We Must Abolish Prisons to Rebuild Communities Fractured by Mass Incarceration

It is sometimes said that we can’t be what we cannot see, so are we able to imagine a world without jails and prisons? The U.S. is the world’s leader in incarceration. We’ve read about the atrocities that continue to take place in prisons and as a result of being imprisoned. There has been some progress, a growing movement to abolish prisons and jails. But how and where would we even begin to dismantle this enormous so-called prison-industrial complex, and what are the real solutions that encompass the needs of the vast and diverse communities that have already been harmed?

There is so much to think about as it relates to economies, harm, repair, justice and accountability that I’ve asked three people to come and help me think it through, three individuals who are doing this work on a daily basis: community organizer with the Audre Lorde Project and the ANSWER Coalition, Kerbie Joseph; writer, activist and strategist Kenyon Farrow, who’s senior editor of TheBody.com; and Esteban Kelly, who is a cofounder of the movement training cooperative Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance (AORTA) based in Philadelphia, and co-executive director of the U.S. Federation of Worker-Owned Cooperatives.

Laura Flanders: So, why do we want to think about abolition? What makes it an important thing to think about and work toward?

Kerbie Joseph: Well, one, abolition has happened before. In 1865, when slavery was ended, that was an abolitionist act. The problem is that they put a really horrible loophole in the Constitution, that wasn’t written for us on this panel in any way, that says that in case of incarceration, slavery still exists, right? When you live in a system that makes that decision to put in a loophole like that, it’s not only reform that we have to look toward, it’s building our community, but also building it in a way to liberate ourselves from the system in general.

You work with some organizations that do exactly this.

Joseph: Yeah. So, I am the Safe OUTside the System coordinator at the Audre Lorde project. So, literally creating ways that we are safe outside of the system that oppresses us.

And what does it involve on a daily basis of what you’re doing?

Joseph: So, I teach de-escalation. I teach community safety. I do mediation in homes in a way to buffer police involvement in a community that’s already oppressed. The Audre Lorde Project is an organization that focuses on the daily existence of LGBTQ, gender-nonconforming folks of color, which already has horrible statistics about homelessness and mental illness and survival crimes, and being caught up in the mass incarceration system in the first place.

And you, Esteban? How do you think about this question of abolition, and do you spend much time thinking about it in the course of your economic work?

Esteban Kelly: One of my co-ops is an organization called AORTA, and we do political education. Part of that work involves helping institutions, individuals, community leaders understand possibilities, do that envisioning and even take some of the steps inside of their own work and their own institutions to shift to different, alternative models of justice. I’ve also been doing organizing for over 10 years now with a collective called Philly Stands Up, where we’re similarly trying to expand political education and understanding … envisioning a world without prisons, and doing the mental work and the heart work of what it would take to get there.

A lot of that actually starts with zooming in on a smaller scale, because we can’t magnify and amplify all the problems. It’s not just a structural issue that prisons are an institution. It actually is a question of relationship — of even conceptually, What do we see as harm and what do we see as a response to addressing harm or trauma? Let alone recovering from it. And what do we do with the humanity of the people, which turns out is everybody, who has caused harm? Not that it’s all proportionally the same harm or as grave, but we all have been perpetrators of harm in one way or another. So, starting to actually shift and re-center is a point of departure for looking at this work in a really applied way. Then, beyond the political education work, a lot of what we did in Philly Stands Up is work very directly on a volunteer basis around sexual assault situations.

Specifically, our collective was designed to work directly with people who caused harm in instances of sexual assault in our own backyards and our own grassroots community. So, this was not nonprofit work. It was not funded work, but really working in communities of color, in queer communities and political communities, to hold people accountable. It’s not like we started that work with a whole bunch of training. At the time, none of us were licensed in anything, any counseling or any of that work. But actually, by just slowing down with integrity and taking the time to meet people where they’re at and accompany them in a journey, it turned out that it taught us a lot of lessons. That ended up being what we re-broadcast to other grassroots community organizers in some of the lessons that can be extrapolated for how we move toward transformative justice work.

Kenyon, what’s your point of departure for this?

Kenyon Farrow: Yeah, when the question is about, “Why focus on abolition as opposed to reform?” I think we often get stuck at the question of prison abolition or jail, so we think about just the physical kind of building where people are imprisoned. I often tell people I’m actually interested in prison-industrial complex abolition, which takes us to a broader perspective, which I think some of the other panelists are getting at. To think about, really, what is the world we’ve constructed through which punishment and punitive measures drive daily life in so many ways? I think not just about what happens to the person who gets arrested and goes through that system, but I also think about the people who get suspended in public schools, or who get expelled from schools. I think about when public benefits — like food stamps or other welfare benefits — get taken away for a drug offense, or having to do mandatory drug testing for those things. When I think about a world without prisons, I’m also thinking about a world through which we don’t resort to punishment and punitive measures for either things we have constructed as “crime,” but really are about some division around harms that are real and some things that are completely constructed and imagined as harm by the state.

