Police and Prison Abolition 101: A Syllabus and FAQ

George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, and we stand in unequivocal support of the protests and uprisings that have swept the US since that day, and against the unconscionable violence of the police and US state. We can’t continue with business as usual, which includes celebrating Pride. This week, Autostraddle is suspending our regular schedule to focus on content related to this struggle, the fight against white supremacy and the fight for Black lives and Black futures. Instead, we’re publishing and re-highlighting work by and for Black queer and trans folks speaking to their experiences living under white supremacy and the carceral state, and work calling white people to material action.
no justice. no pride.


This week has been a greater flashpoint for discussion about abolition of police & prisons in mainstream (white) discourse than perhaps ever before; there have been several public wishes for an explainer or 101 on abolition and decarceration for people who are approaching it for perhaps the first time. The good news is that explainer (and much more!) has absolutely been written, dozens of times over; the work around decarceration has been some of the most successfully documented, accessible, and digitally interactive of any movement. This is a guide to guides, organized loosely by some of the main questions and thought processes that often come up around entry into abolitionist thinking, offering resources addressing some important ideas and some ad libbed context from yourself truly, a white woman who is far from an expert or educator on abolition but has done some organizing work around it for years, and who believes that it’s the responsibility of white people, especially white women, to work against the carceral state in recognition of how much violence it’s done in our name and the name of our safety and fragility.

Please feel free to share and to ask questions, as well as answer questions in good faith in the comments! All we have is each other, and that’s all we need.

How did we get here?

The history of prisons and policing in the US is a layered and illuminating one in terms of understanding how we’ve arrived at the current moment. An extremely abridged version of this history is that prisons as both literal buildings and a cultural concept was brought to us by the Puritans who colonized the Northeast; they used prisons as a punishment for members of their own community who didn’t adhere strictly enough to their exacting religious lifestyle in order to make an example of them in service of a harsh moral code, and to imprison local Indigenous people who they were in conflict with. Prisons weren’t originally married to a police force; police forces as we know them today grew out of ad hoc militia and mercenaries formed to hunt fugitive enslaved Africans and capture them for reward money, and to enforce the state’s slave code. Just based on this oversimplification, we can see that the roots of the carceral system in the US are inextricable from Christian theocracy, colonization and slavery; we can also see that community safety or protection are not part of the blueprint. Later “reforms” to the prison system, often by well-intentioned white groups like Quakers, occasionally made some improvements but also brought deeply harmful aspects into the prison system — solitary confinement, for instance, was a reform, thought to give prisoners time to reflect in penitent prayer and rehabilitate themselves spiritually.

Some readings associated with these concepts are:

+ Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America
+ Cruel and Unusual: Punishment and US Culture
+ American Prisons: A History of Good Intentions
+ Slavery by Another Name
+ The Prison and the American Imagination
+ The New Jim Crow

Two chapters from the above linked Cruel and Unusuals are available online as PDFs here and here, and cover some of what’s summed up above.

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For a more structured and in-depth exploration, check out the World Without Police Study Guide, organized into units with free digitally accessible readings; this is also a great collection of resources.


What does abolition mean?

In an extremely literal sense, abolition refers to the complete dismantling of, rather than reforming or improving, of the carceral system in the US, which includes state prisons, a private prison-industrial complex that profits from incarceration, a police force and its military infrastructure, a legislative system that responds to the needs of its people primarily by enacting solutions that rely on incarceration, an immigration system whose underlying structure is inextricable from the prison industrial complex, a capitalist economy that operates heavily through the forced labor of incarcerated people, a system of voting and democracy where full citizenship is organized based on who has had contact with the carceral state, and a culture deeply rooted and invested in an ideology of punishment and control, including feminist and progressive thought that relies on carceral logic. In a more concrete sense, abolition means that prisons, both the buildings themselves and the reality of caging human beings, will no longer exist; police forces as an enforcer of law & order in the name of the state will no longer exist either.

