The New Abolitionists

Women, specifically women of colour, are one of the fastest growing prison populations in the US. In Illinois, the state where I currently reside, between 1983 and 2002 the number of women in prison for drug related crimes skyrocketed from 32 to 1,325, a 4,041% leap.1 This growth is mirrored across the US. As Sudbury states:

Whereas in 1970 there were 5,600 incarcerated women, by June 2001, 161,200 women were held in U.S. prisons and jails, representing a staggering 2,800% increase. (xiv)

While Canada, with almost the same population as California, “holds approximately 350 women in federal detention centers” and “California has about 11, 000” (Faith, 2006, 340), women in prison in Canada, California, and across the US, are overwhelmingly arrested for offenses that are non-violent and generally drug related. Research clearly documents that incarcerated women are undereducated, under or unemployed, frequently homeless prior to entering prison or jail, and they have a significantly higher rate of experience with sexual or physical violence. As Faith writes, poverty is the “common denominator.” “If a women is not poor when she enters prison, she will be when she leaves” (5), as women with criminal records, in particular in the US, are formally and informally denied access to higher education, housing, employment and social assistance benefits.

Given this growth, it is no surprise that the most compelling analysis and movement building against prisons in the US and Canada originates from women. Karlene Faith, Angela Davis and Julia Sudbury, representative of the many women who are anti-prison activists, offer new writing projects that can be central tools for feminists and others invested in building and sustaining movements towards racial, economic and gender justice. Fusing work from across the humanities and social sciences and between universities and communities, these projects are avowedly anti-disciplinary, meaning they highlight the limitations of disciplinary ways of knowing to address pressing multi-faceted social problems. Their analyses, rigorous research and powerful testimony invites readers to do more than imagine worlds without prisons and incarceration. Are Prisons Obsolete?, Abolition Democracy, Global Lockdown, and 13 Women meticulously make the case that participation in prison abolition movements is imperative if we are to resist a global lockdown that confers a civil and physical death on increasing numbers of women (and men).2

While I am an educator and an organizer who has been working with and for a range of anti-prison initiatives for almost a decade in the US, I am also a Canadian who is warily watching Prime Minister Harper’s blatant fear-mongering as he proposes a major shift in Canadian criminal justice policies – including three strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentencing – under the guise of “cracking down on crime” and “making our streets and communities safer.”3 The last thirty years of “getting tough” on crime in the US clearly illustrates that far from providing safety and security, these policies have decimated communities and lives, in particular those most economically vulnerable. Tough on crime in the US has translated into resources being diverted from education to incarceration, resulting in the construction of cellblocks rather than community centres or classrooms, and the expansion of punitive surveillance systems into the lives of the poor. Tough on crime has bled into other economic and political spheres, with punitive “collateral consequences” that restrict those with criminal records from accessing employment, education and social services, thus creating a revolving door on the cellblocks. In Illinois, with a population of approximately 12 million, there are few services available for the over 30 000 people that exit prisons and jails every year, and return mainly to six of Chicago’s most economically devastated neighbourhoods – Austin, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, Englewood, West Englewood, and East Garfield Park.4 Getting tough on crime has translated into an extremely costly epidemic of incarceration with little security or safety.

Within this context, it is vitally important that analyses, testimony and movement building cross the constructed borders between nation-states, universities, “communities,” and disciplinary frameworks, to communicate and to work towards horizons of prison abolition. The term prison abolition literally means to work to abolish prisons, and this movement is supported by national organizations like Critical Resistance, centred in Oakland, California, and by networks of anti-prison activists and community organizations. Prison abolition doesn’t mean that there will be no problems or violence, but rather that locking people in cages is not a just or efficient solution to the problems that lead people to commit crimes. As Davis writes in Abolition Democracy:

What I have tried to do – together with many other public intellectuals, activists, scholars – is to encourage people to think about the possibility that punishment may be a consequence of the forces and not an inevitable consequence of the commission of crime. Which is not to say that people in prisons have not committed what we call “crimes” – I am not making that argument at all. Regardless of who has or has not committed crimes, punishment, in brief can be seen more as a consequence of racialized surveillance…(40)

As Davis (and others) suggest, prison abolitionists do not argue that crimes do not occur, or that people do not do “bad things,” but that racialized surveillance is a pattern throughout major punitive and “security” institutions: schools, police, government, customs and immigration. Racial profiling by police forces across Canada and the US continues, and one clear consequence of this hyper surveillance is that communities of colour are tracked into further state control and management. For example, the rate of drug use or speeding is relatively equal across all racial groups yet police target particular communities. Racial profiling by police forces is a persistent problem, as an April 2005 US Department of Justice study found that, across the US, “blacks and Hispanics are roughly three times as likely as whites to be searched, arrested, or threatened or subdued with force when stopped by police.”5 In the US, African-American women are eight times more likely and Latinas are four times more likely to be imprisoned than white women, yet racial and gender surveillance is not merely a US phenomenon. “In 2003, women who were officially registered as Indians constituted only 4 per cent of all women in Canada, but 23 per cent of women in federal prisons were Aboriginal” (Faith, 275). This percentage rises to 70-100% when the number of Aboriginal women in territorial or in provincial prisons is assessed.

To make a case for abolition, Davis traces the history of incarceration in the U.S. in Are Prisons Obsolete? By illustrating that incarceration is a relatively modern invention intimately linked to capitalism, slavery, colonization, and the oppression of women, Davis invites readers to reassess the naturalization of prisons in our everyday life, and to consider abolitionist alternatives.

…positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment – demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance. (2001, 107)

Working towards prison abolition means animating old structures or creating new institutions, to ensure that communities have viable living wage jobs that are not dehumanizing. It means establishing mechanisms for alternative dispute resolution and other processes that address conflict. It means ensuring that our most vulnerable populations, for example those that are mentally ill or under–educated, do not get warehoused in our prisons and jails because of the failure of other institutions such as healthcare and education. Working toward a horizon of abolition means an acknowledgment that prisons have been used, as Davis writes, as “a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent” (2005, 41).

Abolition work also involves exposing and challenging how prisons, punishment, torture, and crime shape what passes for a democracy in the US, and increasingly these “law and order” practices are being exported through global neoliberalisms: the “war on terror,” the privatization of prisons across the globe, the dominance of companies that produce prison technologies, and more. Through interviews and essays in Abolition Democracy, Davis outlines how the spectacle of punishment is an instrumental component of our social order. Deliberately separating and demarcating populations, prisons provide a place for the “bad” people to go, endorsing the racialized surveillance practices of the state, and simultaneously validating beliefs and practices that isolation and punishment are “just” responses to outlaw emotions or acts of violence. With Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, these spectacles of punishment regulate the lives of all people across the globe, not simply those that are housed in prisons and jails.

Davis illustrates in both books that through mass media, the social and political work of incarceration is magnified; prisons are public social institutions that are deeply protected from pubic scrutiny. Despite the enormous numbers of people required to work in the prison-nation and in supporting industries, prisons are oddly erased from our global landscape. Detention centers and prisons are often in rural, or “foreign,” locations, are extremely difficult or impossible to enter, and communication to and from prisons is regulated or controlled. As many of my allies often joke, prisons are much easier to exit than to enter. This removal of prisons from the everyday experience means that mainstream audiences depend heavily on popular media to offer meanings and representations of prisons and the bodies housed within them.

Because prisons form a central component of contemporary life, they shape our imaginations. Whether it is the old stories of “cowboys and Indians” or the new stories of, as Davis notes, “deranged criminals and weary working stiff cops and prison guards” core racialized tropes are reproduced, and the legitimacy of the prison nation goes unchallenged. TV shows such as OZ, CSI, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit resonate because they circulate familiar stories of racialized and gendered constructs of good, bad and evil. The representations offered by mass media about crime and criminals, and prisoners and prisons are wildly inaccurate; animating stereotypes about race and violence, they suture regressive and racist public policies.

Expanding the framework of impact, or who is harmed by the growth of the prison state, is vital, and in a curious way, is one interpretation of the shift from Are Prisons Obsolete? (2001) to Abolition Democracy (2005). The epidemic of incarceration harms not just those directly targeted and tracked by the surveillance mechanisms of the state, but also those who live in relation to these state sanctioned practices. However, the analyses and writings provided by Sudbury, Davis, and Faith aim not to universalize or to adopt a strategy of “we are all prisoners,” nor do they seek to erase either the particular consequences of mass incarceration, or the racial and sexual contracts at the core of the creation and expansion of the incarceration state. Though the expanding prison industrial complex aggressively harms poor communities and people of color, simply framing the discussion in terms of experience is limiting. The decarceration movement must rethink conceptions of security and borders, and continue to identify the white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy at the foundation of the state. This labour will require participation beyond those directly impacted by incarceration.

If Davis’s books offer a history and a future by linking our contemporary prison industrial complex to slavery and to new practices of empire, as well as by providing meticulous blueprints for the theoretical foundations of a movement, Sudbury and Faith ground their projects in the material violence directed by the state towards women, and use the testimony and analysis of women who have direct experience with incarceration to build an abolition movement. Both Sudbury and Faith’s projects are a distinct departure from the ‘traditional’ academic engagement with issues of incarceration and gender. As Sudbury notes in her introduction to Global Lockdown, a significant portion of the academic literature on women and incarceration tends to “depict women in psychological and individuated terms.” This focus on the individual experiences of incarcerated women can render them, and their “personal failings,” hyper visible, thereby sidelining the structural forces and public policies that directly shape social behaviour (xvi). This mode of representation has particular consequences, notably “the risk of simply replicating the discourse of individual responsibility and the language of correction that prisoners learn (and sometimes internalize) as they are processed by the system” (xvi). Interpreted through this framework, the twenty transnational entries in Global Lockdown position women with experiences of incarceration as experts with agency, and inverts the research gaze to examine not merely the voices and experiences of those impacted, but what public policies, governmental agencies, and histories are culpable and actively result in the increase in the number of women, in particular women of colour, in prisons, jails, and detention centers across the globe.

In particular, the collection has strong chapters that clearly illustrate the global economic and political forces that are shaping gendered lockdown. Rebecca Bohrman and Naomi Murakawa trace how the twin “interlocking” trends in government, the growth of the security state and the shrinking of the support or the welfare state, are related to the core US ideologies of white supremacy and individualism. Stormy Ogden documents the first anchor in the prison industrial complex in the US, the reservation system, and how punitive immigration, employment and citizenship laws also continue to criminalize certain populations or simply to deeply cheapen laboiur both inside and outside of prisons. Linda Evans analyzes how prisons and incarceration create legal sites where labor can be exploited by companies such as Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret. Kemba Smith testifies to how the construction of multi-billion dollar prisons and the subsequent staffing and maintenance of these institutions is perceived to function as an economic engine for depressed rural communities, where those incarcerated are commodities. Kemba Smith (now released) wrote from inside prison: “The government gets paid $25 000 a year by you (taxpayers) to house me (us). The more of us that they incarcerate, the more money they get from you to build prisons. The building of prisons creates more jobs” (Smith, in Sudbury 2005, 106).

With Parables from Prison, Faith also participates in this process of reframing the terrain upon which testimonies of women and incarceration circulate. A parable is a short allegorical story in which there is an expressly political and moral context to the telling of the always partial and constructed narrative. The parable is shaped to have a particular impact on readers. The testimonies in the project, collected over 30 years, are partial, narrated and contextualized through Faith’s 30 years of activism inside and outside women’s prisons, and actively work to illuminate one of the most significant violators of human rights – the state. The life histories offered in each chapter, each titled with a woman’s name (most are not pseudonyms), poignantly and politically outline the use and abuse of incarcerated women as “medical subjects,” the consequences of compulsive heteronormativity (Norma Stafford), the impact of sexual violence sanctioned by families and erased by the state (Marie), the punishing impacts of the war on drugs on women of colour (Me & Mattie), the jailing of political dissidents (Ann Hansen), and much more. The choice by Faith (and Near) to offer First Nations women’s experiences as a composite, with the subtitle “prison as colonization,” links the prison industrial complex to other forms of punitive confinement and segregation, such as foster homes, residential schools, immigration detention centers, psychiatric hospitals, juvenile halls, and refugee camps (Faith 276, Sudbury xiii).

Faith and Sudbury’s work, when linked to Davis’s, documents how prisons and incarceration are naturalized in our communities, and invites the question of what abolition work might look like for those of us on the frontlines. The experiences of those currently or formerly imprisoned, so eloquently and analytically outlined in 13 Women, suggests that abolition cannot preclude working for reforms and changes. Yet, how do we challenge the legitimacy of incarceration nation, and simultaneously work for reforms, such as adequate medical care or decent food, so desperately needed by the real bodies being warehoused? Without the framework of abolition, Davis suggests that these reform conversations stall with only the “stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond the prison” (2001, 20). Reading these projects together reminds me why I specifically use the term the horizon of prison abolition in my thinking and in my work. Abolition is a goal that shifts, yet simultaneously frames all of my work, and abolition is also a concept and a movement that is grounded in histories of successful struggles for racial, economic, and gender justice.


1 Kane-Willis, K., Janichek J., & Clark, D. (2006). Intersecting Voices: Impacts of Illinois’ Drug Policies. The Illinois Consortium on Drug Policies. Retrieved February 10, 2007 from the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs website:

2 Gilmore, R. W. (January 2004). Education or incarceration: Schools and prisons in a punishing democracy. Keynote address at the Center for Democracy in a Multiracial Society. University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

3 Clark, C. (February 15, 2007). “PM says he’ll pick judges who are tough on crime.” The Globe and Mail.

4 La Vigne, N. G., Mamalian, C. A., Travis, J., & Visher, C. (2003). A portrait of prisoner reentry in Illinois. Urban Institute. Urban Institute Report. Retrieved April 17, 2003 from

5 ACLU Applauds Senate Reintroduction of Racial Profiling Bill, Urges Congress to Finally Pass Comprehensive Legislation Next Year. (2005, December 19). Retrieved December 19, 2005, from the American Civil Liberties Union website: