As protests continue to spread in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, one seemingly radical, decades-old idea has been thrust to the forefront of mainstream discourse: prison abolition.
With over two million people locked up in prisons and jails, the United States’ incarceration rate is the highest in the world, to the point where the country constitutes about five percent of the world’s population and yet houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Black and brown people are disproportionately imprisoned, sexual abuse is rampant, labor is exploited, and prolonged solitary confinement—denounced as a form of torture by the United Nations—is commonplace. The brutality of these conditions becomes all the more salient when compared to other developed Western nations, where even life sentences for murder rarely involve being condemned to spend the remainder of one’s days behind bars.
Prison abolitionists argue that it is not enough to simply reform our current criminal justice system—that it must be completely dismantled and, in its place, society must invest in communities and address harm in other ways. The two foremost leaders of the contemporary prison-abolition movement are famed activist Angela Davis and the scholar and geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore. In 1997, they cofounded the organization Critical Resistance with the mission to “build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe.” (You may have encountered the organization’s graphic chart breaking down the effectiveness of reform vs. abolition circulating on social media as of late.)
GQ: Prison abolition is an idea, when first encountered, that can feel incredibly radical and infeasible. How did you first encounter it, and was there a particular moment where you felt like the switch had been flipped for you?
Woods Ervin: The theory clicked for me around 2008. I was working at the time with queer and trans young people of color in Chicago. Part of the daily work was trying to support, engage, and help develop young people who are being constantly targeted by the prison-industrial complex [PIC]. I had a firsthand understanding of how the PIC comes into people’s lives and shrinks their life chances.
These were young people who were 13, 14, 15, getting kicked out of their homes for being queer and trans, and who, out of survival, were constantly coming into contact with the prison-industrial complex. For me, that put it in really stark relief. Because they couldn’t figure out how to get out of the systemic nature of it, there was nothing for those young people. They were just falling through the cracks.
It clarified for me that the prison-industrial complex needed to be pulled apart. I think it was then that the politics crystallized, and it was in the practice of organizing with Critical Resistance that the work of how to do it crystallized.
As an organizer, when you’re giving someone the elevator pitch for prison abolition, what do you tell them?
I say that abolition is a political vision with a goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment. That it’s not just about getting rid of building cages, it’s about actually undoing the society that continues to feed on and maintain the oppression of masses of people through punishment, violence, and control. Because the prison-industrial complex isn’t an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. And so we have to be building models today that develop and represent how we want to live in the future. It’s both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.
Compared to other countries, the U.S. has a particularly cruel prison system. You can look to, say, some of the Scandinavian countries and see more humane prison systems and life sentences that only last 10 years. To prison abolitionists, why is criminal justice reform based on a system like that insufficient?
The prison-industrial complex isn’t broken. It’s doing exactly what it’s meant to do. By calling for any of these reforms, you immediately re-entrench the logic that is underpinning its systemic nature. The prison-industrial complex—both prisons, policing, surveillance—they feed off of reform. With each iteration, they’ve gotten bigger, more deeply entrenched into our communities, and more powerful.
Can you give an example of a reform that ended up further entrenching the system?
First of all, prison itself is a reform. Before, there was a use of corporal punishment, and the developing of the prison system is itself a move from that practice into what was initially seen as something that was more humane and has escalated from there. I think the reform of more trainings specifically—I’m thinking about police, which I think is on a lot of people’s minds right now—results in something like Urban Shield, which was the crown jewel of police trainings in the Bay Area. And it essentially was a war-games training that brought together police departments from around the Bay Area and some departments from around the world, some from countries with known human-rights abuses, to develop their practices of coordination.
I’m sure you get this question constantly, but I think that the immediate concern that comes to a lot of people’s minds is: “Well, what if there’s a serial killer on the loose? Or what about the case of a violent rapist?” What is done in those situations if you’ve abolished the police and you abolish prison?
This is a question that we frequently get. There are multiple ways to answer this question. First of all, it’s going to depend on each scenario, right? These extreme moments of violence and harm are often located in specific communities. When we’re thinking about abolishing the prison-industrial complex, we’re thinking about abolition as a presence, but what does it mean to build up infrastructures in communities that can help with a variety of interpersonal issues as prevention measures, but also practice accountability for community members who do harm in a way that actually not just addresses the specific harm, but transforms the community as well?
But in addition to thinking about what we do in communities, we have to think about the rate at which the prison-industrial complex is able to actually address rape and murder. We’ve spent astronomical amounts of our budgets at the municipal level, at the federal level, on policing and caging people. And yet I don’t think that people feel any safer from the threat of sexual assault or the threat of murder. What is the prison-industrial complex doing to actually solve those problems in our society?
