Prisons are violent institutions, not because who’s caged inside, but because they produce and present violence as the only and natural outcome of conflict and harm. As incarcerated abolitionists, we struggle daily to counter this idea and find ways to resolve conflict and remedy harm without resorting to violence. We hold fast to a praxis that grows our capacity to care and resist. As we work to overcome state and interpersonal violence, we continually search for ways to resist that don’t entail harming others, including oppressors. We believe harm will not remedy harm.
As we pursue life-affirming ways to deal with conflict and harm, we subject our thoughts and actions to persistent analysis and critique. There are two general questions that serve as a compass as we travel this path of liberatory work. What is the abolitionist response in this particular situation? In this situation, what is incompatible with abolition? These questions help us stay the course and remain principled. We wish other groups, especially those purporting to represent incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, would keep these questions in front of them when deciding what actions to take or what causes to support.
One group, Just Leadership USA, a group we were members of, has publicly supported the construction of four new jails in New York City. Moreover, they claim this is an abolitionist stance. We have always known that “abolition is about breaking down things that oppress and building up things that nourish,” so we were taken aback by their claim. A true abolitionist position focuses on dismantling systems and sites of violence, not expanding them. How can supporting the caging and disappearing of people ever be abolitionist? How can strengthening the grip of the police state ever be abolitionist?
It is clear to us that this group has no abolitionist principles guiding its work. Abolitionists believe every measure of carceral confinement is unacceptable. We don’t work to build the arsenal of the criminal punishment system.
What vexes us most is that this group claims to represent those with imprisonment experience. Have they forgotten the daily degradation of detention? Have they forgotten that it’s poor people who are kept in jail for not posting money bails? Do they really believe erecting more sites of violence will produce safety? Do they really believe investing $11 billion in the PIC will help our communities? Their stance betrays their ignorance of a basic abolitionist point: the only way to make prisons and jails safer is to dismantle them.
If this group would have asked itself the two simple questions we keep in front of us, there is no way they would have supported the construction of new cages in NYC. They would have known that efforts to expand or legitimize the underlying ideologies or structures of the PIC are antithetical to penal abolition. How could any abolitionist organization support prison expansion? What is radical about building new cages?
The truth is that Just Leadership USA is not abolitionist. It is another liberal, nonprofit that has appropriated abolitionist terminology to broaden its appeal. That’s how they fooled us into becoming members. They support the caging and disappearing of poor folk. Their only concern are the “excesses” of the PIC, not its fundamental existence. That being the case, we renounce our memberships in Just Leadership USA. We strongly support the work and efforts of the No New Jails Movement in NYC. We stand in solidarity with the Movement. They, like us, know that we must explore new terrains of justice, paths that do not depend upon the carceral logics of surveillance, confinement and punishment.