This week has been a greater flashpoint for discussion about abolition of police & prisons in mainstream (white) discourse than perhaps ever before; there have been several public wishes for an explainer or 101 on abolition and decarceration for people who are approaching it for perhaps the first time. The good news is that explainer (and much more!) has absolutely been written, dozens of times over; the work around decarceration has been some of the most successfully documented, accessible, and digitally interactive of any movement. This is a guide to guides, organized loosely by some of the main questions and thought processes that often come up around entry into abolitionist thinking, offering resources addressing some important ideas and some ad libbed context from yourself truly, a white woman who is far from an expert or educator on abolition but has done some organizing work around it for years, and who believes that it’s the responsibility of white people, especially white women, to work against the carceral state in recognition of how much violence it’s done in our name and the name of our safety and fragility.
Please feel free to share and to ask questions, as well as answer questions in good faith in the comments! All we have is each other, and that’s all we need.
How did we get here?
The history of prisons and policing in the US is a layered and illuminating one in terms of understanding how we’ve arrived at the current moment. An extremely abridged version of this history is that prisons as both literal buildings and a cultural concept was brought to us by the Puritans who colonized the Northeast; they used prisons as a punishment for members of their own community who didn’t adhere strictly enough to their exacting religious lifestyle in order to make an example of them in service of a harsh moral code, and to imprison local Indigenous people who they were in conflict with. Prisons weren’t originally married to a police force; police forces as we know them today grew out of ad hoc militia and mercenaries formed to hunt fugitive enslaved Africans and capture them for reward money, and to enforce the state’s slave code. Just based on this oversimplification, we can see that the roots of the carceral system in the US are inextricable from Christian theocracy, colonization and slavery; we can also see that community safety or protection are not part of the blueprint. Later “reforms” to the prison system, often by well-intentioned white groups like Quakers, occasionally made some improvements but also brought deeply harmful aspects into the prison system — solitary confinement, for instance, was a reform, thought to give prisoners time to reflect in penitent prayer and rehabilitate themselves spiritually.
Some readings associated with these concepts are:
+ Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America
+ Cruel and Unusual: Punishment and US Culture
+ American Prisons: A History of Good Intentions
+ Slavery by Another Name
+ The Prison and the American Imagination
+ The New Jim Crow
Two chapters from the above linked Cruel and Unusuals are available online as PDFs here and here, and cover some of what’s summed up above.
For a more structured and in-depth exploration, check out the World Without Police Study Guide, organized into units with free digitally accessible readings; this is also a great collection of resources.
What does abolition mean?
In an extremely literal sense, abolition refers to the complete dismantling of, rather than reforming or improving, of the carceral system in the US, which includes state prisons, a private prison-industrial complex that profits from incarceration, a police force and its military infrastructure, a legislative system that responds to the needs of its people primarily by enacting solutions that rely on incarceration, an immigration system whose underlying structure is inextricable from the prison industrial complex, a capitalist economy that operates heavily through the forced labor of incarcerated people, a system of voting and democracy where full citizenship is organized based on who has had contact with the carceral state, and a culture deeply rooted and invested in an ideology of punishment and control, including feminist and progressive thought that relies on carceral logic. In a more concrete sense, abolition means that prisons, both the buildings themselves and the reality of caging human beings, will no longer exist; police forces as an enforcer of law & order in the name of the state will no longer exist either.
In a more expansive and meaningful sense, abolition also refers to the construction of and investment in the systems, practices, resources, and cultural values that will make the above possible. This will mean looking at new systems of access to resources, new ways of addressing conflict and harm, new ways of conceptualizing participation in a community and what we owe to each other; carceral logic is embedded so deeply in the DNA of this nation that changing it will result in a totally new one. That isn’t a bad thing, and it’s helpful to think of abolition as a constructive project in addition to a destructive one. Thinking of the abolition of chattel slavery, abolition meant not just an end to the institution of slavery, but the beginning of the possibility of a free life for enslaved people. Abolition of police and prisons means an end to those things, but also building a new, better world that we all get to live in.
