avatar
Notebook of a Prison Abolitionist


In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass recalls how as a slave he would occasionally hear of the “abolitionists.” He did not know the full meaning of the word at first, but he heard it used in ways that he found appealing. He heard about it when a slave ran away or killed his master. He heard about it when a barn was set on fire or a slave committed an act his master thought wrong. For Douglass, these utterances and reports were “spoken of as the fruit of abolition.” He adds, “Hearing the word in this connection very often, I set about learning what it meant.”


 


These many years later I find anti-slavery abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Maria Stewart an inspiration to my own work as a prison abolitionist. In many ways, I also see my work as a continuation of theirs. In reaching the point of declaring myself an abolitionist, I have compiled some rudimentary notes along the way. Here I offer some of them for your consideration:


 


Note 1: Recognizing the Master’s House


 


In the United States, it is readily apparent that many forms of oppression coalesce around what some have called the prison industrial complex, that vast and ever expanding network of private and state institutions aiming to punish, control, and repress millions of persons. In particular, it is worth highlighting that the prison industrial complex is central to maintaining and perpetuating white supremacy.


 


The modern punishment system has become a dominant mechanism of inequality and the primary force of violence in the lives of millions of black people. Under present conditions, more than twenty eight percent of black men are destined to spend part of their life in prison. Of the more than two million imprisoned in the U.S. in 2002, roughly 44% were black, 35% were white, and 18% were Latino.


 


One way to understand this disparity is by tracing how racial groups are affected at different points in the system. Black youth, for example, were 15% of the youth population in Illinois in 1999. However, in Illinois that year, black youth were 50% of the youth arrested, 55.2% of the youth in detention, and 85.5% of the youth sent directly to adult court.


 


For drug crimes in Illinois, black youth were 59% of the youth arrested and 88% of the youth sentenced to prison. This contrasts sharply with national statistics suggesting that white youth in Illinois would likely use and sell drugs at the same or a higher rate than black youth.


 


These disparities indicate that the disproportionate number of black prisoners doesn’t result from a disproportionate number of black offenses. Rather, institutionalized racism leads to disproportionate imprisonment.


 


Note 2: Knowing the Master’s History


 


If one looks at prisons historically, one realizes that they descend directly from slavery. The 13th amendment outlawed slavery everywhere except in prison. In the years that followed slavery, black people became imprisoned for the first time in large numbers. Former slaves were leased to former slave masters. State laws explicitly targeted blacks. Thus, not only did slavery have an entrenched legacy, slavery itself stayed alive and well.


 


Over time the imprisonment of blacks became a ritualistic occurrence for the religion of white supremacy. Cast as criminals in the media, exorcized as demons from society, and sacrificed as scapegoats by the state, black people have come bound before the alter of white supremacy. So it is that this barbaric religion has survived until today, its feverish and fanatic ways dominating the better impulses of society.


 


Note 3: Visiting the Slave Quarters


 


In visiting prisoners and speaking with their family members, I have gained a more intimate sense of how the prison industrial complex is experienced. I see how it tears families apart. I see how it separates and isolates and separates, punishes and controls, tortures and kills. I see how it destroys lives.


 


For prisoners and their families, the crisis is large in scale and severe in form. In 1999, the percentage of state and federal prisoners with children was 56%. As a result, 1,498,800 children had a parent in a state or federal prison. While less than 1% of white children had parents in these prisons, 7% of black children and 2.6% of Latino children faced this fate.


 


Beyond the pain of separation from family and friends is the suffering inflicted within prisons. Representing some of the worst conditions found in prisons are control units which impose conditions of solitary confinement upon prisoners. In these prisons within prisons, prisoners are locked by themselves in their cells 23 to 24 hours a day.


 


The only human contact occurs when prisoners are shackled or brutalized by guards. The result is psychological devastation in the form of severe agitation, confusion, and hallucination. Moreover, the likelihood of violent and suicidal behavior increases dramatically.


 


Who suffers in these prisons within prisons? Again the prisoners are often disproportionately black. In Massachusetts, for example, blacks comprise 5.4% of the state’s population, but according to 1998 statistics, black men made up 29% of the general prison population of Massachusetts and 50% of those imprisoned in control units.


 


While the toll taken by prisons is incomprehensible in scope and magnitude, the courage to resist can also be seen. It can be seen when prisoners go on hunger strikes. It can be seen when family members come together and say enough is enough. It can be seen when they paint signs and posters of protest. It can be seen when they gather with friends outside prison gates and statehouse steps.


 


Note 4: Discovering the Fruits of Abolition


 


Despite recognizing the Master’s house, knowing his history, and realizing the devastation experienced by prisoners and their family members, many would rather persist in treating prisons as institutions to be reformed, not abolished. These institutions born and operated under the auspices of white supremacy can somehow be redeemed and cleansed. The sense is that they must be, because otherwise we have no way of dealing with crime.


 


This fallacy is so well entrenched that it almost seems a statement of simple fact. Yet, this is not the case. Alternatives exist. In the Yukon of Canada, an alternative response known as the circle model has been put in place among the aboriginal people of that territory who have long experienced their own variant of white supremacy.


 


Circles provide a consensus building process by which the people involved in an incident of harm come together to discuss what happened, how they can repair the harm done to the extent possible, and how they can prevent future harm from occurring. Generally, prison sentences do not result from the process. At their best, circles bring about responses to crime that reflect principles the exact opposite of those found in the court process.


 


Rather than allowing a state to dictate the process, circles allow for self-determination. Rather making deliberation over a crime a matter between professionals, circles emphasis the participation of everyone affected. Rather than leaving those harmed isolated and abandoned, circles foster recovery and reconnection to others. Rather than seeking retribution, circles facilitate forgiveness.


 


The circle model has been used in crimes as serious as manslaughter, and the far reaching institutional changes have born significant results. Although it has not been officially documented, the prison population in the Yukon has been notably reduced while also lowering the rate of recidivism and crime.


 


Note 5: Envisioning Justice and Freedom


 


One might still harbor doubt and fear of alternative practices even after they have been explained and explored. Murder and other crimes strike deep nerves. I personally do not doubt that a very small percentage of people in our society do at times need to be placed in facilities both for the safety of others and their own safety.


 


However, if such facilities acted according to guidelines ensuring fairness, equality, and humane treatment, they would be nothing like prisons. They would be their opposite. Enshrined in the inherent character of prisons are inequality, dehumanization, and violence. Rather than ensuring safety, prisons ensure its disregard.


 


Because we live in the Master’s house, practical applications of safe facilities do not exist in substantial form. Just alternatives that protect and promote freedom must first exist in our visions. If we are allow ourselves to be guided by the principles of social justice, community self-determination, and personal transformation rather than the violence, racism, and retribution that characterize the Master’s house, the house will eventually collapse and a better world will arise.


 


Note 6: I am an Abolitionist


 


Why am I an abolitionist? I am an abolitionist because I believe in justice and freedom. I am an abolitionist because of the care and concern I feel for others. I am an abolitionist because I want white supremacy and other forms of oppression to come to an end. I am an abolitionist because I find a great hope in the abolitionists that have gone before me. This is why I am an abolitionist.


 


Brooks Berndt is a student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a comment