A Jailbreak of the Imagination: Seeing Prisons for What They Are and Demanding Transformation

May 4, 2018

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Our current historical moment demands a radical re-imagining of how we address various harms. The levers of power are currently in the hands of an administration that is openly hostile to the most marginalized in our society (Black people, Native people, the poor, LGBTQ people, immigrant communities and more). While we protect ourselves from their consistent and regular blows, we must also fight for a vision of the world we want to inhabit. For us, that’s a world where people like Tiffany Rusher, who began a five-year sentence at Logan Correctional Center in Broadwell Township, Illinois, in 2013, are not tortured to death in the name of “safety.” Our vision insists on the abolition of the prison industrial complex as a critical pillar of the creation of a new society.

Imprisoned on charges related to sex work, Tiffany Rusher was eventually placed in solitary confinement for getting into a physical struggle with one of her cellmates. During her time in solitary confinement, Rusher’s mental health began to deteriorate, initiating a cycle of self-harm. After a series of suicide attempts and periods of solitary confinement, Rusher was placed on “crisis watch” for a period of eight months. According to Rusher’s lawyer, Alan Mills, being on “crisis watch” meant being stripped of all clothing and belongings, and placed in a bare cell with only a “suicide smock” (a single piece of thick woven nylon, too stiff to fold, with holes for one’s head and arms). During this time, Rusher was monitored through a plexiglass wall, with the lights on, 24 hours a day. Rather than receiving mental health care, Rusher was kept naked, except for her rigid smock, in an empty cell. She was given strict, dehumanizing instructions about how to wipe herself and manage her menstrual hygiene, which included a requirement that her hands be visible to the guard watching her at all times. In order to read, Rusher had to persuade a prison guard to hold an open book against the glass of her cell, and turn each page as she finished reading it.

As time wore on, Rusher asked her attorney: Who in her situation wouldn’t want to kill themselves?

At the end of her sentence, Rusher was finally transferred to a mental health facility. Rusher, who disclosed to her doctors that she had experienced child sexual abuse, had received dozens of diagnoses over the years, including schizoaffective disorder, but nonetheless made great strides while in treatment. Eight months into her in-patient care, however, Rusher got into an altercation with another patient. Rather than treating the episode as a symptom of her mental health problems, she was sent back to jail, where the cycle of carceral violence continued.

Restoring our awareness of the humanity of prisoners is a crucial step toward undoing the harms of mass incarceration.

After Rusher’s death, her mother, Kelli Andrews, said in a statement, “Tiffany was a beautiful soul with hopes for her future. She was looking forward to coming home to be with her family. We miss her every day.”Sangamon County jail returned Rusher to solitary confinement, where she remained for three months before being found unresponsive with a ripped piece of a towel around her neck. Rusher died 12 days later when the hospital removed her from life support. In the words of Rusher’s attorney, Alan Mills, “First they tortured her, then they killed her.”

At the time of her death, Tiffany Rusher was 27 years old.

Sadly, what Rusher endured was not exceptional. The US prison system is designed to crush people like Tiffany Rusher every day, with only a small section of society laboring to help prisoners save themselves from being ground under. In Rusher’s case, the attorneys and staff of Uptown People’s Law Center, in Chicago, were her defenders, but in the end, the wounds inflicted by the system were too deep, and the cycle of carceral violence was simply too entrenched to interrupt. Rusher, now a statistic to the world at large and a court filing to those her attorneys would hold accountable for her death, was refused any recognition of her humanity while incarcerated. But Rusher was not a number. She was a human being, and restoring our awareness of the humanity of prisoners is a crucial step toward undoing the harms of mass incarceration.

As prison abolitionists, grassroots organizers and practitioners of transformative justice, our vision for 2018 is one of clear-eyed awareness and discussion of the horrors of the prison system — and the action that awareness demands. As a society, we have long turned away from any social concern that overwhelms us. Whether it’s war, climate change or the prison industrial complex, Americans have been conditioned to simply look away from profound harms. Years of this practice have now left us with endless wars, dying oceans and millions of people in bondage and oppressively policed. It is time for a thorough, unflinching examination of what our society has wrought, and what we have become. It is time to envision and create alternatives to the hellish conditions our society has brought into being.

