Monthly Archives: October 2012

An introduction to UO Prison Justice

Can We Be Free While the Prison-Industrial Complex Exists?

  • The US has less than 5% of the world’s population but almost 25% of the world’s prisoners.
  • The US has more than 2.4 million people behind bars, while China (with four times as many citizens) has 1.6 million people in prison.
  • African-Americans constitute 12.7% of the US population but make up 48.2% of adults in prisons and jails in the US.

I begin with these facts because I believe too many people in the US are allowed to remain ignorant of them. Although statistics in themselves mean little, it’s facts like the three above that make me stop cold and ask hard questions. Why does the US have a full fourth of all people imprisoned in the world? Why is China’s government viewed as repressive and anti-human rights, when US citizens are six times more likely to be imprisoned by their own government? Why are Black men incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of white men? Questions like these drew me to join Prison Justice Working Group at the University of Oregon during 2012.

One of the first things the Prison Justice group did was organize Abolition April through the Survival Center, a month of theater, film showings, readings, and discussions focused on the prison-industrial complex. Critical Resistance defines the prison-industrial complex (PIC) as the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems. One of my favorite events during Abolition April was a van trip to the Law and Disorder Conference at Portland State. My friends and I attended a panel entitled “Towards a Queer and Trans Prison Abolition Politic” which focused on queer, trans, and feminist resistance to the PIC. I got to meet activist lawyer and my huge crush, Dean Spade! Another really awesome part of the conference was the discussion led by PDX Copwatch about the white supremacist police system in the US. Law and Disorder was a really great time with my friends and fellow activists hanging out in Portland, eating free vegan food, and having awesome, critical discussions!

Next Prison Justice held a campus demonstration against solitary confinement and the PIC on May Day outside the EMU amphitheater. We constructed a life-size prison cell and asked passersby if prison makes them feel safe. This was a really good learning experience for me about engaging with people about prison’s role in society.

Why should you get involved with Prison Justice? There are lots of good reasons! Prison is linked to every other social justice struggle that we face. Prisons operate along racist, sexist, classist, transphobic, homophobic, and incredibly violent axes. Prisons are a tremendous force of harm and inequality. As such, there is a lot of work to be done and a lot to talk about! You get to learn about really cool and fun books with long names, like Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California and Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. You’ll also get to join an amazing, compassionate, revolutionary community. My friends in Prison Justice really inspire me, and I’m hopeful about the many kinds of work we’ll be able to do together in the coming year. Join us in the fight against mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex!


Crossing the Barbed-Wire Fence

Crossing the Barbed-Wire Fence One Should Never Willingly Cross:

On Being a White Anti-Racist Prison Abolitionist

When I have traveled to the federal prison in Sheridan, OR, for workshops on conflict resolution, I have the same feeling every time I show the man at the front desk my ID and walk through the metal detector: that I am entering a place I am not supposed to go, where I do not belong, and that was not intended to be seen by me. The towering barbed-wire fence that wraps around the prison’s exterior incites fear, and I feel that I am silently being warned, “no one should willingly choose to venture past this point.” This physical boundary is one of the ways I am cut off from people in prison. My position within a socioeconomic class is a second boundary between me and people in prison. As an upper-class person, I am not among those most likely to be criminalized or incarcerated. A third boundary is race. I am white, and people of color are disproportionately targeted for arrest, harassment, and incarceration by the prison-industrial complex. African-Americans constitute 12.7% of the US population but make up 48.2% of adults in prison and jail in our country (Legal Services). Black men are incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of white men (Human Rights Watch). The final boundary that prevents me from seeing people in prison as my fellow human beings is the way society labels people like me as opposed to the ways incarcerated people are labeled. Simply put, people on the outside of prison walls are “good people,” while people on the inside are “bad people,” “criminals,” “animals,” etc. As a result of the boundaries I’ve listed, the prison-industrial complex has had no personal impact on my life. I’ve never been sent to prison, I’ve never had family members or friends in prison, I haven’t felt the impact of imprisonment on my community or neighborhood, and I don’t expect any of these fundamental facts about my relation to prison to change. However, as a person who has willingly and freely chosen to repeatedly cross the physical boundary that keeps me on the outside of prison walls, I feel that I have transgressed beyond what is conventionally acceptable for me and thereby brought myself to a new point of political awareness and action. As a white person who has never experienced being targeted because of my race, going inside prisons and undertaking correspondence with people inside prisons has further committed me to the work of prison abolition. I see the prison-industrial complex as a racist tool of social control against groups to which I do not belong: people of color, undocumented immigrants, and others. In aligning myself with these marginalized groups, I feel that I become something like a “race traitor” because I want to challenge whiteness. I have become aware of the benefits I receive from possessing certain privileged identities, and I have opted to attempt to dismantle the systems that have provided me with those undeserved benefits.

