Critical Resistance: Organizing to abolish the Prison Industrial Complex

Critical Resistance — the key prison abolitionist organization — just celebrated its tenth anniversary with a huge conference in Oakland, California. Here’s an interview with CR member Rose Braz.

HB: What does “prison abolitionist” mean?

Rose Braz: CR seeks to abolish the prison industrial complex (PIC): the use of prisons, policing and the larger system of the prison industrial complex as an “answer” to what are social, political and economic problems, not just prisons.

Abolition defines both the goal we seek and the way we do our work today. Abolition means a world where we do not use prisons, policing and the larger system of the prison industrial complex as an “answer” to what are social, political and economic problems. Abolition means that instead we put in place the things that would reduce incidents of harm at the front end and address harm in a non-punitive manner when harm does occur. Abolition means that harm will occur far less often and, that when harm does occur, we address the causes of that harm rather than rely on the failed solutions of punishment. Thus, abolition is taking a harm reductionist approach to our society’s problems.

Abolition means creating sustainable, healthy communities empowered to create safety and rooted in accountability, instead of relying on policing, courts, and imprisonment which are not creating safe communities.

HB: How has prison changed in 10 years?

RB: One recent shift is that our denunciation of conditions inside has been twisted into justifications for expanding the system, particularly through what are sometimes called “boutique prisons”.

For example, there is fairly uniform agreement that California’s now $10 billion-per-year prison system holds too many people, provides horrendous health and mental health care, underfunds and cuts programming and services, and consistently fails to deliver on its promise of public safety. Nonetheless, California’s answer to this disaster has been to make it even bigger, building more prisons and in particular specialized prisons — for women, for elderly prisoners, for the sick, etc.

What’s new and more insidious about this expansion is that it has not been couched in “tough on crime” rhetoric that politicians usually employ to justify expansion. Rather, in response to growing anti-prison public sentiment, these plans have been grounded on the rhetoric of “prison reform” and in regard to people in women’s prisons: “gender responsiveness.”

One current challenge is to continue to debunk the myth that bricks and mortar are an answer to these problems and to make common sense that the only real answer to California’s prison crisis is to reduce the number of people in prison and number of prisons toward the goal of abolition.

HB: How has the anti-prison movement evolved in the last 10 years?

RB: In the last decade, I think the movement has become more coordinated, is growing and has shifted the debate from one about reform to one that includes abolition.

In 1998, while there were numerous people and organizations working around conditions of confinement, the death penalty, etc., and in particular using litigation and research strategies; grassroots organizing challenging the PIC was at a low following the crackdown on the movement in the 1970’s and 80’s. We believe that a grassroots movement is a necessary prerequisite to change. CR is bringing people together through our conferences, campaigns, and projects toward the goal of helping to build that movement.

I also believe the debate has shifted and unlike a decade ago, abolition is on the table. A prerequisite to seeking any social change is the naming of it. In other words, even though the goal we seek may be far away, unless we name it and fight for it today, it will never come.

HB: What distinctions do you make between “political prisoners,” and others, including non-violent and violent offenders?

RB: CR focuses on how the PIC is used as a purported “answer” to social, economic and political challenges, and clearly a big part of the build up of the PIC followed directly on the political uprisings of the ’60s and ’70’s. CR seeks to abolish the PIC in its entirety, for us that means fundamentally challenging the PIC as an institution. This means that just as we fight for Mumia to not be locked in a cage, we also fight for people convicted of offenses classified as “violent” or “nonviolent” by the state to also not be locked in cages. While acknowledging that people are put in prison for different reasons, we do not make the distinction between people in for “violent” or “nonviolent” offenses because the PIC is not an answer to either.

HB: Anything else to add?

RB: One day, I believe those who fought for abolition will be seen as visionaries. Historian Adam Hochschild notes that there are numerous institutions in history that appeared unchangeable and moreover, small numbers of people have sparked extraordinary change.

Until the late 18th century, when the British slavery abolitionist movement began, the idea of eliminating one of the fundamental aspects of the British Empire’s economy was unimaginable. Yet, 12 individuals who first met in a London printing shop in 1787 managed to create enough social turbulence that 51 years later, the slave ships stopped sailing in Britain.

In the US, the first slavery abolitionists were represented as extremists and it took almost a century to abolish slavery. Similarly, many who lived under Jim Crow could not envision a legal system without segregation.

As Hochschild wrote, “The fact that the battle against slavery was won must give us pause when considering great modern injustices, such as the gap between rich and poor, nuclear proliferation and war” and I would add the Prison Industrial Complex. “None of these problems will be solved overnight, or perhaps even in the fifty years it took to end British slavery, but they will not be solved at all unless people see them as both outrageous and solvable.”