At this political moment within the university, mass incarceration and its most recognizable constituents, the prisoner and the prison, are at a predictable tipping point: the violence of inclusion. Neoliberal multiculturalism appears capacious enough to hold select representations of mass incarceration in its pursuit of new markets and deft enough to deploy this difference to whitewash other forms of institutional violence. Building from a long genealogy of scholarship and organizing that maps the coconstitutiveness of the university with our prison-industrial complex, this essay makes visible emergent lines and arrangements of power and resistance that inhibit and build abolition.
David: My Dad bought our house in Berkeley in the late 1970s next to the now removed railroad tracks for around $32,000, a bargain because the house would shake just a little when the train ran by and because the tracks constituted a soft border of sorts through town. Our side of the tracks was primarily working-class families of color, many of them homeowners. Home ownership for working-class people of color seems now irreconcilable and almost unimaginable, as housing prices, particularly in West Berkeley, are exponentially high compared to what even upper-middle-class families make, much less working-class families—if that term even makes sense in this temporal and geographic context. We no longer have the house: that story is beyond the scope of this article.
When I returned to Berkeley in 2009, the city was unrecognizable, the result of advanced—swift, precise, and exacting—gentrification. In 2019 I visited the Apple Store in West Berkeley. I also walked into a home and garden shop. I shit you not, they had a cutting board assortment that ranged from $260 and up, with a $75 tray—a tray! The only people of color in this area of the neighborhood now are the migrant day laborers that stand outside a Truitt and White hardware store. Many of the families that used to live here worked not only in the now disappeared factories, warehouses, and businesses but also for the university. A job at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) was relatively decent then, and just as it is now, most of the service workers were Black and Brown folks.
As a UCB student I live in student family housing in a neighborhood adjacent to my childhood home. I am haunted by the remnants left in the wake of a carceral geography that eviscerated my hood, my people. In this haunting I see the faces of my missing comrades, death and imprisonment, and realize I am displaced in place, homeless at home. I am left to imagine an elsewhere right here.
We start with a recognition, for us, of the obvious. While the project of what some scholars now call critical university studies might be new,1 the underlying analysis is not.2 More recently, a wide body of scholars and organizers have named how the university is intertwined with our prison-industrial complex: Dylan Rodríguez identifies the long arc of the “gendered racist, apartheid, colonialist foundations” of the academy, or what Sandy Grande calls an “arm of the settler state.”3 Robin D. G. Kelley wrote that the university “cannot be radically transformed by ‘simply’ adding darker faces, safer spaces, better training, and a curriculum that acknowledges historical and contemporary oppressions.”4 Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell remind us “that there is no history of the university that is not also a history of capital accumulation and capital expropriation.”5 Feminists, particularly women of color, have consistently identified and challenged the de facto university response to their bodies, scholarship, and teaching: “presumed incompetent.”6 For us, far from a hallowed and romantic space of enlightenment, the university will not stop being racist, sexist, ableist, and heteronormative, nor will it redeem us/help us make good.7
And yet here we are. Both of our lives were and continue to be altered by the possibilities of study incited through, and in spite of, the university. Yet any illusion of a refuge—the fugitive pauses from the assemblage and its violences—contains a paradox. We may borrow temporal breaks from the machine, but within the academy we are still indebted to it. (And we cannot unknow how our bio/blood/loved networks, the unstudents and the ungraduates, are calculated through a lens of dispossession and deficiency.) We use these refuge/moments to organize and to study. Study is not limited to or contained within the university. Study involves planning and moving with other people, or as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten describe, “talking and walking around with other people working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice.”8
We also open with a note that the university operates through recuperative logics to incorporate dissent: writing this article is a clear example of how difference and crises can actually be included in the official project of the accommodating state and legitimize existing and grotesquely uneven power relations. Critique, even of the university, is folded into the university's mission of marketing itself, especially to the tuition-paying consumer.
And yet it is our collective uneasy feelings, persistent questions, a slow burn, that propel us to write together, to study. At this political moment within the university, “mass incarceration” and its most recognizable constituents, the prisoner and the prison, are at a predictable tipping point: the violence of inclusion.9 Neoliberal multiculturalism appears capacious enough to hold select representations of mass incarceration in its pursuit of new markets and deft enough to deploy this difference to whitewash other forms of institutional violence: a sprinkling of liberal arts through an education program for some deserving prisoners appears just as the university mints new degree programs in counterterrorism studies and homeland security. In some university spaces, programs that claim to create pipelines from prison to university are funded and touted. Subfields, endowed chairs, and tenure-line faculty positions emerge—critical carceral studies, critical prison studies, critical criminology—to further investigate the problem of mass incarceration. Social justice centers and research clusters are funded (through state, tuition, and private donor dollars) to further urgent scholarship on our prison nation, to invoke Beth Richie's term, and to posit solutions through university-based publications, convenings, and lectures.10 Again, the university deftly positions itself as the unique, meaningful, and necessary answer to the pressing question of the day: the prison.11
And yet, against this backdrop of energetically producing solutions, the university also continues and reproduces our carceral regime. Universities police dissent. Pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions groups and speakers on campuses are repeatedly silenced, and affiliated faculty and staff are sanctioned.12 Staff and other resources for departments accountable to community and university political movements—perhaps ethnic studies, Black studies, gender and sexuality studies—shrivel while budgets for campus sports and policing balloon. Labor organizing, particularly by contingent and service workers, who are most often women and/or people of color, is met with swift repression:13 as this article goes to press in the summer of 2020, the University of California continues to exploit, half starve, deport, surveil, evict, fire, and brutalize its striking graduate student instructors.14 Militarized campus police often harass and detain our people for walking while being a racialized and/or queer body. (The formerly incarcerated are especially targeted because of their precarious standing, including conviction histories and often parole and probation restrictions.) With stuffed budgets, criminology continues its algorithmic dystopia, its supposed study of the so-called criminal justice system, that draws nothing intelligible from either crime or justice in its epistemological or practical reasoning.
