“My life is either going to be a testimony or a warning,” said Derek Lee. Lee was speaking on a video chat from behind the walls of SCI Smithfield in central Pennsylvania. Now 35 years old, Lee has been imprisoned since he was 29. If nothing changes, he will grow old and die in prison. In 2016, a Pennsylvania court sentenced Lee to life without parole for a burglary two years earlier that ended with his accomplice fatally shooting the homeowner. Lee was not involved in the killing, but he was convicted of second-degree or felony murder—an unintentional death that happens when the defendant is committing a felony. In Pennsylvania, that means an automatic sentence of life without parole (LWOP).
In 1992, formerly incarcerated women created Sisters Inside to advocate for the rights of women and girls behind bars in Queensland, Australia. While other grassroots groups and ad hoc campaigns had formed to work with incarcerated women, Sisters Inside remains the country’s first organization founded and run by formerly incarcerated women. Over the last 31 years, the organization has provided legal and logistical support to currently and formerly incarcerated women and pushed to end policies that cage people, such as imprisoning people for nonpayment of fines. In November, Sisters Inside held its 10th conference, inviting organizers from across Australia and overseas to brainstorm and strategize under the theme “Abolition Feminism Now.”
I board the transport in an orange jumpsuit, shackled and cuffed at the waist, one of many prisoners in exodus from the Washington State Reformatory. The rattling of our chains fills the cabin as we find places to sit. I slide into a seat with a small window high on the wall next to me—the coveted seat with a “view.” Nervous chatter ensues as we wait to be shipped to the next prison. In 2021, during the pandemic, the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC), experienced a steep decrease in prison admissions (and therefore a great loss of revenue). In response, the department announced it would close the Washington State Reformatory (WSR), the oldest unit in the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Washington.
The abolitionist movement is thriving in Chicago, and gaining momentum each day. On a warm Sunday on May 7, 2023, more than 60 people attended a rally outside Cook County Jail in protest and solidarity with current and former incarcerated people subjected to the jail’s inhumane conditions, including a new ban on paper that restricts access to everything from legal documents to photographs of loved ones, and a staggering seven deaths inside the jail since January, are just two examples. The rally was organized in part by Chicago Community Jail Support (CCJS), an abolitionist, volunteer-run mutual aid group that came together during the summer 2020 George Floyd protests.
The call for prison abolition has been popularized over the last decade of mass movements against police violence, many of which have operated under the banner of Black Lives Matter. But what does abolition mean, and who gets to define it? Thus far, much of the conversation has been steered and curated by mainstream media. A new initiative from Scalawag Magazine tentatively titled ‘Project Abolition’ seeks to disrupt the dominant narrative by platforming voices from within prisons themselves. Scalawag Editor-At-Large Da’Shaun Harrison joins Rattling the Bars to explain Project Abolition.
Jen Angel, an activist, journalist and baker who was fatally injured during a robbery outside of a bank in Oakland, Calif., in early February, believed in building a society without police and prisons, and she would not have wanted her assailants incarcerated. Doing so would only distort her memory and what she stood for, and many of those who were close to her have come together since she died to try and protect that legacy. Angel, 48, died February 9, three days after she was dragged 50 feet by her assailants’ getaway car, her head hitting the pavement. She spent several days in intensive care before being removed from life support.
Over the past year, organizers across the country have been working nonstop to free people from jails and prisons — and yet, of course, millions remain behind bars. Faced with this reality, it can be easy to slip into discouragement at the outset of a new year. But long-time abolitionist organizer and author Mariame Kaba reminds us that “hope is a discipline” — one we must practice even when the horizon is cloudy, when the new year brings no clarity, no easy optimism. In this spirit, I asked a number of organizers working to dismantle incarceration what is giving them hope for the coming year. I’m mentioning just a few decarceration projects out of countless important campaigns. And although I’m spotlighting decarceration projects (those specifically focused on shrinking incarceration and confinement), I want to note that abolitionist organizers are also working to build mutual aid networks, create non-carceral ways to address harm, and advocate for housing, non-carceral health care, education, environmental justice, and more.
