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Building a world without prisons: ten years of Critical Resistance

In 1998, over 3,500 activists, artists, educators, radical lawyers, youth, indigenous people, immigrants, former prisoners and their families came together in Berkeley with the goal of building an international movement to end imprisonment as a response to deep-rooted social problems. Ten years after that first Critical Resistance conference and strategy session, the prison population globally has exploded.

In the U.S., the number of women and men held in cages has grown from around 1 million in 1998 to over 2.3 million today. Despite our best efforts, the use of imprisonment as a catchall solution to social problems – from poverty to addiction – has become more, not less, entrenched.

Those of us who believe that retribution and punishment are not the solutions need to pause, to rethink our strategies and identify new ways of organizing that may be more effective in the future.

Antiprison activists are in the midst of this process of reflection. The first Critical Resistance (CR) conference marked a turning point in social justice activism in the U.S. From that moment, we participated in the growth of a vibrant movement dedicated to building a country, and a world, without prisons. On Sept. 26-28 of this year, we hope that another 3,500 people will come together in Oakland, CA, to assess the state of the movement, and to explore the challenges we need to overcome to make our vision a reality.

CR has created a new language to talk about imprisonment, which has become standard in the activist, progressive media, and academic circles in the U.S. Rather than thinking about imprisonment as a response to crime, we began to explore the ways in which prisons had become embedded in the political and economic landscape, creating numerous interest groups – from politicians to private prison contractors -who profit from and are dedicated to continuing mass incarceration.

Since prisons clearly do not create safety or prevent crime – and the U.S. has to be the perfect case study for that reality – then the massive prison expansion we’ve been witnessing must exist for some other function. We found that function in the prison-industrial complex (PIC) – a symbiotic relationship between politicians, corporations, the media and government. This symbiotic entity generates mass racialized incarceration as a solution to the social problems caused by globalization and the state’s retreat from social welfare. This so-called solution, which only exacerbates the problems it claims to resolve, perpetuates its own existence.

A classic example of this is the war on drugs, which has hugely increased the number of people in prison-in particular, African Americans and Latinos, while draining public funds, which could have been used to fund treatment and to tackle the social problems leading to drug use.

In East Oakland, where I live, incarcerated people with addictions are released, with little to no recovery, into a community devastated by racism, poverty, violence and drugs – a situation rooted in three decades of neoliberal economic reforms – and then recycled back into the system when they relapse.

The PIC concept is, therefore, a powerful basis for mobilizing opposition by everyone who believes that their taxes should be building schools, hospitals, youth programs, treatment centers and women’s shelters, not warehousing people in cages. It is a powerful coalition-building tool. The PIC also shifts our focus from prisons to the entire web of policing, control and state violence that assaults poor communities and communities of color everyday.

Critical Resistance’s vision of PIC abolition states: “We . do not believe that any amount of imprisonment, policing, or surveillance will ultimately make our communities safer or more self-determined, prevent ‘crime,’ or help repair the damage that happens when one person hurts another…”

PIC abolition is about social and economic justice. We cannot simply dismantle prisons, jails and detention centers, we must also build self-determining communities that are fully resourced to meet their members’ needs. This is why the theme of CR10 is Dismantle, Change, Build.

To create a world where prisons are obsolete (to quote Angela Davis), we must also change the inequalities that cause harm at interpersonal and institutional levels; and build a society governed by the principles of social and economic justice.

A world without prisons is also a world with safe affordable housing, good nutrition, healthcare, a quality education and opportunities for creativity and healing for all. Put simply, a world in which everyone is valued enough to be treated as a human being cannot also sustain the violence and separation of imprisonment.

For more information and to register for CR10, go to: