Looking Back, Looking Forward: Some Notes on the Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex

By Isaac Ontiveros

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex conference in 1998, the editors of the Abolitionist asked me to reflect on how both the prison industrial complex and the movement to abolish it have developed over the past two decades.  From there, they asked me to draw out some lessons that could be useful to the struggle moving forward.  A comprehensive overview of how the forces that make up the prison industrial complex have grown over the past couple decades is a tall order.  Similarly, giving sound study to the different organizations, alliances, and campaigns that have put up the good fight against these forces—let alone even a cursory mapping of the economic, social, and environmental developments that make up the broader political landscape—would leave out too much.  Luckily, in taking up the essential work of interpreting and changing the world we live in, organizations on the frontlines, scholar activists, and organic intellectuals on both sides of the walls have provided us a deep well of analysis, theoretical work, and political practice to draw from.  In the pages of this very issue of the Abolitionist, we have much to dig into—from analysis of solitary confinement and prisoner organizing against it; to community victories against anti-gang policing; to the ecological degradation of prisons and the powerful alliances forged by environmentalists, workers, and anti-prison activist to halt the construction of new cages; to the intersections of gender violence, gender liberation struggle, and the PIC.  All of this rich analysis will hopefully give us useful things to grapple with, think about, and learn from as we move our movements forward.  In reflecting back on the past two decades, three relatively simple thoughts come to mind.  They run the risk of overstating the obvious, but then again, in these dark times, clear and obvious things might be useful.

1. We win when our organizations, coalitions, and movements are propelled by thoughtful strategy, liberatory vision, and leadership from frontline communities.

In the US, deep, broad, intentional, well-plan organizing against different parts of the PIC, across different geographies have had incredible impacts: Massive cuts to prison spending. Wins against anti-gang and militarized policing. Reparations for police torture. Prison closures. Reduced prison populations. Overturning disenfranchisement and job discrimination against formerly imprisoned people.  Wins for better prison conditions and health services by imprisoned women and trans people.  Massive blows against solitary confinement. Strikes in migrant detention facilities. Strikes everywhere.  Freedom for the Angola Three, Marilyn Buck, Oscar Lopez Rivera, Herman Bell, Debbie Africa, Seth Hayes and other political prisoners.  The development of political theory, art, and culture by imprisoned people and those in their home communities. International solidarity mobilized across razor wire, walls, cultural and linguistic differences.  New leaders.  New ideas. New organizations.  New coalitions.  New intersections.  And countless moments of friendship, love, support, mutual aid, and camaraderie. To name a paltry few.

Impactful organizing against the PIC reminds us that gains, victories, changes, and transformations don’t fall from the sky. People’s lives and conditions change for the better when organizations and communities work together to develop a tangible plan to use what they have to get what they want.  A strategy.  Strategy is more effective when it takes into account a clear-eyed assessment of the time, place, and conditions people are struggling in—along with an equally clear-eyed assessment of both the movement’s and the adversary’s strengths and weaknesses.  Common-sense, winnable, and inspiring demands connected to a longer-term vision gives the strategy voice and direction. Activating and incorporating the people who have lived through the most and have the most to gain gives the plan agency. This also takes recognizing and nurturing leadership, along with drawing outward for support and forging alliances across different issues and communities. Coalition is key. Forging unlikely alliances with unlikely allies is hard but necessary in striking a productive balance among the different politics of the broadest possible coalition. And of course, action is also key. Action—using a diversity of tactics on a diverse terrain of struggle, from the streets to the courts to the mainline to the legislative office—is the plan come to life. Regrouping, re-strategizing, redeploying, gaining enough confidence and resolve to negotiate and compromise, measuring immediate gains alongside longer-term goals, learning from mistakes, claiming victories when they come, getting back up when they don’t, and drawing up strength, creativity, and hope for the inevitable fights ahead is the life cycle of strategy and struggle.

2. The PIC changes. 

I want to push us to remember that the PIC is a constellation of forces that change and grow over time within particular conditions, in response to particular challenges from popular forces and contradictions among different parts of the state.Thinking of the PIC as some sort of fixed institution or monolith can distort the shape, size, scope, and possibility of things.  This is usually bad news for effective organizing and can draw people needlessly into tight corners. The PIC is not an office or a place. It is definitely not reducible to a for-profit prison regime or a simple contradiction in the 13th Amendment. The prison industrial complex is a concept that helps us understand dynamics in motion.  Over the past several decades thinkers and organizers have asked: Why and how has policing, surveillance, the courts, detention, imprisonment, parole, etc. changed over time?  Where and how do these different elements intersect?  Where are these intersections strong?  Where are they weak? It will be useful to continue to ask and answer these questions, along with many others, when we think about the PIC. 

Amid the current conditions that give rise to the PIC—and that the PIC bolsters—neoliberal politics are still dominant.  Where the forced scarcity that neoliberalism compels continues to be pervasive—where the most basic social programs, services, safety-nets are attacked or abandoned—imprisonment, policing, and draconian sentencing and probation/parole will thrive.  The amping up of far-right authoritarianism in this political moment is a grave challenge. State repression has always been an essential ingredient to fascistic politics.  To the same extent that the PIC emerged decades ago as a reaction to the gains of the civil rights movement, Black and third-world liberation struggles, and left politics more generally, we should be concerned today with the right’s mobilization against contemporary progressive and radical struggles. As has been the case historically, changes in imprisonment, policing, etc. will be more or less interrelated with the political assault on peoples right’s to health, education, work, housing, safe environment, democratic process, etc. Peoples’ struggles to defend or expand basic human, civil, political and environmental rights—as well as more revolutionary advances—are also always at the intersection of how the PIC emerges, responds, or contracts.  I wonder how continued far-right initiative will affect the more reform-responsive elements of the PIC (“green” prisons and jails, “gender-responsive” confinement, mental health responder-training for cops, bipartisan sentencing reforms, etc.) in the days to come. 

War should also be on our minds when we think of the past, present, and future of the PIC. The prison industrial complex emerged in relationship with US war-making globally.  In the 1960s and 70s, the putting down of urban rebellions was related to war against the Vietnamese people’s (and others’) national liberation struggle. An intensity in suppressive policing strategies during the 1980s and into the 90s was related to the military logic, strategy, and counterinsurgency practice of the wars against Central America. Today, the endless “war on terror” is nearly 20-years old—bursting forward developments in surveillance, policing, and detention strategy and technology used domestically and globally. This cycle of militarism and intervention and insurgency will certainly continue to inform policing and containment strategy in the US—and will be compounded by the toxic mix of climate disaster, displacement, and anti-migrant xenophobia. How might the development of various aspects of the PIC change if a renewed, internationalist anti-war movement emerges?

3. Anti-PIC and abolitionist organizations, movements, and politics need to grow and change. 

The development and deployment of abolitionist politics has been a vital part the struggle against the PIC in the past decades. PIC abolitionist politics at their best have given radical energy to organizations, coalitions, and campaigns. Certainly not unrelated to the abolitionism of enslaved people and their allies in the period of formal slavery (thinking at least of the period between the Haitian Revolution to the US Civil War), abolitionists have proposed that at the core of social struggle against oppressive, racialized, institutionalized violence, there exists a possibility for broader horizons. Abolitionists have asked: During fights at various scales, can the creativity, energy, and endurance that goes into resisting the violence of the PIC also go into imagining and constructing its transformation? Can what is being resisted be dismantled?  Can what is being dismantled be replaced? Can we begin to build the new in the shell of the old?  Can this inform how we fight, where we fight, and who leads our struggles? These are of course the questions of all revolutionary projects.

For abolitionists, I think these queries need to be rearticulated and refined amid our particular political conditions. I think it could be an exciting task for abolitionists to put the question of political power more squarely on the table. While calls for “community-based” solutions or “community self-determination” have been strong rallying cries for historically oppressed, marginalized, and dispossessed peoples, it continues to be important to think about what structures and mechanisms will institutionalize and protect those community-solutions and self-determination. And at what scale? The far-right has captured state power and has used it to gain massive deregulation, gentrification, plunder of natural resources, the disempowerment of workers, the rolling back of the gains of the civil rights movement, etc. The use of policing, surveillance, the courts, imprisonment are useful in enforcing and managing these imposed inequalities. Struggles against the PIC need to be increasingly connected to anti-displacement, environmental justice, labor, migrant justice, and anti-war struggles. And vice versa. 

As the far right mobilizes, so should a stronger left.  It is less and less hyperbolic to declare that the future of human (and other) life on the planet depends on it. I think Abolitionists could do well to wade into the fray of broader left politics, using an abolitionist perspective not as a measure of what is abolitionist or not, but as powerful political theory in service to the broadest possible front. Abolitionist politics can use its gains to act as solid (enough) grounding from which to engage related questions of anti-capitalism, democracy, and power. Abolitionists need to ally with and take up struggles alongside people who aren’t abolitionists. The terrain of these struggles needs to be wider and include state arenas at local, regional, and national levels.  Those who are able to move or participate more freely in a wider variety of political processes (probably including the absolutely corrupt and bankrupt electoral system) need to coordinate with those who’ve been iced out. 

Again, to overstate the obvious, studying and learning from tried and true methods of building movement are as critical as ever. As is understanding our adversaries and the landscape on which we operate, along with examining and regenerating our political ideas. Abolition can’t only be about the finite ending-of-things, and the terrain of freedom cannot exist exclusively on small scales. Again, I want to propose that we consider how abolition can be understood as involving a capture, redistribution, and transformation of political power—and the vibrancy and creativity that comes from the “struggle against” to be in an ever-growing feedback loop with the “struggle for”. In dark times, a wider horizon might give greater prospects for a brighter day.

Isaac Ontiveros was a member of Critical Resistance from 2006 to 2017. Since then, he has worked in organized labor and for the Center for Political Education. Isaac lives in Oakland, CA

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