a new year. But long-time abolitionist organizer and author Mariame Kaba reminds us that “hope is a discipline” — one we must practice even when the horizon is cloudy, when the new year brings no clarity, no easy optimism.

In this spirit, I asked a number of organizers working to dismantle incarceration what is giving them hope for the coming year. I’m mentioning just a few decarceration projects out of countless important campaigns. And although I’m spotlighting decarceration projects (those specifically focused on shrinking incarceration and confinement), I want to note that abolitionist organizers are also working to build mutual aid networks, create non-carceral ways to address harm, and advocate for housing, non-carceral health care, education, environmental justice, and more. But I hope these glimpses of 2023’s freedom campaigns offer a sense of how we can look to the new year with excitement — and relentless determination to free them all.

Fighting to Close Prisons and Jails

Some of the most tangibly hopeful decarceration projects on the horizon are campaigns to shut down prisons and jails. Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a coalition of more than 80 grassroots groups working to reduce incarceration in California, is pushing to close 10 prisons in the state by 2025. The coalition is on its way: The state closed a prison, the Deuel Vocational Institution, in 2021, thanks to organizers’ sustained struggle, and another is set to close in 2023. Now, the coalition is calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to commit to steps toward decarceration in the state’s January budget, including identifying three more prisons for closure. Organizers are mobilizing Californians to send letters to the governor and to rally in Sacramento in mid-January.

Woods Ervin is director of the programs team at the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance, which is a member of Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Ervin describes how the California organizers’ demands chart a capacious approach that both shuts down prisons and “invests in communities — not just where the prisons are, but the communities where incarcerated people come from — and takes into account job generation, environmental impact and Indigenous land return.”

Ervin is viewing the new year with hope for more releases, more closures and a vision for people-driven transformation, saying they are “really looking forward to supporting the work to get people out, closing cages and redirecting resources and power back to impacted communities.”

California isn’t an anomaly on this front: Across the country, people are pushing to close prisons and jails and prevent the building of new ones. From the Final Five Campaign working to close all Illinois youth prisons, to the Communities Over Cages Alliance pushing to close an Atlanta jail, to efforts around the country to stop “civil commitment” facilities, there are activists in every state fighting to erase institutions of confinement from the landscape.

Abolitionist organizers are also working to ensure closures don’t result in other forms of incarceration, like electronic monitoring or jail-like “treatment” centers, which are also racist, ableist, heteropatriarchal, classist institutions of punishment. A powerful example can be found in the work of Mijente, Just Futures Law, Community Justice Exchange, and other groups struggling against ICE’s digital prisons (electronic monitoring devices and other oppressive surveillance technology). Through lawsuits, advocacy, political education and grassroots campaigns like Mijente’s #NoTechForICE, organizers recognize the new year will bring more opportunities to dismantle cages of all kinds.

As Setareh Ghandehari, advocacy director at Detention Watch Network, wrote in Truthout, “The only alternative to detention is freedom.”

Working to Free Elders and Expand Release

We can find great inspiration in organizers taking action to free elders and people serving long sentences — particularly the tenacious decarceration organization Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP). “2023 will be a year of action and hope for RAPP,” Laura Whitehorn, the organization’s co-founder, told me. “We are tackling decarceration from all angles.”

Just one of those angles is a broad clemency campaign that RAPP is undertaking in coalition with other New York-based groups. Clemency — when the state either commutes (reduces or ends) a sentence or issues a pardon to eliminate a conviction — is granted by the governor at the state level. RAPP members are calling on New York Gov. Kathy Hochul to use her power to regularly release large numbers of people, especially those serving life sentences, many of whom are elderly and/or sick and most of whom are Black.

Currently, RAPP organizers are urging supporters to contact Hochul and demand she take mass clemency action to commute the terms of thousands of people sentenced to death by incarceration (otherwise known as “life sentences”). Unlike some clemency campaigns, RAPP isn’t restricting its demands to people convicted of “nonviolent offenses”; it states clemency shouldn’t exclude anyone based on the nature of their conviction.

Jose Di Lenola, director of RAPP’s clemency campaign, told me he considers clemency “one of many mechanisms” that can begin to confront the “decades of racist criminal legal system policies that have created mass incarceration.” Di Lenola also says clemency campaigns can help expand the movement for decarceration as a whole. “In 2023,” he said, “we’ll continue to see that our clemency campaign brings into the movement more directly impacted families.”

Additionally, RAPP is leading a statewide coalition to dramatically expand parole, particularly for those serving long sentences.

Across the country in California, another fight to end death by incarceration is gaining steam. Colby Lenz, an organizer with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, is finding hope for 2023 in the work of the Drop LWOP Coalition, which includes organizations led by family members of those serving “life without parole” sentences — groups like Felony Murder Elimination Project and Families United to End LWOP.

“Amidst impossible conditions, people sentenced to [life without parole], their families, and other advocates have been organizing to demand freedom for people sentenced to death by incarceration in California,” Lenz told me. “In the last few years, well over 100 people have been released from life-without-parole sentences in California, many of whom are now leading the movement from the inside out.”

