Updated: Nov 19
The following essay chronicles a reading group on prison abolition that took place during the summer of 2020 through the University of Chicago Library. It is part one of a three-part series covering the origin of the group. The author, Matthew Vega, writes from his distinct experience as the creator of this initiative and Library grad fellow.
The group read Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis and Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons by Vincent Lloyd and Joshua Dubler. Throughout their time together, they were joined by students, alums, staff, faculty, and activists.
The aim of this series is not to offer a one size fits all mode for considering the topic of abolition, nor to suggest that the work has ended. The goal is to bring readers into a space where critical academic inquiry and the pursuit of justice meet. Additionally, the group seeks to provide a potential framework for others interested in providing such spaces to their community members.
Matthew Vega is a second year Ph.D. Student in Theology at the Divinity School. He is interested in liberation, internationalism, and Black religious radicalism.
Courtesy of Travis Stansel, photographer.
The reading group on abolition came together in the aftermath of the mass protests that swept the United States (and the world, really) after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. People responded to this tragedy in ways ranging from showing up to demonstrations to posting an all-black square on June 2, what became known on social media as #BlackOutTuesday. Public demonstrations were certain to die down, and many insisted on political education to begin the process of lifelong learning and unlearning. Many educational institutions and representatives publicly pledged to instruct their communities by providing antiracist training. In the wake of these protests, organizers and ordinary citizens were prophesying doom to some of the most entrenched forms of violence in the USA, including prisons.
Many of us who grew up in America’s poor, racially segregated neighborhoods can tell you what unfreedom looks like.
The growing crescendo of “abolition!” catapulted new ideas into the mainstream that were controversial and considered by many to be mere pipe dreams. As a Fellow in the library and student of color , I felt compelled to create a space for students, staff, and community organizers to think through “abolition” alongside some of its theoreticians. The criminal justice system affects everybody, and I’ve tried to communicate this through other initiatives on campus. A few years ago, for example, Anne and I worked together on an exhibit featuring letters from my brother, Chris, a Chicago native and current US inmate. I sought to demonstrate that members of elite institutions like the University of Chicago are not only theoretically invested in freedom, but personally so.
For Davis, abolition begins with the imagination. If we are audacious enough to believe that abolition is not only necessary, but possible, then we can organize and mobilize new waves of people to create the worlds that we imagine for ourselves.
Many of us who grew up in America’s poor, racially segregated neighborhoods can tell you what unfreedom looks like. I was arrested three times before I was a legal adult. The high school I was transferred to was in an old factory building where dress codes and silence were strictly enforced. Before we were allowed to enter the building, we were instructed to take off our shoes, turn them upside down and clap them together before we were checked up and down by a security guard with a metal detector. It’s the same procedure I go through when I visit my brother in prison. At the very least, I thought, students should consider what bases abolitionists are working from to make sense of their broader claims. I pitched the idea to Anne, with a “syllabus” covering goals, ground rules for discussion, and two texts to think through.
I chose Are Prisons Obsolete? because of its timeliness and accessibility. Angela Davis makes a deliberate effort to write for theoreticians and on-the-ground organizers with little formal educational background. Davis argues that “prison reform” is inadequate, and that “reform” is central to the entrenchment of the prison in US Society. She pushes the reader to consider a new paradigm for organizing against prisons: abolition. For Davis, abolition begins with the imagination. If we are audacious enough to believe that abolition is not only necessary, but possible, then we can organize and mobilize new waves of people to create the worlds that we imagine for ourselves.
Courtesy of Amazon
Vincent Lloyd and Joshua Dubler disabuse us of the notion that religion is inherently conservative. They also critique the deeply religious language deployed within the criminal justice system — “law” and “justice” — and take their cue from religious radicalisms that challenged the dominant order before the rise of the prison itself.
I chose Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons for two selfish reasons. The first is really selfish: I read it and wanted a chance to read it again since it was so stirring. The second is less selfish: I’m a Ph.D. student in Theology, so I’m partial to religious radicalisms. Vincent Lloyd and Joshua Dubler disabuse us of the notion that religion is inherently conservative. They also critique the deeply religious language deployed within the criminal justice system — “law” and “justice” — and take their cue from religious radicalisms that challenged the dominant order before the rise of the prison itself.
Courtesy of Amazon.
To witness the global impact of the group impressed upon me the sense that abolition is not just a US movement, but an international one.
Anne and I worked together to finalize a syllabus, organize the schedule, and invite students to participate. The most impactful part of the reading group was witnessing everyone’s interest and why it mattered to them. We were able to bring in professors, activists, and students across disciplinary boundaries who were excited to join and eager to implement the work within their own contexts. For example, Anne and I received an email from a participant who returned home to the UK and said they were excited to implement what they’ve learned in their home. To witness the global impact of the group impressed upon me the sense that abolition is not just a US movement, but an international one.