What Do We Do While Waiting to Realize Prison Abolition?

What was your worst relationship like? Mine cost me over $55,000—and taught me important lessons about what it means to be an abolitionist in today’s society. 

Dre (not his real name) was largely raised by his grandparents as his mother was struggling with substance use issues and his father was incarcerated. At the age of 12, he was expelled from school after leading friends to steal from other students during gym class. 

What happens to children when educators gifted with the responsibility to care for them call police and expel them from their learning community? Those children don’t cease to exist—they are sent somewhere. And, like the African proverb “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth,” the anger, humiliation, and hurt from being alienated goes with them.

In Dre’s case, months after being expelled at just 13 years old, he spent a year in juvenile detention for attempted murder after stabbing another child several times during a fight. Soon after his release, he joined a gang and started selling drugs.

I met Dre when we were both 19. I, a young Black woman at a predominantly white college, preferred hanging out with him and his friends to the frat kids on campus. As I went on to law school and into the criminal legal system reform space, Dre cycled in and out of prison.

I visited him in prison at times, but we inevitably lost touch over the years. As a society, we have chosen to invest billions of dollars in punishment, an investment that often results in the mistaken assumption that the system “holds people accountable” when it really does anything but. One of the many unwritten goals of that system is to isolate people from their community, making it even harder for them to avoid the psychological damage that comes with the violence and inhumanity endemic to the concrete and metal institutions we’ve erected to keep “good” people “safe.”

What’s the Point of Police if They Can’t Keep Us Safe?

In summer 2020, I received a call from a random number. I almost didn’t answer, but when I did, I recognized the all-too-familiar “you have a call from _______, an inmate at …” It was Dre.

That phone call restarted our relationship. We began talking daily. That fall, the day after he was released, I drove down to see him. He was on parole for nine months in the South, while I was living in Maryland at the time.

I allowed Dre to lease a vehicle in my name because he needed a mode of transportation. Next, to help him escape a racist parole officer who was intent on sending him back to prison, I got him an apartment in a nearby county, also in my name. Then, of course, he needed a legal way to make a living. I let him lease a cargo van in my name so he could start a moving company, hooked him up with a friend willing to hire him for a temporary remote job, and loaned him money. 

Sure, some of these were reckless decisions on my part, but sometimes we do the wrong things for what we assume are the right reasons (i.e., love and a sense of obligation). Plus, he promised to return the loan and make the monthly payments on the apartment and two cars. I trusted him.

Two months after his release, Dre’s grandmother, the woman who raised him, passed away. He spiraled into depression, doing drugs, sleeping all day, and taking his anger out on me. I was lucky if I could go five minutes without him calling me a “stupid bitch,” telling me I was “nothing,” and that I would “die alone” because no one else would want me. At times, he would go so far as to say things like, “If I get you pregnant and you kill my baby, I’ll beat you to death.” When I found out he had been cheating pervasively, he blamed it on me.

Notwithstanding personal responsibility, mental illness is real. Yet we have made it easier to access a gun than to access trauma-informed, culturally appropriate mental health support. This is amplified by the fact that, faced with the PTSD-inducing daily stressors of being Black in America, few of us have even learned how to identify when we need help.

Dre eventually blew off the job I got him and wasn’t doing anything to start a business with the van. A voodooist, who had become a father figure to Dre, convinced him he was going to be a famous rapper one day. In the interim, he returned to selling drugs and took up scamming, namely in the form of credit card and unemployment fraud. Unsuccessful in his criminal pursuits, he didn’t make enough money, and I was stuck paying his bills of roughly $2,500 a month, in addition to mine, for the better part of a year. I spent even more money—including taking a sizable, early withdrawal from my retirement account—to get the two vehicles and apartment out of my name. The verbal abuse and financial strain became so stressful I often woke up in the middle of the night in a panic.

One night, Dre went through my phone and came across a conversation where I expressed to a friend how overwhelmed I felt by him leaning on me for everything. He threw my phone at me and, when that wasn’t enough, followed me into my bedroom. He stood over me yelling as I sat on my bed. He wrestled me to the ground to get my phone from me and then destroyed it, leaving pieces of plastic and glass scattered across the floor. He finally calmed down enough to step out onto the balcony to smoke a cigarette, but when he came back in, he stood between me and the front door (the only exit from my 11th-floor condo) and told me, lit cigarette in hand, that he was going to “kill [me] and [my] dog.” He had previously described how he had killed people, so this didn’t feel like an empty threat. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. It was three police officers.

