Playwright Molly Hagan can conjure whole ecosystems in a few syllables. Her clear-eyed, epic stories manifest urgent visions of human and animal struggle on a living planet. With a craftsmanship as distinct for its experimental daring as for an earthy, tender quality I haven’t seen elsewhere, she gives voice to some of the most brutal dimensions of being alive, as well as some of the brightest. What results is a unique and finely wrought existential poetry.
Molly is also an abolitionist, committed to a vision of life beyond the carceral state. Below, she shares the story of her path from skepticism to advocacy, and to recommend resources for novices and seasoned activists alike.
I came to abolition when I began teaching a writing class at a shelter for formerly incarcerated women. My understanding of mass incarceration at the time was such that I expected the women I worked with to have been imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses, or low-level broken-windows crimes. There are too many people in prison for crimes that don’t need to be crimes, my thinking went.
I still believe this, of course, but over time I was surprised to find that a good number of the women I worked with had served time for killing someone. More surprising to me still, the circumstances were remarkably consistent: many of the women had killed their abuser, or a man they knew who had harmed them. I knew that nearly all of the women at the shelter were survivors, but I did not expect to encounter such a clear intersection of abuse and criminalization. Most rapists do not go to prison, but what I had not known was that a whole lot of survivors actually do. I began to see the ways in which these women were failed by systems that were supposedly built to protect them, and in doing so, I learned the first and arguably the most important principle of abolition: that perpetrator and victim are not fixed identities. To put it another way, as the abolitionist Mariame Kaba recently said, “No one enters violence for the first time by committing it.”
Still, I didn’t embrace abolition overnight. Abolition seemed to me like a utopian concept that worked better as an abstract theory than as a practical goal—until I was offered a more intimate glimpse of the system.
Abolition is often defined in the negative, as in, abolitionists want to get rid of police and prisons. While this is absolutely the case, I prefer to think of abolition as an ideological framework, an articulation of values, a set of tools for identifying problems. Abolitionists use the word “harm” to describe what most people would call a “crime,” because criminalization—who gets charged and for what—is political. It’s not always a one-for-one substitution, though: not all crimes are harmful, and—crucially!—not all harms are crimes.
As Angela Davis likes to point out, the word radical comes from the word root. Abolition is radical because it asks us to address problems by seeking their root cause. Abolitionists recognize that prisons are inherently racist. We don’t ask how to make prisons more humane, because a racist system can never be humane. Instead, we ask: why do people cause harm in the first place? And what can we do to prevent and address it?
More specifically, abolitionists want to abolish the prison industrial complex (PIC), a vast, inter-related system of imprisonment, policing and surveillance. The definition of the PIC is frustratingly, but necessarily, broad; it can include systems outside of its direct purview—schools, hospitals, foster care—that can be “deputized” to act in its service. For example, a school administrator who calls the cops on a student acts on behalf of the PIC. The nuance is important. The PIC, with all of its shifting appendages, is a term that refers to the structure of state punishment and control. The PIC is an outgrowth of slavery, and the term abolition intentionally invokes the Black radical movement to end it. Abolishing the PIC is unfinished business. Its very existence tells us that freedom is still a privilege and not a right.
Like most people, I was hardwired to equate punishment with justice—until I saw how fruitless and arbitrary punishment can be, and how often it is a solution in search of a problem. By the time my brother got caught up in the system, my views were already beginning to change. A slew of drug and drug-adjacent charges have kept him in and out of jail—including, distressingly, during the first few months of covid—for the past several years. (For the uninitiated: jails are for people who have yet to be charged, and people serving short sentences; prisons are for people serving long sentences.) His experience has been defined by certain privileges (whiteness, access to a lawyer), but also by a tendency toward self-sabotage. He is not a perfect victim, a perfect addict or—though it seems weird to say it—a perfect criminal, a fact that seems only to further enmesh him in the PIC, even and particularly when he is not physically incarcerated. His difficulties are too complex to be addressed by a system that is not built to solve problems, but to disappear them. His experiences are unremarkable on the grand scale of the prison-industrial complex, but they are certainly remarkable to him, to my parents, to me. Within the circle of our family, the dictum of the abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore—“Where life is precious, life is precious”—applies.
A few years ago, I read Jon Mooallem’s Wild Ones—it’s not about abolition, but animals, extinction and climate change. “[N]ature doesn’t know what outcome we want and it doesn’t care,” he writes. “Instead, it perpetually absorbs what we do or don’t do to it, and disinterestedly spits out the effects of those causes… It’s a calculator, adding up numbers we don’t always realize we’re pressing and confronting us with the sum.” The natural world is an extraordinarily fragile system, sensitive to the slightest footprint; a similar image comes to my mind when I imagine our society. I think our interactions with each other have similarly profound consequences—for example, I think there is a direct line between one person ignoring an unhoused person asking for money and a larger society that would prefer to let over 200,000 people die than provide for their basic needs. And I think that our cruel and cynical system of punishment enforces and perpetuates this society, one in which a human life is worth only its accumulated wealth. We legitimize the system through small acts of complicity—but we don’t have to.
If you are an abolitionist, you commit to working toward the larger horizon of abolishing the PIC, but you also commit to looking at the world through an abolitionist lens. This, ultimately, is what abolition asks of us, to create policy from the perspective that each individual life is precious, and worthy of dignity and care. It encourages us to reorient our understanding of crimes as harms—to identify the most egregious harms in our society and ask what is being done to address them.
Are Prisons Obsolete?, by Angela Davis
Solitary, by Albert Woodfox
On my to-read list: Prison By Any Other Name, by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law
Justice in America: Prison Abolition with Mariame Kaba, one of the best 101 overviews of prison abolition that I’ve heard; ditto Kaba’s interview on Why Is This Happening? With Chris Hayes
Intercepted: Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition, a deeper dive into abolition, and the PIC as a function of racial capitalism
“Is Prison Necessary?,” an interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore
“Yes, We Literally Mean Abolish the Police,” by Mariame Kaba
Two recent Zoom panels I found particularly illuminating: Dream Defenders’ Sunday School, with Angela Davis and Derecka Purnell, and On the Road with Abolition: Assessing Our Steps Along the Way, with Mariame Kaba.
If you are looking for an abolitionist organization to support, check out Survived and Punished, which provides support for criminalized survivors.