A Call for the Abolition of Prisons
by Tiyo Attallah Salah El
From Prisons and Punishment: Reconsidering Global Penalty edited by Mechthild Nagel and Seth N. Asumah, Africa World Press, 2006.
Another version of this chapter has been published in The New Abolitionists: (Neo) Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings, SUNY Press, 2005; and The Autobiography of Tiyo Attallah Salah-El.
When contacting Tiyo, do not mention the books or the article!
Tiyo Attallah Salah-El
1000 Follies Road
Dallas, PA 18612
A CALL FOR THE ABOLITION OF PRISONS
Tiyo Attallah Salah El
In the history of philosophy, there is perhaps no more powerful image than the "cave" described by Socrates in Plato's Republic. This deep, dark, hole, we are told, is inhabited by "prisoners" bound in such a way that all they can see is the play of shadows on an interior wall, fleeting shapes that they mistake for reality. For above these hapless souls, outside their underground dwelling, is the dazzling light of the sun-a sight reached only after an arduous journey upward.
For over a quarter of a century, I have been making that arduous journey, striving and struggling to reach that dazzling light of freedom and justice, not just for myself but also for the other two million women and men presently housed in that cave. During that journey, I gained new insight regarding the pain of prisons and the devastation and brutalization of people by capitalism and imperialism. From that painful experience, I have become an abolitionist of the present prisons system.
I may never be able to fully describe the complex dynamic process of how to organize and bring about the abolition of prisons. However, it is my hope that the views and information presented here will help others to further develop there own reasons why they would be willing to undertake the struggle to help abolish prisons. The strength of my vision depended in great measure on what I learned about prison during the twenty-five years of my incarceration and how much I am willing to continue learning. This type of learning requires a lifelong commitment to continual inquiry and knowledge in order to arrive at new levels of understanding and insight.
To sustain my commitment, I think it is important to develop my own personal vision of the abolition of prisons to guide me in my efforts of the value of charting such an unusual course in my life. I have learned that there are many different ways of looking at my current situation. I continue to learn as I live within the rotten, corrupt core of the criminal justice system. This prison has been a teacher for me. It reflects my own mind. Nevertheless, the prison has not changed. It is my mind that has changed.
When one's mind changes, new possibilities begin to arise. This can be a profoundly liberating experience. It has taken me beyond my limited preoccupations with myself. It has certainly changed the way I relate to prisons and the criminal justice system. If we have to be mindful of the ruts our thinking gets us into, then we have to learn to see and approach things differently.
Facing our problems is usually the only way to get past them. There is an art to facing difficulties in ways that lead to effective solutions. We can, by exercising imagination, intuition and creativity in our own work, use the pressure of the problems themselves to propel us through it. It is incumbent upon us to find new ways to break into the cycle of violence, which characterizes so much of the present corrections and criminal justice system in this country.
The least controversial observation that one can make about the American criminal justice today is that it is remarkably ineffective, absurdly expensive, grossly inhumane and riddled with ruthlessness and racism. In my view and views of a growing number of people, it seems clear that the hypotheses that prisons are institutions for control of people of color is a far more viable one than the notion that prisons are an effort to prevent crime. All serious analyses of the history of incarceration reveal the same historical thrust: prisons and other systems of punishment are for social control, not crime control.
The criminal justice system is a huge, multibillion dollar industry, and also very subversive of democratic principles. The establishment has built itself up fantastically over the last decade. And its repressive power has mostly been concentrated on the black community. The system is a very expensive, unaccountable bureaucracy. There is no more unaccountable system than a correction system. The corporate media usually frames the debate over the criminal justice system and that arcane realm of the government contract think tanks, where civilians answerable to no elected official formulate policies and concoct plans that reek havoc on the poor and minorities, especially on black women and men.
Certainly crime has become the most racially divisive issue for American society today. There has been a turning away of looking at the social factors and social issues that create crime. Most people do not want to talk about things like adequate income, employment and anti-poverty programs; all of these are now passé. For that matter, the people are left with the idea that criminals must somehow be simply wicked persons, quite unlike them and if they can genetically define these criminals, it is will make life easier for the 'free' society. It is an easy way out. Then one does not have to feel any guilty for what goes on in one's society. The general public wants their pound of flesh. Does the dominant culture wants to prove a point with blacks, and are the politicians going to do it with the criminal justice system?
Race is the big, ugly secret that lies at the heart of U.S. crime policy. The criminal justice system is a system run on sound bites and throwaway lines. The system is not interested in anything that would lower the crime rate, much less in anything decent or human that is going to advance society. It is just a terribly corrupt system. And of course, when one is talking about crime and criminals, it is very, very easy to fall into the acts of demonizing and stereotyping. Not only will most people accept it, one can build a political career around it.
There is a need to unwind; there is a need to find options, a lot of options, especially for the lesser offenders who have drug problems but who are now being sent to prison. There is a need to decarcerate. We must go further than merely condemning prisoners and building more prisons. We have to point the direction in which the solution lies. We must focus upon alternatives to prisons, and whether what we demand or propose will really eliminate crimes. We have to create and offer a well thought out program for accomplishing the change and propose a specific form of alternative with which to replace the present system. These are critical questions that demand workable and acceptable solutions. For example, how would society function if it abolished prisons? What can be done with the dangerous few? Who would benefit? Who would be in charge of the new system?
This is why abolitionists must be clear about our tactics, and above all, armed with a workable program that will enable us to reach our goal. We cannot ignore the lessons that history has already taught us. We must create and project a powerful program for reaching our revolutionary goal of abolishing prisons. I strongly suggest we begin a new way of thinking about abolition.
