Ideas

Look at a map with abolition sensibility and you'll see why prisons don't work: geographer

Geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore pioneered the study of how mass incarceration has shaped the American landscape. In this wide-ranging interview with IDEAS, Gilmore talks about her latest book, Abolition Geography, in which she brings together more than three decades of essays and lectures about how America — and Americans — have come to be.

Abolition Geography is a collection of more than 30 years of essays and interviews by Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Ruth Wilson Gilmore is the director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the City University of New York. Her most recent book, Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation, is a collection of her essays and interviews on the politics of abolition as theorist, researcher, and organizer. (Verso Books/Amaal Said)

Geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore is a pioneer in the study of how mass incarceration has shaped the American landscape. By centring prisons in her work rather than keeping them on the periphery, she says we can see how incarceration drains valuable resources from communities.

Her work is finding new audiences as an ever-growing number of people are pulled into the prison system. And as a founder of the contemporary prison abolition movement, she wants to make it clear that abolishing prisons isn't merely about doing away with the buildings. It's about "abolishing the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems." 

Gilmore's latest book, Abolition Geography, is a collection of more than 30 years of her writing on prison abolition and social justice.

In a wide-ranging conversation with IDEAS producer, Naheed Mustafa, Ruth Wilson Gilmore discusses community, solidarity, and prison abolition.

Here is an excerpt from their conversation.

Is prison reform a thing? 

Prison reform is a thing. Oh, my God. You have five more hours today? 

We in the contemporary abolition movement are fond of citing [Michel] Foucault, who was fond of pointing out that the modern prison, the prison we talk about, these large-scale institutions were themselves reforms — or reform of earlier practices, whether of the building style and misery or the kinds of punishment that was actually laid on to people's bodies by whipping or killing or deportation even. 

As Foucault put it, the prison that emerged in the context of so much movement — he called it a society of strangers on the move. So here we have this impersonal system, in theory, with laws equally applying to, as they say, the rich and the poor, but in fact, not the case. 

So one of the oldest prisons in the U.S. is the one that's in Trenton, New Jersey. It was built right at the end of the 18th century, and carved into stone  on the building it says: "That those who are feared for their crimes may learn fear of the law and be useful." So you already see the reform within that. And certainly both the panopticon system and then there's this other system called the Auburn system came into play around the same time, again, both to reform the methods of punishment, but also to reform the person who is being so methodically punished. 

Built between 1833 and 1836, the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton was a significant work of English architect John Haviland, who was known for his designs of prisons. This New Jersey example was the second prison built in the United States on the Pennsylvania penal system of solitary confinement. (Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress))

The buildings don't resolve the problem of putting a human in a cage for part or all of their life. We're right now in the context of a big fight in the city of New York, where on top of the fact that the previous mayor had planned to build four new shiny jails to close the notorious jail island called Rikers, which itself was opened to close the notorious jail island that was just next to it.

So on top of these new prisons that we've been fighting against for some years now, some new reform people popping up out of universities like Columbia, University of Texas and so forth, have said we have an idea for an ideal prison for women and gender expansive people. And it is going to be particularly feminist. Finally, we have designed the right prison, so we want to build it in Harlem, right down the street from Columbia, and it's going to be great. So that's what we're fighting, like carceral feminists, as well as reform people. There's always a fight.

Dr. Victoria A Phillips, co-chair of the NYC Department of Corrections Young Adult Task Force, at a rally in solidarity with inmates on a hunger strike, at the entrance to the Rikers Island jail complex in Queens, NY, Jan. 13, 2022. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

In one of your essays, you write, "A geographical imperative lies at the heart of every struggle for social justice. If justice is embodied, it is then therefore always spatial, which is to say part of a process of making a place." Do you mean literally that social justice considerations must be at the heart of how we physically build our communities, towns and cities? 

Yes, I do mean that. How we build our communities. I also mean that in terms of how we think about the use of land and water, how we think about people's ability to move around or stay put. And that's sort of one of the central contradictions of the 21st century, that some people would like to stay put and cannot. Other people would like to be on the move and are having a hard time. And I'm not romanticizing one or the other. But it really is a central contradiction. 

So building a social order, which some people have done at the margins throughout new territory where people can move about or stay put hood is absolutely essential. And there's always the territorial aspect to our lives, wherever we are. I mean, there's never not. 

Is there a place — real or imagined — that you think embodies or could embody this idea of social justice at the heart of how people live? 

Sure. I can look in real life at a bunch of places, some that exist now and some that tried to come into being in the past. And it's very important for me to preface this by saying I am not describing utopia – I'm not describing a place where all of the contradictions have been resolved and happiness is the fundamental experience of everybody in most places. 

So let us take a state, a currently existing state, the state of Kerala in southwest India. Again. It's not perfect, far from perfect, but it is a place in which the economic development project that the various governments of Kerala have put into motion — and kept into motion — has gone away from the capitalist imperative for growth and toward the goal of development in order to meet the needs of the 30 million people or so — people who are denizens of Kerala and people who pass through. Does that make it utopia? Of course not.

But it does mean by a measure that really struck me during the really terrible period of COVID back in April of 2021, that Kerala was one of the places on the Earth's surface that had, as part of its development scheme, had created the capacity to produce oxygen, not because there was a pandemic, but because it seemed like as part of the development scheme that being able to make oxygen would be a good thing for a state committed to the well-being of the people who live there. To do so, Kerala was one of the places where the as it were excess oxygen or surplus oxygen that was needed by people in the region who are not necessarily inside the border of the Kerala state was made available. 

But I can give you a different example. Not a state, a faith community, also India, also April 2021, also COVID. And that is near the capital, New Delhi, and then the states to the north and the west. There was quite a remarkable series of activities that were mostly brought to the public eye outside of India by way of the farmers and farmers strikes. Many of the farmers who led those strikes were from the Sikh community.

The Sikh communities, community centers, faith centers also had, through some process of consolidation of resources, had also developed the capacity to make, store and share oxygen. And again, in the case of that really terrible time in India in 2021, in Greater Delhi, the Sikh community made oxygen available to anybody who needed it, just as their community centers would make food available to anybody who knocked on the door who was hungry. 

So those are sort of two ways of thinking of social justice, territory, an expansive and unbounded way of producing and sharing resources. And then these two cases, one is a state and one is a faith community. So they're not identical.


*This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.

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