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Experimental Essay - Abolition

saturday's picture

Here I'm posting my bare bones essay ideas, as well as three pages of blackout poetry I've completed so far for the research project. Cheers!


Art has a way of not working out the way that you plan it to. The process of making this poetry ended up being a lot deeper than I anticipated, and challenged my thinking on abolition. Ideally I want to form this as a sort of theoretical appendix to my art project, adding some background and clarification to my behind the scenes work I put into the piece. I think this experimental essay can delve into my thought process and how examining the question of abolition in this way has expanded my view beyond "abolition is impossible."


Origins of my project

  • In my initial meeting with Anne, we discussed wanting to find intersections between prison abolition and reform, or find ways that they can complement or resemble each other
  • What contributions does abolition make to ongoing prison reform?
  • Going into the project I was working off the assumption that abolition is impossible and reform is the answer, but with the question of finding a middle ground. Can we use abolition ideals to further reform?
  • My plan in blacking out Davis’ piece was to find strands of reform in a text that talks about abolition



  • One of my main criticisms of abolition going in was the perceived absence of something to fill in the void of the PIC once it is dismantled
    • This train of thought was brought up when I read a quote from the group Darkmatter – comprised of two trans south asian artists who talk frequently about prison abolition among other things:
      • “This isn't to say people who are actively engaged in abolition movements aren't dreaming up and manifesting alternatives all the time. They are, even if those alternatives aren't always hypervisible or widely understood. But it should never be a demand that everyone has a fully articulated alternative for them to believe in abolition, and believe that, through collective creation, something else is possible. For one thing, it's not everyone's role or goal to do that dreaming/creation, and for another, it really should not be a prerequisite to being allowed to say "hey, this absurdly violent institution shouldn't exist" (


Transcribed below is a comparison of abolitionist and reformist ideologies presented at the Black and Pink conference. It added a different layer to my thinking reform and abolition aren’t entirely on the same continuum and that they work with different systems with different goals in mind. I’m still working on how to introduce these thoughts into my work.



  • Puts power into community
  • Prioritizes those most impacted by the penal system
  • Undermines dichotomy between good/bad prisoners
  • Refuses to demonize particulat types of criminals (i.e. sex offenders)
  • Decreases funding/power for police, prisons, detention centers, probation officers, etc.
  • Includes the voices of survivors and those who have caused harm
  • Does not create any new systems we will need to abolish later
  • Long term commitment needed


  • Quick fixes
  • Politically expedient
  • Relies on nonviolent vs. violent offender language
  • Partners closely with Corrections
  • Perpetuates punishment
  • Claims small victories (i.e. changing weights for mandatory minimum sentencing)
  • Emphasizes “personal responsibility”
  • (Un)intentionally leads to more people getting locked up (hate crimes legislation, sex offender legislation)



  • Considering the blackout poetry be a metaphor for abolition in the structure itself
    • There's a sense of both working within the system (existing prose) but also dismantling it (blacking out words/letters) in order to create something new from the base of the old
    • In of itself it feels like the coming together of abolition and reform, something that deals with the realities in place while recognizing that there are things that need to be removed and dealt with.
    • Though it also brings in some challenges – in making the poetry I toyed with the idea of moving around the bits of selected text to restructure them, but that seems to bring up a limitation of the art form, in that the desired results can’t always be achieved because you are working within the constraints of an existing system (see: criticisms of prison reform)



Theoretical: What different texts/theories/approaches to abolition would be useful to include in my project? I found a Philidelphia Prison handbook that I plan on using for the poetry aspect, but what does this bring to mind for others?

Practical: How can I best include my ‘journey’ towards my current thinking on abolition into my final product (having an artist statement + an extra more theoretical appendix?) Is there anything in terms of structuring my piece that could be useful to include?