Decarceration: A New Strategy Against Prisons

by Dan Berger

From PHN Issue 16, Spring 2013

We are at the beginning of a new movement against the prison. It works to shrink the prison system by using radical critique, direct action, and practical goals for reducing the reach of imprisonment. I would like to call this a strategy of decarceration. It is the demand to close prisons and reduce policing—but also to open schools and build communities. It is a strategy that takes advantage of political conditions without sacrificing its political vision.

As the critique of mass incarceration grows, the current economic crisis can make mass decarceration more possible, because states want to cut spending.

In the past two years, we’ve seen an unprecedented number of prison strikes: a statewide labor strike in Georgia prisons; massive California hunger strikes that had 12,000 people refusing food and demanding basic human rights; strikes in Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia prisons; and a recent hunger strike by two transgender women prisoners in California. That these strikes have come mostly from people in long-term solitary confinement and have taken the form of life-or-death hunger strikes is a sign of how dire conditions in American prisons have become.

It is also a sign of a new mood of opposition and possibility inside American prisons that is increasingly matched by outside social movements. The Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement, Students Against Mass Incarceration, the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, Decarcerate Pennsylvania (PA), and similar groups are new signs of organizing at the community level. The Occupy movement—and the police violence it experienced—inspired the Occupy for Prisoners day of action. And several undocumented youth around the country have voluntarily been arrested and risked deportation in order to investigate and organize against the conditions inside federal detention centers.

The movements against prisons unite people inside and out organizing against mass incarceration, detention of immigrants, and solitary confinement; people doing work around re-entry, HIV/AIDS, and environmental and education justice; prisoner efforts to self-educate and stay connected to the outside, and political and politicized prisoners. Critique and awareness mean little without organizing, agitating, and mobilizing. It’s going to take all of us to win. Decarcerate USA!

Dan Berger works with Decarcerate PA and teaches at the University of Washington at Bothell. This is an excerpt of a speech at the Mass Incarceration in America conference at Temple University in Philadelphia on November 29, 2012.

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