Prison Abolition Syllabus 2.0

Angela Davis (Photo: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr)

Even in prison, rebellions are contagious. In 2016, a national prison strike led us to compile the Prison Abolition Syllabus on this site as a way to bring together some of the urgent and informed writings on the history of prisons and prison rebellion. Several developments have prompted us to update the syllabus: most importantly, a new national prison strike began on #August21. Incarcerated people chose the anniversary of the death of legendary prisoner author and revolutionary George Jackson to launch their strike. The strike will go until September 9, the anniversary of when the Attica rebellion began. The 2018 strike demands blend specific policy changes (such as repealing the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the Truth in Sentencing Act, and the Sentencing Reform Act) with broad transformations (including “an end to prison slavery” and “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.) The demands have provided a broad umbrella allowing prisoners to respond to local grievances. Within days, the strike had spread to an immigrant detention center in Washington as well as a prison in Canada.

Continuing the impressive national coordination begun in the 2016 strike, the current strike has garnered increasing media attention. Yet it takes place in a different context: the Trump administration came to power promising the racist canard of “law and order.” While private prison stocks spiked after Trump’s victory, most prisons remain government run and operated by individual states. And several cities or states have pursued limited reforms. New York City has removed the fee people had to pay when calling their loved ones from jail. But after a broad coalition came together in the #CLOSErikers campaign to successfully bring about the planned closing of the jail, Mayor de Blasio took their call to “build communities” and announced they would be opening four new “community-based facilities” in its place. California recently passed a controversial policy that would end cash bail but through a digital risk-assessment form of monitoring that activists have called “e-carceration.” The reform landscape remains fraught, as the right-wing billionaire Koch Brothers back new policing measures and rapper Jay-Z has invested millions in an app that offers a digital surveillance alternative to cash bail.

With more left Democrats echoing the call to #AbolishICE, we see how calls for abolition can quickly move from margin to mainstream. Thanks largely to the work of Black radical women such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Joy James, and Mariame Kaba as well as feminist-centered groups such as INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Critical Resistance, and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls (“The National Council” for short), most of today’s racial justice activists identify as abolitionists. Over twenty years after Davis, Gilmore, and the late Rose Braz helped launch Critical Resistance, and over a decade after the publication of the seminal texts Are Prisons Obsolete? and Golden Gulag, visions of prison abolition are more popular and sophisticated than ever.

Observing this landscape, the 2018 prison strike aims to not only win demands but build capacity of incarcerated people to resist and survive. Prison Abolition Syllabus 2.0 is a resource for those already doing this work and those looking to learn more. We hope it will help deepen understandings, renew commitments, and carry the goal of prison abolition forward from the 2018 strike.


Week 1. Theories and Origins of Punishment
Week 2. Race, Sex, Labor, and Prisons in the Early Republic
Primary Sources and Multimedia
Week 3. Convict Leasing, the Chain Gang, and Contesting the Southern Prison Regime
Primary Sources and Multimedia
Week 4. Punishment in the New Metropolis
Week 5. Anti-Lynching and Prisoner Defense Campaigns
Primary Sources and Multimedia
Week 6. Liberal Punishment and Its Discontents
Primary Sources and Multimedia
Week 7. The Civil Rights Movement, Prisoners, and Legal Reform
Primary Sources and Multimedia
Week 8. The Prison Rebellion Years
Primary Sources and Multimedia
Week 9. Anticarceral Feminism
Primary Sources and Multimedia
Week 10. Expanding the Prison Industrial Complex
Primary Sources and Multimedia
Week 11. Health, Justice, and Resistance in the Neoliberal Order
Primary Sources and Multimedia
Week 12. Juvenile Justice
Week 13. The End of Policing
Week 14. Carceral Intersections
Primary Sources and Multimedia
  • Behind Bars, directed by Louis Theroux (Kanopy Streaming, 2015).
Week 15. Voices from Inside
Primary Sources and Multimedia
Week 16. #AbolishICE
Week 17. The Future of Prison Activism
Primary Sources and Multimedia

Contributors 

Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author or editor of several books, including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era and Rethinking the American Prison Movement (coauthored with Toussaint Losier), and is developing a digital history of prisons and resistance in Washington state. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.

Garrett Felber is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement, and the Carceral State (UNC Press, 2019) and co-author of The Portable Malcolm X Reader with Manning Marable. In 2016, Felber co-founded Liberation Literacy, an abolitionist collective and radical reading group inside and outside Oregon prisons. Follow him on Twitter @garrett_felber.

Kali Gross is Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University. She is author of the award-winning books Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910, and Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America. She is also co-author of A Black Women’s History of the United States with Daina Ramey Berry (Beacon Press, 2019). Follow her on Twitter @KaliGrossPhD.

Elizabeth Hinton is John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the Departments of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of the award-winning book From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press, 2016). In March 2018, she co-organized (with Garrett Felber) the landmark conference “Beyond the Gates: The Past and Future of Prison Education at Harvard.” Follow her on Twitter @elizabhinton.

Anyabwile Love is an Assistant Professor at the Community College of Philadelphia. He earned a Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple University. He is currently writing a project on John William Coltrane. Follow him on Twitter @AnyabwileLove.

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