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Interview with the Global Prison Abolitionist Coalition

Lefteast 1: Can you tell us a bit about the Global Prison Abolitionist Coalition? What are its basic demands? How did it form and how does it relate to previously existing organizations?

In May 2020, the Global Prison Abolitionist Coalition emerged from dialogues between organizations such as the Alliance of Middle Eastern and North African Socialists, the Lausan Collective (Hong Kong and diaspora), the Emergency Committee for Rojava, various Brazilian socialist and  anti-racist organizations, Socialist Workers Alliance of Guyana  Abolitionist Collective of Canada/U.S., Black and Pink, along with  various Egyptian, Indian, Kashmiri, Kurdish, Turkish, Palestinian, and U.S. socialist activist-scholars.  Prominent abolitionist scholar/activists among them are Dr. Romarilyn Ralston and Dr. Joy James.

The formation of this coalition was compelled by the need to connect the struggles of political and social prisoners around the world.  The COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of imminent death faced by prisoners hastened this effort. This coalition actively draws connections between national and international struggles and between political prisoners and social prisoners, who are mostly working-class victims of poverty, racism, marginalization and neglect. Our position regarding prison abolition is informed by the need for an alternative to capitalism because capitalism is carceral and authoritarian whether in its neoliberal or statist forms.

Our basic aims are the following:  1. Immediate release of prisoners based on restorative and transformative justice practices. 2. Advocating safe housing, health care, necessities and documentation for all including migrants and refugees.  3.  Publicizing the cases of political and social prisoners including the forcibly disappeared.  4. Opposing execution and torture including police brutality/murder.  5 Opposing the exploitation of prisoners as laborers.  6. Promoting debate on an alternative society free of alienated labor and the logic of capital.  7.  Imagining and working toward a world without prisons and other forms of captivity.  

This coalition is both a form of political practice and  of knowledge-sharing that seeks to magnify existing regional struggles and support their self-organization as we foster global networks. 

LE2: Your statement mentions transformative and restorative justice as alternatives to incarceration. Can you expand on these concepts? Can you explain the main differences between prison “reform” and prison abolition?

Restorative Justice is not social Justice or Transformative Justice.  Restorative Justice oftentimes is willing to work within the context of criminal justice and has connections to the courts, collaborates with district attorneys, diversion programs, law enforcement and prisons, etc. RJ means well by offering programs or practices that lead to reconciliation between the parties harmed and the harmer which is good but does not transform the underlying systems of oppression (i.e., structural racism, patriarchy, sexism, etc.), the very systems that need to be abolished.  In this sense, Restorative Justice practices can lead back to punishment and an oppressive punitive system.  Furthermore, Transformative Justice takes a deeper dive through a broader political lens and is thoughtful about making sure that patterns of structural racism, sexism, patriarchy, etc., do not continue.  Transformative Justice does not want to restore things back to a current system of punishment and violence but transforms it where healing and wellness can thrive.

In the same ways, prison reform and prison abolition differ.  Prison abolitionist work toward dismantling the oppressive systems that uphold prisons (i.e., poverty, racism, sexism, etc.) and prison reform seeks to improve prison conditions, which in turn supports punishment and the huge fiscal budgets tied to them.  This is where the rubber meets the road for many people.  Prison Reform can lead to the creation of another system or condition within the Prison Industrial Complex that will need to be dismantled/abolished.  Whereas, Prison Abolition is careful not to build or support any reforms that do not directly lead to closing prisons and the healing broken communities. 

Transformative Justice  (TJ) is a political framework and approach for responding to violence, harm and abuse. At its most basic, it seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence and/or engaging in harm reduction to lessen the violence. TJ can be thought of as a way of “making things right,” getting in “right relation,” or creating justice together. Transformative justice responses and interventions 1) do not rely on the state (e.g. police, prisons, the criminal legal system, I.C.E., foster care system (though some TJ responses do rely on or incorporate social services like counselling);  2) do not reinforce or perpetuate violence such as oppressive norms or vigilantism; and most importantly, 3) actively cultivate the things we know prevent violence such as healing, accountability, resilience, and safety for all involved. 

Perhaps an important distinction lies in how we choose to allocate resources and solve problems as a community. With prison reform, the state maintains a stranglehold on financial resources, people’s time and efforts to develop policing institutions such as the police force and prison systems. We don’t want more comfortable prisons or a well-behaved police force but seek to radically transform the fundamental structure of these systems. With prison abolition, the drive is to create an alternative in how we establish our social bonds, that is to re-humanize individuals from a system that continuously alienates us from each other. When decisions and problem-solving become community-based as opposed to state-controlled, we can place emphasis on ensuring the even-distribution of resources. 

