Organizing to Abolish the Prison-Industrial Complex

The prison abolitionist group, Critical Resistance (CR) is organizing a conference to mark the tenth anniversary of their groundbreaking 1998 conference at UC-Berkeley.

Hans Bennett: What does “prison abolitionist” mean?

Rose Braz: CR seeks to abolish the prison industrial complex: the use of prisons, policing and the larger system of the prison industrial complex as an “answer” to what are social, political and economic problems, not just prisons.

Abolition defines both the goal we seek and the way we do our work today. Abolition means a world where we do not use prisons, policing and the larger system of the prison industrial complex as an “answer” to what are social, political and economic problems. Abolition means that instead we put in place the things that would reduce incidents of harm at the front end and address harm in a non-punitive manner when harm does occur. Abolition means that harm will occur far less often and, that when harm does occur, we address the causes of that harm rather than rely on the failed solutions of punishment. Thus, abolition is taking a harm reductionist approach to our society’s problems.

Abolition means creating sustainable, healthy communities empowered to create safety and rooted in accountability, instead of relying on policing, courts, and imprisonment which are not creating safe communities.

HB: How has prison changed in 10 years?

RB: One recent shift is that our denunciation of conditions inside has been twisted into justifications for expanding the system, particularly through what are sometimes called “boutique prisons”.

For example, there is fairly uniform agreement that California’s now $10 billion-per-year prison system holds too many people, provides horrendous health and mental health care, underfunds and cuts programming and services, and consistently fails to deliver on its promise of public safety. Nonetheless, California’s answer to this disaster has been to make it even bigger, building more prisons and in particular specialized prisons — for women, for elderly prisoners, for the sick, etc.

What’s new and more insidious about this expansion is that it has not been couched in ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric that politicians usually employ to justify expansion. Rather, in response to growing anti-prison public sentiment, these plans have been grounded on the rhetoric of “prison reform” and in regard to people in women’s prisons: “gender responsiveness.”

One current challenge is to continue to debunk the myth that bricks and mortar are an answer to these problems and to make common sense that the only real answer to California’s prison crisis is to reduce the number of people in prison and number of prisons toward the goal of abolition.

HB: How has the anti-prison movement evolved in the last 10 years?

RB: In the last decade, I think the movement has become more coordinated, is growing and has shifted the debate from one about reform to one that includes abolition.

In 1998, while there were numerous people and organizations working around conditions of confinement, the death penalty, etc., and in particular using litigation and research strategies; grassroots organizing challenging the PIC was at a low following the crackdown on the movement in the 1970’s and 80’s. We believe that a grassroots movement is a necessary prerequisite to change. CR is bringing people together through our conferences, campaigns, and projects toward the goal of helping to build that movement.

I also believe the debate has shifted and unlike a decade ago, abolition is on the table. A prerequisite to seeking any social change is the naming of it. In other words, even though the goal we seek may be far away, unless we name it and fight for it today, it will never come.

HB: What distinctions do you make between “political prisoners,” and others, including non-violent and violent offenders?

RB: CR focuses on how the PIC is used as a purported “answer” to social, economic and political challenges, and clearly a big part of the build up of the PIC followed directly on the political uprisings of the ’60s and ’70’s. CR seeks to abolish the PIC in its entirety, for us that means fundamentally challenging the PIC as an institution. This means that just as we fight for Mumia to not be locked in a cage, we also fight for people convicted of offenses classified as “violent” or “nonviolent” by the state to also not be locked in cages. While acknowledging that people are put in prison for different reasons, we do not make the distinction between people in for “violent” or “nonviolent” offenses because the PIC is not an answer to either.

HB: Anything else to add?

RB: One day, I believe those who fought for abolition will be seen as visionaries. Historian Adam Hochschild notes that there are numerous institutions in history that appeared unchangeable and moreover, small numbers of people have sparked extraordinary change.

