I often provoke my students at the University of Illinois at Chicago by saying, “Do you know that one mile from our campus there are 15,000 Irishmen [or Jewish women, or Greeks] living in cages?” “Come on! No way!” There was always a general sense of disbelief, and a notion that maybe I was joking. “You’re kidding, right?”
Well, yes and no: I wasn’t being fully honest, so let me change it a bit—“Do you know that one mile from our campus there are 15,000 young Black and Latino men living in cages?” “No, I didn’t know that, but I’m not completely surprised either; what crimes did they commit?” The fact of Black men being imprisoned is part of the known world, Black “criminality” the common sense of known things, normalized to the point of invisibility—you didn’t know that; indeed, you didn’t even notice that. So in another sense, you did know that.
The logic of prison abolition was explained to me by the great freedom fighter Angela Davis: It’s a problem of limiting our imaginations, she said, of shutting down our capacity to think more broadly and more bravely. We need to think about what lies beyond prison, beyond making a better or more functional prison system—the focus of too many reform conversations—and initiate massive conversations about de-carceration, that is, bringing folks home and shutting prisons down. Mass incarceration is, after all, part of the afterlife of slavery, and prison abolition is the next step in that long historic project called abolition. And as we imagine dramatic change, we should also anticipate future attempts to contain and control, for just as Jim Crow followed abolition, and mass incarceration followed Jim Crow, some evil expression of white supremacy and Black containment as yet unseen lurks just around the corner.
Angela Davis talked about the abolitionist and humane values of liberation, community restoration, and shared fate as opposed to the hardening practices of cruelty and punishment, revenge and retribution. She reminded us of the ten glorious words uttered by Justice Harry Blackmun in 1994 when he announced publicly that he had become a death penalty abolitionist: “I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” He wasn’t searching for ways to make state-sanctioned murder more efficient or more palatable—he wanted to get out of the death business altogether. Let’s get out of the caging business, she said. Let’s not tinker with the machinery of mass incarceration.
I first proposed prison abolition publicly in a talk I gave about Freedom Schools at the University of Pittsburgh. Most of my talk was well received—even when I pointed out, as I always do, that the existence of an American Gulag or the Prison Nation meant that you were never far from a prison—but there was a general sense of disbelief when I said I thought prisons should be abolished. The first question from the floor was a request to clarify the point, which I did, saying I thought we should work toward closing all the prisons since they were institutions of congealed violence. The next student up worried that I was kidding—I assured them I was not—and followed up by politely accusing me of utopian romanticism and unrealistic idealism. Guilty, I said, of the idealism, but not of being unrealistic. The next person tried to show me the error of my logic, and painted a terrifying picture of a world ruled by mass murderers (hmm, I thought), pointing specifically to John Wayne Gacy, the gruesome Chicago serial killer who was the first person executed when Illinois reinstated the death penalty, a person about whom my interrogator had seemingly encyclopedic knowledge. I’m convinced, I said after an exhaustive portrayal, I give up! Okay, that’s one cell, I said, so who else? I’ll give you Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney, too, so now we have three prison cells total—a far cry from the millions we support in reality.
This led to a discussion I’ve now had countless times with students and others, and it begins with an exercise in the form of a question: Can we—right now—generate a thousand alternatives to caging people? It turns out we can, and so let’s.
A Thousand Steps toward De-carceration and a Range of Alternatives to Caging Human Beings (a start):
1. Decriminalize illegal drugs and expand drug treatment centers to meet the real needs of people caught in the grip of addiction.
2. Use a public health frame to rethink issues of violence.
3. Get guns off the streets.
4. Generously create and support community mental
5. Build “Community Restorative Justice” projects—spaces where perpetrators and victims can meet with peers and neighbors, community organizers and social workers, to discuss how to repair the harm inflicted by misbehavior.
6. Redirect all misdemeanor offenses away from criminal court with its attendant culture of cruelty, humiliation, and punishment toward counseling, rehab, or anger management for some, and technological support (a simple breathalyzer device, for example, attached to a vehicle before it can be driven) for others.
7. Outlaw all profiteering from prison: ban private prisons, cash bail and bail bond businesses, paid alternatives to jail, telephone company gouging, and the privatizing and outsourcing of prison services like clothing and meals.
8. Do away with mandatory minimum sentencing, “three strikes you’re out,” sentence enhancements, and other punitive measures that serve to swell the prison population.
9. Restore or create opportunities to reduce time inside with policies like day-for-day good time practices.
10. Create massive public works programs.
11. Offer homes to the homeless.
12. Increase the minimum wage to $25 an hour.
13. Grant income supports to the unemployed.
14. Bring the endowments of all private schools, colleges,
and universities under public and democratic control, and organize the redistribution of those resources toward a system of free quality education for all.
15. Provide a living-wage stipend, free housing, and good child care to anyone living at or below the poverty line and attending high school or community college.
16. Create a system of free universal health care.
17. Immediately release all prisoners over, say, age fifty for
18. Develop a prisoner’s cooperative to operate the institutions, making decisions collectively about all matters concerning food, health care, education, and social services, the organization of work and leisure, and relations with outside institutions including religious, educational, and business organizations.
Well, it’s a running start. We only have 982 to go! And, yes, none of this is possible in the absence of collective action and a social movement for radical transformation. But we need to work collectively on a vision as part of the fight for abolition. And, yes, some of it may sound a bit like fiddling with the machinery of caging, but let’s not be dogmatic hard-liners when actual people could breathe more freely with just a bit of tinkering.