Apparently, my neighbors below me had overheard the altercation and called 911. I told the police I was OK. I wasn’t. I didn’t, however, want to feed another Black man into the criminal legal system, as I knew his re-incarceration would only compound his trauma while failing to solve his issues in the long term. 

I tried explaining my dilemma to one of the officers, also a Black man. He told me I could file a restraining order. I responded that, as an attorney, I knew a restraining order wouldn’t keep me safe. To my surprise, he nodded resignedly. What’s the point of police if they can respond to harm—often in even more harmful ways—but are not capable of protecting us?

One of the last weekends I saw Dre, he punched and choked his sister and beat her boyfriend with a tire iron for stealing from him. The next night, he was waiting outside my house with a knife to stab a member of my family.

I eventually managed to remove myself from Dre financially and physically. Still, the year I spent with him broke me down in ways I’m still unpacking. In quiet moments, I sit with myself, reflecting on the strength I didn’t know I had and the community I didn’t know I so desperately needed to get through it all.

Embracing Abolitionism

Some have insisted Dre “belongs” back in jail. But as an attorney who has dedicated my career to dismantling the criminal legal system, I have spent inordinate amounts of time in prisons and jails across the country, heartbroken while bearing witness to the realities of centuries of racism. 

I identify as an abolitionist because I know incarceration does not equal safety. Abolition is not as reductionist as firing all police and closing every prison tomorrow. As writer Rachel Kushner summarized in an article about abolition in The New York Times, “Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when … they ‘mess up.’” Leading abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and James Kilgore corroborated this in a commentary for The Marshall Project, saying, “Locking people up does not provide adequate housing, proper mental health treatment or living wage jobs.”

Many of the support systems that would help make abolition a reality are the same ones that would have met Dre’s needs and made him less likely to cause the kind of harm he did. But those supports were not and are still not there for him and others like him. So, as abolitionists, how do we operate in the world we have today? 

It’s easy to speak theoretically about not calling the police while dreaming of a society where everyone has access to the resources they need to thrive. But what happens when we find ourselves living in the world as it is, confronted by harm, and told the only solutions available to us are the ones birthed by white supremacy (i.e., police, prosecutors, prisons)? Do we give in and turn to systems we don’t believe in because we’re told they’re all we have? Or do we resign ourselves to suffering in silence? I think there’s another way.

Among other things, white supremacy feeds off the myth of individualism. As abolitionists we must therefore be rooted in community. So, what can that look like today as we continue to take collective steps toward realizing a healthier world? 

My relationship with Dre taught me three things to help answer this question:

First, we should all have safety plans before harm happens. This means connecting with our family, friends, and other community members to be clear about who can provide what type of support so we know who to call if and when something goes wrong.

Relatedly, we need to be there intentionally for one another, because, as Alex Mingus declared, “Police don’t keep us safe, we keep us safe.” Learning how and when to intervene in violent situations can take time, but we can start by creating radically safe, non-judgmental spaces for people to just be. Sometimes, all we need is a place where we can finally stop holding our breath. The people who created safe spaces for me were unknowingly teaching me how to ask for help. And when I did, my request was often met with ready willingness, no questions asked. I needed that as questions about why I remained involved with a person as traumatized as Dre would have made me retreat further into myself.

Finally, we have to stop falling into the trap of “cancel culture.” People like Dre aren’t born abusive, they come to be over time as they are pushed out from their communities. We have to let go of the myth that banishing people engaging in harmful behavior makes us safer. Relocating harm is not the same as addressing it. 

As adrienne maree brown so beautifully explained, “Canceling is punishment, and punishment doesn’t stop the cycle of harm. … Instead of prison bars we place each other in an overflowing box of untouchables … and strip us of … the complexity of being gifted and troubled, brilliant and broken.” She insists we “set down this punitive measure and pick each other up, leaving no traumatized person behind.” We belong to each other. And with that belonging comes an obligation to care for one another as we would ourselves.

There’s something beautiful and healing about taking a deeply painful experience and reframing it as an opportunity to understand what it really means to be in community and to do abolition, not just talk about it. Ultimately, it was my community’s many acts of abolition that saved me and that will change the world. And that is worth much more than $55,000. 

Sia Henry
is an attorney, abolitionist, and racial justice advocate. She is the founder and executive director of the Hood Exchange and a senior policy associate at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Sia graduated from Duke University and Harvard Law School. She can be reached at https://www.hoodexchange.org

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