Prison Abolition is the Feminist Issue We Need to Talk About

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Maureen Whitcomb

Community activist & feminist advocate. Passionate about prisoner justice, body politics, and all things crafty.

Typically when I argue that prisons are a feminist issue, I quickly become unpopular. “Prisons are here to protect us!”, folks exclaim, while writing me off as a “criminal lover,” a “bleeding heart,” or as naive. But prisons are a feminist issue. Prisons and the entire criminal justice system signify a feminist issue because of the foundation on which the system is built. I don’t think we can call ourselves a feminist movement if we support a system that is founded on and feeds off of the very institutions that feminism fights against, such as racism, sexism, and capitalism. The term Prison Industrial Complex was coined by activists and scholars to better understand these institutions that prisons are founded on. Moving away from a focus on individual choice and behavior, and considering factors outside of the individual, looking through the lens of the Prison Industrial Complex allows us to see how factors like racism, political structure, and the pursuit of profit in a capitalist society fuel the use of prisons. Prisons are where we house the people in our society who represent our most significant social problems – drug use, mental illness, poverty, racism, and sexism. And, as we have seen with so many issues that feminism addresses, it is much easier to punish social issues than to address them at their root.

The Prison Industrial Complex also allows us to better understand the ways that prisons are an extension of slavery and a tool to control bodies of color. According to a report by the Sentencing Project, 60% of the United States’ prison population is comprised of people of color. 1-in-3 men of color and 1-in-18 women of color have a lifetime likelihood of imprisonment, as opposed to 1-in-17 white men and 1-in-111 white women. The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution not-so-subtlety states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crimes thereof the party shall be duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It is no coincidence that the only form of slavery that is legal in the U.S. takes place in the country’s prisons and that more than half of the people warehoused in those prisons are people of color (For more in-depth insight about prisons as a form of control and extension of slavery for people of color, check out Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th). 

When viewing prisons and the criminal justice system through the lens of warehousing social issues and controlling bodies of color, we can see the ways that prison reform falls short. Reform calls for change to be made within the system that is in place. But when that system is built on racism, violence, capitalism, and sexism, how can we ethically work within that system and expect lasting change and justice? Reform is not the approach that will truly interrogate how the U.S. incarcerates 2.2 million people. Angela Davis in her book Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement writes about prison reform:

“Reform doesn’t come after the advent of the prison; it accompanies the birth of the prison. So prison reform has always created better prisons” (p. 22).

What Angela Davis is speaking to in this excerpt is the fact that prison reform perfects the prison. In that sense, it also perfects the foundations that the prison is built upon. Reform does not bring about justice. Prison reform fosters a political strategy of false hope. It treats isolated symptoms, but does not get to the root causes.

Alternatively, prison abolition calls for the dismantling of the prison system and the foundations and institutions that it is built upon. Prison abolition looks to create alternatives that support the establishment of new institutions. Abolitionist alternatives can include things like free mental and medical health care, the demilitarization of schools and law enforcement, the decriminalization of marijuana, and a justice system based not on punishment and revenge but on reconciliation and accountability. However, to truly envision these alternatives means addressing the systems in place that keep them from being established in the first place.

As an activist and writer who advocates feminism and fights for prison abolition, the most common question I hear is, “But what about the violent criminals?” One of the most damaging aspects of the Prison Industrial Complex is that it decontextualizes the lives of prisoners. Decontextualization is a term most often used when speaking about women who are incarcerated. Women’s pathways to crime differ greatly compared to men. Most crimes that women commit can be placed in the larger context of responses to trauma and strategies for survival. Because of this criminalization of trauma and survival, there is a push to fight against decontextualization of women in order to better understand the larger systems and situations that cause women to commit crimes (To read more about decontextualization, I would recommend Beth Richie’s book, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation). That tangent did serve a purpose, which is that we should not only strive to contextualize the lives of women who are incarcerated; we need to contextualize the lives of all people who are imprisoned. So, my answer to the question, “But what about the violent criminals?” is another question. That question is, “What makes that violence possible?”

The second most common question I hear is “What about men who are in prison for committing crimes involving sexual violence against women?” This question is complicated and incredibly challenging. My response to this question is one that most folks do not like or agree with: the criminal justice system – of which prison systems are a part of – does not exist to keep anyone safe, including survivors of sexual violence. Locking up individuals who engage in sexually violent behavior exposes them to more violence. Through the lens of the Prison Industrial Complex, we see that prisons do not exist to stop people from committing crimes. They exist for control and profit. In speaking to prisons and survivors of rape, Naomi Jaffe wrote in her article Rape and Mass Incarceration: The Connection:

“Injustice and cruelty exist at every level of the [criminal justice] process, and speak to the fundamentally racist underlying purposes of the criminal justice system, which is not actually to serve justice – much less to protect women from sexual assault – but to uphold inequality keeping communities of color poor, repressed, and in prison.”

What Naomi Jaffe speaks to in her article is the fact that prisons in the U.S. are not set up to prevent violence, protect communities and individuals from violence (unless you are white and upper class), or rehabilitate people who commit crimes. Violence prevention and responses to violence are completely reliant on the criminal justice system. This is problematic for people and communities that are targeted by police and state violence. Why should people and communities of color call upon law enforcement to assist in cases of gender violence when police killed 303 people of color in 2016, 30% of whom were unarmed? Why would people knowingly call law enforcement when incarceration rates have devastated their communities? This over-reliance on the criminal justice system as the tool to address gender-based and sexual violence is one of the main reasons that feminists need to advocate for prison abolition.

If as a feminist movement we are to truly fight for justice, we must fight for the abolishment of prisons.

Want to learn more about prison abolition?
– Check out this prison abolition syllabus from Black and Pink.
– Read Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?” (or, really anything by Angela Davis).
– Check out this prison abolition syllabus from the African American Intellectual History Society