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In a World Without Prisons

Activating collective imagination to develop alternatives to incarceration.

By Fankai Liu
By Salma Abdelrahman, Contributing Opinion Writer
Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is a Sociology concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

In my sophomore year, the Women’s Center was always a space of comfort and healing. Despite being in the basement of a building, surrounded on all sides by brown-red earth and its darkness, I found beams of light there in hot tea, a collection of books, welcoming smiles, and couches where I could sit and unwind. Take down my guards. Breathe easily. The ground around its walls seem to hug me in rougher moments.

Last semester, the Women’s Center chose to honor Judge Rosemarie E. Aquilina as part of their #WomanCrushWednesday series. Aquilina had presided over the case against Larry G. Nassar, the doctor who committed acts of sexual violence against 160 survivors on the USA Gymnastics team. When the guilty verdict came in, Aquilina called his sentence of 40-175 years in prison a “death warrant” and later made comments implying that, if cruel and unusual punishment were constitutionally permissible, she would have him experience the same sexual violence that he had committed against the survivors.

When I saw the picture of Aquilina on the Women’s Center’s wall — soft smile, hair tied high into a slightly messy bun, white lace collar peeking out from under her robes of authority — this didn’t sit right with me. Why was the bondage of a human being for the rest of his life being celebrated? Why were they endorsing the retributive spirit behind Aquilina’s sentence? Why was the Women’s Center, a space of uplifting and healing, reinforcing and honoring systems and structures that subjugate and oppress the communities I am a part of? The underground walls suddenly felt constricting.

Aquilina’s decision fits into a broader justice system that uses prisons to solve society’s social issues. I don’t need to inundate you with the horrors of life in prison, or trace the historical lineage from slavery to prisons, or give you the statistics of how the prison-industrial complex is built to subjugate people of color, specifically black people; these arguments have been well researched and well articulated. I hear testimonies from those who have experienced the prison first hand — experienced the injustice, trauma, torture, hopelessness — and it becomes increasingly clear to me: The existence of the prison is a moral failure. We know that we were not meant to put people in chains. We know that torture as a form of punishment reveals our darkest parts. We know that people are people no matter their worst actions. And still the social landscapes that we have helped to construct and uphold reveal a cognitive dissonance.

On top of that, people who are imprisoned for violent crimes like rape and murder are often victims of violence themselves, and by using the prison — hotbeds of physical, psychological and sexual brutality — as punishment, we complete and strengthen a cycle of violence that is self-reinforcing. When Aquilana made the claim that she would allow “someone or many people to do to [Nassar] what he did to others,” she must have known that by sentencing him to a life in prison this might happen to him. And who does this cycle of violence help? What issues does it solve? The solutions we have in place are not only morally bankrupt, they serve to worsen the problems they claim to remedy.

So how do we move forward? Liberal ideology espouses the idea that prisons can be made better, that these institutions can be “fixed” in some way to be more humane and tolerable. However, the act of reforming still normalizes bondage, makes dehumanization easier to swallow, and serves to absolve us of our collective guilt around imprisonment. Working within the confines of this social landscape, we forget that the existence of the prison is in fact not inevitable, and that we, through our actions — for example, honoring the retributive spirit around Aquilina’s decision — legitimize its existence every day. We can and must challenge ourselves to think more creatively: How can we work towards a vision for a better world — a world without prisons?

Angela Davis was one of the first people to ask me this question. In her book “Are Prisons Obsolete?”, Davis calls into question the apparent permanence of the prison as a fixture in our social landscapes. The existence of the prison, she argues, is a shortcoming of our imagination and represents our willingness to disappear the problems that plague our world into buildings we never see or have to think about, rather than work collectively to fix them. Davis writes: “The most difficult and urgent challenge today is that of creatively exploring new terrains of justice, where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.”

So what does this world without prisons look like? For me, this world is one that is committed to healing and rehabilitation based on the recognition of the full humanity of every individual. Rather than locking people up in response to criminality, a practice that destroys individuals, communities, and the moral spirit of those who do the incarceration, we can use restorative practices to heal what has been broken and to come to the best possible outcome for all. A world without prisons restores power in communities, building up, rather than tearing away, their members. A world without prisons works to ensure universal basic income, housing, and healthcare, recognizing that crime is inextricably linked to structures of poverty. A world without prisons builds upon social welfare systems to ensure no one falls through the cracks.

Obsoleting the prison is then an inherently positive project. This past summer in Chicago, I worked as a community organizer to mobilize three neighborhoods to invest in developing a community mental health center which would provide free mental health services to residents in the area. Chicago is a city that habitually locks up its residents suffering with mental illnesses in jails and prisons, which made the development of this center vital in envisioning a future without prisons. While the work I was doing had very little to do with the structure of the prison itself, it was still grounded in a vision of a social landscape that prioritized alternatives to human bondage. Through rooted actions like these, we can begin to provide salient, practical, and moral alternatives.

Beyond the confines of our imagination, a world without prisons is possible. I see it and the walls around us all expand.

Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is a Sociology concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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