In a more expansive and meaningful sense, abolition also refers to the construction of and investment in the systems, practices, resources, and cultural values that will make the above possible. This will mean looking at new systems of access to resources, new ways of addressing conflict and harm, new ways of conceptualizing participation in a community and what we owe to each other; carceral logic is embedded so deeply in the DNA of this nation that changing it will result in a totally new one. That isn’t a bad thing, and it’s helpful to think of abolition as a constructive project in addition to a destructive one. Thinking of the abolition of chattel slavery, abolition meant not just an end to the institution of slavery, but the beginning of the possibility of a free life for enslaved people. Abolition of police and prisons means an end to those things, but also building a new, better world that we all get to live in.

For further reading on what abolition means as a project, some brief, digestible digital reads:

+ The Case for Abolition
+ What Abolitionists Do
+ What Does Police Abolition Mean?
+ Abolish the Police? Organizers Say It’s Less Crazy Than It Sounds
+ You Are Already an Abolitionist

A longer, but obviously key text is Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete, which is available here as a PDF or here to purchase.


Why the extreme of abolition when we could try reform, at least for right now, and return to the ideal of abolition in the future?

There are a lot of ways to answer this; one simple way is that we are currently living the reformed version, and it isn’t working. The system of prison and policing has been endlessly reformed almost since its moment of inception, and where it has landed us is this; an economy and legal system defined entirely by the premise of violence against Black, brown and Indigenous people, and the most extreme site of mass incarceration in the world. Looking at the roots of the prison system, we have to confront the reality that this is how policing and prison was always designed to work at their core; it is not an aberration, it is not an error; reform can never turn police or prisons into something they aren’t, and never were.

Another way of looking at this is that what we invest in is what survives and grows; when you do the work of rebuilding, reforming, changing or addressing a relationship, or a friendship, or an organization, it’s because you want to ensure its future health and success through your work, in the same way that you water a plant. We don’t want to water the plant that is the prison industrial complex. Past reforms have strengthened the prison-industrial complex, both ideologically and materially; the push for body cameras after Ferguson meant police departments received millions and millions of dollars to buy new equipment. As the Critical Resistance abolition toolkit explains:

“There are also reforms that in the end make the long-term goal of getting rid of the PIC impossible. For example, in response to the terrible conditions that most prisoners across the country live in, abolitionists might focus on strategies that first look at how we can let people out of those cages instead of ones that just build better cages. Building new cells and prisons helps to extend the life of the PIC as a system. This goes directly against a long-term abolitionist goal of eliminating the system. It also just gives us one more prison to close down in the end.”

One example that comes to mind is the ‘protective’ confinement that many trans/queer/GNC prisoners are placed into if they’re deemed to be at risk from violence in the general prison population; in reality, this is just solitary confinement, a “reform” for safety that leads to trans and queer incarcerated people being subject to further harm.

A great illustration of this concept is CR’s infographic on reformist vs. abolitionist thinking. I’d also read Mariame Kaba on police “reforms” you should always oppose.

One book that discusses the failures of reform in much more detail is The End of Policing; if you’re reading this the week of May 31, the e-book version is currently completely free to download from Verso.

How can we justify getting rid of consequences for violence or abuse?

One topic that almost immediately comes up anytime abolition is under discussion is what will be done about violent or harmful actions, especially people who enact sexual violence or violence against children; there seems to be a common concern that a post-abolition world will have no way of preventing or addressing harm, or that violence against women and children will be accepted as an inevitable price to pay for a world without prisons. It feels important to me in those conversations to point out that abolitionist movements have and are still heavily led by Black women, a demographic that experiences disproportionately high levels of violence in general and sexualized and gendered violence in particular. It seems at best misguided and at worst undermining to imagine that Black women, of all people, would create a framework that forgets or doesn’t understand such a major element of lived experience.

To that end, two things. First, the prison industrial complex as it stands is a powerful and unchecked site of sexualized violence, not an antidote to it; rarely, if ever, does the justice system actually address rapists or pedophiles, and when it does, they are not prevented from causing harm, but moved into a prison system to cause harm to a caged population of people. Prevention of sexual violence is one of the most important reasons to dismantle the prison-industrial complex, as sexual violence against incarcerated people is rampant and unmitigated, as is sexual violence enacted by the police; it’s the second most common type of police misconduct reported. Do you know any survivors of sexual harm who have been healed by the prison industrial complex? Is it effectively addressing this harm now? If not, what is actually lost by ending it? What could be gained by imagining understandings of “consequences” that don’t include prisons?

