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Prison Abolition FAQ

Crowdsourced document about prison abolition

anti-racism, protest, prison, prison abolition, USA

Answers by K Agbebiyi

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UPDATE: The doc is now closed for questions! Thank you for asking, engaging, and sharing. To create artwork/zines about this information you can, I just ask that you do not remove credit or alter my work’s meaning. Please share with me I love seeing what yall come up with! - K

GLOSSARY: “PIC” = Prison-Industrial Complex

Q: How do we hold people accountable (and by people I mainly mean cops like this not just ~criminals~) in the meantime without relying on the PIC? I have a hard time not falling into the “an eye for an eye” attitude.

A: I don't think there is anything wrong with wanting cops in this situation to suffer. I think it's a reasonable feeling, and a sentiment that I feel often. I think the issue for me is that I organize for the liberation of Black people. Through reading, organizing, and talking to others, I am able to see that any form of giving the PIC legitimacy does not get me closer to my goals of liberation for Black people. This is because (as I'm sure you already know) the "law" as it exists is rooted in anti Blackness. That means that no matter how many cops are charged, the system that allows them to feel empowered to kill us in the first place will not suddenly disappear.

I currently organize with/around criminalized survivors. People (usually women) who are incarcerated for defending themselves from gender-based and sexual violence. Many of these women (who are mostly Black and brown) are incarcerated precisely because of laws that were supposedly put into place to protect them, while their abusers walk free. This isn't a mistake, this is how the US criminal legal system is designed to work.

I think another issue is the conflation between punishment and accountability.

There is this idea that:

1. People who go to jail are "bad"

2. Sometimes jail mess up, and “good” people accidentally go there

3. Accountability and punishment are the same things

However, jails/prisons are the places where people actually achieve any form of accountability. In reality, I don't think that most people really want accountability for these police, they want punishment. And some may argue that that is the correct stance, but accountability and punishment are not the same thing.

Accountability (to me) is when someone takes responsibility for their harm, and works to make amends. Accountability takes place within a community, and also acknowledges the dignity of the other person. That's not what happens in prisons in the slightest. Instead, in prisons, people are stripped of their humanity. Societal issues on the "outside" are exacerbated within prison, leading to prisons becoming sites of sexual, racial, and gender-based violence. People are denied access to food, safety, healthcare, and meaningful connection. They are tortured, and then when they are released, they face unimaginable trauma, limited options, and also financial and emotional strain. That is not accountability. That is punishment. And that punishment is not reserved for "bad" people. It is reserved for people who are Black, brown, poor, disabled, mentally ill, sex workers etc. So I think people need to be clear that they're not asking for accountability for these cops. They want someone to suffer. And again, that's not inherently evil or irrational, but that is not the same thing as accountability.

Okay so let’s say that there are people out there who genuinely want these cops to face accountability and not punishment. The answer to this is sadly not as cut and dry as people would like to believe. There are numerous ways this can happen outside of the PIC (because we've already established that what takes place in prisons is not accountability). Different instances of harm require different amounts of work, community input etc. Survivors of harm require different things to feel safe and feel like they have experienced accountability. In order for these things to happen, transformative justice would have to occur. You can find out more about that here: and also other resources I'll post below.

Q: So what is the issue with these cops being jailed until we find a way to institute transformative justice in our society?

A: Because this gives the system legitimacy. If these cops are incarcerated, people will continue to believe that the system is "working." People will believe that “bad” people were punished and now society is safer. They will say that we should continue with the system as it is, and continue to ignore the fact that laws continue to and always will disproportionately fall on Black people. They will funnel more money into this system, which will lead to its expansion, and continue the cycle again.

And if the cops aren't incarcerated? Then the system is not working how it "should." We need to fight harder to make sure that killer cops are incarcerated next time. In the meantime, let's continue funneling more Black and brown people into prisons in the hopes that one day, *one* killer cop will be incarcerated.

All of this is happening while the system expands because again, we have normalized prisons as the place where people face accountability, and we have also normalized the mistreatment of people as long as they "deserve" it, without questioning what the root causes of violence are in the first place. It's just too simple of a fix.

I don't want harm treated like that, and centuries have shown us that reforms, etc., don't work. In fact, prison was thought of as a reform, and a more humane alternative to capital punishment. You can read more about prison being a reform in Angela Davis's Freedom is a Constant Struggle. You can also view this chart from Critical Resistance I share a lot for more info.

Q: How do you propose we punish the police then? They enjoy killing us, and know full well what they are doing, so isn’t re-education is a waste of time?

If you see above, it seems like you're equating punishment with accountability. If you want accountability, you can access the resource I posted above and continue to ask questions. If you want to punish these cops, I have no opinion on how to do so or what is "fair" other than the fact that the issue with cops being charged is it gives this system legitimacy, and the impacts of that are felt by Black and brown and poor people. I explain the fallacy of that logic above, but let me know if I can answer more.

EDIT: Also as someone who believes in TJ, I am not interested in coming up with ideas to punish people. This is not what my work revolves around, I just know that punishment has not been shown to actually prevent harm, and that is not where I am spending my time and resources. Sorry to disappoint.

Another thing that I would add, is that if we agree that policing is anti Black, that cops are able to kill people without repercussions, and that this is propped up by the PIC, then the public collectively supporting the PIC only continues the anti Black cycle, which again falls on Black people. We can't have it both ways. Either the PIC is the reason for so much suffering for our people and it needs to be abolished, or the PIC is an "okay" or "good" institution that just gets it wrong sometimes.

EDIT: Also, prisons are a huge site for white supremacist organizing. If a cop ends up in jail, he is able to harass and harm more Black people with the support of white power groups, and also prison staff. The cycle of harm towards Black people doesn't just stop behind bars.

Q: How does the prison system currently fail to hold perpetrators of harm accountable? Is there anything else besides holding people accountable that the prison system tends to overlook?

So one thing that the prison system or prison industrial complex or just carceral logic does, is it divides us into two groups. There are people that harm (bad), and there are people that are harmed (good), and these two groups of people are immovable, and you can never fall in more than one category. And also these groups of people just end up this way from birth. There are no systems in place that facilitate these things happening. Anyone can look around and observe human behavior and know that that is false.

In reality, most people have harmed, and most people are harmed. The level of harm varies, but we have all harmed people. By stigmatizing people who have harmed, and disappearing (Angela Davis) them from society, it is easier for us to just pretend that we are "good," and therefore do not have to do the messy and uncomfortable work of being accountable for our harm.

Another thing that people need to realize is that crime is not the same as harm. And what gets defined as crime is not about actually improving people's lives, it’s about maintaining the current system we have where there are some lives that are valued, and some that are not. This is why people in our world go to jail for parking tickets, while Wall Street execs also steal money from people and walk free. This is also why people want to see sexual abusers in jail, but also support the military and policing (which have high numbers of sexual abuse/assault). Different laws and rules apply to different people, and that is how crime is defined. That definition is used to maintain social order. So not only is the PIC not invested in accountability, it is invested in punishment. And that punishment is only applied to certain groups of people who are already vulnerable to other systems of oppression like capitalism, racism, anti

Prison Abolition FAQ
Tags Anti-racism, Protest, Prison, Prison abolition, USA
Type Google Doc
Published 27/11/2020, 11:06:27


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