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July 2006 -- Recording Carceral Landscapes (US)

Abolishing the Prison Industrial Complex

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Recording Carceral Landscapes is an investigation of the United States' enormous prison system by artist/geographer Trevor Paglen. By inquiring into the financial, social, and cultural elements that compose the Prison Industrial Complex, the project shows some of the invisible ways that mass incarceration has been woven into the fabric of our society.

Rachel Herzing, in conversation with Trevor Paglen (Rachel Herzing organizes with Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to abolishing the Prison Industrial Complex.)

When prison abolitionists say what they mean by abolition, it strikes me that there are two sides of the idea. On one hand, it means ending our reliance on prisons entirely. On the other hand, it's also meant a way to approach social activism. What does "prison industrial complex abolition" mean to you?

I think that we have to be fighting against more than prisons and imprisonment. We have to think about all the different cages that exist. There are physical, real cages where people suffer greatly, and where some people spend lots and lots of time. And there are all sorts of other things that prevent people from having access to necessities. Things like poverty and racism. These might seem more abstract than prisons, but they ensure that some people have power over others. They keep some people heavily policed while others are not. When I'm talking about Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) abolition, I'm talking about trying to dismantle an entire system -- the underlying powers that create prisons and lock people up.

On a practical level, one of the things that Critical Resistance has done is to attack the Prison Industrial Complex from all angles. Some days I think that's a great strategy and on other days I'm overwhelmed by it. One of the ideals that we have is "starving the system to death" -- - of starving it of its resources, its human resources, its money, its access fear-mongering, and its so-called utility.

The way that we like to do that is to simultaneously to try to drain resources form it -- whether that's trying to keep them from building another prison, diverting financial resources from the prisons, getting people out of cages, keeping as many people out as possible, trying to help people have employment and safe places to live so they're off the streets and safe from police harassment, or trying to figure out a way for undocumented people to live safely and securely in this country. There are all of these different pieces.

When we're organizing, the question that we'll always ask of a particular campaign or issue is: "is this thing ultimately going to do help the system live, does it do anything to extend the system's life, extend its scope?" That's the goal or measure that we use; the way that we evaluate whether the 'little steps' we take towards this ultimate goal are helpful to our strategy.

There's always been a tension between reformists and abolitionists. In the 1970s, prison reformers accomplished a great deal, but in the early 1980s, we start to see a massive prison boom. It seems ironic that the efforts to reform the system in the 70s may have set the stage for the system to expand. Abolition seems like a very uncompromising position to take.

Sometime during last year, I started talking about PIC abolition in a slightly different way, because it's been working better to highlight the differences between reform and abolition. The idea behind reform is that the system's broken and that it should be fixed to work in a more just and humane fashion. I don't think that the system is broken. I think that the system works perfectly. I think that the system is an extremely good, strong, accurate tool for doing what it means to do, which I see as killing, disappearing, and alienating certain specific groups of people. And it does that very well, which doesn't mean that other people don't get caught up in its sweep. But, it's really effective at making sure that poor people, and poor people of color in particular, remain removed from access to power, remain removed from access to genuine safety and security. And it does all that very well.

For me, anything that we do to improve the system makes it a better killing and disappearing machine, and doesn't make things better for the people caught up in it. In some ways, this is an absolutist vision. The vision is really about eliminating entire institutions and power relationships, but as a practical strategy it has to be more fluid. We can't really take on the whole system at once. It there were some magic thing that could shift things substantially I think that would be great. But frankly, I don't think that's where we're at. And I don't think we're in a good position to take people home well, even if the floodgates opened wide and everyone was allowed to come home. We don't have employment or stable housing or health care of access to mental health care. We don't have access to the resources to allow people to live healthy lives. For me the practical tools towards getting towards that vision have to be flexible.

In the early 1990s, California passed a "3-strikes-and-you're-out" law. Since then, there have been some efforts to change "3-strikes." How does this sort of thing fit into the abolitionist strategy and ideal?

There was a recent proposition in California to reform 3-strikes, but it didn't pass because Arnold Schwarzenegger went on a last-minute campaign blitz against it. There were a lot of very complicated politics around that proposition. On one hand, it was supposed to reduce 3-strikes sentences, but on the other hand, that only applied to 'non-violent' people. Furthermore, for certain kinds of crimes sentences would have actually increased.