Second, abolitionist thought is not only very aware of the reality of violence and has considered the need to address harm, including gendered and sexualized harm, but has worked hard to imagine meaningful ways of preventing, addressing, and healing harm and violence outside of frameworks of punishment and cages. Living in a carceral culture, it can feel impossible to imagine that there can be meaningful consequences for harm without a criminal justice system; abolition asks you to try. Abolitionists have done enormous amounts of work to provide potential answers to what it would look like to address these things without prisons, and provided resources and actionable toolkits and guides on making them a reality.

Some resources to get started:

+ The Critical Resistance Abolition Toolkit, especially p. 28-31
+ Community Accountability for Survivors of Sexual Violence Toolkit
+ Creative Interventions Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Stop Interpersonal Violence
+ Toward Transformative Justice: A Liberatory Approach to Child Sexual Abuse and Other Forms of Intimate and Community Violence
+ Inside the Politics and Poetics of Transformative Justice and Community Accountability in Sexual Assault Situations
+ The Revolution Starts at Home

What other options are there besides police? What would you replace it with?

A long-term answer to this question involves building a culture with radically different values and priorities, in which the violence and harm that are currently caused by poverty, intergenerational trauma and systems of institutional oppression are no longer operating in the same way because those factors have been meaningfully addressed and healed such that this question is hopefully obsolete. A short-term answer to questions involving both personal and community safety without police are that strong communities who have resourced themselves both materially and psychologically are well equipped to care for each other and themselves, such that what police purport to offer isn’t needed.

On a personal note, I’m writing this from uptown Minneapolis, where protests and the concurrent police response have defined every aspect of city life for a week now; every day and night incredible action has been taken to get and distribute needed resources, to redistribute money for those resources, to provide medical care, to create networks to share crucial information, to guard local businesses, organizations and residential communities from harm, and to repair damage and plan for the future. Police have done none of this; community members have done all of it. We don’t need to be in crisis for this to be true; this is possible all the time, as a way of life.

Some resources to get started:

+ Alternatives to Calling the Police
+ More
Alternatives to Police
+
Harm Free Zone Project
+
Nonviolent Community Safety and Peacebuilding Handbook
+
Fumbling Toward Repair: A Workbook for Community Accountability Facilitators

What does the process of decarcerating actually look like?

What does it look like to move from the point we’re at now to a place of abolition? Burning down police departments? I mean, yes, but also much more. To be clear: decarceration is a material and concrete process, not an ideological or internal one. Reading resources and books, or even sharing them, doesn’t really get people out of cages. The harm caused by the prison industrial complex is material; our dismantling of it must also be material. To move toward abolition, we must engage both in dismantling the current system in concrete ways until everyone is out of cages and every police department is empty; at the same time, we must be actively building the infrastructure both in our communities and in ourselves that will replace it.

This looks like:

+ Refusing to call the police, talk to the police, or work with the police
+ Pushing community organizations to divest from the police and refuse to work with them
+ Defunding police and prisons at every level
+ Opposing the construction of and investment in new policing and prison initiatives and buildings
+ Opposing laws and policies, even ones with ends that we agree with, that rely on arrests and threats of incarceration as a means to those ends
+ Voting out and fighting against elected officials that work with police, prioritize “law and order,” or prison reform; voting in and holding accountable elected officials that vow to defund and decarcerate, and refuse to work with police or ICE
+ Fighting to end cash bail and working with bail funds to free people in jail right now and always
+ Prioritizing resources, care and community support to formerly and currently incarcerated people
+ Joining and following the lead of community movements led by formerly incarcerated people
+ Providing resources, protection and material support to criminalized people targeted by the PIC, including drug users, sex workers, trans people, undocumented immigrants, and all Black people, helping them to stay out of contact with police
+ Building strong local communities that know one another, communicate with one another, can ask each other for resources and reach out for one another in times of crisis
+ Tapping into or building networks that are actively engaging in building infrastructure around conflict resolution, community safety, accountability, intervention and harm prevention

