Second Annual

Abolition Week

As the national media is shifting its attention away from demands to restructure, defund, and abolish the police, Scalawag's Abolition Week is an appeal to keep these conversations at the forefront. This week, we're only publishing work by or about incarcerated writers, artists, and thinkers in an effort to center their experiences and their humanity.

Whether you've never heard of abolition, have questions about what it means, or are already deeply committed to the work—the journey toward abolition is an ongoing process, and it's one that we are all on together. This journey involves both changing our systems and our personal mentalities.

Content warning: Many of these stories discuss themes including sexual assault, violence, and racism.

The Journey to Abolition

Demands to abolish the police may have become more mainstream after last summer's uprisings, but many are still unclear about how these shifts might evolve their personal politics.

The following collection of stories is designed to support you in your understanding of the abolitionist framework. We present the journey in four stages: ranging from abolitionist in theory to abolitionist in practice. No matter where you find yourself between background and action, we hope to provide you with the tools you need on your path to the next step. Click the birds below to jump to each section, and click the arrow under each question to expand the topic and read more.

Stage 1: Theory

Stage 2: Heart

Stage 3: Community

Stage 4: Practice

Stage 1: Abolitionist in theory
Understanding the harsh realities you're not supposed to hear.

Abolition confronts any policy or procedure that compromises the humanity of any person. To build a world without prisons, we must first understand how and why the current system is disastrously harmful—and why we need something new. Learning from those who have firsthand experience with the carceral system helps build our consciousness of the harm it inflicts. This is crucial in understanding why people are demanding action—and what exactly is at stake when we talk about change.

In Photos: Desde Adentro (From Within)

Portraits of growing up behind bars, from the young men coming of age in a Mexico youth facility.

"All these boys are in the middle of a long learning process and maturation; they experience the same intangible fears as any of us. It is a matter of influencing the values ​​and beliefs they have, rather than corrective measures and punishments."

Read the story.
What is actually happening to people subjected to the prison system? Is it really that bad?

These stories are hard to hear, but they are not exceptional or tokenized examples—it's just that the public rarely hears them, and that's by design. The state actively silences these voices to make sure they aren't heard by those of us on the outside. But these are the real conditions.


Toxic Confinement

After years of complaints against Arkansas' Craighead County Detention Center, 13 detainees organize a wave a lawsuits to improve toxic environmental conditions at the jail.

Stage 2: Abolitionist at heart
Connecting the history of the prison industrial complex to modern racial horrors.

Just five years after the end of the Civil War, the Supreme Court of Virginia framed its vision for a prison system, one that was a direct descendant of slavery. Abolition does not seek to revise such a system. In short, abolition is not reform. Small changes to the existing carceral state may improve some of the experiences that people behind bars face, but they do not address the underlying racialized power dynamics that underscore all facets of modern-day policing.

Isn't policing supposed to be about creating safety, justice, and fairness?

An understanding of the racist, classist, and sexist roots of the U.S. police system help to show how—and why—the current structures work to keep certain people out of society more than they work to enforce justice or fairness. It's because of this inherent, fundamental unfairness in policing that abolition requires new approaches to the principles of justice and punishment.


Stage 3: Abolitionist in community
Seeing how prison harms you, too.

The current system does not bring justice—in fact, it inflicts harm far beyond the reaches of prison walls. The ideology that governs our prisons has far-reaching effects that invade our schools, governments, housing systems, health care, and economies. Abolitionist thinking has implications for all oppressed peoples: BIPOC communities, immigrants, working-class, and queer folks. Exploring these implications helps us build broad-based solidarity.

Is abolition only about prisons and the police?

Understanding how to take action in other sectors is important in knowing how to make the work of abolition visible, practical, and possible in your own life. Property protections, U.S. immigration policy, how workplaces handle sexual assault, or how schools commit racial profiling, are all rooted in the same principles that the carceral system serves to defend. What realities can you challenge in your everyday life? What conditions can we change in our communities?


A prison by any other name

The women held at Hutto Residential aren't prisoners, but they are by no means free.

Although not technically considered prisoners, the women held at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center are by no means free. An inside look at the treatment of migrant women in Texas' detention facilities.

Stage 4: Abolitionist in practice
Imagining the alternatives.

Abolition requires a suspension of disbelief between what we have and what we want. The willingness to imagine a different reality than that which we currently face is a major part of the journey toward true liberation. But the biggest hurdle to implementing imaginative solutions is faith—faith in what can be accomplished when we reject an unacceptable system.

In other words, abolition is an ideal to strive for. Here's how we do it.

What do we build instead of prisons?

Abolition seeks to build new, life-affirming structures to replace those that we are currently presented with. Just as important as rethinking the unthinkable is making sure that our solutions don't feel impossible to those who have experienced incarceration firsthand. Implementing the steps to make them a reality takes community, trust, and solidarity.


A letter to Black mamas

For Mother's Day this year, Southerners On New Ground (SONG), a regional queer liberation organization focused on the South the South, made a simple, transformative request: Bail Black mothers out of jail.

Abolition—just like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, or legalized marijuana—is moving from the fringe to the center. And just like those other shifting policies, prison abolition means different things to different people. Scalawag intends to challenge other news organizations to participate in Abolition Week by sharing work by incarcerated writers, or other stories that unpack the abolitionist journey. We encourage publishers to link back to this page to help readers place your stories in their own journey, and model to other newsrooms what it means to live out a commitment to creating media that is responsive to the moment. We hope that our work can help you identify gaps in coverage and answer larger questions about justice and abolition for your audience, too.

Read more from our publishing partners:

Clearing a Path from Prison to the Bar Exam

Allen Arthur

A movement to empower formerly incarcerated people to become lawyers is changing the criminal justice system from the inside out.
Read the story.

Crossing the Threshold

Emily Nonko

Rites of passage prepare us to transition into new phases of life. Ritual4Return ensures leaving prison is no exception.
Read the story.

Mariame Kaba: Rooting Out Our Culture of Harm

The Laura Flanders Show

Abolition of the prison industrial complex is essential, but freedom also takes building an entire society that roots out our culture of harm.
Watch the episode.

COVID-19 is making people rethink the point of jail


Before they could even get a trial, people in jails during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic started dying. Some states tried something radical—letting them go home.
Read the story.

Biden Urges Cities to Use COVID Funds to Hire More Police

Mike Ludwig

Racial justice advocates say the root causes of gun violence run much deeper than Biden will admit
Read the story.

Other partners:

Other partners: