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 the final part of a series covering the origin of the group. The author, Sierra Meszaros, writes from her distinct experience as a participant of the group and a student at UChicago.
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.
Sierra Meszaros is in her final year of the MA in Divinity program at the University of Chicago Divinity school. She aims to pursue topics in the Anthropology of Religion as they pertain to American Jewish identity, politics, and narratives vis-á-vis Israel.
Courtesy of Tom Rossiter, photographer.
Abolition is a large and rich topic, and as only one member of the group who participated in the conversations, it would be impossible to identify every important takeaway from our conversations. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the mass protests in their names that soon followed, I was excited by calls to defund the police. I have always found tactics of imprisonment and policing to be incongruous with my own political values, and what I consider to be fair and humane treatment. When I saw that Anne and Matt were building this group, I knew this was the opportunity I needed to dive deeper into abolition as a theory, and political ideology.
Understanding the intricacies of abolition is especially key as we continue to push for the reimagination of our national and global systems of policing and surveillance. Black and Brown communities. Communities which are consistently surveilled through the presence of police have higher rates of arrest and police violence, than those who do not. According to the Pew Center for Research, Black adults are 44% more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped by the police due to their ethnicity. As I continue to reflect on the learnings which Davis, Lloyd, and Dubler impart on us, I have identified the following 3 points from the texts we discusses to be pivotal understandings in the movement for abolition:
In the weeks since we began our discussions, I have spent time deeply thinking about when we lost our imagination, or if we ever had it, and what it would take for us, as a collective, to regain our sense of imagination?
1. The Role of Imagination.
As Matt has already shared in his initial essay, for Angela Davis, abolition begins with imagination: a capacity to see beyond the confines of the modern construct of “justice” and “safety” which we have become accustomed to in the US. Lloyd and Dubler support Davis’ claim by pushing us to see that our current perspective of “justice” does not provide enough depth to understand what is possible when we imbue personhood with a sense of divine nature. For example, consider this in terms of the adage “made in the image and likeness of God”. In the weeks since we began our discussions, I have spent time deeply thinking about when we lost our imagination, or if we ever had it, and what it would take for us, as a collective, to regain our sense of imagination?
One might argue that the prison system began its ideological life as an expression of imagination, but today, its foothold on our worldview has become relentless.
Davis reminds us that the prison system, as we know it, began as a reform. It wasn’t until the 18th century in Europe, and the 19th century in the US that imprisonment became a central mode of punishment. Prior to imprisonment, forms of punishment included banishment, forced labor, transportation (e.g. the colonization of Australia with convicts from England), and appropriation of property (Davis 42). One might argue that the prison system began its ideological life as an expression of imagination, but today, its foothold on our worldview has become relentless. Coupled with the evolution of capitalism, and the American commitment to the protection of a ‘free market,’ our capacity for imagination has become limited, replaced with the constant pursuit of a relatively unattainable notion of financial safety and property ownership.
For the last five years, I have served as a mentor to teens in 8th – 12th grade, and I have found that the further along they get into their high school careers, the further they become disconnected from their creative selves, relegating them to live behind closed doors. They are taught to not ask questions unless they are the right questions, they are bogged down by the stress of applying to colleges, and these days the pressure of living in both the real world and the virtual is overwhelming. Not only do they have no time for creative pursuits or imaginative thinking, but their minds have no room left over.
If imagination is a key factor in thinking beyond reform and beyond the carceral justice system, we must look deeper at where imagination is lost, suppressed, or disregarded.
I am no expert on the human brain, but from what I have observed, we would be remiss to disregard the systematic suppression of our children’s imagination, with our national inability to see beyond the prison system. If imagination is a key factor in thinking beyond reform and beyond the carceral justice system, we must look deeper at where imagination is lost, suppressed, or disregarded. We must fight to get it back, and to educate one another on the material impacts of ideas like culture, ideology, power, violence, and white supremacy. We must band together and imagine a different world, and better system — one that honors and respects the inherent humanity of each of us.
2. Justice is not just about holding accountable those who cause harm, but also about a commitment to restoring communities and those who have been harmed.
In fact, what I think abolition offers us, is a way of centralizing justice around the needs of survivors. This framework for understanding justice requires that we acknowledge when violence or harm is caused by people who are also victims to violence.
Often, when a conversation about abolition begins, the first thing that people ask is “what about the murderers, the rapists, or the Ted Bundy’s of the world?” In part, I believe this reaction comes from the convolution of “safety” and “justice” with the prison and policing system. However, we cannot deny that there will always be some people who seek to intentionally harm or take advantage of people. Abolition does not deny this. Yet, we cannot forget that simply falling back on carceral justice does not mean that communities and people who have experienced harm will benefit or be made whole again because their aggressor is behind bars.
Incarceration doesn’t make our communities safer and it doesn’t keep violence from occurring, but resources that lift people out of oppressive situations and dismantle oppressive systems do.
In fact, what I think abolition offers us, is a way of centralizing justice around the needs of survivors. This framework for understanding justice requires that we acknowledge when violence or harm is caused by people who are also victims to violence. People experience many layers of violence, from physical or emotional abuse to systemic oppression and poverty. With this understanding we may begin to center our understanding of justice as mending systems of inequity and providing resources for people who have experienced violence that they need to not just get by, but to thrive. When we focus on building up these resources over building up our prisons, we may begin to see a transformation in our needs when it comes to keeping our communities truly safe. Dubler and Lloyd encourage us to imagine this world now and widen the depth of our sense of justice. For me, this means flipping the script. Incarceration doesn’t make our communities safer and it doesn’t keep violence from occurring, but resources that lift people out of oppressive situations and dismantle oppressive systems do.
3. Prison is not just limited to the physical space of the prison, but is an ideological framework that impacts our entire way of life.
The prison system criminalizes those people who do not fit within the norms of our society, while our societal systems are structured to ensure their marginalization.
This final major takeaway from our abolition reading group feels like the culmination of the first two points I have shared. Our collective indoctrination to carceral justice indicates a broader commitment to a particular form of organization and punishment that is manifested throughout our lives. Everything from the way we live in stacked or cookie cutter houses and marginalize people who do not have access to this way of living, to the way that we punish our children, or our incessant need to ascribe meaning to things like the gender binary. Ultimately, in the way we value human life for its capacity to access capital. These all aid in the normalization of the prison as the natural way to seek and enact justice.
Thus, we must consider how each of us reproduces systems of inequity in our daily lives. Our relationships with ourselves, others, and our communities continue to maintain larger structures, such as the prison system.
But it doesn’t end here. The prison system criminalizes those people who do not fit within the norms of our society, while our societal systems are structured to ensure their marginalization. For instance, Davis directs us to consider how, following emancipation, the criminal justice system became a conduit for the continued racialization, marginalization, and systemic lynching of Black people (Davis 33-32). Thus, we must consider how each of us reproduces systems of inequity in our daily lives. Our relationships with ourselves, others, and our communities continue to maintain larger structures, such as the prison system. We must allow ourselves to imagine a different world, and a new way of seeking true justice.
I thought it would be impactful to end my statement with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous ‘I Have a Dream Speech,’ but instead I will encourage you to read it through with fresh eyes and an open mind for understanding abolition. I think you will find a new message ringing out, not simply one that calls for unity between white and Black people, but one that calls for more equitable justice, and one that recognizes that we are not satisfied, and we should not be.