Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault, murder, torture, ablelism, trauma.
The most common question posed to abolitionists is “what about the rapists and murderers?” Most people are not satisfied with the answer they receive. This article is an attempt to break this question down further from my perspective as an abolitionist. For transparency, I have been an abolitionist for about two years now. I’m an organizer, and work in jails as a domestic violence counselor. I am also a sexual assault survivor myself. I come to this work as someone who has survived violence, and has deep love and connections to people who are in jail and prison as you read these words. I see prison and police abolition work as a continuation of the work laid out by slavery abolitionists. I am also still evolving and deepening my knowledge on this topic as we all are, and give special thanks to the thought leaders and organizers who have been doing this work for decades such as Mariame Kaba, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and many more.
When people ask me what we will do with the rapists and murderers if we abolish the prison industrial complex, including prisons and police, I typically respond “what are we doing with them now?” The original question itself requires unpacking. To ask “what will we do about the rapists and murderers” implies that rapists and murderers primarily make up the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated, not inclusive of people impacted by mandates, probation, parole, and e-carceration. The underlying implication is that prison is a place where dangerous people go to be held accountable for their poor choices. If this were the case, then the fact that Black and indigenous folks, and immigrants primarily make up the prison population means we are predisposed to dangerous behavior and poor choices. Yet we know this is not the case. So before we dive deeper into this question, I want us to challenge this subconscious thought. Prison is not a place for bad people. In the U.S., prison is an invention of white supremacist capitalism. It functions, essentially, to disappear unwanted populations. In the 19th century, much of the discourse surrounding how to solve “the Negro problem” in place of slavery was to ship Black people to Liberia. This was because white liberals did not want us in this country. They believed us to be beneath them, and unable to live peacefully beside them. White conservatives did not want us in this country if we were not providing free labor. Consequently, the carceral system has exploded since the end of slavery. Being that prisons and police are legacies of slavery, and we know that Black folks do not commit more crimes than other populations yet make up a large part of the prison population, I’d like us to turn, firstly, to rape and sexual assault.
Rape and sexual assault are the most underreported crimes in this country. Only about 6% of rapists will ever serve a single day in jail, and only around 0.7% of rapes end in a felony conviction. This fact speaks to why I respond “what are we doing with them now?” when asked “what about the rapists?” Because the answer is essentially nothing. In fact, there are many more survivors of rape and sexual assault in prison than there are rapists themselves. The vast majority of people who are raped are raped by someone they know personally. This matters when the carceral system is designated as the proper means of accountability. While some survivors seek justice via the carceral system, most survivors do not. This can be for several reasons. Some reasons could be: the person is their family member, they don’t want to break up the person’s family by sending them to jail, they are embarrassed, they don’t want to be obligated to relive the traumatic experience in a public space, etc. There are many people who don’t want their rapist to go to jail; they want the rape and abuse to stop. They want to prevent it from happening to anyone else. Furthermore, many states have statutes of limitations for sex crimes. The carceral system exposes its own lack of genuine care and accountability to survivors of rape and sexual assault.
Asking “what about the rapists” in the context of abolition also ignores the fact that police and jails are the rapists and sex offenders. Sexual misconduct is the second most reported complaint against police officers, preceded by use of excessive force. And these are only the ones that are reported. There are even laws in some states that make it completely legal for police to rape people in their custody. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of rape kits go untested in the U.S. because police departments fail to follow through on testing even after survivors go through the invasive testing process. Jails and prisons are creators of sexual violence. Currently and formerly incarcerated folks have written and spoken about their experiences of sexual assault by the carceral system. Often people are stripped naked, and penetrated in their genitals and anus with fingers or devices to “search for contraband” against their will and/or forced to bend over and spread their buttocks sometimes even on camera and in front of several corrections officers. Many people describe these as some of the most humiliating and traumatizing experiences they’ve had while incarcerated. Some people even deny visitation from their loved ones just so that they don’t have to go through this state sanctioned sexual assault. Sexual violence is rampant in prions whether committed by guards/officers, volunteers, medical staff, or other incarcerated individuals. Many people engage in sexual relationships out of fear and intimidation. As such, if 94% of rapists are not incarcerated, yet by sentencing people to incarceration we are guaranteeing sexual violence, it does not make sense to continue to ruin the lives of millions of people and their families in the name of justice for survivors. Not only is this completely void of reality, it is wildly offensive to the survivors of sexual violence who are incarcerated right now.
