By Kaagni Harekal
‘9/13: Abolish Prisons!’ was deeply affectively and ethically charged. Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet, Yale Law graduate, unapologetic ‘felon’ and Allegra McLeod, Law Professor at Georgetown University and staunch abolitionist set the stage for what was to be a moving and politically urgent conversation on the stakes and practices of abolition. This conversation also benefited from being punctuated by insights from a host of prominent academics and abolitionist thinkers including Jocelyn Simonson, Ivan Calaff, Jindu Obiofuma, and Seyla Benhabib, who joined in to think through together the questions of retributive and transformative justice, safety, violence, idealism, and the alleged gap between theory and praxis that undergird most discussions about abolitionist thought. Fundamentally, though, the conversations about prison abolition were premised on variegated answers and approaches to the question: What does justice look like? And, for whom?
Betts took aim at the term ‘Felon’—also the title of his book of poems—and the dehumanizing that it enables. Betts highlighted how the term ‘felon’ becomes a crystallized category that reduces the person it becomes attached to, makes them less human, less worthy of dignity, less worthy of compassion and respect. His evocative book cover shows mugshots of various prisoners or ‘felons’ covered in tar, signifying how the category of felon with its tar-like consistency ossifies, occludes, and petrifies, foreclosing notions of redemption and transformation, while also masking the humanity of the people behind the label. Innocence, Betts stresses, should not be the precondition under which we find it in ourselves to extend sympathy and basic respect to people who have been incarcerated. For Betts, justice means ‘having someone do time, and move on.’
However, Betts’ conception of justice as ‘doing time’ seems to be in tension with abolitionist notions of justice, which necessarily foreclose any reliance on carceral, punitive systems, such as prisons, the criminal legal system, the police, or even the foster care system. In our conversation, Betts was emphatic about the tragic yet necessary nature of the prison system, even though he saw the exoneration of his friends and fellow inmates as his moral duty. For Betts, the prison system seemed like an unfortunate but necessary solution to bring a form of retributive justice to the family and kin of those whose lives had been ripped apart by crime and violence. Drawing from personal experience, Betts pointed out how violence can tear apart people and communities, especially since we ostensibly have no safeguard or preventive, predictive mechanism by which we can gauge the possibility of all human action. Simply put, humans are capable of terrible things, and the prison seems to be one way of negotiating and negating that possibility of violence—ironically through the violent possibility of negating an individual’s sociality. Writing about his experience thinking about Kamala Harris as a presidential candidate—and now Vice-President—given their uniquely resonant pasts as a prosecutor and felon respectively, Betts writes:
Confronting why so many of us believe prisons must exist may force us to admit that we have no adequate response to some violence. Still, I hope that Harris reminds the country that simply acknowledging the problem of mass incarceration does not address it — any more than keeping my friends in prison is a solution to the violence and trauma that landed them there.
This, perhaps, summarizes Betts’s position: prisons seem to be an inadequate yet necessary placeholder for us to grapple with violence, until we find a way to ‘address’ the problem. We find that this position is rather common even among more progressive groups that call for accountability in cases of police brutality, where the demand is often articulated as a demand to ‘arrest the cops’ or to reform the prison system and the police to make them more just or humane.
However, Allegra McLeod’s intervention in our session served to push back against precisely this rhetoric that continues to function within punitive logics. Her 2019 article “Envisioning Abolition Democracy lays out a blueprint for an abolitionist society, which “involves at once exposing the violence, hypocrisy, and dissembling entrenched in existing legal practices, while attempting to achieve peace, make amends, and distribute resources more equitably” (McLeod 1615). In our conversation, McLeod emphasized how the prison becomes a proxy for human violence—violence we wish we could enact in order to ‘punish’ the people who have hurt us. Outsourcing this violence to the prison in the face of the more ‘immediate’ or urgent violence that preoccupies us causes the structural violence of the prison to recede into the background, invisible, inscrutable, unaccountable—the perfect place to ‘disappear people,’ as Angela Davis’s evocative formulation goes. Consequently, intersubjective violence that is seemingly more proximal becomes fetishized as the pre-eminent form of violence that must be addressed, while the institutions that sustain our society and are responsible for harming millions remain unchallenged. McLeod, then, stressed the need to overhaul our existing institutions, highlighting in the process the ideal that drives our inquiries: Abolition Democracy, as conceptualized by DuBois and Angela Davis (among others) as a process of pursuing “simultaneously, the abolition of these punitive institutions and the invention of new institutions guided by a different paradigm than punishment,” as Bernard Harcourt puts it so cogently in his introduction to our session.