And then there are the ways in which the prison-industrial complex itself is a perpetuator of some things, whether the police officers who are allowed to sexually assault women and girls who are part of investigations, guards who physically and sexually assault people who are incarcerated, or the issue we’re seeing now, where police are murdering people. I know that’s a question that rises to the top for people, because of the ways in which the prison-industrial complex tells us that that’s the service that it provides.
In that vein, though, murder and rape have been around since the beginning of time. What does the restorative justice process look like for victims, or family members of victims, so that they feel as if justice has been served, but not in a way that goes on to perpetuate the violence?
There are people who, such as Mia Mingus, who works at the Bay Area Transformative Justice Center, or Mariame Kaba, who works at Survived and Punished, who have been doing lots of work around developing practices of transformative justice that can actually work to transform the harms of sexual assault. There’s a whole body of work, of tools, of practices that can help to engage the issue of sexual assault and to ideally transform and build more accountable communities, so that we’re able to actually remove that harm from society more broadly.
Right now, we’re actually not doing anything about it. We’re not trying to change the systemic way in which sexual assault manifests in our society. At least with transformative justice practices and community accountability practices, there’s an attempt to actually get to the root causes and transform society so that those things can’t happen.
Can you quickly clarify the difference between restorative justice and transformative justice?
Restorative justice is to try and restore relationships to how they were prior to a harm being done. Transformative justice, the purpose is to try and transform communities so that the harm cannot happen again.
On a logistical level, how does the prison abolition movement work to get these aims accomplished? It’s hard to wrap your head around when you think about how big the prison system is, how vast the police forces are. Is it a matter of starting first by defunding the police, or does it start through additive community programs, or the two of those simultaneously?
It is simultaneous. One shorthand we use at Critical Resistance is “dismantle, change, build,” and it’s not necessarily linear. They have to be happening simultaneously because they’re happening in relationship with each other, and the processes inform each other so that what you are able to build is actually in direct relationship to the community that is building it.
In the case of George Floyd, it is unconscionable that someone can be killed for allegedly forging a $20 bill. If we were living in a society where prison had been abolished, where the Critical Resistance vision had been put in place, what would have happened from the time when he handed over the supposedly forged $20 bill?
Lots of things could have happened. One thing that could have happened was that if there was a policy within the store where people who have needs around access to food could get those needs met, either through some government-based or community-based program so that this is essentially a nonissue. The buck would literally stop there. And that’s not impossible. We have things like food stamps. Why isn’t that an immediate offering that could have been available? The expansion of policing and imprisonment is directly tied to the erosion of goods and services being provided by our government in order to support people in their everyday needs. Which I think is why it’s so clear during this moment of increasing austerity, you see large swaths of people all across the world making the connection and mobilizing accordingly.
What is the most frustrating part of working in prison abolition work in the sense of, what does the general public seem to find the most inconceivable about all of this?
Abolition calls on you to really use your imagination in ways that have become counterintuitive for lots of people, because of what Mariame Kaba calls “the cop in our head and cop in our heart.” We’ve been indoctrinated by a society that’s been [using] policing and prison to answer for every social and political problem that we have that we have very little practice with the muscle of imagining and solving systemic problems without prison sentences.
Related, a lot of people are used to calling 911 whenever they have a problem. So who would be called instead?
Depending on the scenario, if you have capacities within your neighborhood to solve a problem, you would call your neighbor. If there is an emergency that’s beyond you or somebody who lives in proximity to you is not trained to be able to handle the emergency that you are experiencing, there are models from around the world of direct responders who are trained in a variety of kinds of response that are particular to the emergency that you are having. To be able to come and support you with the mental-health crisis that’s happening.
What are your essential texts on prison abolition? The primary ones are, of course, Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis and Golden Gulag by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, but is there anything else you would recommend that was transformative for you personally?
I think that Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing is excellent. There’s another compilation, Policing the Planet, that’s fantastic. Invisible No More by Andrea Ritchie. Because the prison-industrial complex is so complex, depending on what aspect you want to learn about it, whether it be prison or policing, I think that the [books] that we just talked about really cover those really well. But if you want to know more about things like surveillance or you want to know about probation or parole or the ways in which pretrial interacts with prisons and policing, there’s so much more reading to do.
Have you encountered any politicians who are sympathetic to the cause?
Our experience is that via our campaign, decision makers move accordingly and oftentimes move around the particular issue that we’re working on. So, whether it be the fight against the San Francisco jail in the Bay Area or the fight against the jail in Los Angeles, that decision makers via the campaigns that Critical Resistance engages in move towards abolition around that particular fight. This is why we win.