For further reading on what abolition means as a project, some brief, digestible digital reads:
+ The Case for Abolition
+ What Abolitionists Do
+ What Does Police Abolition Mean?
+ Abolish the Police? Organizers Say It’s Less Crazy Than It Sounds
+ You Are Already an Abolitionist
A longer, but obviously key text is Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete, which is available here as a PDF or here to purchase.
Why the extreme of abolition when we could try reform, at least for right now, and return to the ideal of abolition in the future?
There are a lot of ways to answer this; one simple way is that we are currently living the reformed version, and it isn’t working. The system of prison and policing has been endlessly reformed almost since its moment of inception, and where it has landed us is this; an economy and legal system defined entirely by the premise of violence against Black, brown and Indigenous people, and the most extreme site of mass incarceration in the world. Looking at the roots of the prison system, we have to confront the reality that this is how policing and prison was always designed to work at their core; it is not an aberration, it is not an error; reform can never turn police or prisons into something they aren’t, and never were.
Another way of looking at this is that what we invest in is what survives and grows; when you do the work of rebuilding, reforming, changing or addressing a relationship, or a friendship, or an organization, it’s because you want to ensure its future health and success through your work, in the same way that you water a plant. We don’t want to water the plant that is the prison industrial complex. Past reforms have strengthened the prison-industrial complex, both ideologically and materially; the push for body cameras after Ferguson meant police departments received millions and millions of dollars to buy new equipment. As the Critical Resistance abolition toolkit explains:
“There are also reforms that in the end make the long-term goal of getting rid of the PIC impossible. For example, in response to the terrible conditions that most prisoners across the country live in, abolitionists might focus on strategies that first look at how we can let people out of those cages instead of ones that just build better cages. Building new cells and prisons helps to extend the life of the PIC as a system. This goes directly against a long-term abolitionist goal of eliminating the system. It also just gives us one more prison to close down in the end.”
One example that comes to mind is the ‘protective’ confinement that many trans/queer/GNC prisoners are placed into if they’re deemed to be at risk from violence in the general prison population; in reality, this is just solitary confinement, a “reform” for safety that leads to trans and queer incarcerated people being subject to further harm.
A great illustration of this concept is CR’s infographic on reformist vs. abolitionist thinking. I’d also read Mariame Kaba on police “reforms” you should always oppose.
One book that discusses the failures of reform in much more detail is The End of Policing; if you’re reading this the week of May 31, the e-book version is currently completely free to download from Verso.
How can we justify getting rid of consequences for violence or abuse?
One topic that almost immediately comes up anytime abolition is under discussion is what will be done about violent or harmful actions, especially people who enact sexual violence or violence against children; there seems to be a common concern that a post-abolition world will have no way of preventing or addressing harm, or that violence against women and children will be accepted as an inevitable price to pay for a world without prisons. It feels important to me in those conversations to point out that abolitionist movements have and are still heavily led by Black women, a demographic that experiences disproportionately high levels of violence in general and sexualized and gendered violence in particular. It seems at best misguided and at worst undermining to imagine that Black women, of all people, would create a framework that forgets or doesn’t understand such a major element of lived experience.
To that end, two things. First, the prison industrial complex as it stands is a powerful and unchecked site of sexualized violence, not an antidote to it; rarely, if ever, does the justice system actually address rapists or pedophiles, and when it does, they are not prevented from causing harm, but moved into a prison system to cause harm to a caged population of people. Prevention of sexual violence is one of the most important reasons to dismantle the prison-industrial complex, as sexual violence against incarcerated people is rampant and unmitigated, as is sexual violence enacted by the police; it’s the second most common type of police misconduct reported. Do you know any survivors of sexual harm who have been healed by the prison industrial complex? Is it effectively addressing this harm now? If not, what is actually lost by ending it? What could be gained by imagining understandings of “consequences” that don’t include prisons?