This terrain is rife with contradictions, including the perception of an emergent and pivotal restructuring at the site of the prison and at the university—which themselves form competing hegemonic projects, or what Boggs and Mitchell term a “crisis consensus.”15 We are neither for nor against the university in its current formation, or we risk either reproducing the violence of the university or producing further evisceration of the public in late-stage capitalism, for example, fueling silos and devaluation through the marking of some forms of education as professional schools, including teacher's colleges, or boosting the logics that naturalize the legitimacy of private, restrictive-enrollment, and wealth-hoarding universities.16 We also recognize that during any crisis—engineered or otherwise—the historical bloc aims to reconfigure its balance of power between consent and coercion.17 And the effects, the residuals, of this reconfiguration never settle. Therefore, now, like always, is the queer time to study.
As two inhabitants in the undercommons, we travel through and sometimes occupy critical university studies and critical prison studies. We speak on panels that highlight the experience of people impacted by systems. We give social justice lectures. One of us teaches in prison (and wrote about it). One of us is formerly incarcerated at the university (and wrote about it). We inhabit the subjectivities—once disposable, perhaps still slightly toxic—that in some contexts have currency in this political moment: formerly incarcerated graduate student, activist feminist scholar. Yet our allegiance and accountability are to movements that engender material redistributions and to the production and circulation of analysis and labor capable of cracking this political moment, even temporally, to free up more lives. We write from one place we inhabit, the university, not to fix or to solve or to address or to critique (in pursuit of the new)—from one place we inhabit, the university—but to make visible emergent lines and arrangements of power and resistance that inhibit and build abolition. We write in what Barbara Tomlinson and George Lipsitz might consider accompaniment:18 we write to find our people.
Erica: A couple of years ago the university where I work—an urban public commuter institution that serves working adults, new migrants, first-generation college students, people of color, parents, or what many obliquely term the working poor—instituted residence halls in an aspirational attempt to try to attract more traditional (read: whiter, wealthier, and younger) students. As my university has no money—no endowment, no fancy donor base, no brand—the housing was a partnership with a for-profit corporation that came with a guaranteed success plan. If the residence is not at full capacity, the university must pay a million dollar fee to the corporation per semester.
Housing is always an issue for the people who take classes at my university (just as it is for poor people across Chicago.) But a residence hall isn't the solution. Most students at my university have dependents. All work—many full time—at service and contingent jobs across the city. The average undergraduate is twenty-eight years old, and many would chafe at the thought of being infantilized in a residence hall. And the clincher: it is not cheaper than market rent for a studio apartment in the neighborhood.
The broke-ass university now pays the stiff penalty to the private company because these halls are not full, at the same time that many of our students are unhoused. Irony? Or another engineered crisis?
Contradictions continue to magnify. This university, which does not ask about criminal records or immigration status on its application, has always been an institution of choice and necessity for formerly (and also now currently) incarcerated people. A small number of staff are formerly incarcerated (but are not in positions that hold formal power), and they also function as de facto connecters to communities impacted by the prison-industrial complex. Yet the university is fearful of being too visible in its support of formerly or currently incarcerated students. The murmured top-down message: this was a downwardly mobile association.
I raise this in part because in all of these discussions the university of my working life is miles—no, solar systems—away from UCB and other restrictive-enrollment universities, and also so far from most of the analysis and writing flowing from critical university studies. When mainstream media reports on “the college student,” a twenty-eight-year-old single mother who cares for her grandparents is not what the public imagines. As big philanthropy tunnels its twice-stolen funds to already wealthy universities to promote self-fulfilling responses to mass incarceration, the public sphere inhabited daily by those directly impacted continues to erode. There is nothing coherent about the university or the student.
David: As a formerly incarcerated student of color, I often felt alienated by the campus climate until I found refuge with a small group of other formerly incarcerated students at UCB. We came together in 2013 and formed what would become the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI), a student group that recruits and retains formerly incarcerated and systems-impacted students and works on policy. As part of our activism, the USI policy committee pushed for UCB to “Ban the Box” on campus-related employment applications. Ban the Box is a campaign started by the abolitionist activist organization All of Us or None to remove the question, or box, that asks job applicants whether they have been convicted of a felony.19 USI worked with All of Us or None and with human resources to change how UCB hires, including a proposal to shift practices across the University of California system, one of the largest employers in the state. We celebrated our hard-fought victory.
However, in our rush to celebrate, we perhaps minimized the labor practices, those that Harney and Moten describe as coconstitutive of “the University's negligence,”20 at best, and risked obscuring the university's complicity and reproduction of a carceral project, at worst. By pushing for access to employment, we imagined explicitly redistributive ends, in the form of jobs.21 While employment for the formerly incarcerated might assuage the state-sponsored injury for some, it leaves the university's unequal and deeply exploitative division of labor undisturbed.
UCB has long resisted labor organizing and outsources jobs to private companies. In the last several years, the mainly Black and Brown service workers have organized multiple strikes to protest the stagnant wages, racial pay gap, and outsourcing of their jobs. Further, as the university increasingly seeks to attract out-of-state and international students who pay high tuition rates, it displaces the local labor that it simultaneously disciplines. The university's carceral political economy drives the local housing market up and thus coconstructs a gentrification-to-prison pipeline while policing dissent from students and labor protests.
Yes, the removal of the box is a win, but we recognize the missed opportunity to build mutual aid. What if a student of any group—and students are also often workers on campus—took seriously historian and scholar Barbara Ransby's observation to not lose herself as “a Black working-class woman and an organizer” in her movement work?22 What if the Underground Scholars Initiative campaigned to remove the box and for a flourishing wage? And what about for free tuition? And debt relief for all?23 What about claiming the debtor as a political identity so as to be in bad debt—refusing individuation and more credit?24
The ability of the carceral state to reconfigure and reform is particularly visible in how some universities maneuver to position themselves in relation to mainstream discourses surrounding the problem of mass incarceration. Supported by key philanthropic actors and private and public restrictive-enrollment college and universities, education-in-prison programs grow, as do free-world initiatives that focus on supporting forms of access to education for some formerly incarcerated people.25 For example, the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, founded in 2017, hosts an annual conference that offers a program with over one hundred sessions.
Everyone loves an educated prisoner, the twenty-first-century recuperative fantasy of civilizing the savage and straightening the unruly.26 The university has the power and the benevolence to aid the errant to shed their pathological ways. Or so the story goes. Countless public panels and talks, at the university and beyond, include formerly incarcerated participants who are asked share their trauma, tell their story, or explain how they are “not the person they were before”—to identify the biggest barriers they overcame to climb their way to the university. Yet invitations to elaborate on theory, or policy, or even joy—for example, carcerality, targeted criminalization, or futurities—are generally reserved for the experts. Though different in temporal and contextual specificity, these moments are often akin to when white abolitionists told Frederick Douglass to “have a little of the plantation . . . and not seemed too learned” in his speech or people would not believe he was a formerly enslaved person.27 These displacements operate as if the barrier can be pinpointed outside of the uncomfortable complicity that racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy require, as if, as Jacques Derrida wrote, we could have a university without condition.28
Of course, we support free and meaningful education not just for the currently or formerly incarcerated but for everyone. However, we are wary of rhetoric and accompanying structural responses that reproduce individually reductive logics and fixes. Obscured through narratives of learned formerly incarcerated individuals is the “state sponsored and extra legal production and exploitation of vulnerability to a premature death,” what Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as racism.29 Whiteness has long engineered where people live and how geographies are surveilled.30 In the K–12 educational context, for example, the wealthy whitestream have been on extended tax strike, fueled by anti-Blackness, that hoards schooling resources and distributes suffering.31 People's life chances and well-being are obstructed by these geographies, by carcerality, and by targeted criminalization. (Although the Black body is the “preeminent site” for the production of anti-Blackness, this logic shapes all bodies, for example, the production of illegality/criminality.)32
In this landscape, formerly/incarcerated college students are often held up as a model of change and redemption: liberal subjects who chose to change personal behaviors, reject their inherent criminality, and refashion their human capital productively. These narratives of redemption are especially legible on admission applications, in the fight for the resources sometimes attached to institutionalized diversity initiative, and in materials circulated to donors. If the formerly/incarcerated take responsibility for their individual failings, they can recuperate some value. This is particularly evident in the key public narrative that often accompanies (limited) support for access to higher education for current/formerly incarcerated people: education reduces recidivism. The recirculation of this data point continues the naturalization of the category of crime and erases the wider sociopolitical contexts that guarantee the reproduction of what the state names recidivism.33 Challenging these highly individualized and liberal narratives also highlights the importance of intervening in the framework of mass incarceration: no one would say education reduces targeted criminalization. (Perhaps it is overly reductive to write, but abolition reduces recidivism.)
Most of these mainstream narratives of the formerly/incarcerated student deployed by universities are gestures toward the artifact of innocence. We reject any strategies that rely on claims to relative innocence, and we name the violence of value. Lisa Marie Cacho traces the process by which the state (and the university as extension of the state) recruits the devalued other to recuperate value:
When we distinguish ourselves from unlawful and outlawed status categories, we implicitly insist that these socio-legal categories are not only necessary but should be reserved and preserved for the “genuinely” lazy (welfare recipients), “undoubtedly” immoral (marrying for citizenship), and “truly” dangerous (gang violence). When we reject these criminalized others of color, we leave less room for questioning why such status categories are automatically and categorically devalued.34
Appeals to the artifact of innocence differentiate the deserving from the undeserving. Discourses of the redeemable nonviolent offender fuel contemporary criminal legal tweaks, and harden the logic that the figure of the violent offender is guilty, irredeemable, beyond human. These pervasive frameworks seep into other terrains: the educated formerly/incarcerated are of value (but not those who are not in college).35 The interpellation of the deserving formerly incarcerated student who made the right choices reinscribes responsibilization and solidifies a meritocratic fantasy that not only displaces prior structural violence but also ignites more: formerly/incarcerated students must distance, metaphorically and geographically, from those not in college. Invoking innocence—and all of its proxies, including youth, whiteness, heterosexual parenthood—suggests that only some are worthy of clemency, education, value, full humanity. And those not taking advantage of higher education (which by this logic was always available) deserve to return to poverty and/or prison.
These practices of absorption and accommodation are neither new nor exclusive to the university, nor to the figure of the formerly/currently incarcerated student. Neoliberal multiculturalism valorizes diversity, inclusion, even “wokeness” in the pursuit of markets and capital. Material antiracisms are obscured in favor of recognition paradigms that consolidate and harden in official antiracisms.36 Race is something for whiteness to know and own as it fashions itself as more evolved. Speaking Spanish for the global citizen is considered cosmopolitan, while Brown children are marked deficient, remedial, uneducatable. A touch of the right kind of queerness sells TV shows and cosmetics, but many gender-nonconforming and/or transgender lives are predatory, asking for it, and disposable. Viral social media phrases like “cash me outside” are cute and marketable for a young white girl but criminalize Black girls.37 Material antiracisms are too radical, or discarded as unrealistic, much in the way that some dismiss abolition as an unrealistic and utopian.38
Erica: It is Friday, and we—the cadre of faculty who teach every week at the maximum-security prison for people the state designates as men—are at the visitors entrance with those waiting to see loved ones (the overwhelming majority of visitors are like our Friday teaching crew, women of color). We filter in, three at a time, to be patted down by the workers who are also almost all Black and Brown women. I usually try to chat as they tell us to shake out our shoes, to lift our tongues, and ask to see whether we are wearing underwear and a real bra. I learn small things—vacation plans, what is the deal with the new uniforms—and who might be a little bit “on our side,” as I then thought.
This prison is about an hour from Chicago and is known by the people inside as the “Black prison” in the state. The all-white (and all-male) corrections officers union was forced to hire men of color in the late 1970s.39 While many downstate prisons in white communities are still overwhelmingly staffed by white people, this prison is not. (If the Illinois Department of Corrections is actively seeking to hire queer folks, it isn't obvious.)
This week, as we wait in line, one of the guards holds up a copy of Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She attends a local community college known for being a pipeline for guards who aim to move up the pay scale. The qualifications for working as a guard in the Illinois Department of Corrections are listed as follows: “18 years of age; valid driver's license; High School Diploma or GED certificate; U.S. citizen or authorized alien with proof of a permanent resident card; Speak, read, and write English.”40 (According to the Illinois Department of Corrections website, the salary for a Correctional Officer Trainee is $42,432 per year.)41
She waves Alexander's book at us: “Know this book?” Yes, we say. She is taking a class related to social justice and corrections and has an essay due. She asks, “What are three key social justice points in it?” We all launch in with overlapping and fragmented points: racial disproportionality, Jim Crow, the Thirteenth Amendment, and so on. (The flaws we often identify in the book are not mentioned.) In the less than five minutes she gives us to talk, we aren't coherent. There are no three easy, neat points. I wish I'd said, “Here's my number, call me.”
Driving away from the prison that day, it stuck with me. At the prison we teach classes, for free, that use much more critical material (when we can get it in). But our classes aren't for her. Our classes are not for any of the women in the waiting room. The people in our classes get Michel Foucault, digital animation, W. E. B. Du Bois, bell hooks, and Toni Cade Bambera—for free. While I don't want these guards in my inside classes, as a feminist this asymmetry gnaws at me.
I think of my niece in small-town Canada who didn't quite make it through high school despite her brilliance, who wants to be a firefighter (and, I suspect, only not a cop because she knows we'd hassle her). She wants good pay and a meaningful and respected life. She is really an artist, but as my mother reminds her, that won't pay the rent.
David: Its 2008, and I am in the parole violators “dorm” in Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail. California's realignment, the plan that purported to reduce the state's prison population but simply resulted in jacking up the number of people in the state's jails, is still years away, but the state is definitely already housing some of its prison population in county jails, which exacerbates overcrowding. The jail is filthy and lacks adequate medical or mental health services. This isn't my first time here: in the 1990s we were stacked in triple bunks, and in the early 2000s the dirt and dust left me with a respiratory infection that I recovered from in a holding cell without medical treatment.
While overcrowding causes lockdowns, the staff will also orchestrate a crisis to legitimate demands for more hires. One trick the guards use is relying on the scarcity of pay phones, especially in the always crowded minimum-security area, where most people have just been arrested or are in pretrial and trial proceedings. It takes days before someone gets access to a phone to contact family, loved ones, and especially an attorney or parole/probation officer. This choreographed phone scarcity ignites a cycle of conflict: the guards lock everyone down and deny access to pod time, yard time, and so on. Tensions rise. Repeat. The state responds: trust us to rectify the problem; we will hire more guards and build more cells. But this thinly veiled attempt at prison expansion leaves all other structural alternatives and abolitionist sensibilities obscured. Why are we there in the first place?
Built in the late 1980s, Santa Rita Jail became the modern architectural archetype for all subsequent California prisons.42 Among other things, its panoptic view, with one-way mirrored glass, allows for maximum surveillance with limited staffing. Its front offices are repurposed for antigang intelligence gathering. The housing units have intercom systems for constant monitoring. Of course, they claim intercoms are for our safety, yet we continue to be denied medical service (including ignoring a woman giving birth in a holding cell), abused by guards, and left to die.43 And yet they listen, they watch, they collect our communications.
While the production of a public corrections crisis is never novel, a “violator's dorm” in 2008 was new, and it continued the public project of managing the surpluses left by agribusiness and also opened the door to other bottom feeders, the smaller private interests. For example, unlike prison, no packages can be sent to this jail, and Canteen Corporation controls the vending machines. We are ripe for this new inflated market: twelve Top Ramen noodle packets cost about $18—in the free world, likely under $4. We are stuck here with no programming of any kind: no yard time, no library, and next to no books.
Santa Rita Jail is also an incubator for the state's counterinsurgent logics meant to criminalize and intervene in solidarity networks. Yet, we study. Our ways of knowing and our very survival open up cracks in the lockdown, fissures in the structure. Packed in together, some of us coalesce, in a fashion. We talk Chicano history and possibility. We dive into any subversive text we can find. It is here that my incarcerated elders (called “OG” for original gangsters) suggest I seek out higher education at Project Rebound.44
While the university continues to absorb, accommodate, and often “reorder” select facets of the prison-industrial complex,45 its place in the carceral regime is also visible and growing through its multilayered relationship to the institution and practice of policing. At the surface, the university's commitment to the proliferation of armed forces on campus continues. Despite orchestrated austerity—evaporating tenure-line faculty hires, the privatization of janitorial and food services, and increasing tuition and student debt—campus police budgets grow. A 2018 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education referred to policing as the “hottest” job market: across the United States postsecondary education's police hires increased 30 percent between 2017 and 2018.46 Yet, despite this growth, and some mainstream media attention highlighting the heterogendered and racialized violence of policing specifically on university and college campuses, in 2019, as this article goes to press, there are few organized contemporary challenges to shrink or eliminate campus policing in postsecondary educational contexts.47
Yet not only are campuses the sites of policing expansion, but knowledge produced within universities also propels and attempts to naturalize the work of policing.48 The role of university-based researchers and educators, across the private and public spectrum, to scaffold the prison-industrial complex cannot be understated. As Micol Seigel has documented in Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police, police are just one of many “violence workers,” and through implied and real force, they “make real the core power of the state.”49 Knowledge workers’ labor, “agencies created at private universities but supported by public funds, or at public universities but easily transferred to the public sector when their campuses came to host significant opposition to their presence,” can also be violence work: “Defense and weapons researchers labor at the thinnest remove from the soldier who ends up plying the products of their design.”50
The role of knowledge workers as purveyors of violence is not limited to criminology: Pennsylvania State University statistics professor Richard Berk claims future dangerousness, prior to birth, is predictable based on statistical models. Berk's “dangerousness” assessment tools echo past eugenics projects, including a thinly veiled threat of forced sterilizations and new forms of algorithmic social control.51 Predictive or preemptive policing continues to flourish, heavily advanced by scholars and private for-profit industry, despite widespread critiques of these risk assessment models.52 University of California, Los Angeles, professor of anthropology Jeffrey Brantingham, a cofounder of PredPol Inc., continues to push risk-assessment policing tools that activists document as simply “racial profiling hidden behind the veil of ‘scientific’ and ‘mathematical’ modeling.”53 Public health researchers, including professor of psychiatry Steven Weine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, created profiling instruments to “counter violent extremism.” These instruments not only explicitly target Muslims and Arab Americans who are homesick or experience economic stressors as precriminal but also conscript local education and health providers to do the work of reporting and policing on their neighbors, students, and coworkers.54 Over a decade ago, anthropologists (and other social scientists) were embedded with the US military's Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan, at a cost of $700 million, with the goal to deepen and naturalize the US military-industrial complex.55 The list goes on.
While perhaps to some a more muted form of violence work, within the domain of the profession of social work policies and associated professional practices marked as “care” and “protection” target nonwhite and poor families—particularly Black and Indigenous female caregivers—for destruction. For example, while the mandate of Child Protective Services (CPS) is to ensure the well-being of children, CPS is structured not to eliminate poverty or systemic racial discrimination but to use US tax dollars to support programs that place families on the defensive and remove children—including foster care, adoption, CPS investigations, and case management. Yet social and child welfare workers, professionalized and enabled through postsecondary education, are rarely viewed as harmful or as a part of the “violence work” associated with policing. How can a program that seeks to protect young people be harmful? Yet child welfare does not protect children, nor is this system capable of addressing the systemic factors, such as poverty or patriarchy, that can make children more vulnerable to violence. Instead, as outlined by Dorothy Roberts in Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, the US child welfare systems demonize Black mothers and exponentially increase the vulnerability of Black children. Schools of social work prepare workers not to be prison guards or police but to engage in other scales and forms of racial and heterogendered harm. Violence workers proliferate and reproduce across the university, in different disguises.56
Even the campus-based student-led initiatives that aim to resist prisons are subject to the reordering of the university. For example, in addition to the Ban the Box campaigns (on enrollment applications first and foremost, and perhaps secondarily related to campus-based employment), many student-led campus initiatives center the demand for institutions to divest from the prison-industrial complex. While these projects raise the visibility of the reach of the prison-industrial complex, they often frame divestment narrowly—almost always in terms of the endowment—and in doing so can contain and frame how we recognize the relationship between the university and the prison-industrial complex. Why not divestment as in movements to end and redistribute all endowments, or even to dismantle the private university? Or, can this tool of divestment be strengthened to be abolitionist: can endowment divestment campaigns build analysis and solidarity across a range of campuses and communities about the multifaceted ways the project of postsecondary education is tied to the prison-industrial complex?
And yet, the university also always operates as a potential container for labor and study, toward abolitionist ends. Our bodies, our networks, our newspapers, our queer love, our Signal chats, our posters, our anticapitalist feminist reading groups all potentially recruit others to dismantle, to withdraw or to steal from, to agitate against, the prison-industrial complex. We linger. We wait.
