Prison Abolition Discussion Night

The Human Rights Coalition FedUp! hosted a prison abolition discussion night the first Wednesday of the month to talk about the history, context, and intersectionalities of working for prison abolition.

"Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another."

This month we read a chapter from the book The Slave Ship A Human History by Marcus Rediker.  The chapter was chapter 10, "The Long Voyage of the Slave Ship Brooks."  It focuses on the role of imagery and working class, sailor narratives in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.  A poster depicting horrific conditions of enslaved people was displayed before British Parliament and spread throughout newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Much like prisons today, slave ships were advertised by merchants and profiteers as safe, hygienic, and technologically forward enterprises.  Under similar guises, local architecture firm, Astorino, has been spotlighted by Decarcerate PA Pittsburgh for their work in expanding maximum security housing and solitary confinement cells across state prisons. (See criminal justice portfolio and language) The idea that prisons can be made better and safer and that reform movements are enough, and that figuring out ways to make prisons more cost and energy efficient is challenged by the work of prison abolitionists.

poster by Andalusia Knoll 2004

Here is a preview of the chapter contents, within the questions we used to have a conversation:

1. "Every man condemns the trade, but it requires the exhibition of particular instances of the enormity, to induce those to be active in the matter"
The image of the slave ship Brooks is a visual tool used to show horrible conditions and move people to respond. What images have moved you in this way? What images have worked for the prison abolitionist movement? Feel free to bring images you have seen to share. What images can we use and how?

2. "Knowledge must be concrete, material and human. Not an exaggeration, but a narration of miseries which cannot be exaggerated which extends to millions."
Do you think working for prison abolition is the telling of a narration of miseries? What sources do you tune into to find out about or spread this narration of miseries? If our group is participating in the creation of the narration of miseries, how are we doing it and is there room to change or improve?

3. Clarkson emphasized sailors' experience (as members of preferred white race and preferred european nationality) to appeal to British government and public to look at slavery. He wasn't looking at the conditions of the enslaved people, but the conditions of the sailors charged with keeping them enslaved. The sailors were organized by a merchant class.
How does this translate to the Prison industrial complex? How do corrections officers fit into the struggle for prison abolition? How has our group related to the correctional officer class in the past and how should we moving forward?

4. Compare and contrast: Similarities and differences from the strategies of abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and the abolition of the U.S. prison industrial complex.
e.g. Both abolitionists highlighted individual and collective acts of rebellion by slaves against conditions
e.g. like prisons, slaveships were presented to government officials as safe, modern, hygenic advances in science and technology

5. Reformers: The book indicates that one way that Britain came to outlaw the transatlantic slave trade was by reforming regulations for how many enslaved people could be housed on one boat, making it unprofitable for merchant class to continue human business when regulations were high. How has/ will reform efforts help work towards prison abolition?

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