Second, abolitionist thought is not only very aware of the reality of violence and has considered the need to address harm, including gendered and sexualized harm, but has worked hard to imagine meaningful ways of preventing, addressing, and healing harm and violence outside of frameworks of punishment and cages. Living in a carceral culture, it can feel impossible to imagine that there can be meaningful consequences for harm without a criminal justice system; abolition asks you to try. Abolitionists have done enormous amounts of work to provide potential answers to what it would look like to address these things without prisons, and provided resources and actionable toolkits and guides on making them a reality.
Some resources to get started:
+ The Critical Resistance Abolition Toolkit, especially p. 28-31
+ Community Accountability for Survivors of Sexual Violence Toolkit
+ Creative Interventions Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Stop Interpersonal Violence
+ Toward Transformative Justice: A Liberatory Approach to Child Sexual Abuse and Other Forms of Intimate and Community Violence
+ Inside the Politics and Poetics of Transformative Justice and Community Accountability in Sexual Assault Situations
+ The Revolution Starts at Home
What other options are there besides police? What would you replace it with?
A long-term answer to this question involves building a culture with radically different values and priorities, in which the violence and harm that are currently caused by poverty, intergenerational trauma and systems of institutional oppression are no longer operating in the same way because those factors have been meaningfully addressed and healed such that this question is hopefully obsolete. A short-term answer to questions involving both personal and community safety without police are that strong communities who have resourced themselves both materially and psychologically are well equipped to care for each other and themselves, such that what police purport to offer isn’t needed.
On a personal note, I’m writing this from uptown Minneapolis, where protests and the concurrent police response have defined every aspect of city life for a week now; every day and night incredible action has been taken to get and distribute needed resources, to redistribute money for those resources, to provide medical care, to create networks to share crucial information, to guard local businesses, organizations and residential communities from harm, and to repair damage and plan for the future. Police have done none of this; community members have done all of it. We don’t need to be in crisis for this to be true; this is possible all the time, as a way of life.
Some resources to get started:
+ Alternatives to Calling the Police
+ More Alternatives to Police
+ Harm Free Zone Project
+ Nonviolent Community Safety and Peacebuilding Handbook
+ Fumbling Toward Repair: A Workbook for Community Accountability Facilitators
What does the process of decarcerating actually look like?
What does it look like to move from the point we’re at now to a place of abolition? Burning down police departments? I mean, yes, but also much more. To be clear: decarceration is a material and concrete process, not an ideological or internal one. Reading resources and books, or even sharing them, doesn’t really get people out of cages. The harm caused by the prison industrial complex is material; our dismantling of it must also be material. To move toward abolition, we must engage both in dismantling the current system in concrete ways until everyone is out of cages and every police department is empty; at the same time, we must be actively building the infrastructure both in our communities and in ourselves that will replace it.
This looks like:
+ Refusing to call the police, talk to the police, or work with the police
+ Pushing community organizations to divest from the police and refuse to work with them
+ Defunding police and prisons at every level
+ Opposing the construction of and investment in new policing and prison initiatives and buildings
+ Opposing laws and policies, even ones with ends that we agree with, that rely on arrests and threats of incarceration as a means to those ends
+ Voting out and fighting against elected officials that work with police, prioritize “law and order,” or prison reform; voting in and holding accountable elected officials that vow to defund and decarcerate, and refuse to work with police or ICE
+ Fighting to end cash bail and working with bail funds to free people in jail right now and always
+ Prioritizing resources, care and community support to formerly and currently incarcerated people
+ Joining and following the lead of community movements led by formerly incarcerated people
+ Providing resources, protection and material support to criminalized people targeted by the PIC, including drug users, sex workers, trans people, undocumented immigrants, and all Black people, helping them to stay out of contact with police
+ Building strong local communities that know one another, communicate with one another, can ask each other for resources and reach out for one another in times of crisis
+ Tapping into or building networks that are actively engaging in building infrastructure around conflict resolution, community safety, accountability, intervention and harm prevention