Response: “A Word on Words”

Disagreements between prison abolitionists and those advocating sustaining prison reform may come down to words, but those words matter.

Inmates in the Alcatraz dining hall, unknown date. Carl Sundstrom / Wikimedia

It’s good to see a response to my piece, “How to End Mass Incarceration,” from Dan Berger, Mariame Kaba, and David Stein. The fact that we don’t appear to disagree on much in practice suggests that the debate is about words — but it also shows that what prison abolitionists point to as evidence of their best work is being done in the register of reform. This work tacitly accepts the legitimacy of the state’s role in social welfare, including public safety. On this point, we seem to agree. Otherwise, the piece reads like a list of product endorsements, a compendium of individuals with name recognition, and a list of groups whose effectiveness has not been demonstrated.

To me, this suggests that we’re not really having a meaningful exchange.

My question was not, “Who are the social actors and groups out there that adhere to an abolitionist goal?” Any answer to such question would describe a wide array of committed, conscientious people. It was, rather: Should abolition be the normative goal of the socialist left? My answer was no, and I rehashed the history of mass incarceration and gave some comparative context — basically a synoptic review of really existing social-democratic models — to try to make my case.

I also encouraged prison abolitionists to make their case for abolition proper: the goal of a world without prisons. The authors avoid this question, but a review of the movement’s literature suggests a lot of vague gestures and magic asterisks on the subject. At their most cogent, abolitionists often say something like what Jeannie Alexander says in Abolition Journal:

To be clear, we recognize that when harm occurs in a community it may be necessary to separate those whose immediate physical actions have resulted in harm to another. Social separation has its place. However, successful social separation should be as brief as possible and should result in the restoration of the individual to his or her community and the restoration of victims and their families.

In other words: they reinvent the minimalist rehabilitative prison.

So perhaps we don’t disagree on much, truly. Except for words — which after all have meaning. We desperately need to find ways to be more effective, and the words that we use are part of the problem. This is true for the broader Left as well.

“Prison abolition” (as opposed to sustained prison reform) is one of a number of slogans that cultivate a strong in-group sense of rightness and morality but hobble the socialist left and render it ineffective. Such slogans appear viable to many in part because they allow for ambiguity. For instance, some abolitionists take the term figuratively; for them, it really is no more than a choice of words, a way of marking a desire for a radically different future. Others, however, insist that it literally is the goal, and by way of example gesture broadly at how people once organized kin-based self-defense, vigilantism, and communitarian justice in the time of weak states.

Make no mistake about it, many who march under the banner of “prison abolition” are clear about their moral stance but confused about their aims and goals, and thus they spin complicated stories to paper over the gaps and fissures in their ranks.

Such words variously condense, muddle, and distort substantive disagreements on the Left. They are part of the legacy of forty years of ineffectiveness on the Left, and keep us on the margins. Unable to win the kind of social-democratic reforms that the working classes in other developed countries have benefited from for decades, we decide instead to pursue agendas far beyond what any society has ever reached. We lose; we rhetorically move further to the Left; we lose even more; we go yet further to the Left rhetorically.

It is this cycle — not open debate over aims and goals — that is ultimately destructive. It ends in empty slogans and hollow words whose meanings not even proponents can understand or agree to.