Erica: I write from my mother's apartment, in small town Canada, not too far from where I was born. This land is resource and wealth extraction central: crisscrossing tug boats and freight trains and trucks ripe with gravel and timber, wheat and sulfur. Not neo-, post-, or de-: colonialism is alive and written on bodies—of land, of people. Matsqui and Coquitlam and Squamish, Hope and Mission and Prince George: the names of every river and city are just drenched with colonialism, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
In the late 1980s I went to university because it appeared to offer something—anything—different than my perception of the lives made available to the women in my immediate family. The University of British Columbia's application was one page, and tuition was $1,275 a year—an almost impossible amount for me at the time (in 2019–20 it is $5,399 a year). I vaguely thought a degree in philosophy must be the ticket to a good job, but more important, the university was the queer escape hatch—made more available to me through white supremacy—out of small towns and their attendant killing economies.
When I got an academic job in Chicago over twenty years ago, I thought I was finally worlds away from where I came from, that I'd left all that behind. Yet I am in my classes and things increasingly blur: then and now, my relations and my students. I blanch a little at these crossings—my pathway is of course not the same as the experiences of the people, particularly the women, in my Chicago classrooms, or the folks at the prison where I teach and learn. And yet. And not.
Place Making, in Freedom Time
Abolition (geography), as Gilmore reminded us, “starts from the homely premise that freedom is a place. Place-making is normal human activity: we figure out how to combine people, and land, and other resources with our social capacity to organize ourselves in a variety of ways.”57 Not just a negation but, more important, abolition is a doing/building/presence(ing), a practice. Universities are one space—just one site among many—for this everyday making. This trying and doing requires exercising rusty, perhaps new, affective tools, muscles, and ways of moving and thinking, together. Dean Spade reminds us that most people have never participated in a meeting or organizing gathering that did not have a boss or a hierarchy,58 or that required what Manolo Callahan calls “different habits of assembly.”59 What does it mean to make places and times of freedom at the site of the prison, the site of the university? Neither linear nor ahistoric, this place making/freedom time is also always an echo, never a clean break.60
Abolition, as a method, a practice, a politics, orients us to feel out fractures and gauge the possibilities, together. In other words, it's a way of studying, and of doing political organizing, and of being in the world, and of worlding ourselves.61 The practice of study can involve people organizing to expose the contradictions in a historical conjuncture—especially when those contradictions can no longer reproduce themselves.62 Prisons—and yes, on a different register, we argue, also the university—enable racial capital to circulate because of the “enforced inactivity of people locked in them,” which extracts the “resource of life—time”; then we have to go back in time-space to situate abolition as the “antagonist contradiction.”63 And yet, always we prepare for retaliation, the inevitable retrenchment: when radical collectives come together to do this work, the state responds with counterinsurgencies and violence.
Abolition is more than the absence of captivity; it transcends a negation by breathing life into enclosures, potentially rendering them illegible to the settler, the jailer, the patriarch, the boss. Marilyn Buck, George Jackson,64 and countless others understood this articulation of freedom even in the confines of California's prison walls. Consciousness and learning are always already happening. Study happens in spite of the dominant machine, perhaps as an undergrowth. At once about the present and the future, the queer time of José Esteban Muñoz,65 abolition is the space that holds on to contradictions and paradoxes to imagine an elsewhere, an otherwise, right here and now. These are the openings and the paradoxes that Flores Magon operationalized in self-organized education programs in Leavenworth federal prison and that María Elena Torre, Michelle Fine, Kathy Boudin, Iris Bowen, Judith Clark, and other women mobilized in educational programs in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility,66 that the Zapatistas created in the darkness of the mountains during encuentros clandestinos,67 that the cruising queers sought out at ACT-UP meetings in the early days of the HIV epidemic,68 and that Marx's shop workers found by the nature of their shared oppression.69
Settlers fear speculative study, so they ban books (in prison).70 They draw on epistemologies that screech along out of tune that we can't feel. They restrict enrollment and tell us to come in quietly and thankfully. They tell us that “education reduces recidivism.” We meditate on what will come after “this shit has been torn down.” We move across different registers and scales. We find ourselves and our people in books. We steal. We print flyers for our revolutions on their printers, use their classrooms and back rooms to organize and redirect research dollars. We cheat. We play. We expose the cracks in the walls. We let in other people who are like us and worse. We linger. But they can't know all that we do because they wait for us to dry snitch on ourselves, and we don't move like that. We make pleasure, joy—moments to feel so alive, alight. Their pass is invalid. They can't see the undergrowth rising underneath the concrete—because our people are tending to the grounds and we ain't tellin.’ They don't know that we are the workers, the freaks, the grandmothers, the failures, the queers. We are the locals they tried to push out, to fire, to fail, to dismiss, to forget.
July 2020 Postscript: Now That Everyone Is an Abolitionist
The summer of 2020 brings in new/old conversations to the forefront; calls to “defund police” and “abolition” ring out, often from new voices and across mainstream platforms. While these conversations and movements present critical openings and opportunities and mark the success of our collective organizing, we also express a wariness around a performative solidarity that threatens to divorce the signifier (abolition) from signified practice—the always already co-optation of our analysis and languages. The university is always (re)positioning itself to answer the performative call and to (re)deputize, especially its “diversity” and “social justice” initiatives, toward counterinsurgent ends. In echoes, Amazon and the National Football League attempt to rebrand capital accumulation and exploitation with racial liberalism's deputies in pocket, and universities issue dematerialized antiracism statements.
The realm of fixes likely to follow (policies and otherwise) from the university, the nonprofit, the “social justice lite” corporate entities are incapable of sharing needs, practicing solidarity: incapable of love.71 The university, in particular, promotes the individual above and beyond privileging people's shared needs/productions/thoughts. The oft-cited passage from Harney and Moten explains that the object of abolition is “not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage . . . abolition as the founding of a new society.” The less cited, though equally important, passages that follow claim that “the object of abolition then would have a resemblance to communism that would be, to return to Spivak, uncanny . . . the uncanny that one can sense in cooperation, the secret once called solidarity.”72 That is, abolition is a shared practice that requires accountability according to needs, a radical responsibility to the needs and the word of the community, the collective.73 While we study—growing abolition potentialities like a general strike—we attend to each other, we practice, we grow.
We write collectively as the thinking reflected in all scholarship is never the result of an individual. This article is a product not only of our shared engagements but also of our long-term relationships to pivotal networks and organizations including All of Us or None, Critical Resistance, Education for Liberation Network, Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project, and the Underground Scholars Initiative.
See, e.g., Williams, “Deconstructing Academe”; and the Critical University Studies series started in 2016 by John Hopkins University Press.
As examples, consider a random sampling of publications from 2013 and before that engage the institution of postsecondary education, particularly with lens of racial capitalism, queer theory, and feminism: Kolodny, Failing the Future; Schrecker, No Ivory Tower; Wilder, Ebony and Ivy; Stockdill and Danico, Transforming the Ivory Tower; and Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., Presumed Incompetent. In addition, consider a cluster of writings from the late 1960s into the 1970s authored by, among others, Toni Cade Bambara, Adrienne Rich, and June Jordan, surrounding the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) program at the City University of New York. Several of these works have recently been reprinted as chapbooks by the City University of New York's Lost and Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative (www.centerforthehumanities.org/lost-and-found), including Bambara, “Realizing the Dream of a Black University”; Rich, Adrienne Rich: Teaching at CUNY; and Jordan, “Live Studies.”
Rodríguez, “Racial/Colonial Genocide,” 809; Grande, “Refusing the University,” 47. An ethnic studies scholar and worker, Rodríguez identified that he is in a “stand-off position”—not sure whether the university is recuperable from its (he uses its, we say our) genocidal and proto-genocidal legacies (“Racial/Colonial Genocide”).
While mass incarceration is popularly used to refer to the grotesque expansion of punishment in the United States, we concur with Rodríguez and others that the term is inaccurate: for example, it suggests that mass is the problem not incarceration itself. The growth in the use of this inaccurate term heralds a slippery reformist turn that signifies as “almost certain that the technologies and institutional reach of policing will increase, expand, and intensify even as the thing being called ‘Mass Incarceration’ is subjected to reformist scrutiny from within and beyond the racial state” (“ ‘Mass Incarceration’ as Misnomer,” 9).
See for example, Harkins and Meiners, “Teaching Publics in the American Penalscape,” for more on how the university repositions itself as the solution.
In late 2019 graduate student workers across the University of California campuses began wildcat strikes to demand a cost-of-living adjustment. The workers organized a grade strike and protests first at University of California, Santa Cruz, to highlight low pay and the unaffordability of housing for rent-burdened student workers. The university responded by firing forty-one of its workers (effectively expelling them from their graduate programs), threatening the immigrant status of international student workers who often depend on student visas for legal residency, and using military surveillance equipment to monitor organizers. For more on surveillance, see Gurley, “California Police Used Military Surveillance Tech.” For more on graduate student worker precarity and their demands, see also payusmoreucsc.com.
Boggs and Mitchell, “Critical University Studies,” 434.
Although the terminology states a “ban” on the question, the actual practice retains the question but reserves asking it after the hiring selection process. This helps mitigate the deterrent factor the box presents to potential applicants.
Data from Couloute and Kopf, “Out of Prison and Out of Work,” illustrate that unemployment among formerly incarcerated people exceeds 27 percent—higher than the total US unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.
We argue for debt relief for all, meaning we follow Abolition University's invitation in rejecting the student as an innocent container of unlimited possibility that can be counterposed against “more traditional” and thus “undeserving” debtors (Boggs et al., “Abolition University Studies”). We, like the collective, see this iteration of the politics of relative innocence as reinscribing the liberal fantasy of university. Again, we borrow heavily from Harney and Moten's Undercommons in recognizing the normative function of the university as credentializing and professionalizing debtors into capital's circuits.
In The Power of Debt , Hannah Appel, Sa Whitley, and Caitlin Kline argue that mass debt creates openings for political mobilization and possibilities for a new political identity. Wildcat strikes, such as those blazing across universities for a cost-of-living adjustment, as well as rent strikes and debtors strikes all point to the political power of shared dispossession. For more on bad debt, especially the debt that refuses more credit/s and capital's circuits, see Harney and Moten, Undercommons. Invoking their theoretical construction, Callahan argues for bad debt because it not only refuses the individuation offered by credit/capital but also offers a “space of sharing against the violence of the commodity and spectacle” (“Repairing the Community,” 377). For a discussion on the predatory state and the carceral weaponization of debt, see Wang, Carceral Capitalism.
California recently passed SB 1391, a bill that brings in-person (not online) community college programs back to prisons. While we are supportive of increasing access to meaningful public education for all, these responses, much like the Obama-era Second Chance Pell pilot program (2015), which created a tiny pool of incarcerated people as eligible for federal tuition dollars, hardly address the full disastrous effects of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that removed the right of people in prison to access Pell grants.
For his deconstructive work on the university, see Derrida, Without Alibi. He troubles the Kantian analytic through a series of as ifs to question the structure and futurity of the university by specifically gesturing toward and questioning the capaciousness of what he calls a “new humanities.” For Derrida, the university inherently reproduces the state's repressive logics and thus prefigures and, in some ways, undermines the possibilities for arguments of academic freedom and big-T Truth at the site of the university. For a fuller discussion of the tensions and ironies between Kant and Derrida concerning the possibilities of the university and the state, see Ferguson, Reorder of Things. Importantly, Roderick A. Ferguson notes how Kant's ironic tone in Conflict of the Faculties sought to disguise how the university is uniquely positioned to inform circuits of capital, state, and nation.
