Taking lessons from maroon societies, it’s time to reimagine and transform how we view prison abolition
ON February 1, 2017, news broke that inmates in the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware, took over the prison and held the guards hostage. This is how the hierarchy of violence works: The jail guards are portrayed as victims, not the people being held in cages. It sounds redundant to say that Vaughn prison was a grim and abusive place. How can a place that forcefully isolates incarcerated individuals be anything else? The Vaughn rebellion, as it came to be known, highlighted the violent conditions incarcerated people are forced to live in every day.
One of the people who was imprisoned spoke about some of the grievances that led to the rebellion: overcrowding, lack of education, need for transparency over the budget, and desire to create opportunity for actual rehabilitation. The demands cited by the prisoners are exactly what the “correctional center” states as their purpose on their website: “JTVCC has several programs designed to rehabilitate the inmate including educational opportunities, vocational training, work assignments, spiritual/religious programs, and a variety of other classes and programming.” But correctional centers, despite their ameliorative names, act as domestic black sites where sheriffs and prison guards to do as they please without accountability.
While white supremacists have always led this country, the new regime is not afraid to openly name itself as such. It must now be clear for those who believe in liberation and who see themselves as abolitionists that we cannot rely on a justice system that was created by white supremacists to maintain white supremacy and anti-blackness. It is not hyperbolic to relate incarceration to slavery: there are 53 prison-labor factories running throughout the United States grossing around $500 million dollars; the prisoners in them make pennies. Today, the state depends on prisons as a method of extreme social control--to punish those who threaten their monopoly of violence and to control those who cannot, or refuse, to work inside the given parameters of capitalism (think sex workers, drug dealers, shoplifters, and robbers). If we recognize prisons as a modern-day form of slavery, then we must ask ourselves, Why is one form of slavery deemed too horrific to justify, while the other is one that can be deserved?
During slavery, many enslaved people escaped and formed maroon societies. These societies emerged in the American South as well as in the colonized Caribbean and Latin America. Some of these communities went and attacked plantations and liberated the slaves in them, while others waited for escaped slaves defending themselves from slave patrols to come to them.
What would maroonage look like in 2017?
Rebellions like the one at Vaughn have been occurring for some time now. In the past few years, we have seen brave action taken by those who are incarcerated. People in prison have engaged in nationally organized work strikes, taken over prisons and burned them down, and, at times, held guards under the same nonconsenting conditions that the prisoners themselves are held in. People in prison often risk their life and mental health to stand up to the injustice they face. Many already know that they'll face harsh punishment after rising up--brutal attacks by prison guards, years in solitary confinement, and dealing with mail tampering and guards withholding food. As these brave rebellions occur inside prison walls, those on the outside take on supportive roles and rallies outside the prison. It's time for those who call ourselves prison abolitionists to meet the courage of those on the inside who stand up to the slavery of our time by taking direct action.
Solidarity must mean something more than a few words on a banner. It must mean a willingness to put oneself in the same danger as those with whom we claim to be in solidarity. We must create an environment that allows for the immediate release of prisoners, one that allows for our mutual autonomy. It's time for direct intervention in order to release the people the state has imprisoned and for autonomous zones to secure their freedom.
Direct intervention should be taken not only for those we have deemed “political prisoners.” For years, black and brown people have grown up in segregated, under-resourced areas stricken with poverty and occupied by police forces--only to then be funneled into the prison system. We've watched the number of people in prison skyrocket after the revolutionary forces of the ’60s and ’70s (such as the Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army, League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the New Afrika Movement) were brutally suppressed. Fully aware of the revolutionary potential of black people, the state used mass incarceration to suppress potential political force.
With this in mind, who in jail is not a political prisoner? To differentiate between those who are political prisoners and those who have been incarcerated for non-intentional political reasons is to perpetuate elitist attitudes that allow for some resistance to be labeled activism while others’ methods of survival are considered plain criminal behavior. By working only to free political prisoners, we ignore the political state of mass incarceration and avoid the real issue of available alternatives. For if you say, “Free all the prisoners,” some will reply, “Well, if we free all the prisoners, what will we do with all the rapists and murderers?” This is an important question that we must consider: How do we build alternatives that hold people accountable while supporting the needs of victims? How can this be done without continuing to perpetuate violence through prisons?
We must create an environment where, with the coordination of those who are imprisoned and jailed, we can directly help to aid them in their departure. This requires political unrest throughout the country.
Since the election, we have already started to see some actions that approach what direct intervention might look like. In Phoenix, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, a mother living in this country for 20 years, was detained and scheduled for deportation after attending one of her annual “check-ins” with the Arizona Immigration Customs Enforcement. Through the coordination of a local immigration rights group, Puente Arizona, nearly 200 people gathered at a rally. Her family members, along with others, blocked ICE vans from leaving the facility, with one person physically attaching themselves to the van’s tire. The police describe the event as “peaceful,” with a few engaging in “criminal acts.” Perhaps it was the peaceful manner that we should be questioning. There is nothing peaceful about the state kidnapping and separating a mother from her family. The response should not be passive.
One can only imagine what could have happened if more people were willing to stand in front of the van, and what can happen if more organized intervention efforts are taken--intervention efforts that do not fall into the false nonviolent/violent dichotomy that protects the state. These are the sort of actions that those who wear safety pins should be taking; this is what prison abolition looks like.
When we are discussing prison abolition specifically, what we are truly discussing is autonomy. How do we find ways to move toward this while living under a violent, white supremacist surveillance state? Part of the work is simply imagining that such a world is possible. Building connections and relationships with the already established autonomous communities across the globe and studying past autonomous communities and their struggles can help us realize that it too can happen here within these arbitrarily created borders of the United States.
