Three Southern organizations making their communities safer and more sustainable—without prisons.
How does a society go from 7,147 jails, prisons, and detention facilities nationwide down to zero? Well, it’s not by scrolling and wishing.
The fight for prison abolition is being won by local people and organizations who are weaving together the frayed fibers of community care. We’re taking abolitionist cues from platforms that emphasize affordable housing, better access to food, and empowerment programs that equip people with practical skills instead of punitive measures that harm the most vulnerable among us.
Here are three Southern organizations making their communities safer and more sustainable—without prisons.
1. House Your Neighbors, Close Your Jails, Starve The Beast
Women on the Rise, Atlanta, Georgia
Before the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, brought national attention to abolitionist movements, Women on the Rise were already organizing to turn Atlanta’s city jail into a wellness center for equity.
Founded and run by formerly incarcerated women, Women on the Rise has been instrumental in continued efforts to close the jail which the city constructed just before the 1996 Olympics as an efficient means of warehousing those within the city experiencing homeless. It’s a task the jail is still being used for.
“That jail is being used to cage our people, the people who are considered to be marginalized and less than human. We all fight for the same thing and aspects of the same call,” said Denise Rubens, a community organizer for Women on the Rise and who spoke at Scalawag’s Realizing Abolition event.
“We believe that no one should be arrested or harassed by the police or locked [up] in any case simply because they are poor, or weren’t born in this country, or suffer from mental health and substance abuse needs. So we came together and we strategized for specific goals for our community. And we got a closing day for the jail.”
Despite winning a closing date for the jail back in May of 2019 and proposing a plan for the repurposing of the facility, Atlanta’s jail is still being used to criminalize those experiencing poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse. Women on the Rise are back at work conducting public awareness campaigns and working with city officials to shut the jail’s doors once and for all.
Women on the Rise’s latest action, Reimagine ATL, was held July 2 and 3 at Atlanta’s Underground. The event featured two tunnels showing the artwork of formerly incarcerated folks within their idea of a re-imagined Atlanta.
“We’re just trying to change the narrative of what folks think about incarcerated folks in jails.”
2. Flip a Prison, Feed Your Folks, Empower Your Youth
Growing Change*, Laurinburg County, North Carolina*
Youth-led organization Growing Change is in the process of flipping a closed prison into a farm that feeds community elders and others struggling with food insecurity in rural North Carolina**.**
***”We’re attaining education, and we’re sustaining personal and environmental wellness. So some of that is by growing food, taking care of our livestock selling our eggs. But it’s also getting shoulder to shoulder with folks and so that young people can receive some job training,”***said Noran Sanford, founder and executive director of Growing Change.
“These are the kinds of opportunities that we’re trying to redeploy [at] these sites… [W]orking with our youth leaders, over a five year program, longitudinal study, we were 95 percent effective in preventing reentry into the correctional system. And that was difficult to do because North Carolina was the last state in the nation, the last state in the nation, where you were adjudicated as an adult for all crimes at age 16.”
In addition to teaching young people farming and job-training, Growing Change is also developing an open source prison flip tool kit to help the 300 communities across the nation with closed prisons develop socially just reuse projects that center those most vulnerable to incarceration.
3. Visit The Incarcerated, Plant More Gardens, Practice Healing
Solitary Gardens, New Orleans, Louisiana
“I can clearly see the gardens. They will be full of gloxinia, delphiniums, and roses. I wish for guests to be able to smile and walk through gardens all year round.” — Herman Wallace
For two decades, jackie sumell has been working with incarcerated men and women to transcend prison walls by designing 6 x 9 garden beds—the exact same size of a cell in solitary.
The incongruence of placing gardens—these living installations—inside a cell reminds us of the harsh truth that nothing is ever meant to grow in a prison, and yet it also reminds us of the hope, audacity, and beauty of those trying to stretch beyond its bars.
“We look at drawings from folks who are inside, and really translate their visions into the ground, into the garden,” sumell said at Realizing Abolition.
“Each of those six by nine solitary gardens maintain the same blueprint as a standard U.S. solitary cell. You can see the bed, the toilet sink, the desk, and the bench. Again, gardened remotely by solitary gardeners.”
For jackie, the connection between abolition and the natural world is not accidental but insightful. That’s why she worked with partners to create the Abolitionist Field Guide. “I would argue that abolition, much like growing a plant, requires daily attention and care. Much like love, hope, and compassion, social equity, like a garden, needs practice, time, and nurturing to fully blossom.”