Hours before dawn on Sept. 26, the incarcerated workers who run the prison kitchens across Alabama were slated to begin their shifts when they refused to take up their posts, kicking off one of the largest prison strikes in U.S. history. “Everything was electric from then on—[people] were excited and anxious for action,” said Antoine Lipscomb, a founding member of the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) who spoke with Prism Reports from Limestone Correctional Facility, one of the largest and deadliest prisons in the state, currently housing nearly 2,300 people. The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) classifies 14 prisons within the state as “major facilities,” and there are almost 17,000 people incarcerated in those prisons.
Right to the City Alliance (RTTC) is a national alliance made up of over 90 member organizations on local, state, and regional levels organizing around housing and land. Our work includes renters’ rights, building alternatives such as community land trusts, and policy work like the opportunity for tenants to purchase buildings before small landlords sell them to bigger corporate landlords. RTTC connects members doing aligned work across the country to share strategies, best practices, and ways of scaling up strategies to expand impact beyond local contexts. Member organizations work on a range of social change issues, and the alliance is guided by values and principles that stand against state violence and policing. While RTTC is not explicitly focused on housing, our housing work is situated under the Homes for All campaign, where organizing for renters’ rights and community loan funds takes place.
Call for abolitionist ‘Shut’Em Down’ demonstrations and teach-ins from August 21st through September 9th in 2022. We know it takes courage to continuously speak out and invoke change. People in U.S prisons are calling on you now to stand with us in strength and numbers in our ongoing historical struggle for ABOLITION! Organize a Shut ‘Em Down demonstration in the spirit of Abolition on or between August 21st, 2022 through September 9th, 2022 in your local area. We encourage outside supporters to join together, develop strategies to promote the closing of prisons, jails and immigration facilities. Organize a demonstration at your local jail, prison, immigration center, or a politician’s office. This list of places is not limited, be creative.
Incarcerated radical intellectuals elucidate the nature of political struggle and its various arenas. Alongside these writers are solidarity groups that propagate their writings and intellectual products. Through a close reading of Black Communist trans prisoner Alyssa V. Hope’s legal efforts and writings, this article unearths how a pen-pal relationship transformed into a comprehensive abolitionist community. This case study provides an example of how abolitionists are grappling with the need to support the material needs of marginalized communities while still building otherwise possible worlds separate from a failing welfare state. Mutual aid projects, like the one formed by Hope’s supporters, showcase that otherwise possible worlds are not only possible, but they are being created right now before us.
Massachusetts - Smith College students marched through the streets of downtown Northampton backed by a chorus of honking cars as they chanted, “We don’t want a prison nation, stop mass incarceration!” on Saturday, Dec. 4. This march was in support of a moratorium on prison and jail construction within Massachusetts that was introduced in the Massachusetts state legislature. The bill was written by Families for Justice and Healing and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, who, along with Massachusetts Peace Action, sponsored the walk. Smith students and volunteers from other prison abolition organizations in the area met at the Smith Campus Center and walked through downtown Northampton to the post office and then back to the Campus Center.
When I saw that Jaccques Lesage de La Haye had a new book called The Abolition of Prison, published by the French radical press, Éditions Libertalia, I reached out through my anarchist radio networks to find contact information for him. Jacques is a longtime anarchist and abolitionist in France, who for many years hosted the anti-prison radio show Ras les murs. His book promised to be a culmination of all of his experience writing and struggling against prisons and working to support people both inside and outside. As a translator and an anarchist, I am always keeping an eye out for new texts to try to bring into English in order to connect movements around the world and especially to help connect the abolitionist struggles across national divides.
St. Louis Park, MN – Red paint and posters reading “No new jails” were plastered on the door of architectural firm Klein McCarthy at the beginning of the work day on September 9. Responding to a nationwide call-out for #ShutEmDown2021 actions on the anniversary of the Attica Prison Rebellion, autonomous prison abolitionist groups took part in the action which also featured graffiti and a banner drop over Highway 100. Unicorn Riot received a statement from anonymous participants in the action who said they targeted Klein McCarthy Architects because their contract “to design a new $28-million jail” in Winona. Headquartered in St. Louis Park, Klein McCarthy is one of the top “justice architecture and public facility design” firms in the Midwest.
The purpose of the call is to center the 10 demands that Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and other inside formations have been pushing since the historic 2016 prison strike, encourage people to get involved in local abolitionist organizing, and also gain steam, while building towards the 2022 prison strike that JLS has just announced. So far, people have responded to the call by organizing everything from marches to free political prisoners, film showings, block parties, and noise demonstrations outside of ICE detention facilities, jails, and prisons.