USA: we must abolish prisons to rebuild communities fractured by mass incarceration

It is sometimes said that we can’t be what we cannot see, so are we able to imagine a world without jails and prisons? The U.S. is the world’s leader in incarceration. We’ve read about the atrocities that continue to take place in prisons and as a result of being imprisoned. There has been some progress, a growing movement to abolish prisons and jails. But how and where would we even begin to dismantle this enormous so-called prison-industrial complex, and what are the real solutions that encompass the needs of the vast and diverse communities that have already been harmed?

There is so much to think about as it relates to economies, harm, repair, justice and accountability that I’ve asked three people to come and help me think it through, three individuals who are doing this work on a daily basis: community organizer with the Audre Lorde Project and the ANSWER Coalition, Kerbie Joseph; writer, activist and strategist Kenyon Farrow, who’s senior editor of; and Esteban Kelly, who is a cofounder of the movement training cooperative Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance (AORTA) based in Philadelphia, and co-executive director of the U.S. Federation of Worker-Owned Cooperatives.

Laura Flanders: So, why do we want to think about abolition? What makes it an important thing to think about and work toward?

Kerbie Joseph: Well, one, abolition has happened before. In 1865, when slavery was ended, that was an abolitionist act. The problem is that they put a really horrible loophole in the Constitution, that wasn’t written for us on this panel in any way, that says thatin case of incarceration, slavery still exists, right? When you live in a system that makes that decision to put in a loophole like that, it’s not only reform that we have to look toward, it’s building our community, but also building it in a way to liberate ourselves from the system in general.

You work with some organizations that do exactly this.

Joseph: Yeah. So, I am the Safe OUTside the System coordinator at the Audre Lorde project. So, literally creating ways that we are safe outside of the system that oppresses us.

And what does it involve on a daily basis of what you’re doing?

Joseph: So, I teach de-escalation. I teach community safety. I do mediation in homes in a way to buffer police involvement in a community that’s already oppressed. The Audre Lorde Project is an organization that focuses on the daily existence of LGBTQ, gender-nonconforming folks of color, which already has horrible statistics about homelessness and mental illness and survival crimes, and being caught up in the mass incarceration system in the first place.

And you, Esteban? How do you think about this question of abolition, and do you spend much time thinking about it in the course of your economic work?

Esteban Kelly: One of my co-ops is an organization called AORTA, and we do political education. Part of that work involves helping institutions, individuals, community leaders understand possibilities, do that envisioning and even take some of the steps inside of their own work and their own institutions to shift to different, alternative models of justice. I’ve also been doing organizing for over 10 years now with a collective called Philly Stands Up, where we’re similarly trying to expand political education and understanding … envisioning a world without prisons, and doing the mental work and the heart work of what it would take to get there.

A lot of that actually starts with zooming in on a smaller scale, because we can’t magnify and amplify all the problems. It’s not just a structural issue that prisons are an institution. It actually is a question of relationship — of even conceptually, What do we see as harm and what do we see as a response to addressing harm or trauma? Let alone recovering from it. And what do we do with the humanity of the people, which turns out is everybody, who has caused harm? Not that it’s all proportionally the same harm or as grave, but we all have been perpetrators of harm in one way or another. So, starting to actually shift and re-center is a point of departure for looking at this work in a really applied way. Then, beyond the political education work, a lot of what we did in Philly Stands Up is work very directly on a volunteer basis around sexual assault situations.

Specifically, our collective was designed to work directly with people who caused harm in instances of sexual assault in our own backyards and our own grassroots community. So, this was not nonprofit work. It was not funded work, but really working in communities of color, in queer communities and political communities, to hold people accountable. It’s not like we started that work with a whole bunch of training. At the time, none of us were licensed in anything, any counseling or any of that work. But actually, by just slowing down with integrity and taking the time to meet people where they’re at and accompany them in a journey, it turned out that it taught us a lot of lessons. That ended up being what we re-broadcast to other grassroots community organizers in some of the lessons that can be extrapolated for how we move toward transformative justice work.

Kenyon, what’s your point of departure for this?

Kenyon Farrow: Yeah, when the question is about, “Why focus on abolition as opposed to reform?” I think we often get stuck at the question of prison abolition or jail, so we think about just the physical kind of building where people are imprisoned.

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