I have recently been engaging with the work of Richie Reseda, a formerly-incarcerated producer and abolitionist. My knowledge of the prison abolition movement, at this point in time, is mainly through his work. He draws heavily on Angela Davis and bell hooks to guide his activism. This post will explore the basics of prison abolition, as well as some of the biggest lessons I have taken away from my initial engagements with this work, thanks to documentaries such as The Feminist on Cellblock Y and his podcast, Abolition X.

What is Abolition?

The abolition movement, based originally in abolishing slavery, focuses now on destroying all systems which promote modern-day slavery, such as capitalism, the prison-industrial complex, rape culture, and patriarchy. Though the justice system is often thought of in terms of accountability, the abolition movement reframes the carceral state as a being based in punishment and revenge. BIPOC activists, feminists, abolitionists, and decolonizers are providing new frameworks which challenge this proclivity for punishment. They ask us to re-conceptualize crime response by tackling the root cause of harm, rather than adding to it through perpetual state violence. This is often called transformative justice. Accountability, in the eyes of abolitionists, should be based in healing, support, and community, rather than punishment and increased violence. The practice of dealing with harm is reconceptualized as a preventative, communal effort, which forms an everyday practice completely separate from the state.

True Accountability Involves Tackling the Root Cause of Harm

Prisons and policing do not deter or decrease harmful behaviour, as they do not address the initial cause of the harm. In order to prevent harm, we must consider first what initiated the harm and what supports need to be in place so that harm is less likely. Often this means addressing things like poverty, housing, employment, and mental health, as well as patriarchal, colonial values which encourage violence in the first place.

“Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings”

-Angela Davis

Addressing both patriarchy and colonization are essential factors to any conversation surrounding the possibility of abolishing the current carceral system. This is due to the fact that the values of both of these violent systems have been largely internalized by the population, and abolition is as much about tackling ideological violence as it is about physical violence. Patriarchy and colonialism thrive on shame; they breed and depend upon feelings of inadequacy, feelings which lead to increased individualism, isolation, competition, and a need to prove one’s worth through domination. This is especially true for idealized masculinity under patriarchy, which does not allow for vulnerability or emotional intelligence in the name of “being a man”. This has devastating consequences, including increased suicide and homicide rates for men, in addition to increased incarceration rates. Abolitionists create space to speak about and directly tackle these issues, on both a micro and macro level.

We Are All Harmed by Current Systems and We All Have the Capacity to Commit Harm

All people living under a carceral state are impacted by state violence and punishment. Most significantly, it impacts how we can relate to each other: physically in terms of the exclusionary nature of prisons and relationally in terms of how we classify and understand people. When a person commits an act of harm in the eyes of the carceral state, they are labelled a criminal, dehumanized, and separated from their communities. The abolition movement asks us to rethink the permanent distinction between innocent and criminal, and perhaps victim and criminal, and the intense moral weight that these words carry. By rethinking these distinctions, it forces us to reconsider how we justify violence and punishment for those deemed inherently “criminal”. Our current systems of criminalization and punishment understand justice in terms of individualism, division, and separation. This puts the responsibility for harm entirely on the individual, effectively feeding into cycles of silence and shame, and ignoring the systemic conditions that allow for and necessitate the perpetuation of harm. Prison abolition reconceptualizes both justice and harm in terms of community and the ways in which we are all implicated in the perpetuation of systemic harm. Whereas the carceral state separates good people from bad, frameworks of transformative justice occur on spectrums which allow for growth and change.

Abolition Can be Practiced in Everyday Life

Abolition, with its focus on tackling large systemic issues, can seem incredibly daunting to those who have never previously considered alternatives to carceral justice. But, the abolitionist movement is quick to point out the various ways that we already engage in abolition practices within our daily lives. Anytime that we deal with harm directly and work through conflict resolution in our interpersonal relationships, we are engaging in transformative justice, whether or not we label it as such. Additionally, anytime that we communicate our needs to our loved ones, or actively listen to the needs of others, or hold ourselves accountable by recognizing our own capacity for harm, we are strengthening our abolitionist muscles. As organizer Sonya Shah says in the video linked below, “If we think about accountability not as this destination, but if we think of accountability as a skill…then it’s a muscle that we can develop”. In order to begin addressing the systemic issues, we have to start small and focus on the ways that issues of conflict, harm-reduction, and accountability factor into our own lives. Only then can we begin sustainably deconstructing and rebuilding our systems of accountability outside of state punishment and violence.

Abolition is a Constructive Process

Though abolition obviously involves a rejection and destruction of all the systems which perpetuate violence, it just as intensely requires healing, transforming, and reconstructing systems so that they provide a truer sense of justice. Thanks to a long history of abolitionist activists, most of whom are people of colour, women, Indigenous and queer people, new possibilities are both envisioned and embodied. Often this means that those who are most directly confronted with systemic violence at the hands of the carceral state are those most likely to be opening the doors and possibilities of abolition to others. Abolition is not simply about tearing down that which is not working, but it is also, most essentially, about building new solutions and new futures, or in the case of Indigenous abolitionists, returning to systems of justice that were stripped away from their ancestors in the colonial process. Either way, abolition is a world-building process and a process that all are called to take part in. 

In this post, I have only scratched the surface of the abolition movement. If you are interested in hearing more about abolition and what it can look like as a daily practice, directly from those who have dedicated their lives to this work, I strongly recommend checking out Abolition X on Spotify.

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About the Author

Hi! I’m Brynn, and I’m super excited to be writing on the blogs committee this year. I am a third-year Women’s and Gender Studies student with interests in film, feminism, theatre and social justice. Blog writing provides me with the perfect opportunity to combine all of these passions. I hope you will join me on my blog journey!