For more reading, try these resources:

+ Critical Resistance Abolitionist Toolkit
+ TransformHarm.org
+ No One Is Disposable: Everyday Practices of Police Abolition
+ Against Carceral Feminism
+ Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture


This syllabus is, of course, far from complete, and more of a springboard to get more involved than anything else. For more complete and deeper information, please refer to other syllabi:

Prison Abolition Syllabus 2.0
Prison Culture Essential Reading

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1130 articles for us.

19 Comments

  1. Thanks for saying this, in particular:
    “It feels important to me in those conversations to point out that abolitionist movements have and are still heavily led by Black women, a demographic that experiences disproportionately high levels of violence in general and sexualized and gendered violence in particular. It seems at best misguided and at worst undermining to imagine that Black women, of all people, would create a framework that forgets or doesn’t understand such a major element of lived experience.”

    And thank you to Rachel and to all other folks, especially Black women and femmes, who have worked on abolition for so long.

  2. thanks so much for this, rachel. up here in canada we’re plagued by these same problems despite the closure of our only private prison in 2006. all of our weak reform efforts and insincere attempts to obscure the profit motive in incarceration have completely failed, abolition is the way forward and i’m glad to see it being covered so well on this site.

  3. Thank you for this resource. I’m still wrestling with my place in the system and what we need to do to on practical, every day levels to achieve a world that is safe and just for everyone. This reading is a huge distance from where I am now, but I want to learn and see what the alternatives could be and how they could be enacted.

  4. I am processing out loud…

    One of the issues I work on is human slavery and sex trafficking. When I read articles like this, I’m still not sure how abolishing the police would help with those issues. especially if there is nothing in its place right away.

    I work in the humanitarian/ conflict international development field and my area is women, lgbt, and children. I work in failed states all the time where there are no police and what I’ve seen rise to field that void is warlordism and small fascist armies. Things have turned out worse for citizens than better. So I’m still not sure how this works.

    Yes, I think change needs to happen and I’ve been out here in these streets but all the proposals have me scratching my head. Plus many African Americans don’t want the police abolished.

    • One of the things I’ve been finding incredibly challenging while getting educated is being able to approach police abolition with an open mind. It’s so hard to turn off the problem identifying/solving part of the brain and not just see all the ways and situations in which things can’t work, similar to some of the things you’ve pointed out here.

      For me, it’s essential to try and push through that and just read, listen and absorb as much as possible, before getting overwhelmed by all the criticisms that leap to mind.

      I try and focus on trusting the black women that have done so much work in this area because they are the experts, and acknowledging that no-one is saying this is an easy or quick solution, or that one size fits all, or that everyone in every community thinks that this is the right thing to do.

      There are so many places and ways that moving to radically different methods of community support will improve (and save) people’s lives, I feel like it’s important to never lose sight of that.

      • Please stop talking about Black women as if were a monolithic block. Prison abolitionism is not endorsed by all or even a majority of Black Women.You can understand that White people have a wide variety of political beliefs on issues but assume all Black Women only hold the same political beliefs.

    • Have you taken the time to read the resources Rachel and others have gathered before asking this question? Some of the answers might be there.

      One thing that strikes me is that your worry is largely based on your experiences with failed states, where a lack of police is due to collapse and crisis rather than careful work. While it may be just as likely that the US is heading for such a collapse on its current trajectory, that’s an essential difference. Working collectively towards a shared societal goal – even one we can barely imagine – should never be equated with catastrophic societal breakdown. I’ll call on Rachel’s reminder here that abolition is a constructive project, not a destructive one. It’s about building a new world, not just tearing the old one down.

      • Here is the thing. Sites like this don’t offer the opportunity to know and understand a person’s background when we comment. I’m not worried…I am processing.

        I’ve read the resources Rachel mentioned and I’ve read other things. I’ve had long conversations with my fellow black community on this issue.

