A problem in our own backyard

If you are disturbed by what is happening in Gaza, it’s time to fight for prison abolition in the U.S., too

Grace Dugan is a freelance writer and career advisor who grew up in New Hampshire. She lives in the woods with her husband, cats, chickens, and a lizard.

Back in 2008, when I started as a freshman in college, I was quickly introduced to the plight of the Palestinian people by members of my college's BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction) movement.

At the time, it was a relatively niche progressive interest to speak up about justice for Palestinian people, but the movement at my college was strong and well-organized, and in 2009 we became the first college in the U.S. to divest financially from Israel.

Since October, I have been disturbed to watch the crisis in Gaza unfold and increasingly hopeful to see so many progressive people speaking out about this issue.

Younger people may be frustrated by the lack of progressive movement in the face of what appears to be attempted genocide, but I can say from experience that it is a big deal that such large pockets of our society care about this issue and are pushing for change.

Alongside the energy we put into this global political work, I believe it is critical that we spend an equal amount of time and energy fighting against the problems in our own backyards - especially because what happens in the U.S. is frequently pushed out into the world on a large scale.

Gaza is consistently referred to as an "open-air prison," which is both a horrifying and evocative descriptor. This is also not new thinking, as the scholar and activist Angela Y. Davis has published a book, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, on the intersections of the treatment of the Palestinian people and a variety of freedom struggles in the U.S., including prison abolition.

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In case you haven't been introduced to some of the disturbing facts about the U.S. prison system, I think it is important to provide some context.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 1.9 million people were incarcerated nationwide in 2023. This is about three times the population of Vermont being held in prison facilities. Of these humans, 427,000 have not been convicted of any crime - they are being held pre-trial.

About 13% of the U.S. population is Black, while a staggering 37% of incarcerated individuals are Black. Similarly disturbing statistics can be found for Indigenous people and other people of color as compared to white people.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 1 in 4 Americans (about 25%) has a diagnosed disability, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2016 that 38% of imprisoned people are disabled.

These numbers are unlikely to include those in mental institutions and behavioral health facilities that, while not technically labeled prisons, often hold people against their will and have many overlapping problems with prisons.

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery in most contexts, yet carved out a legal space for slavery within the prison system. As of a 2022 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, 800,000 incarcerated humans worked in prisons.

There are essentially no legal protections for these workers who do not have to be paid a minimum wage or work within conditions that don't meet basic safety standards.

One example is the use of prison labor in California to fight wildfires, a job that potentially earns inmates between $2.90 and $5 per day, with slightly higher wages paid during active fires, according to Smithsonian in 2022.

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Part of the prison system's impact on our cultural imagination is its tacit inclusion of sexual violence as a punishment on top of the incarceration of humans.

Sexual assault and rape are so baked into our cultural understandings of the prison system that they have been frequently relegated to a space of humor - a frightening thought in and of itself.

In Manchester, New Hampshire, we have the ongoing unfolding of the lawsuit against the Sununu Youth Services Center, a youth detention facility or child prison, where close to 1,000 people allege physical, emotional, and sexual abuse during their time at the facility.

This is one of many examples of the ways psychological, physical, and sexual abuse are actually supported by the prison system as an institution.

Any one of these facts should be enough to inspire a local and national movement to fight for prison abolition.

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People who are already deeply disturbed by the situation in Gaza may be able to have a larger local impact on this issue through progressive organizing within abolitionist movements.

That being said, I know that many people will respond with the question: "If we abolish prisons, what will we do about rapists and murderers?"

The fact of the matter is that our current prison system doesn't do anything in its design to prevent rape and murder in our communities.

As described above, frequently prisons normalize rape and violence as forms of effective punishment in and of themselves. We know just from a brief review of recent events, like the Brock Turner case, that violent criminals frequently get away with their crimes with minimal punishment - sometimes, even when they are convicted of their crimes.

In 2024, prisons are not nearly solving the violence that we experience in our communities and instead are siphoning resources from needed services like free, quality mental and physical health care, equitable public school systems, and free and low-cost housing.

According to the Vermont ACLU, Vermont spends $95,000 per year for each individual that it incarcerates. In New Hampshire, $144 million was spent on the prison system in 2023, compared to $7 million in 1983.

These staggering amounts of money could have hugely positive impacts on our communities and are instead being siphoned into an abusive system.

We now have the people power and political momentum to work towards change, so I ask that the people who have been fighting for a free Palestine also fight for freedom in our communities through prison abolition.

Further Reading

Are Prisons Obsolete?, by Angela Y. Davis

We Do This 'Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, by Mariame Kaba

This Voices Viewpoint was submitted to The Commons.

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