You worked for a long time with Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ), among other groups. Who were you working with and how did you see this play out in that community?

Farrow: I was the former executive director of Queers for Economic Justice. I mean, I think the way we saw it, doing that work with poor and low-income folks, mostly in the New York City shelter system, and then with other queer and transgender folks who needed public benefits were the two pillars of our local organizing work. One of the ways in which Queers for Economic Justice got started was because of the impacts on queer women after the Welfare Reform Act of the mid ’90s in the Clinton administration. People started to see in New York City more queer women entering the shelter system. So, these are folks, who are mostly queer folks, who were working in the nonprofit system of social services. They were seeing all these women come into the shelter system because of the provisions in the Welfare Reform Act that demanded that a father had to be named on a birth certificate in order for the family to get benefits.

If you had queer women who were in relationships together, raising children, oftentimes, the non-biological parent would be afraid once the case manager came to the house that the kids were going to be taken away if it was discovered that the father wasn’t there or that there wasn’t one. So they just would go into the shelter system so that the family could keep the benefits. That, to me, is the prison-industrial complex at work in a way that is not just about the prison itself. For us as an organization, when QEJ was still around, was really thinking about, How do we think about the ways the social safety-net system perpetuates forms of harm and depriving people of things they need through various punitive measures?

So, you’re talking about queer communities, largely queer people of color, but not exclusively. I think of two things: one which is, we are in an era where we’re also surfacing concern and attention to the brutality that this community also experiences in the incarceration system, but also out of it. So Kerbie, how do you think about justice in that context? I mean we have — I don’t want to say an “epidemic” of violence specifically against trans Black women. But you could say that we are experiencing a new degree of awareness of how much violence there is against a population that’s had very little voice or been given very little amplification for their voices. And there are people that say, “Wait a minute, before we have abolition, we have to have justice.” At the moment, they’ve been going with impunity. Certain people have not had any rights yet.

Joseph: I think sometimes when we talk about mass incarceration, abolition, we don’t think that all these things are supposed to work in tandem. It’s very important to have that analysis together because we live in a system that works together every day to find different ways to oppress our communities that are already at the bottom of the barrel. When you mentioned justice, I think about Layleen Xtravaganza [Layleen Polanco], who died at Rikers Island a few weeks ago, because [correction officers] refused to help her in any way while she was dying in her cell.

An Afro-Latina trans woman who died in solitary, owing $500 cash bail.

Joseph: Yep. It’s so interesting because there are people who say, “Well, you know, we have a cash bail reform that’s going to come into effect in 2020.” Well, what does that mean for people like Layleen, who are dying every day, who are getting misgendered, who are being put into the wrong facilities in these prisons to face multiple layers of abuse from other inmates, from other [correction officers], from the state? No New Jails is actually a campaign that — I’m one of the organizers of it — that’s looking at it in that way of like, we need to be working to transform our society and there’s resources there that can do that. That would be justice. That the resources that come from our tax dollars be put into our communities so our people are not going to jail for survival programs or what the system labels as “violence,” which is I think another thing to face, too. Whose definition of violence are we looking at and who’s being defined as violent?

Just to be a pedant on this for a second, I mean, she died incarcerated and that’s one problem.

Joseph: Yes.

There have been a lot of trans people and others dying in the streets because of violence committed against them. What about those people?

Joseph: So, what we have is the system at work in terms of indoctrinating us to be very backward. To hate ourselves and to have no resource in survival to blame it on people who look like them or people who aren’t like them. I think when you were talking about this cultural shift, even if abolition happens tomorrow, even if we have all the material resources that we need to survive as a community, as a people across this nation, the richest country in the world, there’s still a mental oppression that we will have to face and have to deal with. That’s what our communities deal with every day, that people who look like you, who can be an elder, who can be a single mother, who can be somebody in your classroom, can look at you and unleash violence against you, whether it be verbal, mental or physical. Then be in a system where it tells you that the only thing you can do is call 911 to deal with that issue instead of bringing people in to maybe mediate that issue, instead of bringing people in to do political education to reframe people’s mind.

In addition to the punitive, we also have the separate and distance. How are you dealing with that? Because what you’re talking about, Esteban, in your example, you’re saying, “Okay, we have the harmed and the harmer, and everyone actually probably has been harmed. We need to stay in the room together, or in the community, or in the town, or in the building, or in the family, or in the workplace. What if we didn’t have the option of just banishing?” What happens? How do you address that?

Kelly: Well, it’s about moving closer, right? As opposed to distancing and pushing away, which is what the current punitive systems are set up to do. It’s not addressing the problem. It’s reducing the problem to a person. Not to an act or their behavior or something that happened, but it’s totalizing it into the person embodying it and then removing them from the community. So, what we’re doing is actually the opposite. It’s drawing them in and moving closer. What’s actually important is that these need to be community responses, because it can’t actually be up to a survivor to step in and be like, “Let me move closer to the person who caused harm.” Absolutely not. It’s not like a middle school peer mediation model, although there’s a lot of lessons from that, and in fact, I draw on some of the peer mediation training that I got when I was 12 in doing this work. It’s actually ways that the community can step up to be an intermediary, to take on that work, to be the ones who surround and move closer, not just to the person who caused harm, but also all of the attention that needs to go toward the healing to the person, to the community of survivors and the people who’ve been harmed, who also need attention. They need love, they need care.

Are we learning anything, for example, from immigrant populations who are very aware that the state is not going to help them? I’m thinking of undocumented people who dare not call the police. That’s just one population. There are many others represented at this table. Are we learning from those communities how to address this in an interesting way?

Farrow: I could take this from my own life. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in a housing project in the ’80s at the height of the crack era. Generally speaking, people did not call the cops, right? For any reason. There were definitely situations that happened that were intercommunity violence. My mother would take in women who were being abused by their male partners in the community, and we sometimes had the woman and two or three other kids of the women who were in our house for sometimes a couple of weeks at a time. My stepfather, my uncles, other men in the community sometimes went to that man’s house to then like, respond…. So, I saw very early examples of people being able to, as much as they could, try to kind of manage those sort of dynamics. I would say, too, just part of the mass incarceration itself and that system helped perpetuate the kind of isolation that people feel in communities. When you’ve started to arrest so many people and you create such levels of instability, people in communities don’t know each other anymore in ways that they did, so then the response to call the police seems like a logical response because those communities themselves had been so fractured by the actual mass incarceration itself.

So, maybe that goes back to your original point, which was, we’ve had these solutions before and we had them for a long time.

Joseph: Yeah. Before it was called transformative justice, it was the Black Panthers doing it. Before the Panthers were doing it, it was Lenape people that the New York City land is completely built on. These are very old strategies that have been used. Before police were able to walk the beat for fugitive slave acts, people were finding ways to live together collectively, deal with the hard situations, and not dispose of community members, but look at people as human beings, whereas the system doesn’t. It doesn’t look at us as human beings at all. We are numbers that can be funneled in and out.

This speaks to the conditions in which we are all operating, living, finding ourselves, and it seems that on this question, the conditions are kind of changing. One example I looked at recently is the Queens district attorney race here in New York where an out, queer, self-described socialist ran on what she herself called a decarceral platform. Here she is, Tiffany Cabán, running for [district attorney] in Queens.

Tiffany had support from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She talked about a decarceral platform. What do you think is a decarceral platform, and what are you looking to see, Kerbie?

Joseph: I’m just thinking about [New York Mayor Bill] de Blasio’s plan of building four new jails and closing down Rikers in 10 years when he’s not in office, and claiming that that’s decarceration when you’re building 6,000 new cells for people to be in. I think it’s very important that she has a platform to bring up some of the things that we’ve been organizing for, for a very long time, but I think on a very micro level, that the work that I know I focus on is literally building with community members piece by piece to actually teach them what abolition is, what decarceration can be, and what plans politicians who are in our favor are actually putting that into order.

There are people in our community who don’t know who this person is, right? There are people in our community who don’t know what we’re talking about because of language, because of being so hit by repression that they can’t even think straight to have a conversation, even though their lives are political; their existence is a political existence. I know for us, when we think about how to move this work forward, we’re thinking about teaching people how to be that community safety, teaching people this is how we de-escalate. Part of the Safe Neighborhood Campaign that our program runs is literally teaching businesses de-escalation if something happens in their stores, or teaching shelters de-escalation when something happens with their youth, or teaching schools how to de-escalate instead of calling the police that’s already in the hallway to come in and arrest the youth, so police don’t interfere to arrest any more people.

Kenyon, we often ask people on this show, what’s the story the future will tell of this moment?

Farrow: I think we’re sort of at a crossroads. I think it will depend on where things go. My fear is that at this moment, there will be a potential cooptation of our movements and our language, so that we hear people talk about abolition, but the details of which are actually just about sort of moving the pieces around so that there’s still some … kind of physical state control. Whether it’s more people on house arrest or these other kinds of technologies. But I’m hopeful in thinking that as much as folks like my co-panelists, who are doing that work in communities, that once people begin to really kind of experience what a real sort of abolitionist politic and new society can look like in their own lives, no amount of spin that a politician could put out could move them toward something that gets us away from that.

Kerbie?

Joseph: It’s very important that we focus on building people power. One of the things we experience is people are feeling that we can’t do anything. What can we do when a system feels bigger than you are? And really work on the fact that the system is actually afraid of people coming together. The work that she did in building her coalition, that’s work that is feared by folks who want to maintain their power and maintain the status quo she was speaking about.

Last 10 seconds to you, Esteban.

Kelly: I think transformation needs to be systemic and it needs to be interlocking. So, centering politics of prison abolition means that we’re actually changing everything about our economic lives, our social relationships, emotional intelligence, all the ways that we become interdependent, that’s how we transform both institutions at a large scale in our society and at the very micro level, our relationships with one another.

Perfect last word. Thank you all.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.