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Opinion: A Brief Introduction to Police and Prison Abolition

An aerial shot of the San Quentin prison complex
Photo courtesy of Telstar Logistics/Creative Commons

This article is a follow-up to another article regarding police and prison abolition. Read the first article here.

In late April, I wrote an article about how I had worked through trauma within the lens of police abolition. Though this article provided insight into how abolition can be healing, it didn’t answer an important question: what exactly is abolition?

To start, there are five key terms and concepts that must be understood. The first term, and arguably the most important one, to understand is the prison industrial complex (PIC). As defined by Critical Resistance, the PIC is “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” The second term is police. When most people think of police, they think of people who protect their communities. The term “law enforcement” is a more accurate way to describe their job. Law enforcement as we know it began in the 1700s with slave patrols. White community members would hunt runaway enslaved people, squash rebellions and, during the Reconstruction era, heavily monitor the behavior of recently freed enslaved people. They were legitimized through government funding and legislation (specifically slave codes) to “protect” their communities from harm — though most of that harm was Black and brown communities simply existing.

Third, there’s “crime” (the quotations are intentional around this one). The definition of what actions constitute “crime” is completely subjective. “Crime” changes with how those in leadership in the PIC define it. Rarely is there consistency in the morality of what is considered “crime.” Under the PIC, any person caught engaging in “crime” is punished for doing so. Even though all “crime” doesn’t have the same impact, it results in the same punishment: incarceration. The only identifiable differences in incarceration sentencing is the length of time served and/or the nature of the sentence (i.e. solitary confinement, varying conditions of correctional facilities, etc). Regardless, the PIC sees all “crime” as a violation of their rules. Therefore, “crime” isn’t definitive unless the powers that be say it is.

The fourth concept is that of a collective. In a collective, everyone uses their individual skills to work towards the predetermined goal(s) of the community. We can see this concept in our current society. In terms of the PIC, take the idea of a “crime-free” society. Though communities may not have a say in what constitutes a “crime,” individuals have the ability to decide when to request intervention. Some neighborhoods have neighborhood watch programs that work alongside local law enforcement to identify people engaging in “crime” to ultimately reduce it. Based on a community’s definitions of “crime,” they will decide which incidents should be acted upon. For example, if a community feels that theft is a significant problem, they may choose to devote their time and resources to that.

Collectives already exist. But our current concept of collectives centers on upholding systems rather than a particular outcome. Policing isn’t a universal resource for everyone in a community. For many, calling law enforcement for help poses a threat to their own safety. For example, an undocumented person who has experienced sexual assault may be less inclined to go to law enforcement if they feel their immigration status will be called into question. Rather than helping a person who has experienced harm, their engagement with “crime” that the PIC deems wrong can often be prioritized over their healing. When your existence is associated with “crime,” it is difficult to rely on law enforcement for assistance.

This leads us to our final term: transformative justice. Rather than focusing on punishment, transformative justice seeks solutions through harm reduction tactics. It recognizes that justice should center around healing people who have been harmed while also requiring the person who has caused harm to take accountability for their actions and work toward correcting their behavior. Transformative justice also focuses on preventing harm by investing in community-based resources.

The most challenging part of abolition to explain to people is what it looks like. The truth is, there isn’t a straightforward answer. Abolition isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, especially because every community is different. Solutions are not universal because each community has different needs with different resources and support systems. The goals of collectives may be the same (i.e. divesting from law enforcement and reinvesting into community-based resources), but the ways they achieve them can vary (i.e. using that money to fund mental health resources versus affordable housing — not that both can’t be done). Abolition means different things for different people. That’s why it’s important to do your own research to understand how it can change your community for the better. I have listed some resources below that you can use to learn more about the origins of prison abolition, as well as ongoing efforts nationwide and in the Triangle area.

"What is Abolition" from Critical Resistance

"Common Sense" from Critical Resistance

By Aminah Jenkins, News Editor



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