It was a freezing cold, grey October day in London. My hands and feet were numb but, transfixed by what I was hearing, I didn’t want to go home. It was 2018 and I’d travelled to the capital to join the annual United Families and Friends Campaign demonstration for the first time. The procession, from Trafalgar Square to Downing Street – the home of the Prime Minister – was led by family and friends of people who had died in state ‘care’: police custody, prison, immigration detention and psychiatric institutions. One by one they took to the mic. Every story was harrowing. Some were about people who had approached the state apparatus for help, only for their loved ones to end up dead.
This was a catalyst for me to learn more about the long-standing abolition movement organizing to abolish prisons, police and the systems that support them.
The term ‘abolitionist’ comes from the movement to end the transatlantic slave trade. As writer and activist Mariame Kaba told the New York Times Magazine in 2019: ‘This work will take generations, and I’m not going to be alive to see the changes… Similarly I know that our ancestors, who were slaves, could not have imagined my life.’
Abolition is a construction project and the ground-works have already started. Across the world people are working to get others out of prison and reduce the power of police. But they are also working to build communities that are no longer reliant on punitive state-run law enforcement agencies.
‘I needed abolition,’ says Chelsea, a member of UK-based collective Cradle Community. When she first learned just how bad prisons, policing and the entire system were she felt hopeless. ‘Then I learned about all the people who were doing stuff about it… Abolition gave me something to be joyous about, to be excited about, to look forward to.’
Abolition is a process, and in part involves pushing for ‘non-reformist reforms’ that reduce – not expand or give more power to – prisons, police or the surveillance state. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution. As Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba write: ‘There is no roadmap for justice, because under this system, we have never seen it. But the current system has been thoroughly mapped, and it has already failed.’
Unequal before the law
‘A lot of the time the reason you end up in prison is much more to do with who you are rather than what you’ve done,’ explains Kelsey, also from Cradle Community whose abolition book Brick by Brick was published last year. ‘There are plenty of people causing all kinds of harm who are never going to see the sharp end of that system.’
Indigenous, racialized and ethnic minority people are disproportionately represented in police killings across the world. In 2021, a study published in The Lancet medical journal described fatal police violence in the US as an ‘urgent public health crisis’. Researchers found more than 17,000 deaths that had not previously been accounted for in government data – 60 per cent of these were Black people.
In Canada 30 per cent of prisoners are indigenous people, who comprise just 4.9 per cent of the population, while in Hungary, 40 per cent of those incarcerated are Roma, who form just 6 per cent of the general public.
Similarly, LGBTQI+ people are targeted by criminal justice systems and disproportionally imprisoned. As of the end of 2020, 69 of 194 UN member states criminalized LGBTQI+ people, with life prison sentences or the death penalty possible in some countries. Once inside, people face physical, sexual and psychological violence.
Many countries operate ‘two-tier’ criminal justice systems based on wealth. As legal professor David Cole writes about the US: ‘...on the face of it, the criminal law is colour-blind and class-blind. But in a sense, this only makes the problem worse. The rhetoric of the criminal justice system sends the message that our society carefully protects everyone’s constitutional rights, but in practice the rules assure that law enforcement prerogatives will generally prevail over the rights of minorities and the poor.’
‘The main work that capitalism, white supremacy and imperialism do together is to create the “criminal” – a category of people considered disposable and to whom human rights are not supposed to apply,’ says Chelsea.
Already let down by states and society on so many levels, disabled people are also massively overrepresented in criminal justice systems. In many countries police have the power to detain anyone perceived of being of ‘unsound mind’. In the US, half of people killed by police, over 50 per cent of adults in prison and up to 85 per cent of incarcerated young people are disabled – compared with 26 per cent of the general population. In England and Wales it’s over one-third of people in prison, while rates of disability in the wider public are 19 per cent.
Police and prisons also disable people. Police use of ‘lethal’ and ‘non-lethal’ weapons come to mind immediately. In Palestine, one of the tactics of the Israeli army is to shoot people in the legs. In France hundreds of ‘yellow vest’ protesters have been injured by police, including losing eyes and hands.
The conditions in many prisons don’t even meet the minimum international standards. They are filled to bursting in over 124 countries, far exceeding official maximum occupancy rates, compounded by the staggering numbers of people who can be held without trial for years on end.
Prisons can also be incredibly violent places lacking decent healthcare or basic food and sanitary provisions. In most countries, rates of infectious disease such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are far higher in prisons than in the rest of the population. Imprisoned people often face torture, and solitary confinement is increasingly being used across the world, for increasingly longer periods of time.
Reports from Haiti describe people held in crowded cells without proper ventilation or clean water, defecating in buckets that are not regularly emptied, getting just one daily ration of food and with limited or no access to healthcare. In South Sudan researchers have found a similar picture, with incarcerated people often dying of treatable illnesses, routine beatings and heavy shackles.
