Teaching Against the Prison Industrial Complex

Radical Teacher, Teaching Against the Prison Industrial Complex

Radical Teacher is a socialist, feminist, anti-racist journal on the theory and practice of teaching. Click here for more.



By Shana Agid, Michael Bennett, and Kate Drabinski

Angela Davis begins her influential book Are Prisons Obsolete? by pointing out how naturalized the system of mass incarceration has become in the United States. She observes that “the prison is considered an inevitable and permanent feature of our social lives,” rendering the very idea of prison abolition “unthinkable and implausible” (9). For many, even if we might think current models of imprisonment are untenable—that there is something wrong with putting millions of people in cages in an attempt to solve social problems—doing away with prisons absolutely just seems impossible, politically and morally. It is as if the logic of incarceration has become so inexorable that we simply cannot imagine our lives or our safety without prisons.

When we proposed that this issue of Radical Teacher focus explicitly on teaching abolition of the prison industrial complex (PIC), there were worries from many on our Editorial Board that we would be unable to find enough people teaching from this point of view to write for the issue. Others expressed reservations about the political goals of abolishing prisons and the systems that support, maintain, and legitimate them. Severing prisons from systems of profit makes sense; getting rid of prisons altogether is a much harder sell. As editors actively teaching about prison abolition, we knew we could easily find a critical mass of radical teachers pushing to get their students to imagine the unimaginable, and we were right about that. We received proposals from people teaching abolition from preschool and secondary school through various university settings. And we also knew that this issue was urgently needed, precisely because the very notion of a world without prisons is so immediately controversial. Teaching our students to imagine this new world demands radical teaching at its best and most challenging.

The conversations we had during meetings of the Editorial Board of Radical Teacher mirrored the debates on the left about how best to resist the PIC. Many members of the Board felt that the contemporary PIC abolition movement was utopian in the pejorative sense—a pie-in-the-sky faction ungrounded in the socio-political possibilities of this historical juncture. Others expressed the commonly held fear that prisons, though overly relied upon in the United States, are necessary institutions to house those members of society who have caused certain kinds of harm, such as murderers, rapists, and perpetrators of hate crimes. While those of us on the left might imagine ourselves to be less inclined to be persuaded by arguments for the necessity of prisons based on the racialized “threat” of the “criminal,” we sometimes have a hard time knowing where else to turn to address violence against queer people, people of color, immigrants, and others.

And what, our fellow radical teachers asked, of other approaches to resisting the PIC? Why not focus on model programs for teaching in prisons, the literature of prisoners themselves (see, for example, H. Bruce Franklin’s excellent syllabi for courses on Crime and Punishment in American Literature at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~hbf), or efforts to decriminalize recreational drugs and so rob the PIC of its most lucrative business? (We received an interesting query from Jack Cole, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), who directed us to the useful videos and reports posted on his organization’s website, http://www.leap.cc.) Some of the thoughtful essays that developed from proposals we received on each of these topics will be appearing in future issues of Radical Teacher. However, we decided to focus the current issue on what seems to us to be the cutting edge of radical politics with regard to the PIC—the abolition movement.

In some ways, the idea of prison abolition is nothing new, with a genealogy stretching back at least to the 1970s, when the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommended that prisons be phased out because “the prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure” (597). The Prison Research Education Action Project first published Instead of Prisons in 1976 (See Barraclough in this issue on using this resource in the classroom). Since that time, the mounting U.S. wars on drugs, crime, and terrorism that fueled the massive growth of the U.S. prison system through the last three decades have led scholars, activists, and those living in and with the system of the PIC to see theorizing its abolition as a frame necessary to any contemporary understanding of the themes it touches: race, class, gender, sexuality, borders, geography, capitalism, work, safety, harm, intersectional identities, etc. The radicalism of the proposal to abolish prisons and related systems allows for a bigger conversation about what it will take to build a world in which people might really have self-determination and the capacity to try to make for ourselves the kinds of safety we need. This conversation can be found in Angela Y. Davis’ recent work, as well as in the analysis offered by Ruth Wilson Gilmore of the prison as a “congealed” form of “surplus land, capital, labor, and state capacity” (28); in Joy James’s assertions that the closest cognate to the prison is “(neo)slavery” or Michelle Alexander’s likening of the PIC to the “new Jim Crow”; and in Julia Sudbury’s edited collection Global Lockdown, which examines the inter- and trans-national growth of the PIC and specifically its gendered permutations and effects. These are just some of the key texts that have come to define the anti-PIC movement, along with on-the-ground movement building and everyday action on the part of people resisting the PIC and its permutations.

