In part two of a series on the prison-industrial complex (PIC) and mass incarceration on Brown’s campus, Blog sat down with three members of SAPIC—Students Against the Prison-Industrial Complex—in an attempt to demystify the realities of prison abolition. Prison abolition sounds great, but is difficult to visualize. SAPIC is trying to paint a much more colorful picture. So, for the critics and skeptics: Is prison abolition possible? What would the alternatives be? Read the interview below to find out.
Hannah Dylan Pasternak: So, let’s start off by talking about what SAPIC stands for both literally and theoretically.
Sofia Robledo Rower ’18: SAPIC was founded as a non-Brown affiliated group two years ago, and since then we have focused on combatting the prison-industrial complex in various forms, specifically at Brown and through Brown.
Bethlehem Desta ’18: The letters stand for Students Against the Prison-Industrial Complex.
HDP: It didn’t start as being Brown-affiliated?
SRR: It’s not a Brown club. We don’t receive any funding from SAO. We aren’t officially affiliated to any Brown department or anything. We’re essentially a group of Brown students who organize for prison abolition and dreaming of a new world. And we happen to be at Brown.
HDP: Is there a reason why you’ve never integrated more with the university, officially?
SRR: I think there’s a lot of reasons. One is that a main reason to integrate into the university is funding and we haven’t really needed funding for anything, and also joining SAO comes with a whole load of logistics that we aren’t interested in. Also, you know, you have restrictions to what you can do as part of a Brown University-affiliated group.
HDP: What do you do as a club aside from teach-ins?
Maya Finoh ’17: SAPIC is more of an organizing group rather than a club. I think one of the biggest things that we’ve done over the past two years is getting The New Jim Crow chosen as the Class of 2019’s first year reading.
HDP: Which was huge.
MF: That was definitely one of our biggest milestones.
SRR: I think a lot of our work happens behind the scenes. We’ve met with Christina Paxson quite a bit to talk about possible divestment plans, we’ve met to talk about banning the box on the common app, and things like that.
MF: We also create relationships with groups off-campus, like Black and Pink Rhode Island, Behind the Walls, DARE… so that’s also been an important part of the work we do.
HDP: As part of your mission statement, you advocate for prison abolition. Could you explain in a nutshell what prison abolition is, slash what a world without prisons would look like?
MF: Well, to me, prison abolition is envisioning a world where no one is disposable and we don’t solve societal problems like unemployment, racism, sexism, what have you, through incarceration or putting people behind cages, because that’s what our society currently does.
BD: But I think going hand in hand with that, a world without prisons is also a world without polices and a world without police forces. Like armed police forces, they operate right now. [Or even] smaller ways how it is that we police each other on a day to day basis. So part of how I think about prison abolition is also moving away from using gendered language and gendered surveillance in the day-to-day.
HDP: Can you give an example of gendered surveillance?
BD: Yeah, so the example that comes up in media most often is bathrooms. So like, when trans people, in particular trans women aren’t allowed to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity. Also with language, thinking about how it is that, like, phrases like “you guys” impose genders upon people that they may not identify with, or thinking about how terms like “inmate” or “convict” or “criminal” also act as value statements upon peoples’ worth… outside of just the disappearance of people in cages and prisons.
SRR: I think that central to SAPIC is prison abolition. There is no SAPIC without prison abolition. And for me, prison abolition is a radical restructuring of the society that we’re experiencing right now towards a far more generative future. Nobody is in SAPIC unless they’re a prison abolitionist.
HDP: So, let’s say prison abolition happens. What would the world look like instead?
MF: Part of our teach-in was asking the audience to shout out ideas of what they would have in place instead of policing and prisons. Some people said universal health care, equitable access to education for all, clean drinking water. Things like that, that are policed and privatized currently — making that accessible for all people.
HDP: So policing isn’t just the men in uniforms.
HDP: It’s thinking of it in bigger, more general terms.
MF: Why we police people’s right to live.