As mentioned earlier, this response typically does not satisfy people. It is usually followed by another question. “What about the R. Kelly’s and the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world? What will we do with them?” My response remains “what are we doing with them now?” Both R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein did what they did for decades in the face of public knowledge. I need to repeat this for emphasis. Robert Kelly trafficked teenaged girls for decades and the entire world knew about it. Many people actively sought out the video recording of him in the act. Many people made jokes about “golden showers”. Many people actively ignored his sexual violence for over 25 years. Many people continue to step in the name of love and turn up to Ignition Remix. The same can be said of Weinstein. Many folks in Hollywood openly joked about his predatory behavior. It is also important to note that R. Kelly did not do what he did for so long by himself. He had a lot of help, as do many men in his position. Imagine if instead of spending billions of our tax dollars to fail preventing or stopping sexual violence in the first place, we invested in community programs to finally begin the stages of breaking down rape culture. Imagine if we provided more security to survivors through shelters, healthcare, childcare, and direct cash deposits. Imagine R. Kelly was stripped of his resources and social capital so that he couldn’t so successfully run his trafficking ring. Imagine if upon being notified that Harvey Weinstein raped someone the first time, there was security and a space for the survivor to determine their own justice and felt safe enough to do so. Imagine R. Kelly’s survivors knew they would be able to find safe housing, a cell phone, food, and reunification with their families despite his threats. Imagine if we could reach people at early ages so that they grew up knowing the wrongs of being passive bystanders or active accessories. Imagine if there were a safe place and community for Toyin Salau to lean on. Imagine if it were a simple and safe process for Toyin to find housing while fleeing an abusive home. Aaron Glee Jr. was so traumatized from being incarcerated for an assault related to sexual violence that he listed his fear of returning to prison as his primary motivation for killing Toyin Salau. Incarceration did not stop Glee from committing sexual violence again, and according to him, it motivated him to do something even more heinous. We spend billions of dollars incarcerating Black people in the name of accountability when the goal should be to prevent these things from happening, and find better ways of accountability. More humane forms of accountability. More survivor centered forms of accountability. Sexual violence is a sensitive matter, it’s personal, and it’s traumatizing. It is on survivors to determine what justice looks like for themselves, not the government.
Nextly, when asked “what will we do about the murderers,” I similarly respond “what are we doing with them now?” And again, the answer is pretty much nothing. Chicago Police Department’s homicide clearance rate in 2018 was 15.4%, and has been continuously declining for the last decade (CPD’s 2019 clearance rate is much higher due to inflation in reporting). This means that out of all the murders that occurred in Chicago in 2018, the police only identified a suspect in 15.4% of the cases. The homicide clearance rate doesn’t even account for how many of those suspects are actually charged and/or convicted of the accused murder. And who knows how many of those clearances were legitimate given CPD’s history of lying and fabricating evidence. The prospect of going to prison does not prevent murders. Mostly because it does not address the underlying reasons people commit murder.
Again, the question “what about the murderers” ignores the fact that police and prisons are the murderers. ⅓ of all stranger murders are committed by police. ONE THIRD. And these people are not going to jail or prison. Citizens have had to beg police departments to fire officers who have murdered people on camera, and have still been unsuccessful. Abolishing the police would drop this country’s murder rate in and of itself. Prisons also kill people immediately and slowly every single day. In fact, prisons and jails are killing people as we speak. People are dying from COVID-19 simply because they are in prison. In the 1980’s, people used to call the AIDS ward of prisons the “New Death Row.” During Hurricane Katrina, incarcerated people were left in flooding jails without food or water for days as corrections staff fled for their lives. Layleen Polanco was killed on Rikers Island due to neglect and blatant transphobia. The Sackler Family has killed way more people than whoever you are thinking of as the dangerous “murderer” sitting in prison being subjected to indescribable amounts of violence every day.