For me, the distinctions that get made between 'violent' and 'non-violent' are a very, very slippery slope. The proposal to reform 3-strikes would have made life better for a large number of people. It might have allowed a lot of people to go home, particularly if they were grandfathered into the law. It might keep people from going in, so it starves the system in that way. But, at the same time, it would also solidify the utility of 3-strikes for a whole class of people.

There are a lot of things that get called "violent offences" that don't make sense -- like being an accessory. You can be sitting in a car and get charged with being an accessory, and that's a violent offence. The other thing is that, people who commit murder, people who commit things that have substantial harm to people and to society, have a context in which those acts were committed. They have a personal, immediate time-context, they have a societal context. There are all kinds of different circumstances that mandatory minimums like 3-strikes can't account for.

The distinction between violent and non-violent is usually a trap to play different categories of prisoners against each other.

I think that a lot of people really don't understand the ins and outs of sentencing until they are the one who's on the line. Then they always think that they're circumstances are exceptional: "well, my kid is really a good kid" or "my husband's a good guy who's in a bad situation." This is not to say that people who commit sexual offenses against other people shouldn't be held accountable for them, because I think they should. I also think that they should get help and psychiatric support, which they certainly won't if they're locked up for an indefinite period of time. Incarceration doesn't solve the problem of people committing sexual violence against each other. Instead, it kills, locks-up, and disappears segments of the population without ever having any kind of resolution to conflicts between people and other people and their property.

It's kind of ironic that a lot of people who were some of the strongest anti-prison advocates in the 1970s really wanted determinate sentences because they thought it would be more fair. Before the 1970s, if you were convicted of something, you'd get an indeterminate sentence -- something like "eight years to life." The idea was that if you "reformed" yourself while in prison, you'd get out sooner, but if you didn't you wouldn't. The problem was that if you were white, you'd probably get out sooner. If you were brown, you'd get out later, if at all. By moving to fixed (determinate) sentences, reformists thought that everyone would be treated more equitably. Determinate sentences didn't end up doing what reformists wanted. It made it much harder for people to argue about context or the merits of cases. Determinate sentencing took a lot of power out of judges' hands and put a lot of power in DAs hands. It definitely skewed power away from defendants. This story is an example of a reform that was good-intentioned, that could have had very good potential side-effects, but ultimately just made everything more durable around sentencing. My point is that when you try to reform the system, you often end up just making it more efficient. I don't think that it's very possible to make fundamental changes to the system if you're operating on the system's terms.

We've been talking about abolition as a political strategy. What about abolition as an ideal? What are we talking about when we're talking about a society without prisons?

At this point, a society without prisons seems unimaginable, even though there were times when there weren't prisons. It wasn't in my lifetime or my parents lifetime or even my grandparents. Prisons have been around for a long time. Not so long that it's inconceivable, but hundreds of years, so no one can remember what that was like before them. But we're certainly not trying to replicate the U.S.A. two hundred years ago. Prison abolition is not as simple as remembering what things looked like before there were prisons.

Our culture of punishment has certain kinds of political, economic, and social inequalities that have to be maintained for punishment to work the way that it does. When I imagine a world without the PIC, it is a world in which people have access to basic kinds of resources. I mean unfettered access -- obviously people have degrees of access to these right now, but people would have much more immediate access to things like housing, a way to take care of their bodies and minds and ways to stay healthy, a way to participate in the economy, depending on what the economy is, and ways to manage and resolve conflict without physically hurting each other or causing irreparable damage to the immediate surroundings. We would need ways of sustaining people without relying on certain kinds of coercion, without relying on getting someone to do what you need them to do by threatening them with death or punishment. Society could be more of a collaborative or collective process. A lot of this sounds impractical because of our economy and society relies on this carrot and stick mentality. I don't think that there's a panacea for this kind of thing. All of these structural inequalities throughout our society have their roots in things that are very deep and very entrenched, so I don't think that its as easy as just getting rid of the prison system.

Obviously, if we don't have a place to lock people in cages, then we have to figure something else out. So I think the two work hand-in-hand. The prison institutions have to fall for us to imagine something different, but at the same time we have to be able to imagine something else so that the institutions can fall. It's a symbiotic relationship between theory and practice.

