Category: Prison Abolition

Sep 25 2014

October 16: Lessons in Self-Defense: Women’s Prisons, Gendered Violence, and Antiracist Feminisms in the 1970s & ’80s

I am excited to co-organize and participate in an upcoming event. Historian Emily Thuma will present a talk titled “Lessons in Self-Defense: Women’s Prisons, Gendered Violence and Anti-Racist Feminisms in the 1970s and 80s.” Her talk will explore the relationships between U.S-based anti-violence against women activism and the expansion of the prison nation in the early neoliberal era.

Emily is an assistant professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Her teaching and research focus broadly on the cultural and political histories of gender, race, sexuality, and empire in the United States. She is currently completing a book about feminist activism against violence in the context of the politics of crime control, policing, and imprisonment in the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s.She has also long been active in LGBTQ and feminist anti-violence and prison organizing efforts.

After her talk, Emily and I will engage in a conversation that will seek to link the past to our present era when carceral feminism is ascendant. I am excited for this conversation because it connects to the “No Selves to Defend” exhibition that I co-curated and to the anthology about the criminalization of women of color who invoke self-defense that I edited. It’s fitting that this event will take place during domestic violence awareness month and the month of resistance to mass incarceration, police terror, repression and the criminalization of a generation.

RSVP for the event on Facebook. If you are in Chicago on October 16th, I hope to see you at the event.

You can read Emily’s latest essay ‘Against the ‘Prison/Psychiatric State’: Anti-violence Feminisms and the Politics of Confinement in the 1970sHERE (PDF).

Lessons in Self Defense Poster FINAL

Sep 09 2014

Upcoming Event Series: Creative Resistance in a Prison Nation

image-1 (3)

A monthly forum on Chicago-based cultural projects that confront, agitate, and work to dismantle the prison nation.

In the last decade, a growing number of artists, organizations and activists in the Chicago area have created artwork and developed responses to what is now termed a prison nation The U.S. locks up more people than any other nation in the world and exhausts more resources on confinement and punishment each year. One in 99 adults in the US is incarcerated; the financial and social costs to tax payers and communities is staggering. Conservatives, liberals and members of the left have all called for policy changes, yet when violence and poverty rage in Chicago neighborhoods, the common response is a call to lock more people away for longer prison terms.

Creative culture has been at the forefront of changing the public perception about the realities of social segregation, poverty, violence, and incarceration. Chicago-area artists have staged performances and exhibitions, created organizations and developed long-term projects to alter entrenched thinking and unsettle business-as-usual.

What kinds of projects are happening that create a culture of change? Can art decarcerate? Change the law? Liberate communities from violence? Envision and enact new futures?

Read more »

Sep 06 2014

Cece McDonald Teaches About the PIC (with video)

William C. Anderson wrote a short essay about CeCe McDonald for the No Selves to Defend anthology which I share below.

by Micah Bazant

by Micah Bazant

Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald is a trans woman whose bravery in the face of injustice has changed lives and perceptions in the United States. On the night of June 5, 2011, CeCe was out with friends when she was attacked. Three people began harassing her and her friends outside a bar by deriding them with racist and transphobic slurs, before attacking them physically.

CeCe fought for her life; when the dust settled one of her attackers lay dead. CeCe survived the attack, but was arrested by the police. After receiving 11 stitches to her cheek, she was interrogated without counsel and placed in solitary confinement. CeCe was charged with second-degree murder for defending herself. Rather than face trial by a jury that would not likely sympathize with her, she accepted a plea deal to the lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter.

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Jul 08 2014

Image of the Day

The wonderful Jenna Peters Golden contributed to the terrific Radicalphabet poster project.

Image by Jenna Peters-Golden

Image by Jenna Peters-Golden

Jun 01 2014

Transforming Justice… Brief Notes

On Thursday, I was privileged to participate on a panel titled “What is the 21st Century Landscape of Injustice? Carceral States: Surveillance, Prisons, Police, and Immigration Detention” which was part of the Freedom Dreams Freedom Now conference organized by UIC’s Social Justice Institute (and co-sponsored by my organization among many others).

My charge was to share some concrete examples of how we are transforming justice (particularly Illinois). I didn’t write a speech but I did jot down some notes. I was asked by some conference participants if I could post those notes here. I am doing so today with a caveat. These are just notes and I didn’t even share all of them during my talk. At a later date, I might try to write something more coherent to share.

Notes for Thursday’s Plenary…

I’m interested in the relationship and intersections between surveillance, prisons & policing. I came to prison abolition and transformative justice through my work to end racialized and gender-based violence in particular. I recognized that prison normalizes violence rather than challenging or ending it.

We are in the era of mass criminalization and not merely mass incarceration. This is an important distinction because while it’s imperative to center the prison in our work; our resistance must be broader.

As Beth (Richie) and Liat (Ben Moshe) have said, the carceral state extends from drug testing of welfare recipients to questions about arrests on college applications to the criminalization of mental illness to the punishment and policing of the child welfare system.

