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: 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.
"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.
Read the words of Anne C. Willett in honor of the 46th anniversary of the direct action at NCCCW, and the account of A.L. Harris in honor of survivors of state violence and in memory of the lives of those harmed and killed by police.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.
Decades before a white 19 year-old was charged with the death of a police officer, his father was also imprisoned for killing a cop. Incarcerated writer Leroy Mann interviews Darrell Maness about the intergenerational trauma of incarceration.
Incarcerated writer Leroy Mann describes the prison rituals leading up to an execution, and the psychological impact that witnessing 35 people executed at the hands of the state has on fellow prisoners.
Matthew McCain suffered a seizure in his cell at the Durham County Detention Facility. Inmates in his pod yelled for help and repeatedly pressed emergency call buttons but these calls were unanswered by the officer on duty.
Women on the inside of a South Florida Prison and writers with Exchange for Change write reflections on their experiences navigating the violent chaos of COVID-19 and the complicity and callousness of guards and Florida leadership.
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.
Two innocent brothers spent 30 years in prison. The law protects the police who put them there.Read the story.
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.
'If free people are not allowed to have unions, how are prisoners to have unions?': Conversations with organizers of the North Carolina Prisoners' Labor Union.
Operation PUSH was just one action in a growing movement to organize inmates and for some, to abolish the prison system altogether.
Rising racial tension in North Carolina stirs beneath a police officer's alleged assault on 13 year old
In a Randolph County North Carolina school, law enforcement in schools and rising racial animus seem to have come together violently in late September.
Law Professor Irving Joyner explains the near impossibility of prosecuting police officers for using excessive force, and suggest what we can do about it.
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?
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.
The Hatian Revolution and the movement for Black Lives share much in common. What protest across the Black diaspora means for the ongoing fight for abolition.
Incarcerated people are often dispatched to help clean up disaster sites or assigned to work in the industries that fuel climate change.
Does North Carolina's inmate firefighting program exploit prisoners, or give them a shot at a better life?
Prisons are perfect for land that is often cheap, flat, isolated, and cleared of trees. And cynics might note that they're probably also perfect for communities accustomed to sacrificing quality of life for a meager paycheck.
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.
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.
"What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-cell for over thirty years dream of?"
Ra Malika Imhotep writes on the abolitionist dreamscape of kai lumumba barrow's gallery of the streets.
From mass bailouts, to policy reforms, to DIY social services––these organizers are acting on a vision of a world without people in cages.
Across the South, communities of color have found ways to roll back the power of the prison industrial complex, and change how we think about public safety altogether.
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:
A movement to empower formerly incarcerated people to become lawyers is changing the criminal justice system from the inside out.
Read the story.
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.
Racial justice advocates say the root causes of gun violence run much deeper than Biden will admit
Read the story.
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.