Abolishing the Prison Industrial Complex
--An interview with Criminal Injustice Kos co-editors Nancy Heitzeg and Kay Whitlock, part one
By Angola 3 News
Focusing on the prison abolitionist movement, we interview two co-editors of an exciting new series at Daily Kos, called Criminal InJustice Kos, a weekly series "devoted to exploring the myths of 'crime', 'criminals', and criminal justice and the intersection of race/ethnicity/class/gender/sexuality/age/disability in policing and punishment. Criminal Injustice Kos is committed to furthering action towards reducing inequity in the US criminal justice system." Look for Criminal InJustice Kos every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Stay tuned for part 2, where we focus on the practicality of prison abolition and take a close look at alternatives to the US prison system.
Dr. Nancy Heitzeg (whose online name is "soothsayer99") is an activist educator and Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the interdisciplinary Critical Studies of Race/Ethnicity program at SaintCatherineUniversity. She has written and presented widely on the subjects of race, class, gender and social control. Nancy is the author of Deviance: Rule-makers and Rule-breakers, and several articles exploring issue of race class gender and social control including: "Differentials in Deviance: Race, Class, Gender and Age" (in The International Handbook of Deviant Behavior, Routledge, forthcoming Summer 2010); "The Case Against Prison: in Prison Privatization: The State of Theory and Practice (forthcoming Fall 2010), "Education Not Incarceration: Interrupting the School to Prison Pipeline"(Forum on Public Policy, Oxford University Press, Winter 2010); "The Racialization of Crime and Punishment: Criminal Justice, Color-Blind Racism and the Political Economy of the Prison Industrial Complex"(with Dr. Rose Brewer, which appeared in a special volume co-edited by Dr. Heitzeg and Dr. Rodney Coates, of American Behavioral Scientist: Micro-Level Social Justice Projects, Pedagogy, and Democratic Movements, Winter 2008); and Race, Class and Legal Risk in the United States: Youth of Color and Colluding Systems of Social Control" (Forum on Public Policy, Oxford University Press, Winter 2009).
Kay Whitlock (whose online name is "RadioGirl") is a Montana-based writer, organizer, and activist long engaged in progressive struggles for racial, gender, queer, environmental, and economic justice. She has written extensively on the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and class in relation to police and prison violence, most notably in her former position as National Representative for LGBT Issues for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization. Her publications for AFSC include Corrupting Justice: A Primer for LGBT Communities on Racism, Violence, Human Degradation & the Prison Industrial Complex (pdf download and In a Time of Broken Bones: A Call to Dialogue on Hate Violence and the Limitations of Hate Crimes Legislation (pdf download). With Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, she is the co-author of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, forthcoming from Beacon Press in February 2011 an analysis of queer criminalization, centering race, class, and gender, from colonial contact to the present.
Angola 3 News: Why do you consider yourself a prison abolitionist? What does this term mean for you?
Nancy Heitzeg: If one accepts, as I do, that prisons in the US are a contemporary extension of chattel slavery, that prisons are irredeemably rooted in racism and classism that prisons serve no purpose save corporate profit and raw retribution, then one must call for their abolition. Prison "reform" is insufficient if the very notion and reality of prison itself is grounded in inequality, injustice and destruction.
In a small yet dense book - Angela Davis asks Are Prisons Obsolete??? If prisons are indeed social structures rooted in racism, classism and fear then we must take the questions seriously. We must try to imagine a nation perhaps a world without prisons.
"As important as reforms may be, frameworks that rely exclusively on reforms help to produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond the prison...We must give serious consideration to abolitionist strategies to dismantle the prison system...which preserves existing structures of racism as well as creates new ones...this is no more outlandish than the fact that race and economic status play more prominent roles in shaping the practices of social punishment than does crime." (Davis 1998 105)
I have always known people who were in prison and or known of others who were. I have always thought about prison. "Letter from A Birmingham Jail", Blood in My Eye, The Ten - Point Program of the Black Panther Party, The Attica Prison Uprising, and Free Leonard Peltier! all shaped my political consciousness from the youngest of ages. I have always studied the prison -- even though my area of graduate study and expertise was more broadly focused on deviance and all aspects of social control - formal medical and informal, the prison and correspondingly the death penalty always loomed as the sanction of last resort the punishment fit for those who were to be most "feared" who represented at least in theory, the most dangerous of all rule-breakers. And soon it became comparatively clear that the definition and control of deviance was more closely linked to WHO the deviant was rather WHAT the deviant did. Some murderers were never arrested, others merely fined, and still others were imprisoned or executed. Same with all the rest: the robbers the assaulters the thieves the dealers of drugs and so on. Far from being mutually exclusive or race and class blind, systems of control are inter-dependent and over-lapping, and discretion often is shaped by discrimination. You can not be an honest scholar of the sociology of deviance without also being a scholar of social inequality of race class gender sexual orientation and age.
Race, class and gender are inextricably bound up with the definition and control of deviance. To the extent that the privileged and empowered "norm" is white, male, financially well off, heterosexual and adult, then people of color, women, the poor, GLBTQ persons, and the young become "the Other", the "abnormal", the "deviant". Further, these "Others" have been subject to labeling and social control based on the intersection of race, class, gender and other differences. The "matrix of domination" shapes access to systems of social control as well as to social opportunity. And, while there are "deviants" of all classes, all races, all genders and ages, the models under which they are controlled reflect their relative social status. It became clear that prison was not really for the "worst" of all offenders because corporate white-collar crime is responsible for a least 5 times more deaths each year and 10x more money lost than so-called street crime. Prison was a place for the poor, the black/brown, the young it was meant for those "others" we were lead to fear most.
So the prison is a site where justice was not served but where injustice was further re-inscribed, a place where punishment often does not fit the crime if there indeed was one, a place where social inequality was both the precursor and the antecedent. The prison is for me -- with the many who write from within the walls a site of resistance.
To be an abolitionist is just that to strive to create and rediscover alternatives to incarceration, to find solution to "crime" that restores communities rather than decimates them, it is to ask the difficult questions that push us to imagine an end to the reliance on the prison and related retributive sanctions. To say, yes, that prisons are obsolete.