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Experimental Essay: Prefiguring Prison Abolition, Revised

Shirah Kraus's picture

[Spoiler alert--Mokckingjay part 2]

Tiny parachutes with little metal boxes sway into the arms of children. Pop pop pop! Red fire and grey dust billow like scary clouds. Explosions. Medics rush in, Pim’s blue eyes. Another explosion. Blood trickling from the bow and arrow wound in Coin’s lifeless body. Masses attacking Snow who is tied to a post. “Goodbye Gale.” The cat. The meadow. The children. The garden.

Over the Thanksgiving break I went to see Mockingjay part two with my cousins. At the end of the movie, the rebels (the "good guys") make it look like the bad guys (the Capitol) kill a bunch of children and the rebel medics who rush in to help. A second explosion goes off just as people are rushing in to help the wounded. The delayed explosion plays on the humanity of the medics and family members who rush in and takes more lives. This trick (it looks like the Capitol caused these deaths) turns the remaining loyalists against the Capitol. The rebel President Coin then declares herself interim president indefinitely and the Hunger Games victors vote to instate a final Hunger Games for the Capitol children. Katniss, seeing that Coin is much the same as Snow and responsible for the death of her sister Prim, kills Coin.

Katniss protests the rebel strategies that cause so much unnecessary human death. Her discomfort suggests a deeper flaw in the rebel strategy: if they wish to create a better, freer, safer, more just world that values human life, they must model it. With Coin hungry for power and willing to do anything to win, the values and the vision for a better world begin to crumble. I am reminded of Animal Farm by George Orwell--the pigs seek liberation for the animals but merely become the whip-holders themselves. I think of my own advocacy for liberation--if i do not seek justice in a just way, I will not truly create justice. If, for example, I do not fight for an end to the patriarchy without also toppling other types of oppression and abuse of power, nothing will truly be solved. Saul Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals, “for the Have-Nots and how to take it [the power of the Haves] away” (3). In contrast to this idea, I believe that we should not be fighting for a world in which one particular group of Have-Nots becomes Haves, but rather for a world in which all are free.

How do we do this? Joel ignited my attention by alluding to the idea of prefigurative politics, which also comes up in Shoatz et al. Prefigurative politics is the principle of designing a movement in a way that reflects the world you want to create. The process is as important as the goal (Gossett). For example, SNCC wanted a nonviolent world so they modeled nonviolence in their organization. I believe that prefigurative politics is not only ethical, but also necessary for a movement to be successful. As we engage in the process (means) of achieving our goals (ends), we are transformed as individuals. If we engage in unjust means, we transform in negative ways. Alinsky discusses two examples to illustrate the problematic nature of unjust means:


“a priest who wants to be a bishop and bootlicks and politicks [sic] his way up, justifying it with the rationale, ‘After I get to be bishop I’ll use my office for Christian Reformation,” or [and] the businessman who reasons, “First I’ll make my million and after that I’ll go for the real things in life.” Unfortunately one changes in many ways on the road to the bishopric or the first million, and then one says, “I’ll wait until I’m a cardinal and then I can be more effective,” or “I can do a lot more after I get two million”--and so it goes” (13 emphasis added).


If we do not work to achieve our just ends through just means, we will ourselves become corrupt and lose sight of what we are fighting for. Once we gain power, we cannot and must not abuse that power and become the evil things which we feared and were trying to annihilate. We cannot create a better world unless we imagine a better world and work toward it justly. “We are not only trying to make the world the way we think it should be, we are also helping each other to become the people we want to be,” Ellie Boswell said at the end of our last J Street U conference.

Prison Abolitionists like Reina Gossett are working to create alternatives to the systematically racist, classist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, homophobic, etc... system of putting “criminals” in cages. They seek to prevent, intervene on, and repair harm and violence, especially structural and state violence, and transform communities and relationships: prevention, intervention, reparations, and transformation. It is important to avoid reenacting harm and violence that individuals and communities have experienced, to end the cycles of personal, communal, structural, and state violence and harm. Abolition also means that no one is “disposable.” Treating people as disposable--punishing them, shaming them, removing them from community--is not working. It dehumanizes those people and perpetuates other kinds of violence and harm--breaking up families, state violence, recidivism and increased crime.

