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 two of a three-part series covering the origin of the group. The author, Anne Knafl, writes from her distinct experience as a librarian, activist, and mentor.
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.
Anne K. Knafl is Bibliographer for Religion, Philosophy, and Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago Library. She manages the Library's collections in these areas, including purchasing books, journals and online resources, and provides research support to faculty, students and staff.
Courtesy of Travis Stansel, photographer.
I was apprehensive when Matt first suggested a reading group on prison abolition. I agreed that the time we exist in demands engaging the abolition movement. I had supported the CareNotCops campaign to defund the University of Chicago Police Department and I had started following abolitionists on social media (for example, Mariame Kaba @prisonculture on Twitter). I wanted to do the work of educating myself more about the movement. But I didn’t know how I would find time to read the books. I’ve been working at home with my spouse and our two children since mid-March. Anxiety and depression hit us all hard in the first months. We were having trouble eating and sleeping. We were experiencing panic attacks. It took time, but we came up with a daily schedule that allowed us to manage our mental health.
We didn’t want the group to be about debating the merits of prison abolition, but to explore its history, relevance, and importance at a unique moment in history: a global pandemic and global uprising against police violence. We wanted the group to be about building a community to engage these ideas in good faith and to reflect on how we might put these ideas into action.
My first thought when Matt brought up a reading group was, "if I do this everything is going to fall apart again." Looking back, I’m so thankful that Matt suggested the group because not only did I discover that I had time to read the books but the whole experience helped me to recontexualize what it means to be in a community and show up for that community.
Matt and I decided to let concerns about anxiety inform how we designed the group since we agreed that all of our participants would be dealing with their own stressors. For instance, we wanted as few barriers to participation as possible, which meant that we didn’t want to require participants to purchase anything, feel obligated to complete all the readings, or attend all the meetings.
We didn’t want the group to be about debating the merits of prison abolition, but to explore its history, relevance, and importance at a unique moment in history: a global pandemic and global uprising against police violence. We wanted the group to be about building a community to engage these ideas in good faith and to reflect on how we might put these ideas into action. Approaching the group in this way helped me manage my own anxieties and to think through the complexities of organizing and communicating in a virtual environment during a collective trauma. In order to foster open and supportive discussions, Matt and I created a “syllabus” that could serve as a community agreement. In our first meeting, we discussed and agreed upon the guidelines and ground rules. This was an important step to creating a community out of a disparate and physically separated group of people.
We felt it was crucial to actively name the stress, trauma, and violence that we are experiencing and witnessing.
Matt and I decided to start every session acknowledging that we are all living through a global pandemic and uprising against policing. We felt it was crucial to actively name the stress, trauma, and violence that we are experiencing and witnessing. I have carried over this practice into my teaching and outreach during the Autumn quarter. I can help students and faculty in much the same ways I always have but I don’t want to pretend things are “normal.” I don’t think they do either. It’s ok to want to pursue a degree, work on your research, and be excited to teach right now. But it’s also okay to be unmotivated, distracted, depressed, anxious, angry, or to focus your energies outside academia. And of course all these things will affect our ability to navigate the world.
These texts taught me that abolition is a choice you make about how to be in the world. For me, this has meant reexamining the educational spaces that I inhabit.
Organizing the group impacted my advocacy efforts in a very practical way. Reading the texts and participating in the discussions provided a foundation to be a better informed participant in the abolitionist movement. Angela Davis succinctly lays out the scope and cruelty of the prison industrial complex. But she reminds us that this means that we are all surrounded with opportunities to practice abolition: “...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.” (Are Prisons Obsolete?,107) These texts taught me that abolition is a choice you make about how to be in the world. For me, this has meant reexamining the educational spaces that I inhabit. As Vincent Lloyd and Joshua Dubler state, “One day, not too long from now, there will be no more prisons. We assert these things to be true with the knowledge that these emergent truths are by no means foreordained, and that, therefore, it is our sacred civic duty to help make them true” (Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons, 15).
We hope that these resources will help others to build communities committed to practicing abolition.
Our discussions began with the readings but we always ended by talking about how to put these ideas into tangible action. Both books end with calls to action and with lists of resources from abolitionist communities. We acknowledge that reading, discussing, and building community are all actions and activism. I created an open online folder where group participants could access all the readings electronically, share their reflections on the readings, and contribute to a list of related resources. I built a web page on the Library website that would be accessible to the entire UChicago community and the public, “Prison Abolition Reading Group.” It includes the list of resources related to prison abolition that was compiled by the group, the Plan and Guidelines that Matt and I created, and a video I created for the #ScholarStrike for Racial Justice. We hope that these resources will help others to build communities committed to practicing abolition.