In the midst of ongoing nationwide uprisings against police brutality, many of us are asking important questions about the nature of our country’s institutions and the role of police in America. As news of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as well as the shooting of Jacob Blake have circulated, there have been numerous ideas proposed as to how police brutality should be addressed. People are calling for racial sensitivity training, body cams, criminalization of certain restraint techniques. These reforms however sound all too familiar; in truth, they’ve all been tried, and yet Black people continue to be killed by police with little to no accountability. A solution gaining traction that may be new to many, however, is the idea of defunding the police
As this concept gains mainstream attention, we want to explore the potential of this proposal and the broader movement that defunding originated from. When ideologies become more mainstream, their core principles can often be diluted or lost along the way. In this case, the idea of defunding the police actually originates as just one tool of a broader ideology called prison-industrial complex abolition. In this article I hope to provide an accurate explanation of what abolition means, introduce the limitations of reform, and give you the tools to begin imagining what a future without prisons or policing may look like. I would also like to clarify however that abolition is an ever-evolving ideology and necessitates a lot of unlearning, so reading this article alone will not be enough to fully understand abolition. This is merely a starting point (recommendations for further reading are provided below).
Let’s begin by breaking down what prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition means. The PIC describes the systems of government and corporate imprisonment, policing, and surveillance. This includes but is not limited to prisons, ICE detention centers, court systems, police, etc. While many people associate the word abolition with the movement to abolish chattel slavery in America, abolition on its own simply refers to the act of ending a system or institution. So, PIC abolition is an ideology that aims to end all systems and institutions that uphold any and all forms of policing, incarceration, and surveillance. Abolition requires us to reimagine the meaning of justice and adjust the ways that we’ve been taught to think about harm and criminality.
When people are first introduced to this ideology, it can seem really extreme. Prisons and policing are such a huge part of our society and media that we often don’t question their existence. You might believe that the current system is broken, and just needs to be fixed. In reality, our current system is functioning exactly as it was designed. In the following paragraphs, I will break down how the system was created and intended to function as an inherently violent and inequitable institution while also challenging the notion that PIC abolition is naïve or impractical.
I want to begin by examining some issues with different reformist approaches to addressing police brutality. You may have heard of the 8 Can’t Wait campaign. This campaign lists eight demands for police reform and was widely circulated on social media within the last few months. Most of their demands focus on banning or restricting different types of force. Their campaign claims that implementing all of their demands will reduce police killings by 72%. This ignores the fact that some of the most violent police departments in the country already have many of these policies in place. Chicago for example, is already subject to seven of the 8 Can’t Wait policies and yet their police force continues to disproportionately kill Black people. Even if these policies were proven to be effective, which they are not, they would not be able to address the racial biases of officers (racial sensitivity training is another popular reform initiative that has been proven to be ineffective) or account for officers who might choose to ignore restrictions. Additionally, the goal of a police reform is always to reduce the amount of police violence and killings rather than eliminating it altogether. Under a PIC abolitionist framework, the goal is complete eradication of all state violence.
Rather than thinking about the PIC as a broken system, we need to understand that the system is functioning exactly as it was intended to. So, how is the system intended to function? Let’s first address the function of police. The police enforce laws created by the state (government). Therefore, they are protecting the interests of the state: capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that an institution intended to protect white supremacy disproportionately harms and terrorizes Black people. Think about what laws the police spend the most time and resources enforcing and what laws often go unenforced.