These are systemic & structural issues that require change at a broad societal level. This means investing in both communities and individuals to ensure that everyone has housing, healthcare, education, employment, and is free from violence.

The evidence is in and it shows that the rise of the prison nation is the result of policy rather than a spike in crime rates. Imprisonment and criminalization disproportionately affect communities that experience systemic oppressions.

Here in Illinois we have nearly 50,000 people in our adult prisons and about 800 in our juvenile prisons on any given day (excluding our jail population). While making up about 15% of adults in Illinois, blacks are 56% of our prison and jail population. In the juvenile system, black youth are about 20% of the state pop and 65% of those incarcerated in youth prisons. Just as an example.


Real community safety (everyone having access to housing, food, employment, education and freedom from violence) is not created by increasing criminalization. We need to consider transformative changes, and investing resources in communities.

All of us can work to build communities based on gender, racial, and economic justice and work towards the long-term abolition of prisons and the end of the PIC.

Critical Resistance, an abolitionist grassroots national organization, offers a framework for ending the PIC centered on: 1. Dismantling; 2. Changing; and 3. Building.

We are doing all three in Illinois. I’d like to offer a few of my own ideas and also share some of the ways that we are working to end the PIC in this state.

● Stop calling the police. Just stop. [Our Chain Reaction project here in Chicago is addressing itself to just this issue.] We need to get the cops off our streets.
● Shut down existing prisons and jails. [We’ve done this in IL; TAMMS, Dwight, 2 Youth Prisons in the last 3 years. Our challenge is/will be to keep them closed].
● Prevent the expansion of new prisons and jails [Once again we've done that in Illinois in Crete/Joliet/Champaign].
● Reduce levels of surveillance [These are campaigns that need to emerge and be inclusive]
● Interrupt and resist the criminalization of spaces like schools, parks etc…
● Ensure that our organizations (and/or organizations you work with and make referrals to) do not set up any barriers or discrimination to people who have been criminalized [support/start Ban the Box initiatives, sealing and expungement efforts, etc…]
● Distinguish between what Ruthie Gilmore and others have called reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms. Refuse to participate in the expansion and further entrenchment of the PIC.

● We must understand the symbiotic relationships of social issues such as housing, immigration, mental health care, education, jobs. Working on any of these issues is ultimately working toward abolishing the PIC.
● Reject the idea that everyone who uses drugs is an addict and therefore needs treatment. This is creating a new containment industry that has extended the reach of the PIC.
● Ensure that prisons are not positioned as a solution to complex and vexing social problems.
● Use different language (returning citizens vs ex-offenders, mass criminalization vs mass incarceration, etc…)

● Educate yourself and others. Intellectual work and analysis are important.
● Work in community with people who have been imprisoned and criminalized, value the knowledge and expertise that people with the lived experience of imprisonment or criminalization bring.
● Actively imagine a world without prisons and criminalization. Think about what actually generates safety in our communities
● Start building the world that we want to live in. Try out many things. Use restorative practices where warranted.
● Create alternatives to policing, surveillance, and imprisonment. Recognize that this takes time. But we know how to do it because as Danielle Sered of Common Justice has said: the biggest and most successful alternative to incarceration program in the United States is whiteness…

May 21 2014

More Sights From Locked Up & Locked Out March & Action

So many wonderful images from Monday’s Locked Up and Locked Out action and march keep coming in and I also couldn’t include all of the photographs in yesterday’s post

by Tommy Callahan (5/19/14)

by Tommy Callahan (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Bob Simpson (5/19/14)

by Holly Krig (5/19/14)

by Holly Krig (5/19/14)

by Sehar Sufi (5/19/14)

by Sehar Sufi (5/19/14)

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May 19 2014

#NoYouthInPrison: Kicking Off National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth

If you’ve read this blog even once, you know that I am against prisons. I am particularly against incarcerating children. Today kicks off the National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth.


I write a lot about the prison industrial complex (including the juvenile punishment system) and last year I published a paper with my friend Dr. Michelle VanNatta about alternatives to youth incarceration in Chicago. In the paper, we provided a brief literature review about juvenile detention and incarceration. I am republishing that part here to buttress the case against incarcerating young people.

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Mar 18 2014

Prison Reform’s In Vogue & Other Strange Things…

What a strange moment we’re in… Prison ‘reform’ is in vogue.

prison Last week, Buzzfeed published an article citing “bipartisan optimism” about prison reform. This weekend, the New York Times editorialized that out of this dysfunctional Congress “there may come one promising and unexpected achievement: the first major reforms to America’s broken criminal justice system in a generation.” On Monday, it was USA Today’s turn to deliver the ‘good news’ of reform. It appears then that folks in the Beltway and in the media are currently optimistic about criminal legal reform. The optimism has also spread to states like Louisiana, New York and Texas.