Nils Christie wrote in 1993, “Acts are not, they become. So also with crime. Crime does not exist. Crime is created. First there are acts. Then follows a long process of giving meaning to these acts. Social distance is of particular importance. Distance increases the tendency to give certain acts the meaning of being crimes, and the persons the simplified meaning of being criminals” (Crime Control as Industry, 22).
Cash me outside refers to an invitation to fight. A 2016 episode of the television show Dr. Phil featured a young white woman, Danielle Bregoli (Bhad Bhahbie), who performed racist caricature (akin to discursive blackface) and leveraged it to gain subsequent YouTube and internet material success. See, e.g., Jones, “You Can ‘Cash Me Outside.’ ”
Many California prisons subsequently adopted Santa Rita's technological advances and “green initiatives.” The Alameda County sheriff's department website still describes Santa Rita as “one the most technologically advanced mega-jails [run with] state-of-the-art criminal justice systems” (Alameda County Sheriff's Office, “Santa Rita Jail”). On green jails, see Woody “The World's Greenest Jail?” Celebrations of ecological and robotic efficiency detract from the surveillance techniques fostered by these “technological advances” and are veiled attempts at what Kilgore calls carceral humanism: attempts to use progressive rhetoric to ultimately expand (“Repackaging Mass Incarceration”).
Alameda County Jail deputies have been named in numerous lawsuits and arrested and charged for various forms of misconduct, including engineering conflicts, medical neglect, and specifically a failure to address gendered forms of violence. See Ruggiero, “Santa Rita Jail Abuse”; and Fernandez and Nguyen, “Women Sue Santa Rita.”
Project Rebound is one of the first higher-education programs for the formerly incarcerated, initiated by the formerly incarcerated activist, educator, and author John Irwin over fifty years ago at San Francisco State University. It now operates at multiple California state universities.
Quintana, “Among the Hottest Job Markets on Campus.” Of course, this shouldn't be a surprise, as in the punishment industry is always hiring. Each year the US government “spends over $100 billion on police and over $50 billion on the judiciary,” as Marie Gottschalk wrote, and “One in eight state employees works in corrections” (Caught, 32).
K–12 educational contexts have been quicker to organize against the naturalization of policing. For example, in Chicago many youth groups, teacher networks, and community organizations are at the forefront of naming and interrupting the integration of policing into schools and communities. In 2018 alone, small community-based grassroots organizations like Blocks Together instigated participatory projects with young people to use the state's Freedom of Information Act to gather data about the city's gang databases and create public political education projects that raise the visibility of how easily youth of color are labeled as gang involved. Students in Chicago public schools were key leaders of the #nocopacademy movement to stop the construction of a new $95 million police training academy on the South Side of Chicago—a particularly audacious proposal in a year when the city closed the last public high school in the all-Black West Side neighborhood of Englewood, and additional mental health clinics, in part due to budgetary constraints. All of these campaigns center how policing is not the pathway to public safety. Rather than reformulating the work of policing—training cops to do restorative justice or to do wellness checks on vulnerable residents—these campaigns directly call for shrinking or eliminating our collective investment in policing.
We use the term violence of policing rather than police violence to point to the varied ways that policing itself is an institution that has never been neutral. From its inception, with the goal of “ensuring the social order,” policing used state power (and public tax dollars) to maintain the US system of chattel slavery, to protect private property rights, and to bust unions. The entire project of policing, as Alex S. Vitale wrote in The End of Policing, is about state violence: “The suppression of workers and the tight surveillance and micromanagement of Black and brown lives have always been at the center of policing” (27). The use of the phrase police violence, frequently applied to some forms of state violence experienced by Black communities, often obscures the overarching violence of policing that also disproportionately targets poor people, Black people, young people, and/or queer people. See also Herzing, “Big Dreams and Bold Steps.”
See Berk and Bleich, “Statistical Procedures.” For a conversation on the paternalistic role of the state and on Berk's insistence on privileging algorithmic accuracy over “fairness,” see Popp, “Black Box Justice.”
Jamie Garcia, member of the coordinating team for the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, describes predictive policing as simply “the same policing just faster and with more math” and reliant on the misguided theory of deterrence—“if police are present crime will be prevented” (quoted in Meiners, “How ‘Risk Assessment’ Tools Are Condemning People”).
Violence can also be understood through other registers linked to the neoliberal university. For example, in Undoing the DemosWendy Brown outlines how academic departments take corporate funding to teach promarket curricula, and ideology and how staff at J. P. Morgan and other corporations directly advise students.
Avery Gordon describes the “haunting” or the “seething presence” of histories that always “loiter in the present” (Ghostly Matters, 8, 139).
Both Buck and Jackson produced revolutionary texts and transformed consciousness from within the confines of the prison. Importantly, both theorized state-sponsored counterinsurgency aimed at the criminalization of political prisoners. For more on Jackson and building political solidarity in prisons, see Berger, Captive Nation. See also Buck, “Prisons, Social Control, and Political Prisoners.”
While books like George Jackson's Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (1970) have long been banned or have been used to validate people as “gang members” by prison staff, more recently many federal and state prisons have begun placing bans on all books that mention race.
See, e.g., Kelley, “Black Study, Black Struggle.”