Let’s begin the process of rethinking what we consider a crime. Many predominant narratives of criminality are rooted in white supremacy and classism. Crime is entirely socially constructed, meaning that the definitions of what kind of behavior is and isn’t classified as criminal are completely rooted in cultural norms and values. To give some examples, “homosexual activity” was considered criminal in thirteen states until 2003. This is a prime example of the idea that criminalizing something does not necessarily mean it is immoral or even harmful. Additionally, crime can also be constructed in a way that intentionally targets very specific people in order to satisfy very specific interests of the state. A major example of this is the racialized history of American drug laws. Drug laws have been explicitly created to justify the mass incarceration of Black and brown people. One of the most glaring instances of this was Nixon’s war on drugs, which disproportionately criminalized crack vs. powder cocaine. While these are essentially the same drug, just in different forms, the sentencing for crack cocaine distribution is 100 times that of the sentencing for an equivalent amount of powder cocaine. This is no coincidence–in fact, the Nixon administration definitively used the war on drugs as a tool against Black communities. Nixon’s own advisor infamously said “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
For all of these reasons, many PIC abolitionists prefer to talk about inflicted violence, injury, or otherwise immoral acts in terms of harm rather than criminality. This perspective centers victims rather than perpetrators and does not moralize “crimes” like loitering, or graffiti that do not directly harm people or communities–these are also examples of laws that have been and continue to be used to disproportionately arrest and incarcerate Black people. This framework also allows us to acknowledge harms that are currently considered legal and therefore acceptable behaviors because they uphold the interests of the most powerful and privileged members of society. For instance, wage theft (while technically illegal is rarely enforced) and gentrification do very real harm to those affected by it, but both of these actions uphold capitalism and white supremacy.
Our current criminal justice system could more accurately be described as a criminal punishment system. While many people think that the goal of prisons is to reform “criminals,” this is simply inaccurate. Our current system is retributive (based on principles of revenge). Improving the conditions in prisons or restricting officers’ use of certain chokeholds does not do anything to fundamentally shift the way in which we conceive of justice. PIC abolitionists instead envision a system of justice that is built to facilitate the personal growth of the perpetrator and repair the harm done to the victim.
There are several common questions that come up for people when they begin to consider a world without prisons or policing. People want to know what system will replace the PIC. They want to know what will happen to people who commit murder or sexual violence. I am going to attempt to briefly address these questions now. It’s easy to jump to a worst-case scenario and conjure up images of violent criminals being loosed on the population. Imprisonment does not do anything to address the circumstances that led to an instance of violence and does not do anything to repair the harm done to those affected. Also, the PIC almost always exacerbates harm in instances of sexual violence, intimate partner violence, or hate-based violence. The existing system is not adequately addressing these harms, so why not imagine a better alternative?
What would an abolitionist system look like? I don’t know exactly. One of the biggest problems with the current system is that it applies the same system of punishment to all kinds of different “crimes” that deserve individualized approaches. In an abolitionist future we might have free voluntary rehab facilities instead of imprisonment for drug usage. We might have restorative or transformative justice practices in certain situations of harm.
What is transformative and restorative justice? These are two slightly different approaches to repairing harm, that are already being practiced in many communities as an alternative to the criminal punishment system. Restorative justice especially centers the victim and their needs. The goal is for the victim to lead the process of addressing and repairing the harm. Transformative justice is similar, but it is more focused on addressing the wider social systems that led to the harm.
PIC abolition is not going to happen overnight. The goal is to gradually transition away from retributive systems of justice. Along the way, we can take gradual steps—intuitive, positive ones like reducing police budgets, decriminalizing drugs and sex work, and eliminating solitary confinement and capital punishment. PIC abolition prioritizes preventative harm interventions. Some important factors in prevention are community accountability, networks of financial support, and access to free healthcare. It is important that we work holistically towards the development of an effective and sustainable PIC-free future. One important step towards abolition you can take right now is beginning to deconstruct the cop inside your head. Who do cops protect? Try to deconstruct the punitive impulses you might have within your own interpersonal relationships and community. Work towards developing a restorative framework of interaction with the people around you.
About the author:
Oliver is a senior at NC State University studying Gender Studies and Psychology. He is currently interning at the LGBT Center of Raleigh. His is passionate about understanding the histories and ideologies of different liberatory movements.
- Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis
- Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex*, Eric Stanley and Nat Smith (editors)
- “Prison Abolition and Grounded Justice”, Allegra M. McLeod
- 8 Can’t Wait and 8 to Abolition
- “Why 8 Won’t Work”, Olivia Murray
*The full PDF of this book is not available online for free. This link is for the first essay in the volume, “Building an Abolitionist Trans and Queer Movement with Everything We’ve Got”.