LE3: What are the specific concerns of prison abolitionists in Western Europe, where prison systems are allegedly run on the premise of “social re-integration”, and in Eastern Europe, where Roma and other racialized minorities face heavy discrimination and consequently, disproportionately high rates of incarceration.

Due to the quick transition from state capitalism to neoliberalism in Eastern Europe and the emergence of a very wealthy class and the marginalization of a large section of the population, Eastern Europe has very high rates of incarceration. Roma and other radicalized populations, who are pushed to the margins of society where they face discrimination and poverty simultaneously are disproportionately imprisoned. Although Western Europe has lower rates of incarceration than Eastern Europe, and although the prison system is different from the US prison industrial complex, the legal system continues to operate on the basis of social inequalities and power (im)balances. The composition of the prison population in Western Europe is often impacted by its colonial past. It’s also shaped by Europe’s present migratory policies and the way non-white populations are racialized. Hence similar to Eastern Europe and the US, in Western Europe it is predominantly migrants, black people, historically oppressed identities, and, of course, the poor, who are pushed to the margins of the education system and who are punished for violating the ‘rules of the game’. For example, North Africans are over-represented in French prisons. Overseas/colonial French territories (Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe) have almost twice the incarceration rates of metropolitan France.  Therefore, prison abolitionism should not be perceived in a narrow framework of improving the conditions in prisons or getting rid of them altogether. Getting rid of prisons should be understood in the broader framework of structural inequalities, inherent to a global capitalist system that operates on racism, and therefore as one front of the anti-capitalist, anti-racist struggle.

LE4: How does the abolition movement relate to the increasing criminalization of migration and the convergence in conditions between the detention of migrants and criminal incarceration?

As the global capitalist crisis intensifies,  nation-states are increasingly militarizing their borders and their migration surveillance systems. The European Union is increasingly spending its financial and diplomatic assets on keeping refugees away from its borders and is even expanding its strategic border zones beyond the Mediterranean sea and into the horn of Africa (Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia for example) and giving financial aid to counter-revolutionary military regimes (Turkey and Iran also) to prevent refugees of war, dictatorship, poverty and climate change from leaving these countries and heading towards Europe. Attacking the right to movement of already struggling peoples and confining them to unsafe and toxic spaces is one of the key characteristics of carceral capitalism. One of the main abolitionist traditions established by figures like Harriet Tubman was the Underground Railroads that freed African slaves in the U.S. South and brought them to safe spaces in the North. Such strategies of early abolitionism has taught us that abolition, safety and free movement are all part of the the same vision of emancipation. Today similar underground refugee solidarity networks exist in Greece, Eastern Europe and border regions in the U.S.  However to help these networks,  it is important for all current social movements to include the demand for defunding and abolition of prison systems, detentions centers, concentration camps and all other forms of incarceration.

LE5: Recent protests against corruption in Eastern Europe have featured demands for the incarceration for thieving politicians; in the region and elsewhere too, feminists have targeted lenient sentencing for rape and violence against women. How does your movement approach such demands, which seek to stigmatize and even dismantle oppressive structures through criminal justice?

This is a very important and urgent question which needs to be discussed by involving such groups. We are aware for example, that several people in Argentina refrained from signing the statement exactly because of the reasons you state. The same is true for many feminist groups. Even in northern and eastern Syria where we know they support abolition and experiment with different models of justice, they are reluctant on how to proceed when the question is the ISIS prisoners who have committed crimes against humanity.

We believe that the way to achieve justice is through transformative justice  focused on healing and making things right without relying on state structures. The carceral system is based on perpetuating violence and legitimizes state power whereas we see the state, its fetishization and its violence as part of the problem.  Everywhere in the world the state is a racist, patriarchal structure.  Crimes against women, state terror or corruption are systematic problems that cannot be overcome by putting individuals in prison. This could not be more obvious especially now in the current uprisings taking place in the US. Justice cannot be achieved by putting several policemen in prison. The police force  must be defunded and abolished and the money should be instead invested in communities. We have to empower communities so that they can rule themselves, provide their own safety and well-being and defend themselves against capitalism and the state. We have to empower women so they can defend themselves against patriarchy.  Arguing that the function of defense and justice should be  given to the state on the basis that otherwise humans would live in a perpetual war,  has been one of the greatest lies on which modern politics rests. People’s first instinct is solidarity because solidarity makes you live.

The responses were given by members of the Global Prison Abolitionist Coalition’s coordinating committee which also includes some members of the Alliance of MENA Socialists. In May 2020, the Global Prison Abolitionist Coalition emerged from dialogues between different organizations compelled by the need to connect the struggles of political and social prisoners around the world.  The COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of imminent death faced by prisoners hastened this effort.  Global Prison Abolitionist Coalition actively draws connections between national and international struggles and between political prisoners and social prisoners.