Reckoning with Carceral Technologies Through Abolition

*This post is part of our joint online roundtable with The Journal of Civil and Human Rights on Garrett Felber’s Those Who Know Don’t Say.

Free Them All (Rising Thermals, Flickr)

Abolition is a reckoning against the dialectic of carceral technologies and liberal reform. It is a revolution uprooting the vines ensnaring our consciousness, entwining us to believe we need the carceral state to live. To the contrary, the carceral state is designed to maim, kill, and disappear those it frames as the least desirable, legitimated under the guise of protecting those portrayed as the most deserving in society. Abolition destroys our enchantment with the carceral state as paternal white protector and savior and instead exposes the carceral state as the true virus of our time, a pathogen spreading and expanding each time it is tasked with reform.

Liberal reform seeks to revise within the carceral rather than imagine a world without it. Rather than die a swift death or even slowly, the carceral state evolves when faced with a direct challenge and further entrenches within our social institutions as a necessary administrator of social welfare—the carceral state is undergirded with the ultimate white liberal savior complex.  Reforming the carceral state is where the racial contract goes to receive diversity and inclusion training, curtail and conceal the most obvious thorns in its approach, and emerge with new, often less overt, though deadlier carceral technologies. Abolition is the only place Charles Mills’ racial contract goes to die.

In his groundbreaking book, Those Who Know Don’t Say, Garrett Felber draws our attention to the often underappreciated role of the Nation of Islam in initiating radical structural transformation. Felber brilliantly centers the Nation of Islam at the forefront of mid-twentieth century Black political theorizing and organizing against the carceral state. Though leaders such as Malcolm X “never explicitly advocated for the abolition of prisons . . . support for the abolition of the death penalty gestured toward a foundational fault line running through the history of U.S. penology” (187). I believe Felber’s book and its conceptual contribution presents a history that can be read as the Nation of Islam building cross-political coalitions to create an abolitionist solution to Black freedom. Not only did the Nation of Islam refuse the carceral state’s deadly promises for partial inclusion, but its members organized and risked their lives from within its darkest corners, revolutionizing solitary confinement cells and rigged courtrooms as sites of Black revolutionary challenges to the root of the carceral state. They were and remain political prisoners, meaning they are targeted by the carceral state for what they represent rather than “on the basis of their actions” (146). The Nation of Islam routinely identified the carceral state as white supremacy, explicit that it is not the Black community’s savior, but the cornerstone of our collective demise seeking to kill, steal, and destroy in the name of the nation state.

Felber’s analysis of the Nation of Islam’s organizing for Black freedom reveals the carceral state seeks to remain alive and well, by any means necessary, and will survive against struggles unless we recognize abolition as the only true reckoning. The only vital antidote to the dialectic of carceral technological expansion and liberal reform in the service of expanding disciplinary power. The Nation of Islam met this call with what Felber describes as “resistant self-discipline that was both individual and collective” (3).  The Nation of Islam paid a high price for their organized, disciplined response to the carceral state’s disciplinary power rooted in racial terror and capitalist oppression. Felber gifts us with the “dialectics of discipline” as a conceptual tool for understanding how the carceral state morphed alongside the Black Freedom Movement, refining its technologies of surveillance, control, and resulting domination when met with a coordinated, disciplined attack.

A consequence of this dialectic was the construction of carceral technologies based on information obtained through surveilling the Nation of Islam. Felber documents how information about the Nation of Islam flowed freely between correctional officers, prison officials, and state and federal law enforcement, directly impacting the expansion of carceral technologies in both ‘confined’ and ‘free society’—evidencing what Michel Foucault describes as the carceral continuum. By documenting how knowledge traverses across carceral space to produce and diffuse unbridled disciplinary power, Felber’s work unveils the interdependence between correctional institutions and policymakers in the collective pursuit of preventing Black liberation.

In times of distress, the carceral state responded with liberal reform. For example, policymakers and correctional institutions interpreted legal victories spurred by civil rights lawsuits brought on behalf of the Nation of Islam and its members as opportunities to develop new and revise existing carceral technologies, even legitimating the construction of more prisons. This phenomenon, the urge to reform and plant deeper roots—rather than abolish and render carceral technologies unnecessary—is seen across the country and documented in complementary books such as Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?, Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right, and Heather Schoenfeld’s Building the Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration.

Felber’s book also informs our current historical moment, as Black communities take to public spaces calling for the dismantling of the carceral state in the aftermath of generations of murderous white terror committed against Black people. We are witnessing collective protest led by Black communities wielded to discipline the carceral state at its root. The protests following the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd are a direct confrontation against the U.S. racial capitalist system, calling it out as the vile soul of the rotten carceral state.  As Felber’s book leads us to predict, the nation state’s response to the protests has been incredibly violent because the call is for abolition of its carceral structure and a refusal to dance the dialectic. Like the protests in the streets, prisons remain at the center of this historical struggle, which Dan Berger, Heather Ann Thompson, and Toussaint Losier remind us in their foundational work. Those organizing from within the belly of the carceral state in the prison system represent a longstanding collective stance that activists such as Frank Chapman have lived and written about as central to their abolitionist agenda.

We see yet again this push and pull of the carceral state watching and disciplining, with the community response being, ‘and we too are watching you’, and this time we will succeed in abolishing you.

Black feminists, as documented in Ashley Farmer’s Remaking Black Power, are once more at the forefront of this struggle. Building on the work of generations of Black activists in a moment of public reckoning, Mariame Kaba poignantly writes, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police: Because reform won’t happen.” The building blocks of abolition, including—a moratorium on prison construction, decarceration, and excarceration—reject the liberal reform agenda which celebrates the carceral state’s metamorphosis as it promises to protect and serve through newly revised carceral technologies. Abolition recognizes the dialectics of carceral technologies and liberal reform and responds not only with disciplining and dismantling the old, but with dreaming, imagining, and creating what Ruth Wilson Gilmore refers to as “vital systems” in the present.

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Brittany Friedman

Brittany Friedman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Northwestern University and researches race and prison order, penal policy, and the intersections between institutions and monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system. She is the author of the forthcoming book 'Born in Blood: Death Work, White Power, and the Rise of the Black Guerilla Family' (The University of North Carolina Press). Follow her on Twitter @CurlyProfessor.