The growth of the prison abolition movement is evident in this flood of scholarly and activist work in the last decade (see the list of Works Cited at the end of this introduction for some exemplars) and the increasing number of organizations advocating for the abolition of the PIC or alternatives to incarceration in response to violence, including the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, Socialist Resistance, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, the Audre Lorde Project in New York City, the TGI Justice Project in the San Francisco Bay area, and Critical Resistance (see the CR10 Publications Collective and resources section at the end of this introduction). Even scholars in critical criminology and political philosophy who do not go as far as abolition are reaching a consensus that the true causes of so-called “street crime”—poverty, guns, drugs, and prisons themselves—are best addressed not through prisons but through policies like “effective gun control, decriminalization of illicit drugs, and, of course, amelioration of poverty” (Reiman 43).

Meanwhile, abolitionists are working to imagine other ways to respond when people hurt each other and to thwart the PIC both through direct challenges to mass incarceration (stopping prison construction, proposing strategies for decarceration, challenging sentencing laws, and advocating for community-based alternatives to incarceration) and by building other social entities that are needed to keep people out of prison: popular education, community gardens, medical and mental health care (including adequate drug and alcohol rehabilitation), and legal services, as well as access to good education and a basic socio-economic framework for self-determination. Abolition is a movement for a broader and more inclusive safety not maintained by outside forces or by force and violence. Some have made compelling connections between the current abolition movement and the 19th-century anti-slavery movement, arguing that making this link is an important part of contemporary left pedagogy, as in H. Bruce Franklin’s contribution to a recent Radical Teacher forum on “Radical Teaching Now”: “[a]ny radical teacher who is not teaching today about the American prison is like a radical teacher who was not teaching in the 1850s about American slavery.” The contributors to this issue of Radical Teacher recognize this historical continuity and are trying, in various ways, to resist the crimes of the PIC.

This issue begins with Dylan Rodriguez’s essay framing the stakes of teaching abolition from both a political and pedagogical perspective. Why is it important to teach abolition, and how might that teaching require us to change our very models of education? These stakes are explored in the articles that follow. Jessi Lee Jackson and Erica Meiners write about teaching against the prison industrial complex to high school and university students whose personal lives are touched by the PIC every day. They ask us to think critically about the division between “good” and “bad” people, a division that underlies all carceral logic. Melissa Ooten talks frankly about the successes and failures she has had teaching abolition in different classes with different approaches. Ooten lets us see inside her pedagogical process, and offers practical strategies for planning coursework about abolition in classes with broader focuses. Laura Barraclough shares her experience teaching abolition at a small liberal arts college to a student population that sees itself at a distance from the problem of prisons. Barraclough shows how course organization and active reflection assignments can bridge the gaps between personal experience and political possibility in the context of anti-prison work. The issue ends with Paul Lai’s roundtable discussion with students. Using electronic discussion boards, Lai lets students speak for themselves about their own learning process and thoughts on prison abolition after Lai’s course on the subject. These students offer invaluable insights into what works in the classroom from a student perspective. Our authors share with us a commitment to the importance of teaching abolition in the face of overwhelming resistance to the very mention of the idea. This is radical teaching at its best and most important, demanding that we push ourselves and our students to imagine a world beyond what seems possible, a world without cages.

Radical Teacher, number 88, Summer 2010, co-edited with Kate Drabinski and Michael Bennett
Cover Art by Kinnari Jivani “Squeezonomy” (front) and Alan Norberg “Count Time” (back), artists working with the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan


Works Cited
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

Franklin, H. Bruce. “Radical Teaching Now.” Radical Teacher 83 (Winter 2008): 15.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2007.

James, Joy, ed. The New Abolitionists: (Neo)slave Narratives And Contemporary Prison Writings. Albany: SUNY Press, 2005.

National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals. Task Force Report on Corrections. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1973.

Prison Research Education Action Project. Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists. Oakland: Critical Resistance, 2005.

Reiman, Jeffrey. The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998.

Sudbury, Julia, ed. Global Lockdown: Race, Gender, and the Prison Industrial Complex. NY: Routledge, 2005.