Bridging the gap between art discourse and political engagement remains a focal point of the SVLLY(wood) project. Maintaining a hub for subversive film criticism whilst deliberately funneling dissent towards active grassroots causes can be seen throughout INCARCERATION. During the conceptualization process of this issue, I knew it would be vital to connect with a organization that share a similar ethos in re-examining the Prison-Industrial complex (PIC) towards a justice oriented framework, so when I reached out to Critical Resistance Portland (CRPDX), everything clicked!
At the tight-knit Pacific Northwest chapter, a small group of dedicated Prison-Industrial complex abolitionists help magnify and spread the work of Critical Resistance and local PIC abolitionists. Critical Resistance was co-founded by Angela Davis and Ruthie Wilson Gilmore in 1997, and remains at the forefront of America’s prison abolition movement with tentpoles in Oakland, Los Angeles, New York City, and Portland. Anna Swanson, a experimental documentary filmmaker, arts educator, and core organizing member of Critical Resistance Portland joins INCARCERATION in this special Q&A, providing a 101 course on prison abolition and how you can join the movement! Swanson holds a MFA in Film/Video Production at the University of Iowa and currently works for the nonprofit Outside the Frame, teaching filmmaking to homeless and marginalized youth in Portland, Oregon. Her video collective, Sensory Organizing Project, is currently producing a series of short films that envision a future in which the PIC has in fact been abolished. A revolutionary, futurist outlook that matches the SVLLY(wood) tempo!
WHAT is prison abolishment? Can you explain the basics of its history and future?
SWANSON: Drawing from Critical Resistance’s resource guide The Abolitionist Toolkit, prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment. The PIC is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. In our political analysis at Critical Resistance, it’s essential for us to see this system as not just prisons or policing, but the whole complex — and to address that complex as the target of our abolition work. Because we understand the PIC in this way, we know that prison abolition entails the abolition of the complex itself.
Through its reach and impact, the PIC helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges. There are many ways this power is collected and maintained through the PIC, including creating mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant. This power is also maintained by earning huge profits for private companies that deal with prisons and police forces; helping earn political gains for “tough on crime” politicians; increasing the influence of prison guard and police unions; and eliminating social and political dissent by oppressed communities that make demands for self-determination and reorganization of power in the US.
From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives. Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.
WHO is a part of Critical Resistance? How many branches? And who is a part of the fight for prison abolishment?
SWANSON: Critical Resistance (CR) is building a member-led, member-run national grassroots movement to challenge the use of punishment to “cure” complicated social problems. We know that more policing and imprisonment will not make us safer. We believe that basic necessities such as food, shelter, and freedom are what really make our communities secure. As such, our work is part of global struggles against inequality and powerlessness. The success of the movement requires that it reflect communities most affected by the PIC. Because we seek to abolish the PIC, we cannot support any work that extends its life or scope.
Critical Resistance was initiated in 1997 by Angela Davis and Ruthie Wilson Gilmore as a series of conferences bringing together grassroots movement building and rigorous political analysis around PIC abolition. Out of that grew our current structure, organized into regional chapters that operate fairly autonomously, but with shared principles and analysis, in addressing each chapter region’s uniquely insidious instantiations of the PIC. Structurally, we have four currently active chapters, in Oakland, Los Angeles, New York City, and Portland, Oregon, as well as members throughout the United States who are not in chapter regions. These chapters and members stay connected through staff leadership at CR National and guided by our Community Advisory Board, which centers the perspectives, experience, leadership, and analysis of folks most directly impacted by the PIC, a commitment that is also reflected in the make up of many of our chapters. Other groups that Prison Abolition Resource Center, in the Bay Area; Black and Pink, which focuses on bringing LGBTQ+ experience and analysis to PIC abolition; and the International Conference on Penal Abolition, which reflects much of the analysis and strategy we center in the U.S., but with a global perspective.
WHEN did the theory and struggle of prison abolishment make its way to our collective consciousness?
SWANSON: Critical Resistance’s vision is the creation of genuinely healthy, stable communities that respond to harm without relying on imprisonment and punishment. We call our vision abolition, drawing, in part from the legacy of the abolition of slavery in the 1800s. As porous and un-unified as a ‘collective consciousness’ really is, PIC abolition as both theory and struggle had definitely gained national and international traction by the 1980s, with the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) first convening in 1983, and Critical Resistance’s inaugural conference in 1997. Angela Davis’ publication of 'Are Prisons Obsolete?' in 2003 widened the reach of PIC abolition in the national conversation. This remains a foundational text for Critical Resistance, that we share with the folks on the inside who we do correspondence and political education with.
WHY is prison abolishment important and why should SVLLY(wood) readers be a part of this struggle?
SWANSON: As PIC abolitionists we understand that the prison industrial complex is not a broken system to be fixed. The system, rather, works precisely as it is designed to—to contain, control, and kill those people representing the greatest threats to state power. Our goal is not to improve the system even further, but to shrink the system into non-existence. We work to build healthy, self-determined communities and promote alternatives to the current system.
We hold the model of simultaneously dismantling, changing, and building — abolition isn’t solely a tearing down but must include a strengthening of alternatives and new futures. The PIC holds on and perpetuates itself in so many aspects of society, including our institutions, and mass media is a site where the PIC perpetuate narratives of criminalization that keep alive a false belief in the need for the PIC. Art and culture work is also an essential space for critiquing our present, and imagining new futures, especially when we think about film and media. Films, and how we write, think, and talk about them, can participate in harmful narratives or provide passageways to new transformative ones. Brett Story’s The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, or the CR-produced Visions of Abolition, are both pieces that capture the scope of the PIC and offer alternative visions. Film is deeply powerful in this fight — bringing abolition into our media scholarship and our mediamaking is a key way to help build an organizing movement and a future that is truly liberated. Abolition lives in our conversations, our critical theory, in our movies.
WHERE can SVLLY(wood) readers get involved with prison abolishment work (both domestically and internationally)?
SWANSON: Internationally, the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) is a great place to get connected. Domestically, Critical Resistance is committed to building and expanding the movement against the prison industrial complex by encouraging work at a local level. Our goal is to inspire people in all communities to join forces in the movement against the destructive effects of the prison industrial complex. If you live in New York, LA, Portland, or Oakland, consider volunteering with or joining a local chapter as a member. If your local community doesn’t have a chapter, please contact us if you are interested in learning more about starting one.
Part(s) of these answers are adapted from Critical Resistance’s The Abolitionist Toolkit. CRPDX holds monthly political education and prisoner correspondence nights, and is spearheading a campaign, Care Not Cops: Mental Health Care, Not Policing! to address the violent engagement of law enforcement as a frequent response to health and mental health crisis in Portland. You can check out Anna’s work at AnnaSwanson.org and reach out to Critical Resistance at CriticalResistance.org.