Some people say that this world without prisons would have to be small, that the industrial complex would have to function at a smaller scale somehow. That it's easier for you to resolve conflicts between you and the guy next door than, say between the U.S. and Canada. I don't know. That doesn't seem right to me for some reason and I'm not sure why. It seems to me that you can apply different theories and practices to different scales -- that it's just a matter of working out the technical details on some level. But I think that taking away a lot of the things that make people act on need, whether that's material needs or access or things like having your voice heard, or whether that's a need to be recognized as a full human being or whatever the case may be. If we can start there as a foundation, we're in a much better position to be able to undo the culture of punishment that we've become so reliant on and which has become so common sense to us. I'm not saying that we should go "back to the land" or that we should all go live on communes or something. There are a lot of things that I like about cities and masses of people and density and people bumping up against each other a lot, which I think is useful and amazing. So I don't think that everyone should just go to their corner and we'll figure it out that way. But I don't know what that world without prisons would look like.

Let's talk about the history of abolition. Where does the idea of prison abolition come from?

The word abolition gets taken from the slavery-abolition movement. I'm not a historian of abolition so I'll just tell you what I know about it. The links between prisoners and slaves are pretty clear: they're people without voices, people without liberty.

It's pretty powerful to remember the historical trajectory from slavery to the present. I think it's powerful because in many ways -- and certainly not all ways -- the slavery abolition movement was successful. Remember that when people first organized around abolishing slavery, it seemed like a crazy idea. Abolishing slavery was almost unthinkable, just like the idea of abolishing prisons seems unthinkable today. It seemed like science-fiction or something.

The first penitentiary was built by Quakers: the Cherry Hill Penitentiary, which still stands today. The idea for the penitentiary was based on Quaker belief systems. The idea was that people who had committed wrongs against someone else needed an austere space to reflect on what they had done. So rather than being involved in daily life, they were removed to talk to God, to reflect, to come to terms with what they had done. Over the years, the Quakers realized that the idea wasn't going to work, and they tried some reforms. But by then the system had been rolling. The Quakers have been prison abolitionists ever since they realized that their idea for the penitentiary wasn't going to work -- and this was over 150 years ago.

Even through they invented the modern prison, the Quakers haven't been able to undo the system. I think that shows how entrenched and powerful the system is. And how useful it is to the people who want to use it.

More recently, we saw the latest push to abolish prisons happen in the 1970s. Groups of people who had been working inside prisons and with prisoners families came to believe that there was really no way to fix the prison system. They wanted to figure out a way to do away with it. During the 1970s, there was a prison abolition movement and at the same time there was also a prison moratorium movement. The abolition movement was working from the future back, and the moratorium movement was pushing to stop building prisons and shrink the system into the future. These groups were working symbiotically, squeezing the system from both sides. Sitting here in the early 21st Century, prison abolition is a very small movement. In some ways Critical Resistance and a few others are really alone in terms of looking at it system-wide. There are other groups that talk about abolishing prisons, but talking about PIC abolition is a much bigger leap for some people for obvious reasons.

But at the same time, I think that we're in a crisis period. It's interesting to look back at the 1970s, when there were a couple of hundred thousand people locked up and people thought "we're at a boiling point, the system can't take any more." Now we're at 2.5 million people, so I think that maybe its optimistic of me to think that we're again at some kind of crisis point. But I do think that people are totally fed up, and that this sense of being fed up goes across class and racial lines. People realize that the system isn't helping our society. Even people who are focused on "law and order" are seeing that there really isn't a correlation between the number of people you lock up and the crime-rates on the outside.

Whenever prison abolition gets brought up, people inevitable ask "what do you do with the murderers, rapists, and pedophiles?" How do you answer that kind of question?

How I answer this question really has to do with the kind of people I'm talking to. One thing that I like to point out is that it's an extremely small percentage of people who are in prison for those kinds of acts -- extremely small. How many mass-murderers, out of everyone in the entire country, are there really in all of history? And, what about all the mass-murderers who never do any time, who run corporations and so forth? Of the 2.2 million people in prison, it's an extremely small percentage.

