In 2015, it is hard to imagine an institution more harmful than a prison. With daily reports of sexual assaults by correctional staff, hunger strikes by those opposing long-term solitary confinement, and many deaths in custody, prisons perpetuate violence and are antithetical to public safety.
In 2003, activist and scholar Angela Davis suggested that “our most difficult and urgent challenge to date is that of creatively exploring new terrains of justice where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.” Twelve years later, her admonition is more urgent and relevant than ever. With the largest prison population on the planet—some 2.2 million people locked up and millions more under correctional supervision—politicians from Newt Gingrich to Hillary Clinton are rhetorically embracing the idea that mass incarceration is a national problem. Far fewer people, however, are ready to declare that prisons are fundamentally destructive and beyond reform. Both statements are true. As such, it is incumbent on all of us to collectively reimagine and build a viable and humane way to address our social problems beyond the endless cages. For these reasons and more, I am a prison abolitionist.
Yes, some individuals in prison have caused great harm to people and to communities. This cannot be minimized. That’s precisely why I am so passionate about the need to create community-based structures to address harm and to mediate conflicts. As a survivor of violence, I want safer communities. Importantly, most people who do harm will never be imprisoned. Building community-based structures will allow us to focus on harms that our current systems of policing and punishment ignore, neglect, or are unable to resolve.
From Ferguson to Baltimore, from Rikers Island to Guantánamo Bay, our prison nation ensures expensive and profound precarity and violence. Yet the current interventions posited as “alternatives to incarceration”—including drug-treatment programs, boot camps, community-based supervision or probation, electronic monitoring, and community service—still depend on carceral logics of surveillance, containment, and sometimes punishment. We must create new forms of justice defined by principles of respect, interrelatedness, and mutuality, and we need to ask: Are prisons obsolete?
Obviously, abolishing prisons is not something that will be accomplished easily, but we do have a growing community-accountability movement we can build on. Organizations and groups like Critical Resistance, Black & Pink, We Charge Genocide, Common Justice, the Audre Lorde Project, and my own organization, Project NIA, among many others, are practicing abolition every day. We are doing so by creating local projects and initiatives that offer alternative ideas and structures for mediating conflicts and addressing harms without relying on police or prisons.
When I speak of abolition, I don’t demand the immediate closing of all prisons (though we can certainly accelerate the process of decarceration through, for example, abolishing cash bail). The abolitionists I know understand that as a society we will always need to ensure accountability for people who repeatedly cause harm. Part of our work, then, must be to create the conditions necessary to ensure the possibility of a world without prisons.
Scholar-activist Ruthie Gilmore has defined abolition as “a movement to end systemic violence, including the interpersonal vulnerabilities and displacements that keep the system going.” Practically, that looks like “creating structures that reduce the demand and need for prisons,” as my friend and colleague Erica Meiners has written. She adds: “It is ensuring that communities have viable, at least living-wage, jobs that are not dehumanizing. It means establishing mechanisms for alternative dispute resolution and other processes that address conflict or harm with mediation. It means ensuring that our most vulnerable populations, for example those who are mentally ill or undereducated, do not get warehoused in our prisons and jails because of the failure of other institutions such as health care and education.”
As there is no blueprint for abolition, we must spend time imagining, strategizing, and practicing other futures. In my work this encompasses many facets: We organize and mobilize to address the root causes of oppression and violence. We test the limits of our imagination of what’s possible in terms of addressing violence and harm. We creatively rethink our current structures of policing and warehousing individuals. We expose the brutality and abject failure of the current system. We foreground a revolutionary transformation of ideas while demanding that our resources be radically reallocated. Collectively envisioned and determined, abolition will look different from one community to the next. There are many vexing questions and unknowns to puzzle through, but we can do this together. We must, we will, and we are.
This afternoon, I facilitated a welcome circle for a young man recently released from prison. Due to confidentiality, I can’t speak about his specific experiences. I did get permission from him to share one sentence from the circle:
“My cracks are now gaping wounds and the bleeding is invisible.”
There were audible gasps when the young man spoke these words today. Gasps and some tears. The purpose of the circle was to provide support and encouragement. It was also to identify his needs and how those in his community might help to meet them. His needs are many and resources are criminally limited. I keep replaying this sentence in my head:
“My cracks are now gaping wounds and the bleeding is invisible.”
This young man was wounded before entering prison. He was in his words already cracked. After three years in prison, his cracks are wider and deeper. His assertion that he is invisibly bleeding is searing and frightening for both him and for his community. How do we stanch the bleeding? I now envision thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of walking wounded bleeding invisibly all around us. I am haunted by the image and paralyzed as to what to do.
Our circle today was an embrace of this young man to let him know that he is not alone. It’s a necessary step in a long process that cannot begin to prioritize his need for healing. It’s not close to adequate and definitely not enough to stop the bleeding. I’ve been thinking a lot during this current moment of increased attention to mass incarceration that too few understand the scope and scale of the problem. Those who can best speak to these are struggling to survive inside and outside the walls of the cages in which we confine them. Their families and friends are too often shamed and silenced. The stage is ceded to elite technocrats who don’t seem to care that “lives matter more than the data representing them.”
The parameters of the mass criminalization “debate” are currently being delineated and cemented. We’re allowed to talk about the ‘war on drugs’ and the importance of freeing “non-violent” offenders. Those setting the boundaries of acceptable demands are fully aware though that this will not end mass incarceration (not even close). Anyone who is serious about addressing the problem understands that we’ll have to also free many people convicted of violent offenses to begin to turn the tide. Importantly too, the anti-Blackness endemic to the criminal punishment system is glossed over with euphemisms like ‘disproportionate minority contact’ if ever discussed. The criminal punishment system helps to create and then feeds off Black people’s expendability. The system has always reinforced white supremacy and maintained the subordination of Black people. How can the criminal punishment system be transformed without action to uproot white supremacy? There’s so much rhetoric and smoke and so little action and substance. The young man in today’s circle and the thousands like him deserve better.
I’m sitting on the floor of my living room as I type and I am crying. I’m thinking about a 25 year old young Black man who has to borrow $5 to get on the bus that will take him home after a circle while he bleeds invisibly. I’m thinking about a 28 year old Black woman who has to reconnect with her children while she bleeds invisibly. I’m thinking of the 17 year old trans person locked up for suspicion of prostitution. We’re in a state of emergency and the elites who created the carnage are discussing which color Bandaids to buy for the gaping wounds. The people who created the problem are now loudly proclaiming that they are the best positioned to solve it. It makes me ill and so very pessimistic.
“My cracks are now gaping wounds and the bleeding is invisible.”
I don’t know how we’ll stop the bleeding…
Through my friend, artist Micah Bazant, I learned about an organization working with incarcerated children called Performing Statistics.
Last month, Performing Statistics shared some of the art projects that the incarcerated children they work with have been creating this summer:
“This week, at Art 180 we began our 8 week program with a group of incarcerated youth. Throughout the summer they’ll be working with an amazing group of artists, legal advocates, designers, and others to produce a mobile exhibition filled with their own creative visions for how to change this broken system. This week was spent mostly just getting to know each other but we ended the week by creating our own protest posters…each teen came up with a slogan and a hand gesture to symbolize their slogan (since we aren’t allowed to photograph their faces).”
Below are some of the protest posters.
My friend Dr. Ryan Lugalia-Hollon has written an article suggesting that in the urban planning field “public safety is rarely taken up as a sphere of concern.” He points out that it is important to take into account how policing and prisons have shared our urban spaces. Finally he introduces a terrific new mapping project that seeks to fill in the gaps.
Quoting from the article:
“In Chicago, where I live, is far too familiar with the New Jim Crow. On parts of Chicago’s West Side, nearly 70 percent of men between ages 18 and 54 are likely to have interacted with the criminal justice system, casting the long shadow of concentrated criminality across local households, schools, parks, bus stops and places of business.
Through a new website, Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks, some colleagues and I show exactly how much the State of Illinois has been spending to incarcerate residents of these areas. As the site demonstrates, in the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, more than $500 million was committed to incarcerating residents of a single neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. That’s many millions of dollars more than will be spent on schools, housing, transportation, job creation or parks in the area.
Our site builds on a tradition of “incarceration mapping,” begun by Eric Cadora of the Justice Mapping Center. Starting with Cadora’s identification of these incarceration hot spots in the early 2000s, urbanists have started to think more critically about the impact of the criminal justice system on place.”
Check out the new website Chicago Million Dollar Blocks.
Yes I listen to George Jones
While reading a local newspaper, Ida B Wells-Barnett’s attention was captured by the story of Chicken Joe Campbell.
Campbell was already incarcerated at Joliet Prison when, in 1915, the warden’s wife was killed in a fire. He was accused of murdering her. The warden, Edmund M. Allen had been appointed by the Governor of Illinois in 1913. He had progressive views (especially for the time) about how to treat prisoners. “There is some good in every man…and there exists some influence which will appeal to his heart and reason (cited in Giddings, 2009, p.549).” Allen had instituted an “honor system” at the Prison that allowed inmates to be rewarded with privileges and better job assignments for good behavior.
Joe Campbell had through his good behavior been elevated to the status of “trusty” and was assigned as a personal servant to the wife of the warden, Odette. Campbell was scheduled to appear before a parole board in a little more than a week when a fire broke out in the second-floor bedroom of the warden’s house. (Incidentally, Mrs. Allen had apparently agreed to testify in support of Campbell at his upcoming parole hearing). Paula Giddings explains what happened next in her authoritative biography Ida: A Sword Among Lions (2009):
“When prison guards and convicts from the volunteer fire department rushed to the residence, they found the lifeless body of Mrs. Allen. A later investigation found that alcohol had been spread over the bedding and that Mrs. Allen’s skull had been fractured. The coroner concluded that she had been knocked unconscious before succumbing to smoke inhalation and the flames. The Allen’s physician, who also had access to the warden’s living quarters and was himself a convict in the prison for killing his wife, claimed that Odette Allen had also been strangled and sexually assaulted — thought he had not made a thorough examination and no secretions were analyzed (p.549).”
