If you believe in human rights, the world is dim right now. What do we do when the old ideas and systems aren’t working, and new ones remain elusive or are actively blocked? We suggest there is much to be learned from the work of scholar-activists who have been treading a long, uphill battle: prison abolitionists. They provide an example of how to simultaneously think and act against enormous odds, and how to invest in a future that is fundamentally different from where we stand today.
Today, the prison abolition movement in the United States seeks to transform how we think about justice — and enact it. As part of this movement ourselves, we want to be unambiguous: the abolitionist goal is to end the use of prisons and jails. The challenge is how to get there. (While some of us would like to bulldoze them to the ground right now, Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us that “We’re in a long game.”) This journey — the vision, ethics, practice, innovation, and coalition building embedded in the abolitionist’s journey — can inspire those seeking justice in the face of militarized US foreign policy.
Abolition begins with a refusal to reproduce the systems and practices that we aim to dismantle. Prison abolition means lifting the blinders that predetermine how we respond to social ills. It forces us to ask: What practices and policies become possible if our starting point is that caging humans is no way to remedy harm? This question makes us innovate. We begin to imagine a future that is not determined by today’s injustices.
We see immediate paths to action under four guiding principles: praxis, solidarity, repair, and harm reduction. Praxis is what Paolo Freiere described as transforming the world through reflection and action. Theory and practice are not separate: the leading “thinkers” of abolition are engaged with groups that are struggling to end prisons. Two of the most famous contemporary abolitionists provide examples: Angela Davis was a leader with the Black Panthers and Gilmore worked with the Los Angeles-based Mothers Reclaiming Our Children.
Repair begins with a holistic critique of current systems, exposing their racist and exploitative bedrocks. It critiques racialized, state-based policies, logic, and institutions that are designed to surveil, perpetrate violence against, control the movement of, and incarcerate people from impoverished communities — specifically Black and brown communities. It knows that the carceral system is working as intended, with crisis-producing impacts that fracture these communities. Abolition demands that we recognize the harm-reproducing policies of the status quo, which are so far from anything resembling “justice” or “accountability.”
Militarization of foreign policy mirrors carceral logic in the reliance on surveillance and use — or threat — of force to maintain exclusionary, racialized international hierarchies.
Critique is just the starting point. Repair means rethinking justice: no longer a singular quid pro quo that puts the burdens of harm and recovery on individuals. In other words, repair means that abolition is a community-building project. For example, the Boston-based organization, Families for Justice as Healing, is leading a movement for a moratorium on building prisons — notably a proposed new women’s prison the organization has resisted for years. Instead, they provide minimum income, a food pantry, and participatory defense to build up the communities that have been historically overpoliced and under-resourced.
Solidarity is crucial to sustainable radical movements. It means learning from the agency, leadership, and expertise of directly impacted people. Solidarity is an everyday practice that requires self-reflection. For example, when is it helpful, stand up, and when is it more appropriate, stand back. It’s also always important to work in coalitions. Since the abolition movement operates with affinity groups, their tactics may differ. However, there tend to be overlapping political ideologies. For example, the Black Lives Matter Movement is not a prison abolitionist movement but shares many of the same ethics. Since the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, more individuals and organizations are being led to the prison abolition movement as they explore what it means to demilitarize their communities.
Finally, harm reduction ethics begins with a question: Will any given policy demand an increase or decrease in the amount of surveillance, policing, and incarceration in peoples’ lives? The answer determines whether or not any given action is worth pursuing. In this vein, the Transformational Prison Project works with youth in detention. Their goal is not to improve the detention system but to empower young people to build their futures outside of it.
Through refusal, praxis, repair, solidarity, and harm reduction, the abolitionist response offers a framework for thinking and acting on matters of justice that expands far beyond ending prisons and the American context of mass incarceration. It is a strategy that can contribute to globalizing discussions about the demands of justice in an international context that is structured by racial, economic, and social hierarchies. It is especially relevant to arenas where these hierarchies are maintained through militarized “security.”
APPLYING ABOLITION TO FOREIGN POLICY
Through our work on both US “domestic” issues related to mass incarceration and international issues related to conflict and peacebuilding, we find untapped synergies. Abolition does not culminate in a comprehensive theory of or strategy for action in the world today, but it does offer strategies for conceptualizing and acting in the world. This work is particularly relevant for those who operate from the United States as a challenge to re-conceptualize how domestic agendas intersect with and implicate foreign policy debates. Above all other issues, abolition is relevant to the steady militarization of foreign policy — and is the international parallel to carceral logic.
Militarization of foreign policy mirrors carceral logic in the reliance on surveillance and use — or threat — of force to maintain exclusionary, racialized international hierarchies. A few examples provide illustrations.
First, the United States is constantly pursuing policies that rely on weapons sales to cement foreign policy relationships, such as sales to Saudi Arabia. The accelerating arms races in Europe and Asia also serve as good examples. For years, the United States has demanded that all NATO countries increase their share of GDP on defense budgets. The result is global military spending that has, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, reached a shocking all-time high: $2,240 billion
Third, Russia’s war in Ukraine is informed by the militarized/policing of fortress Europe and the American southern border. President Vladimir Putin’s choice to invade Ukraine didn’t end a period of great power military interventions but rather followed decades of US interventions during the “Global War on Terror.” While the war in Ukraine demonstrates that no people or places are safe from militarized policies, more regularly, it is Black and brown bodies that are harmed and communities that are fragmented by these practices. The widespread targeting of civilians and labeling of people as terrorists in Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond was based on the false premise that the United States could kill its way to safety.
And then, there is atrocities prevention. Too long anchored in assumptions about enabling military intervention — even when it was clear few interventions would occur — a strategy of civilian protection that eschewed intervention could transform assumptions about when and how foreign policy prioritizes civilians’ safety. No longer a crisis-driven afterthought, protection should inform foreign policy.
HOW ABOLITION CAN HELP
A strategy of abolition instructs us that even while it is difficult to see beyond today’s practices, we can refuse to accept them. Peeling off the blinders that predetermine militarization as the response to international threats is not a luxury. It is necessary if we want to invest in a different future.
Understanding the complexity of the world means a holistic critique of interlocking economic, political, racialized, and gendered ecosystems. It requires community building as a priority. It is an imperative to harm reduction: to foregrounding policies that refuse to accept expediency when care is what is required. And if a different future matters to you, it means working harder so that existing policies do not cage policy-relevant research.
It sounds idealistic, we get it. But prison abolition instructs us that grounded and engaged idealism is exactly what we need, and it is possible to start immediately before all the answers are ready. We cannot wait for the perfect theory or moment: we act now.
Bridget Conley is the Research Director of the World Peace Foundation and Associate Research Professor at the Fletcher School.
B. Arneson is the Director of the World Peace Foundation’s Global Arms Trade and Corruption program and a Research Coordinator for the Corruption Tracker.