Prisons and universities are two sides of the same coin: Eli Meyerhoff on Abolition

Popular narratives portray society as made up of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people. Figures of the citizen, the worker, and the graduate are contrasted with the deviant, the criminal, and the dropout. For the safety of ‘good’ people, we are supposed to put ‘bad’ people in separate places. When they are younger, those stigmatized as ‘bad kids’—as delinquents, failures, dropouts—are sent to lower tracked courses, detention, or juvenile hall. If they continue ‘down’ this criminalized life path, they are sent to jails and prisons. By contrast, those deemed ‘good’ through the categorizing and sorting of education are admitted to the place where ‘good’ people rise: ‘up’ through the school grades and into higher education.

Prisons and universities complement each other as two sides of the same coin. They are institutions for producing obedient, governable subjects—shaped in an accounting mode with incarceration for ‘debts to society’ and education for ‘credits.’ Abolitionist movements should seek to abolish this whole coin. From a decolonial, abolitionist perspective, this coin is the intersecting regimes of white supremacist, settler colonial, hetero-patriarchal capitalism. Abolitionists have organized against institutions associated with the ‘bad’ side of the dichotomy of ‘good’/‘bad’ persons—including prisons, corporal punishment in schools, the schools-to-prisons pipeline, the death penalty, and the police—as well as against the ‘redemptive’ intermediaries of the military and work. Yet, abolitionists also need to resist institutions, such as higher education, that are associated with the ‘good’ side of the coin.

When considering an abolitionist critique of universities, academics experience anxieties: losing status and competitiveness, giving up comforts, appearing hypocritical, or getting in trouble with employers (or potential employers for the majority of the precarious academic workforce). Rather than dismissing these fears, we need better collective practices for talking, writing, and organizing around these issues — within and against the education system, with communities who are excluded and marginalized from that system, and for abolitionist, decolonial movements. Trying on our own, as heroic individuals, we get crushed, co-opted, or pushed out. The with and for imperative requires recognizing that people are engaged in teaching and studying outside of universities, including in prisons, all of the time. I’ve learned this through organizing with prisoners and their families in North Carolina (see Inside-Outside Alliance). Their studying together creates new ways of thinking and relating that are more useful for abolitionist resistance than any academic knowledge. Yet, institutions of education de-legitimize their mode of studying. Thus, a central question for abolitionist movements is: how to connect with, amplify, and expand people’s everyday, autonomous studying?

Grounding abolitionism in everyday studying demands continual reflection on how to understand and connect our movements. What if the resources of academia—such as money, spaces, and labor—could be used for supporting collective discussion of abolitionist questions in ways that include people normally marginalized from academia? Such discussions could re-define how we understand ‘resources’ for movement-embedded study, while transforming ourselves and our movements along the way. Abolition is an experiment with, and wager for, these possibilities.

—Eli Meyerhoff (@EliMeye)

[This post is part of a series of “Abolition Statements” from members of the Abolition Journal Collective and Editorial Review Board. See here for a brief introduction to these posts.]

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A statement from a prisoner at Durham County Jail, posted in front of the jail. Read more letters from prisoners at Inside-Outside Alliance’s website.

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