Two of my political identities are as a white person who undeniably benefits from white privilege and as an anti-racist person. I feel that the combination of these two identities is important for thinking about how I ought to approach questions of social justice. While I am committed and passionate in my work against prison, I want to keep humility and a sense of deference in all that I do. I must remember, at all times, that my life as a white, upper-class person, college-educated person is not a life immediately being ravaged by the prison-industrial complex, and that my activism must always respect that I am not a person who is intimately affected by the reality of prisons in the United States. This recognition of my privileged experiences around the issue of prison is a key component of how I hope to undertake anti-prison work. A second aspect of being a white anti-racist person is making sure that whiteness is not assumed to be a default identity and that white privilege is not taken for granted in conversations I have about political issues, including conversations about the prison-industrial complex.


This is a statement by a collective member.

Is this what justice looks like?

The mock prison cell that we set up on May Day, 2012.

Last spring we set up a mock prison cell as a way to begin challenging popular assumptions about prisons. We encouraged people to ask themselves, “does knowing that prisons exist make me feel safe?” This is, after all, what we are told that their purpose is.

Many, many thanks to Decolonize PDX for a wealth of inspiration related to this project!  We are scheming about its continuation in the form of a more extensive art exhibit that focuses on the theme of questioning.

Intimate Violence Intervention Alternatives

Are there better ways to respond to intimate violence than incarceration?
What practical options exist, and what are their limitations?

The pursuit of justice for people who have experienced intimate violence is a unique and challenging one.  Our communities are entrenched in the realities of intimate violence; it is part of our lives and yet considered delicate and treated as foreign. Existing institutional systems for the management of intimate violence in our communities are blind-sighted by the narrow pursuit of prosecution.  What Andrea Smith calls the “criminal justice/social service model” funnels individuals into a range of state agencies, effectively disengaging community organizing around violence prevention and intervention (Smith).

The primary issue with the criminal justice/social service model is that it focuses exclusively on the perpetrator of violence and not those who have been harmed.  It also fails to situate violence within the larger context of a society that both subliminally and explicitly condones violence, particularly against women and those deemed sexually deviant.  Moreover, the criminal legal system’s logic is enforced through policing and aggressive institutions that at times reciprocate the violence they claim to address.

Restorative justice (RJ), one alternative to traditional punishment, grew out of the recognition that crime causes harms that are not addressed by incarcerating offenders alone.  RJ has been particularly popular and effective in cases involving non-violent juvenile offenders.  RJ is used in some circumstances for intimate violence intervention, but its role in this context is more contested.  Many critiques of Restorative Justice have emerged.  The anti-violence movement in particular notes that the framework of the state limits RJ.  Additionally, a strong tension can exist between the interest of the community and the needs of the victim/survivor.  Smith draws from Goel in observing that victims/survivors experience pressure to “reconcile” and “restore.” (Smith; Goel)  This critique is particularly relevant to cases of intimate violence.

In Alternative Interventions to Intimate Violence, Mimi Kim discusses the exporting of violence intervention to organizations that are thought to exist for the community but are not the community itself.  Kim says, “we have created a system outside of community- in shelters, advocacy centers, child welfare systems, foster care homes…to protect us from violence, complete with a qualified set of experts to manage our way toward that mirage called safety.”  This phenomenon distances common people from violence intervention, and allows the community to function under the false idea that intimate violence is experience by and to be dealt with by a select few. Thus, these organizations, while providing support to some, actually disempower communities.

“Community accountability” is an umbrella term used by the anti-violence movement that refers to a wide range of strategies that are not reliant on the criminal legal system (Kim). Incite! Women of Color Against Violence calls for the creation of “strategies to address violence within our communities, including domestic violence, sexual violence, and child abuse, that don’t rely on police or prisons.” (Incite!)  Community accountability can form within existing groups not exclusively dedicated to addressing intimate violence, such as families, friends, faith organizations, schools, and workplaces. Community accountability is experimental in nature and not singular in form.

In contrast to the criminal legal system, which focuses on achieving safety for the individual (commonly through physical separation), groups such as Incite! and Critical Resistance seek collective action for the more inclusive goal of liberation. Kim notes that these groups understand that “for oppressed people, the possibility of individual safety is a myth or luxury afforded to the privileged few.” (Kim)

The idea of storytelling, or success and failure sharing is an important one to some organizations within the anti-violence movement.  These movements seek to engage a network of communities in a constant dialogue, forming a collective of information about methods, mistakes, and ideas for conflict transformation, violence intervention, and communities committed to collective, libratory action. (Kim)

Alternative, community-based strategies for responding to intimate violence are limited by the reality of a society that does not promote sustained community support, non-violent, transformative confrontation, or a culture of empowerment of those individuals and populations most in need of assistance.  Even the most progressive communities are limited by deeply embedded racism, sexism, homophobia, ablism, etc.  Any effective strategy for intimate violence intervention, whether functioning within the state or within a radical, anarchist community must actively address these internalized limitations.

Works Cited

-Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and Critical Resistance. Statement on Gender           Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology. South End Press. August, 2006.
-Kim, Mimi. Alternative Interventions to Intimate Violence: Defining Political and Pragmatic Challenges. Restorative Justice and Violence Against Women. Oxford University Press. 2010. Ed. James Ptacek.
-Smith, Andrea. Beyond Restorative Justice: Radical Organizing Against Violence. Restorative Justice and Violence Against Women. Oxford University Press. 2010. Ed. James Ptacek.