Revolution or Reform? A Theoretical Analysis of the Prison Abolition Movement and State Engagement



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The Prison Abolition Movement has an ambivalent relationship with the state and with what is commonly known as ‘electoral politics.’ They often see state institutions as inherently violent, leading the movement to promote a complete transformation of society. However, the state has a monopoly over all institutional processes and establishments, including those that allow for social change, making this goal particularly challenging. In addition, the state often has complete control over the lives of people abolitionists’ center in their organizing efforts, such as incarcerated individuals. Therefore, prison abolitionists must engage with the state, an act that can be seen as reinforcing the legitimacy of structures they mostly disapprove of. This thesis explores such tensions, developing a conceptual toolkit for the abolitionist perspective on the relationship between the state and society. This toolkit provides language for the ways in which abolitionists organize, mostly through state engagement, while minimizing the amount of legitimacy they provide it. In this thesis, I argue that prison abolitionists are able to reconceptualize how state engagement is defined by grounding their organizing in their values of community care; I call this value-based organizing. This conceptualization seeks to highlight the ways in which prison abolitionists’ ground their work in their shared values, and how such a foundation allows them to engage with the state while pushing back on its authority. I demonstrate how the identities of abolitionist organizers are often shaped by their values, providing them a guiding framework; such perspective allows activists to engage with the state while deprioritizing it, maintaining their agency and autonomy. By doing so, they shift existing power structures: even though they actively engage with the state, such activity does not center state power, but the people. This theoretical analysis was created from the lived experiences of seventeen abolitionist organizers from across the United States which I had the privilege of interviewing, combined with supplementary theoretical sources. By doing so, this research uses a version of grounded theory, a method of data analysis which seeks to build a theory from emerging data, asking interviewees open-ended questions, and grouping the responses into common themes. I present the data using composite narratives, which are stories woven together- created from quotes of multiple participants- allowing enhanced reader resonance and making my data accessible to a non-academic audience.



prison abolition, police abolition, abolition, criminal justice reform, prison industrial complex, prison abolition movement, social movements, composite narratives, grounded theory