To think Abolition Democracy is not to skirt the question of violence—a charge often unfairly levelled against abolitionist thinkers. It is to refocus questions of violence to hold institutions accountable and to believe we can do—can build—better. It is to decenter the intersubjective in order to reinforce, rethink, and reimagine notions of humanity and humane subjecthood that our punitive institutions strip us of. Justice, in such a framework, becomes a holistic process that genuinely attempts to ask what the victim needs in order to truly heal and feel whole; “Justice for abolitionists is an integrated endeavor to prevent harm, intervene in harm, obtain reparations, and transform the conditions in which we live” (McLeod 1615). It involves redistributing resources that currently fuel the prison and the police into more equitable and sustainable forms of creating safety, not just ‘security’ which relies on militarization and surveillance; defunding, to redistribute. McLeod used her platform and time during our conversation to amplify the tireless work of countless local and international abolitionist groups such as the #LetUsBreathe Collective in Chicago, and the Red Deal that centers Native American voices, demands, and efforts to jointly address inequality, discrimination, violence, exclusion, and climate change in its vision for a truly just society. Unfortunately we did not further discuss these efforts as forms of collective action and praxis, focusing instead on grappling with the very real human question of retributive justice.
How does one reconcile ideas of retributive justice that a victim might demand or need within an abolitionist horizon? As Jindu Obiofuma reminded us in our following session, an abolitionist horizon does not make room for punitive retribution. It recognizes that punishment and accountability are not the same, and seeks to cultivate spaces where people feel comfortable coming forward to step up and take responsibility for their actions without the threat of prison looming large. Abolition involves an unwavering commitment to rejecting carceral institutions and replacing them with efforts to transform harm. Harm, hurt, and pain are not where the experience of violence ends—they must be transformed in order to truly facilitate healing and repair and undo the effects of violence on people and communities. Caregiving and community organizing involve massive amounts of labor, energy, effort, and compassion—very often disproportionately extended and expended by women and communities of color—yet, these efforts are not acknowledged or recognized as transformational and essential. Abolitionist thinking brings to the fore such movements towards transformative justice, seeing in them the potential for a less punitive future. It reminds us, that if, for instance, a gunshot is experienced as visceral, proximal, and ‘real’, one cannot forget that compassion, kindness, care, and community are just as close and urgent.
Further, Abolition Democracy is not a lacquered conversation limited to ivory towers and abstract ruminations. Before the academy took on the question of abolition, organizers, collectives, civil right movements, and communities worldover, driven by women, non-binary people of colour, had been working on making real and tangible non-punitive visions of the future—and continue to do so. McLeod’s article reminds us that “abolitionists are committed to justice grounded in experience rather than proceeding primarily from idealized and abstract premises with little attention to how those ideals are translated into actual practices” (McLeod 1617). Thus, abolition democracy takes seriously the question of experience; it proposes forms of social change, redress, healing, redistribution, and reparation that are best suited to the particular communities it is working with. Therefore, as my colleague Hedwig Lieback suggests, the assertion that abolition is a conversation limited to academics is more an indication of misplaced credit that misrepresents the state of affairs; abolition has always been ‘grounded,’ built and imagined by communities who dare to dream differently.
Betts, Reginald Dwayne. “Kamala Harris, Mass Incarceration and Me.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Oct. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/10/20/magazine/kamala-harris-crime-prison.html.
Davis, Angela Y. Are prisons obsolete?. Seven Stories Press, 2011.
McLeod, Allegra M. “Envisioning Abolition Democracy.” Harv. L. Rev. 132 (2018): 1613.