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Envisioning a Social Welfare State as an Alternative to Mass Incarceration

“Some might be wondering, is abolition too drastic? Can we really get rid of prisons and policing all together? The short answer: We can. We must. We are.” Meriame Kaba.

Ubaba kaSabelo (Sabelo’s father) is a trusted man in Tsakane, a low-income township that sits southeast of Johannesburg, South Africa. Tsakane is also my home. Every now and then ubaba kaSabelo comes around to our house and every house in our neighborhood to collect money to be sent, by trusted community members, to a family to help bury their loved one who recently passed away. Tsakane is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Johannesburg, one of the thousands of townships across South Africa created by the apartheid government to segregate, police, and control Black people. Regardless of Tsakane’s poor socio-economic status, its residents are always willing to donate sums of money to a grieving family. Moreover, throughout the week before the funeral (usually on weekends), community members gather at the family of the bereaved to share stories, comfort, and prayer and help them make arrangements for the funeral. Community members will also come together to handle the travel and housing expenses of all the extended family members who will be traveling to attend the funeral. They will offer their houses and food to funeral guests who came from far for days leading up to the funeral.

Although saddened by the loss of someone I may or may not have known, ubaba kaSabelo’s visit always reminded me of the community we have, and a community we aspire to have; one where we love and support each other in our deepest need, with an awareness of our collective commitment to and our upbringing by the concept of Ubuntu — the sense that our individual success is linked to the work and achievements of others — and that it takes a village to raise, protect, and even bury a child.

On a very small scale, this community cooperation resembles the objective of the social welfare state system. In order to understand what the social welfare system is, we need to conceptualize mass incarceration in terms of the prison industrial complex (PIC). As defined by Schenwar and Law, the prison industrial complex is

“the symbiotic relationship between public and private interests that employ imprisonment, policing, surveillance, the courts, and their attendant cultural apparatuses as a means of maintaining social, economic, and political inequities” (20).

This relationship highlights how punitive systems work together to target people marginalized by race, class, gender, identity, disability, etc. Moreover, this definition expands the carceral system by showing who is affected the most by it. Therefore, thinking about ending mass incarceration is actually becomes a bigger step than many people realize. As Schenwar and Law point out, “as we allow ourselves to dream about what ending incarceration might look like, we’re actually dreaming something much bigger: the world that all of us truly want to live in” (264).

In her book, We Do This ’Til We Free Us, Mariame Kaba speaks about ending mass incarceration through the abolition of the prison industrial complex (PIC), she states,

“PIC abolition is a vision of a restructured society in a world where we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water, and more things that are foundational to our personal and community safety” (45).

I believe my community in Tsakane demonstrates this. They show that when we contribute to each other’s lives, we acknowledge the interconnectedness of one another and that the death of one person affects us all. They also show, on a small scale, how communities can take care of their own people. I believe this is the kind of community that the abolition movement aspires to cultivate. And the first step to getting there is getting rid of labels and categorizing people as criminals.

In order to establish an abolitionist future where we are free, we must stop categorizing people as criminals. One reason for getting rid of labels is that crimes and laws change all the time. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore points out,

“while common sense suggests a natural connection between “crime” and “prison,” what counts as crime in fact changes, and what happens to people convicted of crimes does not, in all times and places, result in prison sentences. Defined in the simple terms of the secular state, crime means a violation of the law. Laws change, depending on what, in a social order, counts as stability, and who, in a social order, needs to be controlled” (12).

Until a few weeks ago, smoking marijuana was a crime in New York state, while it still remains illegal in many other states. Also, prostitution is legal in some places, and not in others. This system of criminalization traps people in a state of exclusion from communities and care — places where they should be getting help and not ostracization. Because of labels such as “criminals,” millions of people who are deemed as such today are stuck in the “margins of mainstream society and denied access to the mainstream economy. [Where] They are legally denied the ability to obtain employment, housing, and public benefits — much as African Americans were once forced into a segregated, second-class citizenship in the Jim Crow era,” as Michelle Alexander observes (22).

Therefore, criminalizing people or putting them into prisons is never a good alternative, but these institutions encourage the return to the same crimes they were convicted for. As Kaba observes, “given that the [carceral] system is actually geared toward recidivism, there can be no argument that the prison system supports either public safety or the public good” (73). When we build a culture of care so that people can grow personally and realize their full potential, instead of criminalizing them, we move more towards a social welfare state. As Schenwar and Law put it,

“moving toward real freedom will mean taking criminalization out of the equation. As long as we retain the idea of a “criminal” — along with entrenched, racialized ideas about who a criminal is and what they look like — alternatives will always involve the idea of putting people Somewhere Else” (253).

Instead of coming up with alternatives to imprisoning people by restricting people to their houses through house arrest monitors, and policing them, we have to more move towards community-based solutions and solutions that are focused on building a future that aim to help everyone, as opposed to a world where some people are considered “lesser” than others or unfit for society.