        The U.S. has one of the largest human/sex trafficking problems in the world. I grew up in foster care and the largest % of women who are sex trafficked in the US come from foster care and they are mostly black & latina. So when I’m processing out loud, it is because I’m in the thick of it and having conversations w/ both blm and women who were formally sex slaves. I’m not just reading an article. If you talk to many people who are working to end sex/human trafficking…they are no crazy about the police…but they want to know what the alternative looks like.

        Yes I work in failed states…but many conflict areas are not about failed states. People in Hong Kong protested for months and China STILL took over and weakened democracy.

        The Arab Spring toppled many authoritarian leaders and now most of those communities are more repressive then they started.

        The Soviet Union was dismantled and now Russia and many former soviet countries are worse than they were under the USSR.

        You can’t have conversations JUST about tearing down things…you have to also put thought…resources…and plans into what comes next. If you don’t have concrete plans on what comes…or needs to happen next…authoritarians have a way of filling that void.

        So YES, I read the resources she posted and I am still thinking about loud.

        • I appreciate your thoughts a lot – was just talking to my family about this as well. We’re recognizing many examples, contemporary and throughout history, where a lack of police presence does not stop violence. And, the presence of the police in those areas also does not stop, or even decrease violence. It’s two (more than two) shitty, shitty solutions.

          I’ve also seen some powerful models of communities that are able to intentionally build towards disengagement with the police while simultaneously creating the systems that support folks to get their needs met and therefore *prevent* harm.

          I work in domestic violence and we talk a lot about being preventionists. How do we step in before a situation escalates, meet the needs and defuse the tension, maybe separate the people, and therefore avoid a situation where we need to respond to harm?

          It’s not a perfect solution by any means but it’s one direction, or concept, to add to this conversation.

  5. I find it frustrating how Black women are talked about as if were a monolithic block. Prison abolitionism is not endorsed by all or even a majority of Black Women.You can understand that White people have a wide variety of beliefs on issues but assume all Black Women only hold the same political beliefs?

    Yes Black people fear the police. We all know the long history both past and present of police brutality. But prison abolitionism oversimplifies a complex issue. Prison abolitionism ignores the fact that Black people are the group most victimized by homicide. Ignores white collar and organize crime and assumes crime is only caused by poor people and lone individuals. It ignores hate crime. What’s to stop the many organized white supremacists movements from organizing and murdering Black people. My parents grew up during the era of segregation when it was common for racists to lynch Black people and burn down our homes. What is to stop those people in a world were there are no consequences. Mass shootings are a wide problem across the U.S what’s to stop them when it’s even easier to get guns? Police abolition will end Black people being killed by police. It won’t end Black people being killed by white supremacists, serial killers, mass shooters and organized crime.

    Police abolition is a privileged position. If your rich you can pay for private protection and move to area’s with low crime rates. If your poor well too bad.It’s a position taken by arm chair anarchists that don’t have to deal with the effects of violent crime

  6. Ever read Gulag Archipelago? It documents, in some detail, what happens in an anarchical society – in this case in the soviet prison camps where the criminals lorded it over the political prisoners until the political prisoner decided to band together and keep the criminals from killing them and stealing their food. There are many other aspects of the causes and effects of crime you might be overlooking entirely. You might want to talk to Prison Fellowship International, consultants to the UN on prison reform, or other non profits who works with prisons world wide and see what they, and people who study crime, society and prisons, think from their long experiences. There are some great ideas for prison reform, for restorative justice, and for keeping a just society, but I find it doubtful that any of them work in a completely police free state. And they only work if the individual offenders are willing to have a conversation. Who is going to keep the man next door from simply murdering you if he wants to? Interesting too, an ex prisoner recently told me, she hates being in prison because there is no one to enforce the rules there, and the meanest inmate gets anything they want from you, and you have no say or recourse. They would steal the food she was eating right out of her mouth and then mock her because there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. Some thots about avenues that might enrich your perspectives…… Prison Fellowship Holland and Prison Fellowship Brazil have some great stories about prison reform programs that have worked miracles.

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