Gossett believes in prefiguring Abolition, meaning “the process is as important as the end.” Instead of shaming people, ostracizing them, and denying them belonging or a part in the repairing process, we can hold them accountable and avoid replicating harm in a relationship. We can also practice Abolition everyday by helping a drunk friend get home rather than calling the police, asking someone to turn down their music rather than telling on them to a hall advisor, asking your brother to stop hitting you rather than trying to get him in trouble. We treat these people like they are not disposable because we know them. We should treat strangers this way, too, with this level of humanity. We thus “prefigure the world we want to live in”: we act daily in the ways we want our institutions to act, in the ways we want to act in the world we want to create.

As much as I want it to exist, I am still struggling to envision this abolitionist future. How could I live with someone who hurt me and made me afraid? Are there people who truly cannot be part of community? Gossett addresses the question, “what about the dangerous people?” by challenging the very notion of “dangerous” people. “No one is innocent” (Gossett). The ideas of “good” and “bad” people, “safe” and “dangerous” people, “innocent” and “guilty” people are constructed. People are complex; they are more than one label or identity and they have the capacity to change. But poor people, black people, mentally ill people etc. are considered inherently dangerous. This notion is  incredibly ableist, classist, racist and damaging. No one is innocent, but only some people are held accountable by the state for the harm they cause others. The poor black people who sell drugs often end up in prison, but the rich white college students often do not. Why are schizophrenic people considered more dangerous than the structures and power that send drone strikes and incarcerate people? Dean Spade argues, “the prison is the serial killer. The prison is the serial rapist… . If we really want to reduce rape and reduce early death, we would get rid of the prison.” The state is the responsible for most of the gunshots and violence.

I also wonder how we can fully and completely act the way we should (prefiguration), when we live in an imperfect world, when we are faced with lose-lose dilemmas? What if I am starving and the only way I can get food is to steal it? Or I am in an emergency situation and the only way to be safe is to call the cops?  Abolitionists recognize that we do need to address immediate needs while simultaneously creating a better future.  As Shoatz warns, prefigurative efforts are not the answer, but must work alongside broad movements (226). Prefiguration is insufficient and cannot stand alone, because while we are working to create a better world, we must also address present needs.

I am thinking specifically about the work I do with J Street U. I am constantly questioning the very basis of what we are fighting for. Is a Two State Solution really the best solution? Should we be the ones to decide the fates of Palestinians and Israelis when we don’t even live there? What right do I as an American, privileged, white, Jewish college student to impact policy in another country? Am I not complicit in a neocolonialist structure that is continuing to take away the power and voice of the Palestinian people? And at the same time, I feel that I must act. I should use the power that I have, although problematic, for good. I grew up learning about the indifference of the world during the Holocaust and I internalized the idea that I must not and cannot stand idly by the blood of my neighbors. “The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means,” writes Alinksy (26). Moreover, I am a Jew and I do have a stake and in interest in the Jewish State and I am complicit in the Occupation if I don’t do something about the Israeli government and the American Jewish money and politics that are perpetuating it. I continue to grapple with these questions and challenges and I feel that I will never reach an answer, but it is vital that I continue to question, that I continue to strive toward justice with justice, that I prefigure the world I want to live in. I also hope to imagine beyond this dichotomy--either act within the problematic system of power or do nothing--and also recognize that the work we are doing as J Street U is valuable even if it is not completely prefigurative.

In addition to considering dilemmas, I also questioned the pragmatism of Abolition. At first, I thought the idea of abolitionism was much too impractical and challenging: prisons are so entrenched in our society and have been for so long. But the abolitionist movement is in many ways very practical and within the self interest of almost every citizen, even those without direct connections to incarceration or incarcerated individuals. About 10% of the U.S. population is in the system of detention and incarceration. They have families and communities that are greatly and negatively affected. Even those without direct connections are harmed by over-policing, surveillance, and a system that isn’t safe. It is possible and practical to abolish prisons. People like Mia Mingus are already practicing transformative justice, creating systems that transform people, restore community, prevent crime, create safer communities, and hold people accountable for the hurt they have caused others. So why was I so hesitant to believe abolition is possible? When supreme court justices argued that marriage has existed a certain way for a long time and why should we change it now, I thought the challenge against same-sex marriage was ridiculous. And then I made a similar one about abolition. What led me to initially dismiss the movement?