The central idea in the social welfare state is choice. Choice takes away the role of the state to intervene in places they should not be welcome. The presence of the police is a large contributor to people’s lack of choice. Kaba tells us that police do not do what we think they do.

“They spend most of their time responding to noise complaints, issuing parking and traffic citations, and dealing with other noncriminal issues,” she states. “We can’t simply change their job descriptions to focus on the worst of the worst criminals. That’s not what they are set up to do” (64).

Recognizing the failure of the police institution at doing their “job” makes thinking about taking away the role of state intervention easier. Instead of intervening and damaging communities, putting sex workers in a position where they are forcefully “helped” by being criminalized, we can create communities where it is safer for sex workers to work and exist.

The more we build community-based solutions, the more we retire the power of state intervention in community issues. Last year, when the Rochester Police Department killed Daniel Prude, Rochester (New York) organizers and protestors swamped the street demanding justice. Among many of the protestors I talked to was a growing understanding that had anyone been dispatched to help Prude — who was in desperate need of mental health assistance — other than someone with a weapon and state-sanctioned power over others, the outcome would have been significantly different. Prude would be with his family today. The social welfare state seeks community-led systems where we create ways to devise non-carceral ways to confront violence, mental health problems, addictions, and other harms. It also seeks to abolish needless and harmful surveillance mechanisms that support police forces to police communities.

A good example of an organization built on a support network is the Icarus Project, which is a community of “people who experience the world in ways that are often diagnosed as mental illness.” (Schenwar 264). Organizations such as Icarus seek to imagine what healing and survival mean outside of coercive measures and state hospitalizations of people with mental health issues. Elliott Fukui, a man who spent most of his life youth in forced psychiatric institutions and treatment programs, found the Icarus project just when he was being forced to go back to a psychiatric institution. At the Icarus Project, Fukui found a network of people or “a safety chain of friends” who support him whenever he is in an emotional state or having an episode so that he does not have to go back to the hospital.

“I have a team of about twelve people across the country…. I’ve gotten to the point when I can recognize when I’m moving toward an episodic state. I can shoot out a text message,” he says. “I get to know my neighbors when I move somewhere so they’re not inclined to call 911 right away if I do have an episode” (266).

Fukui also recalls how happy he was when he found such a community, understanding that if he is ever found outside having an episode and someone calls the cops, he could end up in jail or even dead.

Creating such systems and communities like the Icarus Project where we depend less and less on cops and more and more on each other is the best way to end systems of policing and incarceration. The Icarus Project allows community members who understand mental health issues, who agree to help each other to form a strong community of care. Much like the community in Tsakane, they know that they will also be helped by the same people whom they offer help.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore notes that

“building a different world requires that we not only change how we address harm but also that we change everything. The PIC is linked in its logics and operation with all other systems — from how students are pushed out of schools when they don’t perform as expected to how people with disabilities are excluded from our communities and the ways in which workers are treated as expendable in our capitalist system” (149).

This focus shifts our attention to many facets in society that we ought to address such as food, jobs, and health care.

We have to realize that pursuing the abolition of prison in all its forms is not only limited to getting rid of jails and prisons but includes, as Schenwar and Law put it,

“challenging, and ultimately ending, institutions of confinement, policing, and control wherever they may emerge, from psychiatric institutionalization to house arrest, from the sex offender registry to the school-to-prison pipeline” (251).

It forces us to realize that harm and violence are often driven by poverty, economic injustice, and lack of access to basic necessities.

Therefore, the social welfare state must challenge capitalism in all its forms. This means providing better food resources to kids in school so they are able to focus and get good grades. It means creating donation banks with basic necessities for people who cannot afford basic necessities to benefit from. It also means providing students with school counselors especially for kids from communities of color and poor communities to counter how the system tends to abandon them. The social welfare state means being able to build housing for all homeless people, especially for those on the sex offender registry who do not have access to housing due to barriers that make it virtually impossible for them to get housing. It also means abolishing oppressive sex offender registries altogether and putting money into real sex education resources for kids.

In addressing harm in all its forms, it is important to keep in mind, as Kaba puts it, “a world without harm isn’t possible and isn’t what an abolitionist vision purports to achieve.” Abolition is a journey, a process, and a different way of looking at the world. It is not as a finish line, a defined theory, or finite practice. However, abolition and the social welfare state promises that if we work together through collective exploration, we can work towards transforming society by challenging our internalized logics of oppression towards an abolitionist future, and a world where we are “seeking accountability for harm and violence without involving or expanding the prison-industrial complex” (29).

Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. The New Press, 2020.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, Second … Edition. UNIV OF CALIFORNIA Press, 2018.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition. Haymarket Books, 2021.

Kaba, Mariame, and Naomi Murakawa. We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice. Haymarket Books, 2021.

Schenwar, Maya, and Vikki Law. Prison by Any Other Name: the Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms. The New Press, 2020.

Originally submitted as a class essay.

Mildly seasoned thoughts that might get you smiling, thinking, inspired, or even completely unmoved.