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Chapter twenty-two Critical Resistance and the Prison Abolitionist Movement Zoe Hammer The United States Prison Boom The incarceration rate in the United States has increased by more than 400 percent since the mid-1980s. As this massive expansion has taken place, we have been encouraged by media, politicians, and popular culture to believe that our society builds prisons as a response to crime. Prisons, we are told, remove dangerous individuals from society; individuals who have chosen to break our rules, and thus threaten our collective safety. This unexamined assumption has become axiomatic in public discourse—a form of “common sense.” However, research, experiential insight, and analysis offered by prison abolitionist scholars and activists in recent decades challenges this common sense, allowing us to understand that prisons not only do not keep our communities safe, they actually create the social problems they claim to solve. Critical Resistance (CR) is a grassroots prison abolition organization with chapters around the United States and a national office in Oakland, California. Formed in 1998, CR uses a multipronged set of strategies, including decarceration and decriminalization, organizing to reduce prison populations in various ways such as decriminalizing drug addiction and sex work; ending prison building, including closing existing facilities and stopping the construction of new prisons and jails; and the development of alternatives to incarceration, organizing new practices that do not rely on the use of imprisonment.1 The scholar activists who contributed to the founding of CR—former prisoners, prisoners and their loved ones, grassroots social justice organizers, and critical scholars from many fields—have conducted extensive research 13242_Human_Rights.indd 244 7/26/11 8:06 AM 245 Critical Resistance and the Prison Abolitionist Movement and analysis that demonstrates and explains why and how the U.S. prison system has exploded, and how its massive growth impacts communities and produces and perpetuates dynamics of inequality, poverty, and systemic injustice in the United States. Abolitionist Analysis With 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners, the United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate.2 A thirty-year prison building project, accompanied by waves of new criminal legislation, vast increases in the numbers, surveillance capacities, and interpenetrating functions of police, border patrol, and other law enforcement units keep this rate of incarceration growing (Parenti 2000). The contemporary U.S. prison boom is the result of many social forces, including: changing state spending priorities since the early 1980s favoring punishment and militarism over social spending and safety nets; vigorous economic development in some places at the expense of growing poverty in others; the disproportionate political influence of corporate interests; and mass consent born of a national history of racist violence (Davis 1995; Gilmore 1997, 1998/99, 2007; Davis 2003). One thing the prison boom is not a result of is increasing crime rates. U.S. crime rates have not gone significantly up or down since the early 1970s. The expansion of the U.S. prison system is enabled primarily through policy shifts, including: the increasing criminalization of everyday behaviors and of whole segments of the U.S. population, as well as a radical increase in the duration of prison sentences wrought by mandatory minimums; the abolition of parole; and other “tough on crime” measures such as three and even two strikes laws. This means that many more behaviors have been defined as criminal in recent years, and also that people convicted of crimes serve much longer sentences than ever before. A combination of racial profiling practices, racially targeted surveillance, and the practice of “sweeping,” which occurs primarily in communities of color, along with incredible racial disparities in sentencing (70 percent of arrests are white, 70 percent of prisoners are people of color) means that U.S. incarceration practices are not only clearly racist, but that they also create, rely on, and perpetuate racism and systemic racial disparity (Davis 1995; Gilmore 1997, 1998/99, 2007; Davis 2003). The impacts of the prison boom have come down hard on poor communities of color, particularly in regions, cities, and towns with high rates of unemployment and a lack of available job opportunities, dividing families, 13242_Human_Rights.indd 245 7/26/11 8:06 AM 246 Zoe Hammer locking up tens of thousands of children, parents, and young adults, often for decades, and using incarceration as the only solution for race and poverty related problems such as criminalization, homelessness, and the untreated addictions and illnesses of the uninsured and workless. As for the future, the...


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