I realized that my ideas of community organizing and social movements have been so shaped by Saul Alinsky, who encourages radicals to act within existing systems of power. And as Joel Olson writes, white supremacy limited my imagination. I believed that there must be dilemmas, that radical change is impossible (even when I am idealistic and optimistic about other things). I did not consider every possible and creative option for change and I did not recognize the urgency and necessity of radical change.

The U.S. history of social change has been largely incremental and slow-moving. For example, black slaves were “freed” from slavery, but then oppressed by rule of law. Then when those laws were changed gradually, discrimination remained a part of various systems. For example, when housing discrimination was made illegal, it still occurred through redlining and promoting fear, leading to white flight in many U.S. cities. And we still continue to live in mostly segregated communities today. These incremental changes have not ended the denial of rights, resources, and opportunities for those who are marginalized in this country, specifically poor people of color. We need to recognize that the systems themselves are problematic, prejudiced, and racist. Reform is not enough. Working within the system is not the only option. White democracy limits our imagination, pushing us toward liberal reforms rather than radical revolutions. There are infinitely many options and we must be creative and imaginative. We don’t have to work within corrupt systems to make change. We can imagine and create and believe in alternatives, in a radically different future. And we must. The time is now. And it may seem impossible, but as Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it is done.”

I can't seem to get these flashes of images from the movie out of my head, constant fictional reminders of the real-world attempts to solve problems with problems. As Angela Davis writes, mass incarceration actually exacerbates many of the social problems that imprisonment is theoretically fighting against (19). We must instead imagine and create a different system that prevents harm and makes us all safer, and we must reach for this goal by acting on our values, prefiguring the world we want to live in.



Alinsky, Saul David. Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.

Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories, 2003. Print.

No One Is Disposable: Everyday Practices of Prison Abolition. Perf. Reina Gossett and Dean Spade. Barnard Center for Research on Women. Sylvia Rivera Law Project, 7 Feb. 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2015. <>.

Olson, Joel. The Abolition of White Democracy. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2004. Print.


jschlosser's picture

The idea of "prefiguration" really intrigues me! I'd like to hear more reasons for some of the assertions in this paragraph:

Prefiguration is insufficient and cannot stand alone. Moreover, what do we do when we are faced with a dilemma, when there is no way to act justly?  This is a tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. It is impossible to act the way we hope to be able to act in the world as it should be right now in the world as it is. Is prefiguration something we even want or can realistically achieve? Can we dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools? Is there any other way?

What exactly do you mean by prefiguration? What precisely makes it insufficient? When is there no way to act justly? I think you could work out these ideas in dialogue with some of the abolitionist readings/viewings given their commitments to prefiguration. 

Reina Gossett says that prefiguration means the process is as important as the end. Does that give you a way to think about pregiruation as sufficient? Gossett gives the example of replacing calling the cops with accountability -- creating alternatives immediately. How might this translate to some of the specific problems you're thinking of?

Shirah Kraus's picture

Thanks so much for commenting! I wrote this essay before Alinsky's chapter on Ends and Means and it really complicated my idealist understanding of prefiguration. It made me uncomfortable to consider doing something questionable to get the desired end. Gossett also defines prefiguration differently than i do, in a more realistic way I think. I want to be more specific and I will try to think of some examples.

jschlosser's picture

Political theorists often speak of how studying the history of political thought can expand our political imaginations by leading us to see the contingency (that is, the chance events that created) the present as well as untaken roads in the past. I'm thus so please to see you thinking like a political theorist when you realize how this particular historical moment has led you to see problems from a particular angle or in a particular light. You write:

I realized that my ideas of community organizing and social movements have been so shaped by Saul Alinsky, who encourages radicals to act within existing systems of power. And as Joel Olson writes, white supremacy limited my imagination. I believed that there must be dilemmas, that radical change is impossible (even when I am idealistic and optimistic about other things). I did not consider every possible and creative option for change and I did not recognize the urgency and necessity of radical change.

Here I'd like to have a littl more elaboration about other "possible and creative" options, in particular with respect to your J Street work. What if all the members of J Street went to live in Palestine, for instance? Wouldn't that prevent Israel from employeeing some of its most violent tactics? Or is that not pragmatic? How does "pragmatism" limit political possibilities?