VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: Why We Are Abolitionists

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By Jamel Walker

 Whenever you conceptualize social justice struggles, you will always defeat your own purposes if you cannot imagine the people around whom you are struggling as equal partners. Therefore … if you think of the prisoners simply as objects of the charity of others, you defeat the purpose of antiprison work. You are constituting them as an inferior in the process of trying to defend their rights.

—Angela Y. Davis¹

For quite some years now, many who consider themselves as part of the prison reform movement are discussing “mass incarceration,” “prison industrial complex,” “prison reform,” “prison abolition” and “decarceration.” Since the televised murder of George Floyd in 2020, these voices have grown louder. Although it may have been difficult for many of us to hear from the deafening silence of the isolation of our incarceration, there is an abolitionist movement in our country. Through our writings, we must raise our voices above the deafening silence.

As incarcerated journalists for the Vanguard Incarcerated Press, we have a unique opportunity to distinguish ourselves from other prisoner-generated publications currently available. We accomplish this by focusing on our mission of social justice, radical prison reform, prison abolition and shining a bright light into the darkest corners of the carceral system. As incarcerated journalists, we have an ethical obligation to be objective in our writing and reporting. However, because we are best positioned to speak truth to the power imbalance between the captors and we the captive, we have a specific obligation to write articles from a prison abolitionist perspective. In fulfilling our obligation, we are called upon to, report and speak about eliminating mass incarceration, sexual and gender-based violence, and other systemic abuses; promoting racial and economic justice, and the abolition of the carceral system.

In short, the foundational mission of our organization, and your role in it, is to write from a radical reform prison abolitionist perspective.

Radical Reform and Prison Abolitionist Perspectives

In carrying out our mission of radical reform, we will write the stories that are critical of the current system perpetuating harm and exploitation of incarcerated citizens, their families and supporters. As radical reformists, we do not perpetuate previous modes of reform. As Rachel Herzing of Critical Resistance explains, reformers “see the system as broken —something that can be fixed with some tweaks or some changes.” The reformer’s end goal is “criminal justice reform” because they ” believe there is something worth improving.” In contrast, from our abolitionists’ perspective, we recognize the system as working as designed. With this recognition, our goal is not to improve a system that perpetuates harm and exploitation of those directly affected. Instead, our goal is to take deliberate, incremental steps to assist in dismantling the system. While we do not seek to perpetuate previous modes of reform, we recognize the efficacy of reforms such as the abolition of the death penalty, an end to solitary confinement, college education for the incarcerated, and an end of the systemic abuse visited upon the incarcerated, their families and supporters, at the hands of correctional officers. We consider these to constitute radical reforms. We believe that, with a radical reform and prison abolitionist perspective, we will function as radical prison abolitionist journalists. As such, our writing will serve as the instruments to promoting radical reform, and the eventual dismantling of the prison industrial complex.

Radical Reform

What does ” radical reform,” “prison abolitionist” and “prison abolitionist journalist” mean? We derive our definition of “radical” from Ella Baker, one of the architects of the civil rights movement. For her, radical simply means, “getting down to and understanding the root cause.” Thus, part of our mandate is to write stories that will help our audience understand the root cause of the systems of oppression under which the incarcerated live.

In their article, “Reforms for Radicals? An Abolitionist Framework,” Professors Marbre Stahly-Butts and Amna A. Akbar define radical reform as consisting of several elements. They explain that radical reforms, among other things: seek to shrink the system while repairing past harm; rely on alternative modes of political, economic, and social organization; build and shift power into the hands of those directly affected, who are often Black, brown, working class, and poor. Informed by the writings of 20th century Socialist and French Austrian philosopher, Andre Gorz, Stahly-Butts and Akbar discuss Gorz’s concept of a non-reformist reform. As Gorz explains, a non-reformist reform is “a reform implemented or controlled by those who demand it.” As radical reform abolitionist journalists, we control the demands for transformative change by writing articles that can affect change. Stahly-Butts and Akbar encapsulate this concept by informing us that those closest to the problem are experts in its solutions. We are closest to the problem. Therefore, we are the experts qualified to write about solutions that will work for us.

Prison Abolitionist and Prison Abolitionist Journalist

In seeking to understand what prison abolition is, it may be helpful to understand our conception of what it is not. By prison abolition, we do not mean the immediate and indiscriminate opening of prison doors, or the immediate tearing down or closing of all prisons. As prison abolitionists, we believe in the need for a radical transformation of the social constructs that lead us to believe that prison is an inevitable and necessary tool. As incarcerated citizens, we understand the social dynamics that led us to prison: racism, poverty, and childhood traumas. We also clearly understand that because prison is a violent, dehumanizing, oppressive institution, built on the legacy of chattel slavery, it is working as intended. Therefore, from our vantage point, we are in the best position to identify the changes that need to occur to make prison obsolete.

No longer can we tolerate the deafening silence of the isolation of our incarceration. Despite our present state of incarceration, the Vanguard calls upon you to assist in this noble cause. We call upon you to write articles that can raise the consciousness of your fellow citizens, both captive and free. Will you rise to this challenge, or remain content with remaining silent?

¹ Angela Y. Davis, Distinguished Professor Emirita, Univ. of Cal., Santa Cruz, Interview in Brussels (Sep. 21, 2014).

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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