Welcome to the 2nd issue of Jailbreak!, a digest of NYC-anchored prison abolition ideas, updates, and events. If you're just joining, this emerged out of a NYC-DSA Socialist Feminists prison abolition reading group. We hope to plug people into ongoing work; to share approachable entry points to understanding, talking about, and organizing for prison abolition; and to build community and coalition. You can reach us or request to join our listserv here, learn about our other projects and organize with us in the #abolitionaction and #jailbreak channels here, and submit events and article/art pitches for future issues here.
Abolitionist Spotlight: No New Jails Over the past year, the volunteer collective No New Jails has fought against jail expansion in New York City. An explicitly abolitionist group, No New Jails holds that new jails should not be built for the simple reason that jails should not exist. The group formed after the Close Rikers campaign endorsed the plan to replace Rikers Island with four new jails, and abolitionist organizers split off to form NNJ. Despite the City Council’s vote last month to open those new jails—one in every borough except Staten Island—No New Jails is far from finished with their work. Hope spoke with Mon, an activist, strategist, and designer from No New Jails about their campaign. This interview has been edited and condensed. H: Can you talk about what the feeling was among the NNJ folks when the plan passed, especially in light of the co-optation of abolitionist language to celebrate the plan’s passage? M: We were not surprised. We have seen, and have continued to see, non-profits, governments, and corporations co-opt the language of abolition to justify carceral expansion. This plan was never about getting people out of jail. The City Council was not going to become abolitionist overnight. If they wanted to close Rikers Island, they could have done it already. No New Jails started from nothing, and we won the effort to expose the city’s intentions. We have a lot of momentum right now.
H: Since the city council vote, what about No New Jails’ plans and strategy have changed? M: We want to continue doing work around mutual aid with folks who are currently incarcerated and returning home. We are supporting NYCHA residents as they organize in the movement for free housing in NY. We want to do political education, and build on the knowledge that is already there surrounding the connection between free housing and prison abolition. Finally, we will keep attempting to stop the new jails from being opened.
H: In your eyes, what might society look like in an abolitionist world?
M: That answer is created by hundreds of people. In NYC, it would look like closing Rikers Island now, supporting people who come home from Rikers Island, providing free fares on the MTA, providing free and accessible housing and public transport to all, creating non-coercive mental health services, and investing in our schools. If the city regularly chose to invest in its communities, that would help keep people safe and help people thrive.
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Soundbites for Skeptics
"To me, part of prison abolition and decarceration isn’t just about not sending people to jail, but also fundamentally rethinking what a crime is. So, to speak to the question specifically, if we weren’t defining specific things as crimes, then people wouldn’t be committing more crimes even if that behavior hypothetically did increase once it was decriminalized."
"Once people are sent to prison, they are stigmatized as criminals. Upon release, they see their job prospects plummet and are often pushed further into so-called criminality. Also, networks inside prison can introduce more organized and extreme forms of law-breaking to incarcerated people. In short, it’s prisons themselves that have a hand in manufacturing and perpetuating crime."
"Setting aside the question of what is considered “crime” (which is heavily entangled with class, race, and gender), there’s little evidence that incarceration is effective as a deterrent against law-breaking. Meanwhile, many incarcerated people end up ensnared in illegal activity just to survive brutal prison conditions and the poverty our society forces on formerly incarcerated folks."
"Is the threat of prison the reason why you are not committing credit card fraud, or assaulting people? If there were no prisons, would you suddenly start doing those things? Probably not. The reasons you’re not doing them is that your basic survival needs (and maybe even emotional and secondary needs) are being met, you have access to legal, relatively safe work, and you’re not living in a setting where you have to fight for scraps and you have to resort to desperate measures to get by."
"Many people currently incarcerated are awaiting court processes and have not been convicted of any crimes."
What Abolition Means to Me "Abolition means looking at the sources of systemic imbalances and not placing all of that weight on the individual." - Pooja R.
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