The problems caused by prisons, crime and the criminal justice system suggest that we may need to take a broader view of certain problems if we hope to solve them. This approach involves asking ourselves what the extent of the problem actually is and discerning the relationship between the various isolated parts of the problem and the problem as a whole. If we do not identify the system correctly in its entirety, we will never be able to come to a satisfactory solution of the problem because a key domain will always be missing, the domain of the whole.
Such experiences can lead to feelings of frustrations, inadequacy and insecurity. When self-confidence becomes eroded, it just makes it harder to solve any other problems that come along. Our doubts about our own abilities to solve the prison problem become self-fulfilling prophecies. They can come to dominate our lives. In these ways, we effectively make our own limits by our own thoughts processes. Then, too often, we forget that we have created these boundaries ourselves. Consequently, we get stuck and feel we cannot get beyond them. Therefore, when someone comes forth with the idea of abolishing prisons, most people react and respond with all sorts of self-imposed boundaries. Some will even turn a deaf ear to the words calling for the abolition of prisons.
I took on the challenge and the risks of facing the full attack from the criminal justice system when I came out as an abolitionist. I lost all my privileges and had many of my possessions destroyed by angry guards. I surprised others and myself with my newfound courage and clarity. I refused to be a slave of the system, I refused to work for the system to continue to function smoothly. In the process, I discovered my limits receding, and I found myself capable of doing things that I never thought I can do. The point is that we do not always know what our true limits are.
Prison abolition, like the abolition of slavery, is a long range goal. Abolition is not simply a moment in time, but a protracted process. Prison abolitionism should not now be considered a pipe dream but an abolitionist approach demands a solid critical analysis of crime that is juxtaposed with social structures, plus anti-crime strategies that focus on the provision of social resources. We must educate the public that prisons need to be abolished as the sole way of attempting to resolve social problems that are better solved by other more human ways and means. Prison abolition is itself a deeper and broader critique of society.
Abolition and revolution are not new. History is replete with stories of the struggle of people on the bottom of the social ladder banding together and organizing to bring radical change for the better in their lives and the lives of future generations. Some struggle succeeded, some failed and others are ongoing. I do not know how long it will take to abolish prisons. That is akin to asking me how much air is in the universe. Therein is the real challenge—our search for answers must be incessant.
Shouldn't we ask ourselves how we can build new systems from below? How can we create a new common language to define injustice and to imagine a society without prisons? What is being done to create the new from within the old? Does such a movement have a chance of surviving and creating change? Survival and victory depend on coordinated action. We must learn how to cooperate quickly and effectively so as to intensify, broaden and deepen our struggles. We need stronger networks of communication and support. We must develop a process of dialogue and organization unprecedented in the history of America.
Let us strive to give hope to many that a new kind of thinking about the abolition of prisons is in the making, one capable of inspiring people to come together, speaking to each other about abolition and revolution. We must strengthen the hope and dreams of freedom, abolition and revolution.
Subcommandante Marcos writes: Here we are, the dead of all time, dying once again, only now with the object of living. You have to get out of your self to save yourselves. What we seek, what we need and want is that all those people without a party and organization make agreements about what they want and do not want and become organized in order to achieve it (preferably through civil and peaceful means), not to take power, but to exercise it.
Below are some suggestions for beginning the abolition process:
1. Accepting the fact that no one person or organization can keep up even in a cursory manner with all the aspects of struggle, sharing that work through political organizations is necessary, as is developing supportive and cooporative relations among many organizations. Therefore, we should consider supporting, listening, learning and exchanging knowledge (not just "information") with anti-death penalty organizations in their efforts to first bring about a moratorium of the death penalty and the eventual abolition of the death penalty. When such a goal is achieved, we can build upon that success by inviting them to take the next revolutionary step and buttress our struggle to work toward abolishing prisons. We would then have a much broader base of well seasoned activists, supporters, networks, knowledge, communications, information and funding.
2. It would not be productive to set out with the idea to tear down prisons, but to promote and transform the present prisons into Healing and Caring Centers. The infrastructure is already in place for all the basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, medications, transportation and recreation. Re-training of prison staff toward becoming in-house teachers, paid at the same pay scale as they are presently being paid. Such a tragedy will help placate the various guard unions and other misguided pro-prison advocates.
Present day prisons could eventually become Healing and Caring Centers for the homeless, shelters for abused and battered women and children, meaningful an productive drug and alcohol treatment centers, meaningful education and vocation programs for families living in abject poverty. Bring new leadership roles into prisons to work along with most treatment personnel.
3. To the best of my knowledge, there has been little if any mention, much less, serious discussion among abolitionists about what to do with the dangerous few. I think we can all agree that for the over all well being and safety of society at large, detention is and may always be required for the small group of people who cause harm to others. This question must first be acknowledged, studied, discussed and revolved by not only abolitionists, but also among broad-based groups of doctors, judges, community organizations, corrections personnel, psychologists, legislators and others on the local, state and federal levels. The general public should and must be invited to take part in these open discussions. This issue will test the resolve of not just abolitionists, but of all involved. Now is the time to begin thinking and planning tactics and strategies regarding this important and sensitive issue. Creating a new way of "Thinking About Prisons" requires the best efforts, ideas and experiences, and honest, careful, sharp, and critical reflection from all those who are willing to take on this daring and daunting task. We could and must construct the groundwork for future generations to build a world that is safe and just. We could and must construct the groundwork for future generations to build a world that is safe and just. Let us begin working at the edges of what is possible. Let us strive toward a new possibility. Let us fight with the weapon of intelligence. I invite you to join us.
Note: To learn about the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons (CAP), see http://noprisons.org. I am deeply indebted to Monty Neill and the Midnight Collective for sending me the great book, Auroras of the Zapatistas, Autonomedia Press, Brooklyn, NY, USA.