I like to point out that the people who engage in the acts that we find most heinous are often the people who are the most deeply disturbed. People who've suffered the most and who haven't had support or other outlets to deal with their problems. So if we're talking about emotionally or psychology disturbed people, then locking them in cages doesn't help, it tends to make thing worse. It doesn't restore that person to a place where they would never do that again, where they can understand what compelled them to do it in the first place -- it keeps them in limbo, where they can't get any support and have no liberty.

The other thing that I like to point out is that most of the time, terrible things happen within a pretty limited context. The majority of really violent acts, with the exception of serial killers or people who are really disturbed, happen as crimes of passion or with people who they know. Crimes of passion are highly-specific incidents in highly-specific contexts. That's not to say that it's ok, or change the fact that they may have killed someone, for example. But that kind of person doesn't pose the kind of threat to society that people often play-up.

I'm not sure what to do with people who are currently locked-up. A lot of people who are locked up need mental healthcare, need good mental health care. They need immensely supportive environments where they can engage with the damage they've done and the people they've harmed, if they're someone who's capable of processing something like that. If they're not capable of processing something like that, they may need some other kind of support or supervision that might not have to be locked.

It seems that a lot of people are wary of prison abolition because they think that prisons make us safe. That as long as you keep all the "criminals" locked up, that society is safer. Do you think that prisons make us safer?

The big lie of the Prison Industrial Complex is that cops and prisons make us safe. They're both very reactive systems and reactive systems can't ensure safety and security. For instance, if you call the cops, you're calling them in response to something that's already happened. It doesn't prevent the thing from happening in the first place, and it often makes things worse because people get excited or they run, or get amped up, and something happens.

In a lot of ways, prisons do the same thing. Prisons are reactive. So there's a disconnect in the logic for me. Let's say that someone stole your car a bunch of times and that person gets locked in a cage for a definite or indefinite amount of time. Having that person locked up might temporarily keep them from coming back to my house and taking my car. Or, if they're sent away for life it might prevent them from coming back and stealing my car permanently. It doesn't, however, address whatever the need was for stealing my car in the first place. It also doesn't bring my car back. But it does create a permanent disruption to families and neighborhoods. Not only is a person taken out of a neighborhood or community, but that neighborhood or community accepts the permanent presence of cops, surveillance, and the fact that a lot of people are missing because they're locked up somewhere far away. These kinds of things have a ripple-effect. It's really almost inconceivably huge when you start to think of all the disruptions to all the communities and families across the country.

So you're saying that when we rely on policing and prisons, we're allowing those ripple-effects to spiral out-of-control. The disruption that took place when one person injured another gets replayed over and over as a part of the "solution" to that injury.

We've seen enough studies to show that there's no correlation between incarceration rates and crime rates. That says something about whether or not it's having an effect on public safety. Putting one person in a cage almost never has anything to do with addressing the larger problem that that person was an agent of. If, for instance, somebody is raped walking down the street by someone they don't know, that doesn't guarantee that that person will never get raped again. Putting someone in prison doesn't do anything to change the unequal power dynamics between men and women. It doesn't do anything to encourage other people who might be on the street to intervene in the situation. It doesn't change the fact that a person might have a psychological problem that causes them to act out on another human being.

Abolition seems to be about trying to create a society that has never existed before. It seems really utopian -- you need to be very optimistic to believe that this alternate world is possible. Do you believe in human nature? Do you think that human nature puts any limits on what kinds of societies are possible?

I don't really know what I think about human nature. I think that things are so structurally problematic right now that it's hard for me to see human nature. I think that the way our society is organized right now has nothing to do with human nature. I think that it has to do with the structures we've invented for ourselves, not with human nature.

I am fairly optimistic. I'm pessimistic about a lot of things in life, but I feel very optimistic about people.

I don't know that I think competition is natural. I'm not a social Darwinist. I think that there is an innate drive to survive, but I'm not sure that that's not cooperative rather than competitive. I think that people need a push to feel alienated from each other. I don't think that there's anything natural about it.

I do have some kind of basic faith in people being good to each other. Maybe that's overly-optimistic -- the more pessimistic side of me counters that people need to be cooperative in order to survive. If there were pure competition, if everything was competition, then we'd never be able to survive. I don't think that we'd continue to survive without some basic drives towards cooperation and collaboration.

It's the power structures -- social, economic, racial, and so forth -- that have been put into place, that I don't think are natural.

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