Writer, organizer and geography professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes a process of ‘organized abandonment’ where government cuts to services such as social welfare are made alongside investment in police and prisons, which expand to absorb those increasingly shut out from the political economy.
As Gilmore explains: ‘It’s also abandonment by capital, whether it’s abandonment by real estate capital that produces more and more luxury apartments but not affordable housing… or tourism capital that pushes certain kinds of people out of certain areas of the city and only welcomes them in if they work as workers in the service industry, delivering, serving, taking care of and cleaning.
If the goal is to reduce harm, then we can’t just move money from the police and prisons to schools and welfare provision without also examining how those systems work and ensuring they don’t replicate the logic of criminal justice system or funnel people into it.
Kelsey points to the example of psychiatric institutions: ‘I know people who have gone between prison and psychiatric units and sometimes begged to be let out of those psychiatric units and be put back into prison because they’re so bad. To not just put a nicer face on prisons is a big part of the struggle.’
When considering how we ended up here, it’s worth looking at the history of how modern policing and mass imprisonment developed – and why.
‘Policing exists to manage the consequences of regimes of exploitation,’ explains sociologist and author of The End of Policing Alex Vitale. ‘Policing was created mostly in the early 19th century in direct relationship to the primary systems of exploitation that were present during that time and that we associate with modern capitalism – these are colonialism, slavery and mass industrialization. In all of those different regimes of exploitation there are people who resist and policing becomes the most efficient and legitimate tool to manage that resistance.’
Ziyanda Stuurman, author of the book Can We Be Safe? which explores policing in South Africa, reflects on its history there: ‘The function of the police since its inception has been to remind the working class, as well as specifically Black people, of their place in South African society. That place is at the bottom of the pyramid that puts class and capital interests at the very top of it all.’
The concept of the criminal is used as a dividing tool to define who is a ‘problem’ to society. But this category is ever changing and not universal. As Naomi Murakawa has highlighted, in 1787 there were just three federal crimes in the US; in 2015 there were more than 5,000.
Focusing on individualized crime makes it easier to avoid addressing more structural violence. With the ‘dangerous’ people out of the way, we can believe we are safe. As Angela Y. Davis wrote in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?: ‘The prison has become a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited.’
‘Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings,’ as Davis has famously said. Putting people in prison can also mean robbing families of income, children of parents and communities of neighbours.
Increasing incarceration has had little impact on crime rates and we are not any safer. This is starkest in El Salvador, which has one of the largest per capita prison populations, as well as the highest murder rate in the world.
‘I don’t know anyone other than abolitionists who thinks so deeply about violence: about how to prevent violence, about what causes violence, about how to respond to violence,’ says Chelsea.
Kelsey agrees: ‘Abolition has come from Black feminists and indigenous communities who have always been at threat from harm within those communities. They’ve been experiencing domestic and sexual violence from people who look like them and they also can’t go to the police because they might get assaulted by the police too – or if they do, other kinds of harm are going to be escalated.’
She explains that we need to think about what actually brings us safety: ‘Most of the time, once you break it down, it’s not going to be the police, it’s not more laws; it’s going to be safe housing, meaningful work, options to change things if you need to, people to show up for you.’
What about places in the world where there are very high levels of violence, but little to no police presence? ‘The solution to this is not to say what we want is a free for all,’ says Vitale. ‘What’s lacking is a conversation about what kinds of mechanisms need to be in place to create real security and putting people with machine guns on every street corner, whether they’re wearing a blue, green or a brown uniform is not really the issue.
‘The standard human rights narrative imagines that if we just create the trappings of a legal formalism, that will produce a just, stable society. It’s certainly possible that those trappings would create some level of stability but it does not necessarily produce real justice for people.’
What does accountability look like?
When it comes to keeping people safe from gendered and sexual violence, the police have failed miserably. Too often survivors are not believed, or made to feel like they are the ones being put on trial as their behaviour is analyzed by police and courts. If the perpetrator was someone they knew – which is highly likely – they may also have to deal with other outcomes which won’t be solved by the criminal justice system, such as losing a home.
Of course, people working in law enforcement are also perpetrators of sexual offences themselves. That was clear last year when 33-year-old Sarah Everard was kidnapped, raped and murdered by serving police officer Wayne Couzens in London. In September 2021 it was reported that more than 750 officers and staff from the capital’s Metropolitan Police Service had faced sexual misconduct allegations since 2010 with 163 arrested for sexual offences.
‘I am not a particularly forgiving person,’ writes Lydia Caradonna in a post for Medium.com entitled ‘I don’t want my rapists to go to prison’. She continues: ‘My position is nothing to do with seeing the good in people, or letting go of what has happened to me… Instead, my aversion to sending my rapists to prison comes from a place of pain.