“Decarceration doesn’t just mean getting people out of jail, it means stopping people from being put in them in the first place,” Andrea Ritchie told me.

Other organizers echoed this encouraging reality: Much of 2023’s decarceration work will be driven by those inside prisons and those closest to them. “RAPP has built a movement for parole justice that is led by families with incarcerated loved ones who embrace RAPP’s principles and values that are rooted in the history of racial and social movements,” RAPP’s Executive Director Jose Saldana shared with me.

Along these lines, the Chicago-based collective Mothers of the Kidnapped is made up of people caring for incarcerated loved ones, particularly BIPOC survivors of Chicago police frame-ups and torture. The collective works to free their loved ones and other people in Illinois — and also to uplift the worldwide struggle against policing, imprisonment and colonialism, including the Palestinian liberation movement. In 2023, Mothers of the Kidnapped will lead a process with the UN Special Rapporteur on Racial Discrimination to put pressure on Illinois State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Gov. J.B. Pritzker to “free all survivors of police torture and frame-ups,” the group shared with me.

In 2022, their community saw a victory: Mothers of the Kidnapped member Esther Hernandez’s sons Juan and Rosendo Hernandez, who had been tortured by police and framed for murder, were exonerated after over 25 years of incarceration. When I asked the collective what gives them hope for 2023, they shared that they’ll be drawing on the celebrations of Hernandez’s sons’ release in their efforts to “free them all.”

They added:

Hope is the collective love and care that drives all reproductive justice work building a world beyond U.S. state violence — from survivors of police torture and their families here in Chicago, to the battles of Palestinian mamas and caregivers whose loved ones have been stolen from them by US-backed Israeli colonization and the Israeli prison-industrial complex. When we realize mamas and caregivers as powerful forces tearing down prison and imperialist walls; when our minds and hearts affirm that all of our loved ones are coming home and Palestine will be free — this vision of an abolitionist future nurtures and sustains our ability to hope in the coming year.

Pushing to Defund the Police and Confinement

All of these groups recognize that freeing people isn’t only about the release of those inside prison walls; it also means dismantling the systems that got them there.

“Decarceration doesn’t just mean getting people out of jail, it means stopping people from being put in them in the first place, which means we have to target every system that funnels people into cages of any kind,” Andrea Ritchie, co-founder (along with Mariame Kaba) of the abolitionist initiative Interrupting Criminalization, told me.

When I asked Ritchie what is giving her hope for the new year, she pointed to a project that emerged out of the 2020 uprisings to defend Black lives: the Seattle Solidarity Budget. Organizers are advocating for cutting police and jail budgets — and funding housing, traffic safety measures, wages, climate transformation, and much more instead. Their mobilization is working: They succeeded in pressuring Seattle to slash its police funding in both 2020 and 2021. According to an Interrupting Criminalization report that will be released later this month, this makes Seattle the only city to significantly cut the police budget two years in a row. Plus, Solidarity Budget organizers won a campaign to tax Seattle’s biggest corporations and direct that money toward Green New Deal investments and affordable housing.

Ritchie noted, “Seattle Solidarity Budget’s expansive campaign for divestment from cops, courts and cages operationalizes the understanding that each fuels the other: If we want to decarcerate we need to decriminalize homelessness; defund police and divest from institutions of policing and punishment; reduce the funding, power and scope of courts; empty jails and stop construction of new facilities; ensure public control over public funds through participatory budgeting; and fund public sector workers, housing, and climate resilience.”

Seattle is far from alone in continuing its defund-the-police organizing. In September, Interrupting Criminalization released a video depicting campaigns to divest from police and carceral institutions and invest in resources that help communities thrive, around the country. I recommend watching it if you’ve felt your sense of hope fading. From Oakland to Austin; from St. Louis to Minneapolis; from Loíza, Puerto Rico, to Atlanta, Georgia, people are still coming together to resist state violence — and push for resources that allow communities to thrive.

Building Community Power

Every organizer I spoke with emphasized that freedom struggles are not abstract: They’re about communities, about people, about each other.

“What’s giving me hope in the fight for decarceration in 2023 is community,” Kim Wilson, a longtime Philadelphia-based organizer and co-host of the Beyond Prisons Podcast, told me. “It’s the commitment of comrades and friends to continue to fight, to build, to fail together without fear, and picking each other up as many times as needed because no one is getting left behind. The fight to decarcerate is waking up every day knowing that you are working towards collective liberation with comrades around the world, because our movements are linked and so is our fate.”

Accordingly, looking toward the new year, we can be encouraged by the work of organizations grounded in mutual aid, including directly impacted people supporting each other. James Kilgore, an abolitionist author and activist (and regular writer for Truthout), says the “building of organization” brings him hope for decarceration, and reminds us that this growth is not only happening in big cities. He points to FirstFollowers, a reentry project located in Champaign, Illinois, where he lives. Kilgore serves as the group’s director of advocacy and outreach.