HDP: But I think a question that a lot of people do have is, like, okay, so if we take out federal and state prisons and jails, how would we have a system of repercussions for objective wrongdoings?
SRR: To be clear, when we say “prison abolition” we do not mean, like, let’s just open the prison gates and this is just over.
HDP: Because I think that’s a misconception a lot of people have.
SRR: I think, sure, when I first started thinking about prison abolition, I was like huh, it doesn’t make any sense to just close down the prisons. But two years into thinking about this, probably every day, I have a far more holistic understanding of what it means to end the prison-industrial complex, I think there’s something to be said for ending systems of control, like policing, like surveillance, like the prison-industrial complex.
HDP: Have any of you read Spacializing Blackness?
SRR: I read the intro. Did you go to his talk?
HDP: No, it’s on Thursday, but it’s really great at showing how pervasive policing is into every aspect of life. Or prison and systems of imprisonment are in every aspect of life, and not just a literal jail.
SRR: Right! Because when you start looking at it, and once you start thinking about the ways in which we’re all experiencing surveillance and societal control all the time, it’s suddenly everywhere. You see it walking down the street in Providence, you see it in the ways in which we are policed in classes. There are so many different ways in which we are experiencing it… I think even in some of the most radical classes it’s really difficult for everyone to feel comfortable. Like classes that don’t ask for pronouns if folks feel comfortable, classes that don’t respect students’ choice to use different names or those kinds of examples.
MF: I think in general it’s interesting how currently in New York, the incarceration rates have actually decreased but that’s because policing on a ground level has increased. So thinking about all the ways in which the prison-industrial complex, which is a huge system, works to insidiously constantly control people… So you have these neighborhoods that are basically open air prisons, because there’s such a huge amount of police presence.
HDP: Right, so it’s a conflation between incarceration in the prison and incarceration in the home. So what would a transition to a world without prisons look like? Because as you said, it’s not like we’re going to just close every prison and let everyone run free.
SRR: Well ideally, everyone would be free. But it doesn’t make sense for that to happen, like, tomorrow. I think, like, ending the drug war is one really easy way. A lot of people are in there for having an ounce of weed, or less than an ounce. Literally people are incarcerated for having one “J” on them. And they’re incarcerated for 20 years! Which is to me, unfathomable for a humane, liberal society to accept.
MF: I also think we have seen examples of transformative justice in the world. Post- the Rwandan genocide, there were actually community justice courts that were established that promoted reconciliation. So you had folks who actually worked to reestablish trust after committing horrible, atrocious acts of harm against people, like murder, rape — huge acts of violence — and really working to build trust. And that didn’t take a prison to change character.
HDP: So on a college campus, if we were to take away DPS, what would it look like?
MF: Well I think we partly have that. Like, Safe Walk. We already have semi-visionary forms of a world without prisons, even here on campus. I think that could be expanded, and we don’t have to call DPS. We can actually engage with folks and figure out why they’re doing these things.
BD: The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is this organization based out of Oakland, California, and they have started implementing this model called Justice Teams for Truth and Reinvestment in seven to eight counties across California. Basically if someone is impacted by violence, they can call members of these justice teams and they work in a couple different ways, one of which is direct response, so having people from the community be direct responders that people can call when they’re impacted by violence. They have organizers who work for Truth and Reinvestment, so advancing the political mission. They have healers and other practitioners — like social service people as well — to help people go through the healing process after they’ve been impacted by violence, and then they also have legal aid if people, after these encounters, are in a sticky situation and may need legal assistance. I think that there are also other models of community support that, for me, make it really clear that we don’t need to be relying on police forces to provide security or to feel safe.
SRR: I think that the reason the prison-industrial complex exists, in some part, is because everybody wants to feel safe. But when you think about it, I don’t know anybody who feels more safe when a cop looks at them, or anybody who feels more safe with the threat of incarceration hanging over our heads. [The system has] worked for very specific populations. But it definitely has not worked to keep most people safe. I think that once you start rethinking what safety means and what makes you feel safe, then you start to see a lot of alternatives to policing.