‘Incarcerating my rapists won’t erase the fact that I have been raped. It won’t make me feel better in any real way… We’re supposed to believe the line that prisons remove our rapists from society, preventing further sexual violence. This seems incompatible with the fact that prisons themselves are hotbeds of sexual exploitation, sexual assault and rape. All we really seem to be doing is shifting the incidences of sexual violence onto people we deem to be “acceptable” victims.’
She explains that what she wants instead is to be supported and believed by people around her – and for rapists to own up to their actions. She also calls for her rapists to be supported in the process of ‘unlearning the entitlement and violence that caused them to hurt me’.16
Abolition is not about letting people ‘off the hook’ for harmful behaviour. While criminal justice systems usually focus on punishment and punitive action, inflicting suffering on people and stopping them from accessing the basic things which make life liveable, abolitionists believe in reconciliation and accountability that focuses on healing and restoring humanity. ‘We stop setting the value of a life by how much time another person does in a cage for violating or taking it,’ write Mariame Kaba and Andrea J Ritchie.
Transformative justice is a framework that aims to respond to harm without causing more. It does not rely on the state and takes into account the wider context in which the abuse or violence took place and the interplay between wider systems of oppression and interpersonal relationships. It goes past the ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ binary that puts people in one camp or the other without recognizing that we can all hold both roles in different situations.
Transformative justice was created by peoples who have been using these kinds of practices for generations to reduce harm, including indigenous people and communities of colour. Around the world people have developed accountability processes which are used to deal with a range of issues. For example, the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective in California works with survivors, bystanders and those who have caused harm to build and support responses to sexual violence and child sexual abuse.
An international vision
In 2020 the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, followed by a global swell of Black Lives Matter protests, brought the phrase ‘defund the police’ from placards on the streets to the airwaves of major broadcasting networks. But it didn’t come from nowhere and the call to defund had grown out of a rich lineage of abolitionist theory and organizing.
Elizabeth Alexander has written about the ‘Trayvon generation’, named after teenager Trayvon Martin who was killed in 2012 as he walked home in Sanford, Florida. He was shot by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighbourhood watch volunteer. It took immense public pressure to get Zimmerman charged with murder, only for him to be acquitted in court. The ensuing collective grief and anger inspired the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement.
I’m in the older cohort of this generation which has, in the words of lawyer, writer and organizer Derecka Purnell, ‘watched the deaths of Black people go viral’, projected onto our phones and our computer screens. As Purnell writes in her book Becoming Abolitionists: ‘I witnessed activists of this generation organize to send Travyon’s killer to prison, like I did, evolve into critical thinkers and budding revolutionaries who organized to close prisons and end policing altogether.’
‘There was definitely a moment in the summer of 2020 where I was taken by how many people were out on the streets shouting “defund police” – not just “fuck the police”,’ says Kelsey. But for some that’s where it stopped. ‘I think sometimes what’s missing is the fact that “defund the police” is one step, or one demand, within a much wider context and a much bigger movement.
‘It’s vital to understand that it isn’t just “throw the doors open to the prisons and let everyone do what they want”, expecting that we’re all going to be fine, because those power structures have not been changed. I’m not saying that because all the people in prison will start causing loads of harm; it’s that we’re still not doing anything about the harm being caused by those in power.’
Abolition is very much an internationalist vision, but many of the big name theorists have come out of the US. However, as Vitale explains, conversations are bubbling all over the world, including in the Global South: ‘There’s already this strong postcolonial analysis that is deeply sceptical of state authority and its routes in colonialism and capitalism, resource restraints, these deep systems of inequality enforced by policing.’
In Brazil, there’s a long-standing campaign to abolish military police and a reported increase in people identifying as abolitionists. Cops not Flops is a South African group building support for prison abolition and police demilitarization.
‘I always bristle when people say abolition is an American thing,’ says Stuurman. ‘There are plenty of South African civil society organizations who are doing abolitionist work but who don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that they themselves are abolitionists or explicitly say they are working towards abolition.’
She emphasizes the need for discussions to be context specific. ‘In South Africa we have to start with the fact that people have incredibly real fears of what would happen and how would we organize society, given the fact that there is just so much violence. So much of our lives is dominated by constantly trying to navigate an unsafe and insecure environment.
‘A lot of the assumptions that drive abolition from an American and Western European system don’t necessarily exist in South Africa, but many do. The idea that our criminal justice system in and of itself is unjust absolutely stands true. I would much rather pour energy, time, resources into that project than any kind of ridiculous reform measures.’
Abolition offers us a set of principles on which we can push for real justice. It goes deeper and wider than prisons and the police; it’s about building a world where we take care rather than vengeance as our starting point when dealing with problems. Where we focus on stopping harm happening in the first place.
As organizer Rose Braz has said: ‘A prerequisite to seeking any social change is the naming of it… even though the goal we seek may be far away, unless we name it and fight for it today, it will never come.’
Chelsea’s advice is to keep looking for those abolitionist wins: ‘We are going to be free. We are free because we’re fighting.’