Last fall, a lot was made of Attorney General Eric Holder’s announced guidelines to reform federal drug sentencing. But as was pointed out by several commentators including the ACLU:

“…federal prosecutors already have the discretion to do what Mr. Holder is directing them to do. The trick will be getting them to do it. In other words, actually reducing the number of people subject to outdated and overly harsh mandatory minimums is totally dependent on prosecutors following Mr. Holder’s lead.”

Marijuana legalization for adults is proceeding in Colorado and Washington, with more states considering doing the same. Yet with every action, there is a reaction and last week the House of Representatives passed a bill “to force President Barack Obama to crack down on states that have legalized marijuana in any form.”

Nevertheless, the excitement is palpable about conservative organizations like “Right on Crime.” Since such groups are now willing to publicly criticize the criminal legal system as fiscally unsustainable, some hope that a window for decarceration is open. Books have been published this year suggesting that the era of the “punishment imperative” has ended (in fact that it actually ended in the early 2000s). Several words have been repeated in articles, conferences, media and legislatures across the country: fiscal responsibility, discretion, disproportionate minority contact, mass incarceration and reform.

As someone who has devoted years of her life to the work of first reforming and then later abolishing prisons, one might think that I would be excited about recent developments. In fact, my natural skepticism is now at its peak mainly because I am a student of history. The prison itself was born out of a reform movement and since its inception in the U.S. in the late 18th century, we have been tinkering towards imperfection. With every successive call for ‘reform,’ the prison has remained stubbornly brutal, violent and inhumane. A report titled “Struggle for Justice” published in 1971 put it this way:

“More judges and more ‘experts’ for the courts, improved educational and therapeutic programs in penal institutions, more and better trained personnel at higher salaries, preventive surveillance of predelinquent children, greater use of probation, careful classification of inmates, preventive detention through indeterminate sentences, small ‘cottage’ institutions, halfway houses, removal of broad classes of criminals (such as juveniles) from criminal and ‘nonpunitive’ processes, the use of lay personnel in treatment – all this paraphernalia of the ‘new’ criminology appears over and over in nineteenth-century reformist literature.”

Read more »

Mar 05 2014

Prison IS Violence…

Warning: This post includes descriptions of extreme violence and brutality.

There have been a couple of stories in the recent news exposing the brutality of prisons in the United States. First, the on-going travesty at Tutwiler women’s prison in Alabama was revisited by the New York Times over the weekend:

For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation. More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.

But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation.

I’ve highlighted the situation at Tutwiler here a couple of years ago. Are sexual violence and brutality new for women prisoners? Of course not! In fact, in the mid-19th century after visiting Auburn State Prison in New York, the prison chaplain, Reverend B.C. Smith, remarked on conditions there: “To be a male convict would be quite tolerable; but to be a female convict, for any protracted period, would be worse than death” (Rathbone, 2005).

Randall G. Shelden (2010) wrote about how women prisoners were treated in the 19th century:

“The conditions of the confinement of women were horrible — filthy, overcrowded, and at risk of sexual abuse from male guards. Rachel Welch became pregnant at Auburn while serving a punishment in a solitary cell; she died after childbirth as the result of a flogging by a prison official earlier in her pregnancy. Her death prompted New York officials to build the Mount Pleasant Prison Annex for women on the grounds of Sing Sing in Mount Pleasant, New York in 1839. The governor of New York had recommended separate facilities in 1828, but the legislature did not approve the measure because the washing, ironing, and sewing performed by the women saved the Auburn prison system money. A corrupt administration at the Indiana State Prison used the forced labor of female inmates to provide a prostitution service for male guards (p.134).”

The guard who beat Rachel Welch so brutally was named Ebenezer Cobb. He was convicted of assault and battery and fined $25. He was allowed to keep his job.

The second development in the past few days involves the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Law School which brought a class action lawsuit against Cook County Jail alleging a “sadistic culture.” Conditions are described as “hellish.” As someone who has had to visit the Jail pretty regularly, I concur with this assessment. I have written about the fruitless struggle to reform Cook County Jail dating back to the 1870s. Still, today, detainees continue to be abused and harmed even after countless lawsuits and federal intervention.

Read more »

Dec 11 2013

One Billion Rising, Eve Ensler and the Contradictions of Carceral Feminism(s)

Note: This post was written fast and while tired. It’s a work in process but I felt compelled to offer some thoughts because I have been growing increasingly pissed off over the past few days. Consider these preliminary notes. In addition, I mean the terms women & girls to include anyone who identifies with these categories. I want to take into account the ways that transgender women and girls experience violence (interpersonally and from the state).

photo of Eve Ensler from the Guardian.

photo of Eve Ensler from the Guardian.

Eve Ensler seems to have discovered state violence…in much the same way as Columbus ‘discovered’ America. She has announced herself ready to discuss and address the negative consequences of increased criminalization. Yet just a few months ago, One Billion Rising, Ensler’s global ‘anti-violence’ campaign, was primarily encouraging survivors of interpersonal violence to report their rapes & assaults to law enforcement. This, according to the campaign, was the way to hold perpetrators of violence ‘accountable’ for their actions.

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