Murder is avoidable. In fact, income inequality is one of the strongest factors in a country’s murder rate. People are more likely to be murdered by someone they know than by a stranger. Leading causes of murder include personal conflict and domestic violence. More than half of all female homicide victims were killed by an intimate partner. Access to guns also leads to an increase in homicides. 86% of incarcerated women are survivors of sexual violence, and many women are incarcerated as a direct result of fighting back their abusive partners. There can’t be a blanket solution to situations which require so much context and consideration. Imagine if we invested in housing, jobs, drug treatment programs, education, and healthcare. Imagine if lawmakers took gun violence seriously. Imagine if de-escalation was taught in schools. Imagine if there were resources for survivors so they would not have to be murdered by their abusers or resort to assault or homicide to defend themselves. Imagine if we had free, comprehensive mental health and drug treatment programs. Imagine if people didn’t have to steal or sell drugs to survive.The murder rate would undoubtedly go down.
Unfortunately, this answer doesn’t seem to satisfy people either. People typically ask “well what about the serial killers? What do we do with the Dylann Roof’s and killer cops?” Since I have already spoken about how killer cops are actually not in prisons or jails and the expansion of the carceral system hasn’t stopped police killings or caught killer cops at all, I will spend the majority of my focus on the Dylann Roof’s and serial killers of the world. I’d like to first reiterate that police and prisons do not prevent the Dylann Roof’s of the world from committing mass white supremacist murders. Despite the fact that the carceral system has largely expanded over the last few decades, white supremacy has, similarly, grown in popularity. Additionally, the idea of sending a white supremacist to a place full of Black people because they hate Black people enough to mass murder them is antithetical. Are those Black people unworthy of safety from white supremacy because they committed a crime? Interestingly enough, white people are likely to become more racist in prison. There have been white people who went to prison for one thing, joined a white supremacist gang while incarcerated, and returned to prison for committing violent hate crimes. Prisons create an environment so unsafe and traumatizing that people feel the need to join white supremacist gangs for protection and community. They are hubs for white supremacy. Imagine if Dylann Roof instead had to engage with white anti racist organizers for a set amount of time or until a set amount of progress was made. Imagine if he instead had to pay restitution to the families. These are all things that can be done without prisons, and without sending a white supremacist to influence or join other white supremacists who will wreak havoc on Black people both inside and outside prisons.
Samuel Little, considered the “most prolific serial killer in U.S. history” killed almost 100 women from 1970 to 2005. He had been arrested dozens of times and even served time in prison yet his killings continued. Little confessed to specifically targeting women of color, mostly Black women, who were sex workers or suffered from drug addictions because he knew no one would care enough about them to look for him. What did the carceral system do for those women? In fact, the carceral system aided in Little’s killings because he knew if he picked the right victims, he would get away with it. Many serial killers are never even found by the police. Asking “what about the serial killers” implies that we are arresting and incarcerating serial killers to begin with, a common misconception created by fictional TV shows and other entertainment media. Imagine if funds were allocated to strengthen communities for marginalized people. Imagine if we were able to meet the housing and treatment needs of folks who suffer from addictions. Imagine if we lived in a world where sex workers determined their own means of safety and accountability. Imagine if families of victims could receive monetary restoration to provide enough security for them to focus on healing.
“What about the murderers and rapists?” is an easy way out. It doesn’t require folks to think deeply about community, about harm and trauma, and imagine accountability outside of the cards white supremacy has dealt us. Being an abolitionist requires unlearning every single thing we’ve been told about jails, prisons, and police since birth. It requires us to consider people as full human beings instead of “monsters” and “psychos” even when we don’t want to do so. It requires us to prioritize community over our selfish need for revenge. Many people have responded to me “well I would want someone to go to jail and suffer if they raped or murdered someone I love.” To me, this begs the question: is it truly worth continuing to incarcerate and enslave 2.3 million people just in case one day something might happen to one of the people you love and the police might actually clear that murder or test the rape kit and the prosecutor might charge the suspect and this person might be convicted only for the potential of them to gain their freedom back anyway once they are released? Does that sound worth Black liberation to you? The reason I respond to “what about the rapists and murderers” with “what are we doing with them now” is because, as stated, we are doing nothing. We can hardly conclude, then, that it makes sense to traumatize, violate, destabilize, and incarcerate millions of people everyday to do nothing with the rapists and the murderers when instead we could be creating systems of accountability which actually address the root problems of these issues and prevent them from happening in the first place. It is hardly logical to suggest that we continue to allocate billions of dollars for an antiquated colonial system that doesn’t even keep us safe just because folks don’t want to do the hard work of imagining a better world or because folks are afraid to take risks with new programs.
Murder and sexual violence are extremely contextual. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution to harm, especially when that size includes enslavement and torture of millions of people. The carceral system is used to tackle every societal issue we have: homelessness, drug addiction and trafficking, violence, poverty, abuse, etc. We cannot address all these issues with one institution, and abolition requires us to be creative enough to envision a world free of the carceral system. In the U.S., we tend to primarily focus on revenge rather than caring for survivors. What good does it do a survivor for the state to spend endless amounts of money incarcerating their abuser if they are still unable to heal because they don’t have access to mental health resources, stable income, and shelter? Imagine a survivor whose version of accountability looks like trauma treatment and alcohol addiction treatment for their abuser instead of jail. For a family whose loved one was murdered, imagine the person who harmed them was required to help support them financially while they adjust and heal. Imagine folks who are trained in violence intervention strategies called to intervene in volatile situations, and resolving the issue both immediately and over time. Imagine properly funded anti racist or anti gender based violence community programs that can regularly engage with people who have engaged in abusive behavior or folks with racist beliefs in group and individual settings over long periods of time. Imagine comprehensive, culturally responsive parenting courses and counseling both as a preventive measure before birth, and as a result of a parent who has engaged in neglect or child abuse. Imagine mentorship and educational resources for teens and young adults who took a life. Imagine members of the music or sports community committed to shutting out abusive artists or athletes while the survivor determines what they need. Imagine a community fund to support survivors of violence financially. Prison is a relatively new phenomenon here. Native and indigenous communities have functioned for centuries without the carceral system, and have pioneered models of restorative and transformative justice that keep their communities safe. The Navajo Nation’s peacemaking process is an extremely popular model. Additionally, GenerationFIVE provides A Transformative Justice Handbook detailing ways to combat child sexual abuse with survivor centered, community intervention. Resources include: safety planning with the child, affirming an open environment for the child to mentally process, community commitment to keeping children safe from the person who caused harm, bystander intervention for the larger community and in schools. These are only a few examples of programs that make it possible to live in a world with less violence than you can imagine. This starts by prioritizing prevention, and instituting systems of justice and accountability that center the person who was harmed rather than the person who caused harm.
I don’t expect people to fully grasp or accept abolition overnight. I just ask that people engage with this work with a truly open mind. People have been developing this field for decades, and imagining a better world for Black people where we can truly be free. Abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, never stopped fighting against the re-enslavement of Black people, even after the passing of the 13th Amendment. It is imperative to continue their fight. It’s not an easy road to go down. Throwing someone into a cage is easier than having to engage with them. But the vast majority of Americans were apprehensive to abolish slavery as well, and that never stopped the abolitionists before us. If you have not been convinced after this article, I hope that your heart and mind are just a little more open to joining our fight. Most abolitionists are survivors of harm, and come to this work with an intimate and undying love and passion for our communities and our people.