“We have been building for seven years with a core of formerly incarcerated people and have provided over 500 people with support after returning from prison,” Kilgore told me.

Like Mothers of the Kidnapped, FirstFollowers defines community broadly — it’s not only working on a specific, siloed issue, but recognizing connections.

“We have become a leading voice in our community in the struggle for racial justice and peace,” Kilgore said of FirstFollowers. “To fight against mass incarceration, we need to build solidarity with people focusing on other justice issues.”

Let’s enter the new year with stubborn hope. With a fiery love that is bigger than cages. And with the knowledge that 2023 is only the beginning.

Kilgore also points to how the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which has long paid bail for people in the city (and which I helped co-found in 2015), co-led a successful campaign to abolish money bond with a law that went into effect today (although a recent ruling means implementation has been put on pause). If implemented, the new law has the potential to prompt a reduction in jail populations.

Santera Matthews of the Chicago Community Bond Fund told me, “One of our hopes for 2023 is that the jail population in Illinois dramatically decreases with the implementation of the Pretrial Fairness Act as we continue to struggle towards an abolitionist horizon.” Her words are a reminder that these fights are never over. If the law takes effect, judges will retain discretion to incarcerate people pretrial, without bond.

Therefore, winning the abolition of money bond must be accompanied by an unyielding struggle to end incarceration itself, lest more people be indefinitely incarcerated.

Centrally, from Californians United for a Responsible Budget to RAPP to Mothers of the Kidnapped to FirstFollowers and beyond, organizers are recognizing that working to end incarceration in the new year is not just about tearing down prison walls; it’s about tearing down the less-visible walls that separate us from each other, and building authentic community.

“Decarceration is work rooted in love,” Wilson said. “In the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, ‘where life is precious, life is precious.’”

When I think of work rooted in love, I also think of organizers planting abolitionist seeds by working with young children in ways that could energize movements well beyond 2023. A moving example is Queenie’s Crew, a child-focused group inspired by Mariame Kaba and Bianca Diaz’s children’s book, See You Soon, in which the main character is separated from her mother by incarceration. Through art activities, readings, games and projects, Queenie’s Crew, a program of Project NIA, aims to “support children in imagining a collective future where we are all free.”

I asked Leila Raven, coordinator of Queenie’s Crew, what gives her hope for the coming year. She said, “I feel so inspired by kids who are always asking questions and teaching us how to imagine the world anew.”

What You Can Do

Decarceration work — including imagining the world anew — needs us all, and there are nearly limitless ways to plug in this year.

At the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, Wanda Bertram reminds us that one in three incarcerated people are in local jails, and hyperlocal organizing can help stop jail expansion and get people free. When I asked her thoughts on hopeful actions people can take in 2023, Bertram shared, “If you’re trying to get involved, start with a campaign around your county jail.”

Ervin at Critical Resistance urges people to join California’s prison closure campaign. They’re particularly interested in building coalitions with the labor movement; if you’re in a union and want to help, contact Critical Resistance! Ervin also shared that “getting involved in or supporting the work of organizations like Survived and Punished, All of Us or None, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, TGIJP and DWN are surefire ways to contribute to decarceration.”

When I asked Di Lenola of RAPP how folks can help, he emphasized the organization is looking for members, and noted, “It is through our collective advocacy — people power — that we can achieve the goal of dismantling the carceral system.”

Here in Chicago, the collective I organize with, Love & Protect, supports BIPOC survivors of gender-based violence who have been criminalized, and supports clemency campaigns. One particularly urgent one is that of Bernina Mata, a queer Latinx criminalized survivor who has been incarcerated for 23 years thanks to a racist and homophobic prosecution. You can urge Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to free Bernina by sending an email here. You can also connect with incarcerated survivors by sending them a letter or card.

You can also contribute to local bail funds to get people out of jail in the new year. Find a bail fund in your area by searching the National Bail Fund Network, which contains more than 90 funds around the country which have committed to both paying bond and working against pretrial incarceration. These include immigration bond funds like the Midwest Immigration Bond Fund, the Black Immigrants Bail Fund and the Georgia Immigration Bond Fund, which are simultaneously struggling to end the incarceration of migrants.

As we seek ways to participate in decarceration efforts, organizers emphasize that we must simultaneously work to build the world we want to see. Check out One Million Experiments, a project of Interrupting Criminalization and Project NIA, to read about a wide range of community-based efforts to create new ways of cultivating collective safety — and explore how you can get involved.

Beyond the Calendar

The insights that all of these organizers generously shared with me point to the fact that our work will stretch far beyond 2023, into futures none of us can map. As Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners and Beth Richie write in Abolition. Feminism. Now., abolitionist organizing is “slow work in always urgent times… slow work that has its gaze on the long term.”

Let’s enter the new year with stubborn hope. With a fiery love that is bigger than cages. And with the knowledge that 2023 is only the beginning.

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