THERE are several elements that will be required to make these actions possible:
Chaos is the break from the norm. It is the moment where both the bourgeoisie and the state lose control.
Imagine nationwide rioting, looting, private-space takeovers, counter-police state defensive groups, and marches and rallies throughout the streets. Instead of all these different efforts taken under the same banner of politics or organization, they might erupt through spontaneous disruptions to the current violent way we’ve been living. It is at this time that those who wish to engage in aiding the incarcerated would find the best-case scenario to act.
If the masses are to instigate change, it will not come from permitted marches or participation in the voting booth. The true threat of the masses is that they outnumber the enforcers of the state. It is mass unrest that the state fears and is preparing to combat. (Consider the recent Pentagon video leaked to the Intercept, where the military focuses on the end of civilization and the need to turn the U.S. into one large military occupation).
Mass unrest will not be organized. It will happen as desperation and lack of resources become more widespread. If we look at what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, before the National Guard, and even after, there was an element of chaos fomented by both state and nonstate officials. We now know that those who were imprisoned there were horrendously left for dead; however, if abolitionists had prepared in advance, this could have been a great moment for a prison break -- one that could have left a limited trail for the state to follow.
While it would be great to work toward creating the chaotic element, it would be more efficient to spend that energy preparing to create autonomous communities to sustain and protect ourselves when these events arise. Recent years have shown that when riots and unrest occur, organizations and political opportunists will be quick to co-opt and suppress any chaotic energy that may be stirring. This is why those who are for liberation must also be against liberalism. Liberalism will always ensure that the state maintains control; part of maintaining that control is through incarceration. One cannot claim to be an abolitionist and also be for liberal co-optation.
Finding ways to orchestrate with those inside will be difficult--but communicating with and providing concrete support to politicized prisoners should be useful. When revolt or rebellions occur, there should be networks in place to help provide support for those inside. These networks, for security reasons, should be made up of people who have a vested interest in the incarcerated individuals’ release, as well as other trusted accomplices. The actual evacuation process will have to be tailored depending on each particular location and affinity group.
These affinity networks of individuals should be familiar with the area, as well as be centrally located to the facility in which they will be providing support for those evacuating. The strategy should remain autonomous for each affinity group for security reasons. This is why one-size-fits-all organizing cannot be approached for something as complicated and delicate as this. (The goal of this essay is not to provide a how-to instructional guide but to explore ideas).
For those who are yet to be taken into prison or a detainment center, we will need direct interventions like what was attempted in Arizona for Guadalupe. Disrupting transportation vehicles in whatever ways are made available to those who are willing and able to participate can also help aid in the liberation of those who are on their way to prisons and detainment centers.
Once people have safely been able to flee the vicinity, they will need safe houses in which to regroup and plan for what’s next. This is one of the reasons autonomous communities and the liberation of spaces needs to happen on a global level. Maroon societies were developed in obscure swamps, woods, and uncolonized lands. The arduous stretches of terrain created obstacles for the slave patrols and bounty hunters. Creating communities where the land can provide assistance against capture is crucial when discussing where liberated people may be able to remain free. As in some maroon societies, a community must be built while taking into account the anti-indigenous and anti-black forces that play into the privatization of land and who already has access to land resources.
What autonomous zones or safe spaces can look like today depends on the ability to maintain the element of chaos as well as building sustainable alternatives. This requires building defensive groups to provide alternatives to the police, as well as food and water infrastructure. In these autonomous communities, it is key to create a process that those who exist in that space agree upon. Assemblies and other horizontal processes for facilitating decisions can be constructed to reflect the needs and wants of those involved. If the goal is maintaining liberation, the environment must strive for horizontality. This is not an easy goal. Instead, it is an active effort made by community members that must constantly be checked and intentionalized. The concept of horizontality must intersect with the realities of race and patriarchy. Holding similar political agreements does not mean that other pillars of oppression will be negated. Priority to entrance and shelter should go to black and indigenous people, particularly black and indigenous trans and cis women, and those with various abilities.
TOO many people have died in jail cells, having been forced to live in such horrendous conditions. We cannot claim to be a people of love, peace, and justice and continue to ignore the torture facilities here within our borders and across the globe. Prison abolition must include the abolition of the state and all other systems of hierarchy.
As cited by one of the participants during the Vaughn Rebellion, Donald Trump’s presidency means “the institution is going to change for the worse.” Trump and the recently appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions already have a clearly documented relationship to the private prison industry. While there is a growing movement of anti-Trumpism, it is crucial that this movement includes those who are incarcerated and detained.
Those who claim to be anti-Trump and against the toxic behavior he represents, must also be for the destruction of prisons and detainment centers. This means that when we discuss intersectionality, diversity of tactics and diversity of legal status must also be something that is interwoven. Far too often those who are incarcerated and detained are forgotten, whether they are labeled prisoners, refugees, immigrants, or political dissidents.
Liberation must come from oneself, but we can aid and work toward our mutual freedom. This will require risk. We have seen time after time that reform does not work; it is now that we must take an anti-statist, anti-authoritarian, and horizontal approach to how we deconstruct the current violent hierarchical structure we are trying to survive in. One cannot simply hope to abolish the prison system and not also want to abolish the other systems of hierarchy that enable the prison system. Being an abolitionist must mean that one wants to abolish all layers of violence, including authoritarianism, white human supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, ableism, and capitalism.