What is the role of police and prisons in a racially just society?

August 21, 2019

Carol Crooks was a catalyst to the August Rebellion in 1974 at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, a prison in Westchester County, New York. Photo Credit: Village Voice

No one belongs in a cage.

I admit it took me some time to get here. And no, it wasn’t due to my faith in the criminal legal system.

I figured out the role of police early on from the actions of the Metropolitan Police Department and the Prince George’s County Police Department. Through the violence they enacted on a young Black girl at a go-go, through the occupation of Black neighborhoods while offering little help when residents’ safety was compromised, and my cousin’s arrest for “fitting the description.” It was clear to me that my safety (and the safety of my community) was not a concern. Their actual priority was control.

By middle school I was sold on the idea of abolishing the police, but prisons and jails took a bit longer.

I saw incarceration as a fact of life. People did things like sell drugs (and other goods) or found alternative ways to make a profit that have been criminalized and they were arrested for it. I thought it was unfair that people were arrested for finding work when the city was not interested in ensuring universal employment or housing. What were people supposed to do? Allow their families to starve because they couldn’t find a job in the formal economy? Yet, I accepted incarceration as a given. Even while being angry that a disproportionate amount of Black and Latinx individuals were being locked up compared to white individuals for the same crimes.

I hadn’t known about prison abolition or even that there was an abolitionist movement that wasn’t related to chattel slavery until I found my political home almost two years ago. I entered a space with other Black people who challenged me to study the history of punishment in this country and the way it was used in the past and present to control Black and brown people, particularly those who are queer, trans or gender non-conforming, immigrants or engaged in the informal economy (ex. survival sex work).

Being in spaces with formerly incarcerated folks who were organizing because of their experiences, reading books like Are prisons obsolete? by Angela Davis, studying prison rebellions (many times triggered by incarcerated folks demanding rights they have been denied), and learning from those who want to dismantle the prison industrial complex helped me come to this conclusion:

If we truly wish to build a racially just society, then prisons, jails, detention centers and police cannot exist. 

Allowing a system that profits from caging Black people and other people of color and extracting labor from them while telling them they deserve this treatment cannot be tolerated in the future or present. I don’t believe incarceration should ever be a form of justice because it will always be an unusually cruel punishment.

The idea that no one, including those who engage in very violent acts, should be subject to the harmful conditions of prison is challenging for a lot of people. I know that it was a sticky point for me, especially for cases of domestic abuse and for those individuals that have a pattern of violence.

These are some of the questions I grappled with in my own journey:

    • Why am I okay with those with non-violent charges being freed, and not their counterparts who have been labeled violent?
    • If I believe that the conditions are inhumane and that those people don’t deserve to be there, am I saying that these people do? And if I do, why?
    • Do I have a responsibility to care about the safety of the person who has done this harm?

I didn’t have an answer for what we would do for them or where they would go instead of prison. I still don’t have a fully developed answer but I do know that justice should not be violent. I know that the solution should involve figuring out what accountability, healing and repair looks like.

The US has become an expert in caging people it believes are undesirable or those considered broken beyond fixing to “protect our safety.” According to Equal Justice Initiative, the US has 5% of the world’s population but almost 25% of its prisoners. It is obvious that the current solution is not working.

There are people like Mariame Kaba and others who are leading the work to abolish prisons, jails and detention centers and to help us re-imagine what safety is. We need to create a new definition because we’ve all been taught that punishment is the answer to feeling unsafe. We have not been taught to question the root causes of someone’s actions. We don’t always listen to or acknowledge the harm those who are incarcerated or have been incarcerated are experiencing.

Today marks the 21st day of Black August, in which we are called to study Black resistance in the prison industrial complex and continue our fight for Black liberation. It is also a time to remember George Jackson, a freedom fighter who was assassinated by San Quentin prison guards on August 21, 1971.

I plan to study more on prison organizing today. I hope you put aside some time to think about what safety (in your own relationships and within your community) means to you, and how to heal and repair harm without placing people in inhumane conditions.

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