Joseph Campbell was arrested for the crime right away. Barnett read about his plight when the Chicago papers reported that Campbell had been “confined to solitary in complete darkness for fifty hours on bread and water (Bay, p. 292).” After 40 hours of being subjected to questioning, Campbell ‘confessed’ to the crime. Wells was appalled by this barbaric treatment and wrote an outraged letter and appeal to local papers. “Is this justice? Is this humanity? Can we stand to see a dog treated in such fashion without protest?” she wrote. Her full letter can be read here:
Editor of the Herald: In common with thousands who have read of the horrible murder committed in Joliet penitentiary Sunday, I have followed the testimony given at the inquest now being held in an effort to find the murder.
All shudder to think so terrible a dead could be committed within the prison walls, but I write to ask if one more terrible is not now taking place these in the name of justice, and if there is not enough decent human feeling in the state to put a stop to it and give “Chicken Joe” a chance to prove whether e is innocent or guilty.
The papers say he has been confined in solitary fifty hours, hands chained straight out before him and then brought in to the inquest, sweated and tortured to make him confess a crime that he may not have committed. Is this justice? Is this humanity? Would we stand to see a dog treated in such a fashion without protest? I know we would not. Then why will not the justice-loving, law-abiding citizens put a stop to this barbarism?
The Negro Fellowship League will send a lawyer there tomorrow and we ask that your powerful journal help us to see that he gets a chance to defend “Chicken Joe” and give him an opportunity to prove whether he is innocent.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Representing Negro Fellowship League
Letter Published in Chicago Record-Herald & Chicago Defender (June 1915)
She didn’t stop there. She sent her husband, Ferdinand, to represent Campbell because she felt that the “prominent people” in Chicago weren’t supporting him. Ferdinand was told by prison officials that Campbell already had an attorney (it turned out that this was not true). A persistent Mrs. Barnett wrote a letter to Campbell himself and went to see him at the prison. She came away convinced of his innocence. When she returned to Chicago, she found a letter that Campbell had sent in response to her original letter to him. It was subsequently published in local and national papers and proclaimed his innocence of the charges against him:
Joliet, July 10th, 1915
Mrs. I.B. W. Barnett,
My Dear Madam:
I cannot find words to thank you for the kindness which you have shown me. I have been in this place 22 days and you are the first one that has come to my rescue and believe me when I say that I will accept your kind offer with joy and I know that if I am given a chance I can prove that I am innocent of this crime. I have not had any chance, that’s why I cannot prove that I did not commit the crime, but if you will do as you say in your letter, then I will have a chance to prove to the world that I am innocent and believe me when I say that I thank you with all my heart and may God bless you.
Ida and Ferdinand threw themselves into the defense of Joseph Campbell. Ida tirelessly raised funds while Ferdinand defended him in court. Despite Ferdinand’s best efforts, Joseph Campbell was found guilty and sentenced to death in April 1916. Ida and her husband supported Campbell through three appeals. After the final appeal, Campbell’s sentence was commuted by the Governor from death to life in prison in large part due to the pressure that the Barnetts kept up in this case. Campbell died in Joliet prison in 1950, nineteen years after Ida herself had passed.
I revisit this incident to underscore that the struggle against solitary confinement as a form of torture is a long one. Last month, here in Illinois, the Uptown People’s Law Center filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of Corrections over its solidarity confinement practices. The suit claims “that the Illinois prison system is excessively and inappropriately using the restrictive housing for inmates.” Ida already told us so in 1915. 100 years later you’d think that we would have learned the lesson.
It’s been a struggle to write lately. Words feel at once constraining and overwhelming. Kalief Browder’s suicide has left me flattened. I’ve been moving through the world but in an emotional fog that won’t lift. I’ve been thinking of Jamal (not his real name) who I’ve written and talked about before.
Jamal was 15 when we met. He was brilliant and funny. I would regularly see him standing in front of the EL station on my way to work in the mornings and suggest that he should be in school. He would tell me that standing in front of the EL was much more educational than school. Shortly afterwards, I gave him a book. Over the next couple of years, we became reading buddies. Jamal would come over on some Sundays to pick up new books. We would talk about life. I treasure those days.
Then the trouble came. In 2007, I didn’t see or hear from Jamal for a month. That was unusual. I asked some of his friends in the neighborhood where he was and what happened to him. There was radio silence. Finally one evening in October, I got a phone call from Jamal. He was at Cook County Jail and he needed my help. “What can I do,” I asked. “Do you need a private lawyer, I have friends who could help? Money for items from the commissary…” I was going on and on and he finally stopped me when he could get a word in. “Ms. K he said, please tell them to send me to prison now…just get me out of here.” Cook County Jail was and is still hell.
By 2012, Jamal was dead by his own hand. I was and still am devastated. Jail and prison kill. This, I know for sure. I’ve never written about Jamal’s death. I’ve started to several times. The words won’t form. I haven’t recovered from his loss. I never will. It’s been 3 years but it might as well be 1 day. I remember his smile but it’s always so fleeting, so ephemeral. I knew that he was broken by prison. I didn’t know how to unbreak him. That’s my unending nightmare.