The Illusion of a New Idea

Outspoken opponents of abolishing the prison industrial complex typically portray abolitionists as politically inactive academics who spout impossible ideas. None of this could be further from the truth. Abolitionists come from all backgrounds, and most are politically active. From bail reform to strategic electoral interventions and mutual aid, prison abolitionists are steadily at work in our communities, employing tactics of harm reduction, lobbying for and against legislation, defending the rights of prisoners in solidarity with those organizing for themselves on the inside and working to forward a vision of social transformation. As a political framework, abolition has gained significant ground in recent years, with groups like the National Lawyers Guild adopting the philosophy in their work. A growing number of grassroots abolitionist organizers have co-organized nationally recognized campaigns such as the #ByeAnita effort in Chicago, which helped to successfully remove former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez from office. Abolitionist organizers also helped lead efforts to win reparations for survivors of torture that occurred under the now infamous police commander Jon Burge in Chicago — a city that has, over the past two decades, become a hub of abolitionist organizing. Abolition is a practical organizing strategy.

Whether it’s war, climate change or the prison industrial complex, Americans have been conditioned to simply look away from profound harms.

Like any enterprise that was born of a manufactured demand, prisons perpetuate themselves, and that requires the maintenance of conditions that foster crime. From 1978 to 2014, the US prison population rose 408 percent, largely filling its cages with those denied access to education, employment and human services. About 70 percent of prisoners in California are former foster care youth. And given that the system is actually geared toward recidivism, there can be no argument that the prison system supports either public safety or the public good. Our failure to build a culture of care that nurtures human growth and potential, rather than incubating desperation, ensures that more “criminals” will be created, and subsequently punished, to the great benefit of those who profit from industries associated with incarceration. Prison is simply a bad and ineffective way to address violence and crime.And yet, when we speak about the abolition of the prison industrial complex, many react as though the idea is alien and unthinkable — as if, to them, prisons, policing and surveillance are part of a natural order that simply cannot be undone. In truth, the prison system did not see its most massive population surge until the 1980s, when deindustrialization created the need for dungeon economies to replace lost jobs, and a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and other social gains by Black people propelled heightened efforts at social control.

As a society, we have been taught to embrace social control, which is often enforced by people with guns, because we have been taught to fear each other, and to acquiesce to authority. We live in a culture that celebrates criminalization, cops and prisons. Abusive, torturous police become sympathetic television characters whose harms the public can understand or even sympathize with. But when a civilian has committed an egregious harm, the national solace we are taught to seek is to see them suffer. They must be thrown in a cage, and once they are, justice is considered to be done, and we can all move on with our lives without ever asking questions like: Why did this happen? Why does it keep happening? And is there something we could change that would make this tragedy unthinkable in the first place?

Clapping for Incarceration

Even those who acknowledge that mass incarceration in the US is nightmarish and unjust often feel compelled to applaud when the system ensnares someone whose harms disgust us. When Martin Shkreli, a former hedge fund manager, was sentenced to serve seven years for securities fraud, memes and laughter abounded. Shkreli, who famously engaged in pharmaceutical price-gauging, raising the price of the drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per pill, was once characterized as the “most hated man in America,” making him an ideal poster child for the carceral state. But like most ideas that allow us to avert our eyes and ignore the larger system, this notion is full of holes. For one, Shkreli was not being punished for forcing AIDS patients to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for a lifesaving medication, because rich people simply are not punished for practicing capitalism in the United States. As long as their money-changing kills according to the rules of the free market, they see no penalty. Shkreli was punished for securities fraud. In short, he played Monopoly with the filthy rich and broke the rules. And yet, because he also harmed everyday people, this moment is held up as one where the system worked, because someone we feel contempt for was punished.

The system will occasionally offer such kernels, but they don’t add up to justice. No reform is being forced upon the pharmaceutical industry in the wake of Shkreli’s harms, and the executives who are driving up prices on insulin and other life-saving medications are not faced with jail time (if this is our marker of justice). Our society’s practice of “justice” is not concerned with creating just conditions, and our system of punishment does not penalize the powerful for crushing those with less power. The rich getting richer while others are ground under is part of the “just” order of our society. There are no solutions offered by the system, only the occasional display of suffering or civil death to satisfy the masses.

Given these conditions, we must understand that, by applauding carceral violence, we are also applauding an established and grotesque failure on the part of western civilization.