MF: And what does it mean for us to still use a model that was based on literally keeping Black people enslaved and indigenous people away from settler colonial encampments?
HDP: I’m also curious about the mental health aspect of a lot of this. Would a world without prisons and police still involve people being “sentenced” or required to mental health care? Or would that world involve us not being able to “force” people to do things? Would it all be self-elected?
SRR: I’m not gonna lie, I don’t have the answer to that. And I think part of that is that one of our most powerful tools is our imagination, and my imagination hasn’t stretched far enough to actually envision a future in which we are fully free of these systems. I can imagine what it would feel like, and I can imagine what interpersonal relationships are like, but I’m still not 100% clear on what the structure is.
MF: And that’s not stopping us. I think of slavery abolition — abolitionists did not know what a world without slavery would look like. But we have it now, and we know what it looks like.
SRR: And I think you said it best — folks can’t know the future, but we can dream of what we hope and what we envision. So I think, like, there were so many people that were living abolition in all these different ways but just didn’t have the words for it, or didn’t know what it would be like, but knew that they would have to strive for something further than this reality.
HDP: As we wrap up, can you give any quick reminders of how we can easily shift our day-to-day lives in order to help stop mass incarceration and the PIC?
MF: Stop calling the police. That’s my first one.
SRR: I would say build networks of safety. Find what makes you feel safe. And I believe that prison abolition for every single prison abolitionist means something different, and I think that that’s a really beautiful thing — that we can hold all these multiplicities of dreams and at the same time be centered around a world in which imprisonment is not the solution to interpersonal and structural problems.
HDP: Are there any classes at Brown you’ve taken or professors or books that’ve helped to shape your views on the subject?
MF: I do recommend Race Gentrification and the Policing of Urban Space. Because it gives an amazing foundation for thinking about a world without prisons.
HDP: What department is that in?
MF: It’s in Public Policy, but I think it’s cross-listed with Ethnic Studies, Urban Studies, and American Studies. Honestly, it’s cross-listed with everything.
SRR: To be blunt, I have never taken a class that has engaged with this kind of future dreaming or prison abolition in a substantive way. I would encourage people who are seriously interested in prison abolition to grab a few friends who might also be interested and sit down and read Are Prisons Obsolete? or sit down and read Captive Genders.
MF: Also Black and Pink Rhode Island has a 101 class on it’s website.
BD: I have two classes I’d recommend. Neither of which was explicitly abolitionist, but one was this American Studies seminar I took last semester called Crimes of Gender and Sex: Producing and Imprisoning Criminals in the Age of Mass Incarceration with Sara Mattheisen who is a post-doc… it was based in understanding an intersectional perspective of mass incarceration. Also in Ethnic Studies I took this seminar called Contemporary Indigenous Education, [where] we talked a lot about power in relation to extractive research, and also how it is that indigenous people are continually invisibilized. It gave me a lot of helpful tools in terms of trying to continually think… and also being critical of my own positionality, not just as a college student, not just someone with educational and financial privilege, but as someone living on colonized land… and how that all plays into how I might be perpetuating the PIC in my daily life.
HDP: Anything else that you want to add?
MF: I think that when you have conversations like this, it can get really serious and intense, but prison abolition is fun. It’s literally envisioning a new world. I think it’s really cool.
HDP: Yeah it’s a positive —
MF: It’s a beautiful thing.
When my recorder turned off, Maya, Bethlehem, Sofia, and I continued to muse about prison abolition. It’s a conversation that never really ends.
“Most people say, like, what do we do with the rapists and murderers?” Sofia shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know.”
For further recommended readings, please see the list below.
Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption by Walidah Imarisha
Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith
Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis (free pdf here!)
Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Wilson Gilmore
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne
Video series by Dean Spade and Reina Gossett, view part II (recommended) here.