Until the late 18th century, when the British slavery abolitionist movement began, the idea of eliminating one of the fundamental aspects of the British Empire’s economy was unimaginable. Yet, 12 individuals who first met in a London printing shop in 1787 managed to create enough social turbulence that 51 years later, the slave ships stopped sailing in Britain.

In the US, the first slavery abolitionists were represented as extremists and it took almost a century to abolish slavery. Similarly, many who lived under Jim Crow could not envision a legal system without segregation.

As Hochschild wrote, “The fact that the battle against slavery was won must give us pause when considering great modern injustices, such as the gap between rich and poor, nuclear proliferation and war” and I would add the Prison Industrial Complex. “None of these problems will be solved overnight, or perhaps even in the fifty years it took to end British slavery, but they will not be solved at all unless people see them as both outrageous and solvable.”

Hans Bennett is a Philadelphia-based photo-journalist who has been documenting the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners for over five years. Read other articles by Hans, or visit Hans's website.

19 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. evie said on July 11th, 2008 at 3:39pm #

    “… we also fight for people convicted of offenses classified as “violent” or “nonviolent” by the state to also not be locked in cages. While acknowledging that people are put in prison for different reasons, we do not make the distinction between people in for “violent” or “nonviolent” offenses because the PIC is not an answer to either.”

    Can “violent” offenders live next to you? I really don’t want them as neighbors. You can have the child molesters too.

  2. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 12th, 2008 at 6:12am #

    Violent offenders do live next to you, Evie. Unless you are far more priviledged than I thought you are. And if you want to find the addresses of convicted sex offenders living near you, I suggest that you pay your money down and join

    Thanks for this interview, Hans Bennett. I notice that you did not ask Rose Braz if Professor Angela Davis participates in or has participated in Critical Resistance, or if the project owes her any antellectual debt. Any particular reason?

  3. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 12th, 2008 at 6:15am #

    Strangely, Dissident Voice doesn’t have an Archive entry for “prisons” or even “incarceration.” Black Agenda Report, on the other hand, has a great many articles on the subjject.

  4. evie said on July 12th, 2008 at 7:07am #

    I’m well-acquainted with my neighbors and none are violent offenders. Our state has a free sex offender list and most of those are on the other side of town for some reason.

    Prison reform/rehab is one thing and is needed – but abolishing is something else.

  5. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 12th, 2008 at 7:30am #

    If you don’t mind my asking, evie, what state is that? And what town? (I’ll provide you with the same info about myself, as a quid pro quo.) You could use my email address — moc.liamgnull@yesworlg — but I’m not fearful of posting such information in DV.

    Speaking to the police who seem to administer my neighborhood, several weeks ago, I mentioned to a big, white one that neighbors don’t communicate much “around here.” He replied that all over town, neighbors don’t communicate much. I saw a female cop a couple of years ago in the hood, but since then, big white ones are the only ones I’ve had the pleasure of talking to.

    It must be nice to live in a neighborhood where neighbors communicate.

  6. evie said on July 12th, 2008 at 8:24am #

    I’m in a small town in the Heartland – bordering on TN, MO, and southern IL. All our cops are big white guys.

    Be the first on your block to get friendly. When we first moved in I had a backyard barbeque and beer – went door to door to invite neighbors. We sit on the front porch on summer evenings and most every passerby will stop and chat if you’re friendly. I walk the dog and met many of the neighbors. We help one another with clearing limbs after storms (yearly around here). We share food from gardens, help with DIY projects, etc.

    I call those big white cops if other neighbors fight on the corner or are dealing dope over the back fence – someone threw bricks through our window but they take their fights and sell their drugs elsewhere now, or at least not in our sight. Husband and I figure if we want a better ‘hood it’s up to us, and it has gotten better and other neighbors now less hesitant about calling the police when need be.

    The hardest part of knowing your neighbors is trying to avoid the gossip some want to engage in, and establishing a line between being neighborly and being someone’s doormat. Maybe that stops some folks – having to establish the boundary of what’s neighborly acceptable and what’s not.

    I think a few folks thought we were odd at first for being “friendly” but they’re over it.

  7. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 12th, 2008 at 11:50am #

    The intersection of those three states could be a lot friendlier to radicals than 20 miles northeast of Oakland, California, across the Contra Costa County line heading north to Vallejo. Just this morning I was at the Target in Fairfield, CA, and a pony-tailer (like myself) and his young son were getting into their car. A called out Good Morning to him, and he smiled at me, and I asked him if he’d noticed how pony-tailers are so goddam individualist they never speak to each other. He laughed and said Good Morning back. Unfortunately, about as close as I come to being friendly with strangers is humor.

    Anywho, I’m by myself and 66 years old, and I’ve lost the touch of putting strangers at ease. But I’m trying real hard. Real hard to make communications replace police-relations in this neighborhood. But I’ve been “posted off” the across-the-street neighbor’s property by the cops, and my next-door neighbor’s incommunicado because I’ve reported their dog to the Animal Control (police, too). And since I live on a corner, there’s a traffic situation, and blah blah.

    I could sell my home and move, and I’m getting closer to it every day. Neighborhoods differ, but neighbors are pretty much the same in my experience. They form an opinion of you, based on early experiences, and so they “know you,” and it’s real hard to change that opinion.

    Thanks for the time and advice, evie.

    A lady I graduated from Law School with in 1966 was from a little town in southwest Missouri on the Texas River, and I visited her that summer. What Beautiful Country!

  8. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 12th, 2008 at 11:52am #

    Thanks for this interview, Hans Bennett. I notice that you did not ask Rose Braz if Professor Angela Davis participates in or has participated in Critical Resistance, or if the project owes her any antellectual debt. Any particular reason?

  9. Hans Bennett said on July 12th, 2008 at 12:17pm #

    Hi Lloyd, I have enjoyed checking out the discussion, and I think better neighbor relations is key to challenging the PIC, because fear of our neighbors has been a key method for the expansion of the PIC. Note that in 1970, the US prison population was 300,000, and now over 2 million. In another essay of mine, I discuss the forces behind this change:

    Regarding Professor AY Davis, there was not reason I didn’t mention her… I was just trying to do a short interview… As I understand it, Davis is one of CR’s founders. I like Davis alot, and have some personal history there because the year after the 98 CR conference, I was fortunate enough to take a class with her on the PIC at UC-Santa Cruz. That class, as well as the 98 CR conference had a profound impact on me.

    I would strongly encourage folks to check out Davis’ work on prisons, including her recent book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” as Davis is certainly one of the key theorists of the prison abolitionist movement.

  10. Wayne A Lewis said on July 12th, 2008 at 1:19pm #

    More should be said about the privatized prison system’s hypocrisies. Although I’ve been told not to say much on this subject, I found, while living in Central America for a year, I was in the middle of a “trade triangle.” Here, I heard American “businessmen” brag about making money transporting cocaine to the US and then investing in the privatized prison system — making money on both ends. Gary Webb ( no longer with us), eluded to this, and so did others, but nobody paid it much attention.

    And Wall Street lived happily ever after.

  11. Hans Bennett said on July 12th, 2008 at 1:26pm #

    Interesting point, Wayne… Particularly regarding the fraudulent “War on Drugs” which has been a powerful stimulus to the growing police state. I talk more about this in this article:

    I agree that private prisons are important to look at, but I’d like to take a clip from that above essay to answer you directly, and am interested to hear what you think.

    This current phase of globalization has created a dramatic rise in the role of prisons in society. While in 1980, there were only 500,000 prisoners total in the U.S., that number has now exceeded 2 million. Many have explained this rise of the prison population by citing the growing economic incentive to expand the population by such lobbying forces as prison guard unions, companies that employ prison labor, prison construction contractors, and private prison corporations.

    However, in his 1999 book Lockdown America, it is Christian Parenti’s assertion that while these interest groups do have an economic interest in the proliferation of the prison system, this alone cannot explain the dramatic escalation of the prison population. Instead, Parenti argues that prisons have become a way to control the superfluous population that has been created as a result of downsizing (wherein well-paying jobs are taking to the third world where state repression insures low wages) since the 1970s.

    Parenti asserts that while social welfare programs can also help to control the politically dangerous classes, these programs help to empower the poor against their corporate masters. In contrast, the prison system serves to further the conquest of U.S. domestic colonies. While it costs infinitely more to jail someone than to offer social welfare programs (and may therefore seem inefficient) it is highly beneficial for ruling class control of poor people.

  12. Hans Bennett said on July 12th, 2008 at 1:42pm #

    Also, to add to Evie’s points, I do personally support steps towards abolition of the PIC…. I would for example by ok with immediately releasing non-violent offenders, including those victim of the fraudulent “War on Drugs”.

    Then, in the long term commit to finding a way to deal with societal violence. I think much of violent crime is a direct result of all the state and economic violence . I think in many was the PIC reproduces violent crime and feeds it, so I think finding honest alternatives and addressing the overall power structure will help the problem of violent crime much better than the PIC. Christian Parenti argues that:

    “This politics of punishment works in two ways: it contains and controls those who violate the class-biased laws of our society, but prison also produces a predator class that, when returned to the street, frightens and disorganizes communities, effectively driving poor and working people into the arms of the state, seeking protection. Thus both crime control and crime itself keep people down.”

    I don’t believe that ALL violent crime is from the domination of state, capital, and other oppressions—-but I do think it’s huge, and addressing these problems would be a huge step towards addressing the issue of violent crime. Then, I say, we could take several of the hundreds of millions of dollars of tax-money currently going towards such beasts as the military industrial complex and the PIC, and use this to research alternatives.

    In short, I think this only will really happen when the overall realities of ruling class power are also addressed. Because, sincere attempts at prison abolition will only be a truly possible policy if the people in power have changed. In this regard it is much like challenging other evils that the ruling class benefits from like militarism, white supremacy, sexism, etc.

    To quote Martin Luther King, its going to take an overall “revolution” and the PIC should be added into his 3 evils that he wanted to immediately abolish: capitalism, militarism, and racism.

  13. evie said on July 12th, 2008 at 2:34pm #

    I think the solution is education and jobs – both of which have been flushed down the toilet in the States. And parenting goes a long way. No self-respect, respect for nothing else.

    You can abolish capitalism and militarism but if parents are not parenting and schools not educating and jobs are low pay dead ends – any “ism” will still produce a large criminal class.

    None of us will live to see the abolition of racism. I have seen improvement in my own lifetime – but most of mankind has a penchant to feel “better” than someone else.

    Also, religion is a bitch. I respect other’s if they have a “need” for religion but it is a silly myth that works hand in hand with other problematic “isms.”

    We would cure a lot of ills by simply starting at home.

  14. Hans Bennett said on July 12th, 2008 at 2:48pm #

    I agree about education and jobs, which I think will only really come with radical economic restructuring… But, I also agree that abolishing capitalism and institutionalized racial inequality will not solve everything. I am not dogmatic this way, because I do think things are more complex than that, however I think creating structural equality will go a long way and will at least be a powerful first step towards and honest look at how to deal with violent and anti-social crime.

    Therefore, it is important to look at it as holistically as possible, and I thinking looking at family and community is key, as well as many things we may never have really considered, because I don’t think there has ever been many honest attempts to actually solve the problem. When the govt. says they’re trying to help things, they actually have other nefarious motives—so therefore at minimum the problem isn’t getting fixed with that approach, and more likely the system is making violent crime worse.

    Lastly, I think we need to personally combat the psy-war of the corporate media’s fear-mongering regarding crime—-in the same way we must resist their fear of “terrorism” post 9-11 when they use that fear to justify all the terrible things they wanted to do already before 9-11 happened…

    This psy-war is a weapon against communities uniting.

  15. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 12th, 2008 at 2:50pm #

    Thanks, HB. Are Prisons Obsolete is fascinating, especially as an abstract analysis of the issue. AD must be an old hand at this, but there’s still no one else to my knowledge that approaches her work.
    My son majored in film at UC-Santa Cruz and took one of AD’s courses, and I believe that she provided him with sufficient Marxist perspectives to develop fluency in modern film writing.

    I was struck several years ago about how many books every year are published on incarceration, capital punishment, prisons, etc etc, and how few of them are read. How few make it to the Top 100 list, ever. It’s like there’s all these liberal publishers doing their duties, but middle Americans remain basically blind to the situation. Or just basically racist…

    Regarding better neighbor relations, we’re all on the same page here. Evie has experience working with other cultures in South America and has a husband and family, but hosting in a dangerous neighborhood could never be easy.

    I’ve spent a weekend plus a day in a jail but never longer and needless to add, never experienced a penitentary. The whole subject of incarceration makes me so angry that I can’t write about it. Black Agenda Report has had quite a few relevant pieces and open posts its readers comments.

  16. Lloyd Rowsey said on July 12th, 2008 at 3:04pm #

    When Evie writes that parenting goes a long way to reducing societal violence, I’m reminded of what first REALLY turned me on to Arthur Silber’s writings. It was his essays on Alice Miller. Which was after I realized that Silber is Our Tom Paine.

    Somewhat on the parenting subject and somewhat on why I didn’t provide my son with Marxist perspectives myself, I’ve always believed reality is stronger medicine that any taught political philosophy. And my contempt for “red diaper” ex-New-Leftists like Ronald Radosh is complete.

  17. evie said on July 12th, 2008 at 9:51pm #

    Yes. Family and community are key – and we do not need government interference to improve those – we need one another and the desire to make neighborhoods and selves better (grows into the towns, cities, and beyond).

    Racism is usually always learned at home (parenting). Most Americans are not “poor” – they just don’t have all the toys they see on television, senseless consumerism/materialism is also learned at home.

    We have the keys to change in our hands but do not use them. When you see bad behavior do you call the person on it? Or condone it, think it’s not your business, don’t want to get involved?

    Americans will bitch about income inequality and spend the rent money on lottery tickets (numbers racket). Too many mothers will sit at home all day bitching about public schools but not try to home school. Too many families and communities do not want to be involved with one another. Not because of income and racism – but b/c folks are afraid others might see the cracks in their plastic lives.

    Too many parents will bail out Johnny and Tyrone time after time until he finally gets hard time. I raised 5 and none ever had a run-in with the legal system – it can be done. I know more than a few of other mother’s sons in prison, and I feel sad for the wasted lives – but they put themselves there and deserve to be there. None are being rehabilitated – that’s what pisses me off – but many do not want to change, many non-violent became violent.

    Should sentencing for non-violent drug offenses (cocaine/crack) be changed? Yes. But after the 15th arrest for dealing crack/cocaine and the perp is 40 and you ask him why he doesn’t get a job and he says “workin’ is for foos” (fools) – then what? Good parenting does not produce sons like that.

    I think people are basically good – they’re just afraid to show it, as if it’s a sign of weakness. I don’t blame income disparity and institutions for that – we have done it to ourselves with petty greed, false lives, and ignorance.

    I don’t see the “fear-mongering” regarding crime or “terrorism” in the media but could be b/c I limit my exposure to mainstream media crappola. And husband turns it off b/c I swear at the tube to the point he says sailors would run from the room.

  18. Stacia Thompson said on October 30th, 2008 at 11:48am #

    Hi, I was wondering if I could get some thoughts on the increasing number of women in prison and the creation of women’s prisons as Rose Braz calls “gender responsiveness”?

  19. Terry said on June 8th, 2009 at 8:32am #

    The battle against slavery was not won.