Stories like Tiffany Rusher’s are buried under headlines about people like Shkreli and serial rapist Larry Nassar — stories that reassure the public that retribution is necessary and that sate a popular desire for vengeance in the face of tragedy and harm. American crime stories are not stories of good versus evil, because the system is not, and has never been, good or heroic, and criminal harms are usually much more complex than we would care to acknowledge. The crimes for which Tiffany Rusher was convicted involved sex with a minor, but why was Rusher in sexual proximity to a minor in the first place?

Prison is simply a bad and ineffective way to address violence and crime.

Cases like Rusher’s call on us both to acknowledge the harms our system has inflicted and to create the kind of social and economic conditions in which a young woman would never be presented with the choices that Rusher faced.According to Rusher, she was doing survival sex work when she was solicited to provide sexual services at a party. As it turned out, the young man a relative wanted to purchase sexual favors for was underage. Rusher was 21. When the young man’s mother learned about the party, she was incensed and filed a police report. And just like that, Rusher became a sex offender in the eyes of the law. However different her experiences may have been from those who are typically characterized as “predators,” Rusher was ensnared by a damning and unyielding brand of criminalization.

“Dangerous People”

When confronted with statistics about how unevenly criminal penalties are applied in the United States, or with historical evidence that policing and incarceration have always been grounded in anti-Blackness, Native erasure and protection of property, most leftists will decry the system and agree that change is long overdue. But such admissions are usually followed by an insistence that we cannot simply uproot the system, because we don’t have polished, universalized, fully formed solutions to address the dangers some individuals, often characterized as “predators,” may pose to our communities. But the idea of “predators” and “dangerous people” is complicated by the conditions our society enforces — social and economic conditions that we know generate crime and despair. Communities whose needs are met are not rife with crimes of desperation, whereas struggling communities are; and people from communities that are highly criminalized by our racist system are far more likely to be thrust into the carceral system.

Politicians routinely feign ignorance with regard to these dynamics, presenting “tough-on-crime” agendas that would enhance prison sentences and widen the school-to-prison pipeline as a solution to the harms society generates. Because if politicians acknowledged that most criminalized harms are rooted in social and economic inequities, they would be expected to address those inequities, which most refuse to do. In the United States, the political careers of elected officials are largely funded by those who directly benefit from the inequities of our society, and those funders would likely abandon their pet officials if they pursued anything resembling economic justice.

The carceral system has always used sensationalized cases and the specter of unthinkable harm to create new mechanisms of disposability. Those mechanisms are what feed bodies to hungry dungeon economies while we are distracted by our own fears of “bad people” and what they might do if they aren’t contained. Of course, a system that never addresses the “why” behind a harm never actually contains the harm itself. Cages confine people, not the conditions that facilitated their harms or the mentalities that perpetuate violence. Yet, for some reason, even people who are well versed in the dynamics of the system often believe “Law and Order” moments are possible, when, just for a moment, an instrument of state violence can be made good.

What is, so to speak, the object of abolition? Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons.

In their essay on “The University and the Undercommons,” writers and scholars Fred Moten and Stefano Harney underscore why abolition is important as a political framework and organizing strategy: “What is, so to speak, the object of abolition? Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.”When we look past the sensationalism of major headlines, and examine the actual dynamics of mass incarceration, it becomes increasingly impossible to justify this perspective. While some offer calls for reform, such calls ignore the reality that an institution grounded in the commodification of human beings, through torture and the deprivation of their liberty, cannot be made good. The logic of using policing, punishment, and prison has not proven to address the systemic causes of violence. It is in this climate that we argue that abolition of the prison industrial complex is the most moral political posture available to us. Because the deconstruction of the American system of mass incarceration is possible, and it is time.

What does transformation look like?

Our vision for 2018 is a state of unrestrained imagination. When dealing with oppressive systems, cynicism is a begrudging allegiance, extracted from people whose minds could otherwise open new doors, make new demands and conjure visions of what a better world could look like. Questions like, “what about the really dangerous people?” are not questions a prison abolitionist must answer in order to insist the prison industrial complex must be undone. These are questions we must collectively answer, even as we trouble the very notion of “dangerousness.” The inability to offer a neatly packaged and easily digestible solution does not preclude offering critique or analysis of the ills of our current system.

We live in a society that has been locked into a false sense of inevitability. It’s time to look hard at how this system came to be, who profits, how it functions, and why — and it’s time to imagine what it would look like to see justice done without relying on punishment and the barbarity of carceral systems. As writer and educator Erica Meiners suggests: “Liberation under oppression is unthinkable by design.” It’s time for a jailbreak of the imagination in order to make the impossible possible.