Maybe you’ve heard, and maybe you haven’t, but I’m going to say it again because it’s still true: the criminal justice system in the United States is a fucked up institution that is every kind of -ist you can think of, and feeds off of the most marginalized bodies of our society in order for companies to maximize profits. It’s often called the prison industrial complex (PIC), a term coined by the activist group Critical Resistance.
The problems with the criminal justice system have been in the media more than usual in the past year. This is in part because of Orange is the New Black bringing the lives of fictional incarcerated women to our computer screens. It is also because of the outcry over the blatantly unjust treatment of CeCe McDonald, who served 19 months in prison after defending herself against a racist, sexist and transphobic attack, and the trial of Marissa Alexander, who is clearly being racially targeted by Florida Attorney Angela Corey, and could face sixty years in prison for firing a warning shot that hurt nobody into her ceiling while being threatened by her abusive husband.
The PIC is a massive system, and is defined by Critical Resistance:
“Through its reach and impact, the PIC helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges. There are many ways this power is collected and maintained through the PIC, including creating mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant. This power is also maintained by earning huge profits for private companies that deal with prisons and police forces; helping earn political gains for “tough on crimewp_postspoliticians; increasing the influence of prison guard and police unions; and eliminating social and political dissent by oppressed communities that make demands for self-determination and reorganization of power in the US.”
Because of the PIC, the US prison system currently houses 25% of the world’s prison population, when we only make up 5% of the general population.
The PIC is especially dangerous for queer and trans* people. Outside prisons, queer and trans* people are vulnerable to being targeted by law enforcement for gender identity and presentation. In prisons, queer and trans* people, and in particular trans women, face high rates of violence, sexual assault and harassment, especially from prison staff.
Learning about the many tentacles of the PIC has been a huge part of my coming into radical politics. There is inspiring and challenging work happening amongst communities of prison abolitionists to educate people about the PIC, to challenge the laws that keep it in place, and to make people’s current lives inside the system more dignified and humane.
Here are five important things I’ve learned about the PIC and prison abolition.
1. Prison is bad for everyone
Since CeCe McDonald’s release from prison in January, she has been an outspoken advocate against the prison system, giving interviews and meeting with abolitionist groups. In an interview with the Socialist Worker she said,
“I JUST feel like no matter what, prisons are bad for everybody. They aren’t just bad for trans people — they’re bad for all people. It wouldn’t be fair for me to make it seem like it was so hard for me, just as a trans woman, because I’ve been around a lot of people who don’t deserve to be in prison at all. Prison is hard for everybody. We’ve all got our personal issues and have to do what we need to do to survive in there and be strong.
“It’s not the right approach for people to sensationalize this story and say: You were a trans woman in a men’s prison. Because at the end of the day, all prisons are bad for all people — trans, cis, gay, straight, Black, white, Asian, brown, purple, polka-dotted, striped, zebra, alien or whatever.”
2. The PIC influences how we think about who is and is not dangerous.
If we are in the mindset of understanding that prisons are bad for all people, we can start to question the idea that there are some people who belong in prisons more than others. Dean Spade and Reina Gossett recently had an online discussion about prison abolition and addressed the question, “What about the dangerous people?”
Spade and Gossett encourage us to think more broadly about who is being held accountable for the violent acts they commit. The media and the state do a really good job of teaching us that the only way to stop a person who is violent is to lock them away. But as Gossett points out, the idea of people being either guilty or innocent is flawed:
“The one thing I go back to is Ruth Gilmore, who’s a professor at CUNY and one of the founders of Critical Resistance talks about, really importantly, no one is innocent. There’s not a violent person and a non-violent person. All of us together are doing things that are hurting other people. …there’s not a dichotomy of innocent people and guilty people. The logic of the state, of the prison system, demands that idea… so that all sorts of structures and all sorts of processes – like policing, prisons, imprisonment, deportation – can be justified. …I think there’s a really long history going back to slavery where the state was really dependent on this logic that “free black people” are incredibly dangerous …that poor people wandering are incredibly dangerous …so I would say that no one is innocent, people are consistently harming each other all the time. There are some people who are held accountable by the state for doing that kind of harm, and there are some people who will never be held accountable by the state… people who are running Blackwater, people who are running the military, or Obama…”
3. The PIC is in our Schools.
The School-to-Prison pipeline, which refers to the increased presence of police officers in schools, who are increasingly deferred to for disciplinary matters, makes schools more dangerous for queer and trans* youth, especially queer and trans* youth of color. As a result, more students are ending up in juvenile detention, and are more likely to be incarcerated as adults.
Having criminal interventions in schools has also led to cases like Jewlyes Gutierrez’s. Jewlyes was sixteen and assaulted by three cisgender girls who regularly harassed her. Jewlyes was charged with battery for defending herself, while her attackers saw no consequences. Cases like hers show us how trans* and queer youth can are unsafe within school systems, at the hands of their peers and adults.
4. Organizations are working to resist the dehumanization of incarcerated people by building community that transgresses prison walls.
Prison abolitionists are working to make life better for people in prison by building community across the walls.
Organizations like Black and Pink have pen pal programs for queer and trans* people between incarcerated people and people who aren’t incarcerated to build community and systems of support for people in and outside the system that look to abolish it.
“Our goal is liberation. We have a radical view of the fight for justice: We are feminist. We are anti-racist. We want queer liberation. And we are against capitalism. Prisons are part of the system that oppresses and divides us. By building a movement and taking action against this system of violence, we will create the world we dream of. We also celebrate the beauty of what exists now: Our love for each other. The strength of our planet. Our incredible resiliency. All of the power we have to continue existing. While dreaming and struggling for a better world, we commit to living in the present.”
5. People are showing up to protest mass incarceration
Monica Jones, a black trans woman, is currently on trial for “manifestation of prostitution,” which she was arrested for while protesting the criminalization of sex workers through Project ROSE. She is fighting her case and working with Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) of Phoenix to bring a report to the UN Human Rights Commission on the treatment of sex workers in the US criminal justice system.
Jones spoke out on A Kiss for Gabriela in anticipation of her trial, which has been postponed until April 11, about the urgency of the work to fight the criminal justice system:
“…police arrested more than 40 people in Phoenix for prostitution last night. I don’t have all the details yet but these ongoing arrests show that we have so much more to do to end the criminalization and incarceration of people due to the policing of victimless crimes. I won’t give up until all of this is ended.”