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“Free Them All” Makes a Feminist Argument for Prison Abolition

At the peak of the Ferguson protests, one of my Twitter mutuals shared a PDF of Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?, changing my worldview forever. It introduced me to prison abolition which introduced me to police abolition, penal abolition, and the possibility of a society that tries to reduce harm rather than increase punishment.

I read more books, familiarized myself with further abolitionist arguments, and then I happened to get a job filming legal depositions. For two years, I traveled around the country and received a first-hand look at a justice system that was less broken than working in the exact negative way it was designed. These weren’t criminal cases, but even in civil cases I saw the damage that was done. People who had come forward about harassment and discrimination were tortured by the big law firms their former employers could afford. My distrust — my disdain — for the system moved beyond stats, theory, and anecdotes. I got the smallest glimpse into our penal reality and that was enough to affirm my abolitionist principles forever.

Then the mainstream Me Too Movement began.

This much-needed reckoning in Hollywood and beyond was paired with a near universal desire for “justice” in the courts. The conversation quickly shifted away from changing the culture that allowed consistent bad behavior and toward the imprisonment of the very worst. Men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby went to prison and people cheered — while these names were used in the defense of others. “I mean, he’s not Weinstein,” became a regular argument and this moment of change fizzled into a near-return to the status quo.

It’s difficult to argue with people celebrating when men who have committed so much harm are punished. I didn’t see the point in voicing abolitionist principles when people who faced so much grief were experiencing much-deserved relief. No matter how hollow I believed this relief to be, it felt callous to do anything but keep quiet.

Gwénola Ricordeau’s Free Them All: A Feminist Call to Abolish the Prison System aims to confront this exact dilemma. Ricordeau, a professor of sociology and criminal justice, outlines the purpose of the book in its intro: “I wrote it for my abolitionist comrades who forget sometimes to be feminists and for my feminist comrades who sometimes manage to be won over by ‘penal populism.’”

I can be wary of academic texts, but Ricordeau brings forth her information, arguments, and questions with a readable clarity. The result is a book that’s worthwhile whether you’re new to abolitionist thinking or very familiar. She includes references to and direct quotes from the previous abolitionist thinkers and texts that inspired her, as well as her personal experience as the loved one of someone incarcerated.

Ultimately, Ricordeau argues that feminism and abolitionism are not in conflict, but one shared principle. Put simply, she says, “ I am a feminist, and that means I am for the abolition of the criminal justice system; and I am for the abolition of the criminal justice system, and that means I am a feminist.”

She makes this argument by addressing three groups: people who are incarcerated, the loved ones and support systems of people who are incarcerated, and the victims who seek justice that results in people being incarcerated. By valuing the experiences of all three groups, Ricordeau makes a thorough case for abolition.

In addition to her focus on women and queer people, Ricordeau’s approach to abolition is noteworthy for its combination of principle and practicality. Throughout the book, Ricordeau includes information that seems to disprove common abolitionist talking points. Rather than cherry pick data, she presents it all, and then shows that even given certain information the criminal justice system still should not exist. She is clear about the belief — one I vehemently share — that a perfect alternative does not need to exist for the criminal justice system to be abolished, because the criminal justice system causes far more harm than good.

Because Ricordeau is French, her analysis of police, prisons, and legal proceedings goes beyond the US-centric texts I’ve previously read. While she certainly addresses specifics about the US — as well as other countries, especially France and Canada — the broadening of abolitionist discussions allows for a more comprehensive analysis of crime, punishment, and justice. Through specificity, there is a greater opportunity for theory — through theory, a greater opportunity for specificity.

With Free Them All, Ricordeau has written an ideal academic text. It is, at once, simple to read and complex in its ideology. “Penal abolition can only be ‘unfinished,’” she writes in the conclusion. This book acts as a worthy addition to the unfinished project of abolition, the unfinished necessity of a world that does not conflate punishment with justice.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 562 articles for us.

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