BCRW @ 50

2000: Critiques on the Prison Industrial Complex and the fight for Prison Abolition

By the 2000s, sentiments and dialogue at Barnard began to shift from a critique on violence within prisons towards a more prison abolitionist framework. One Barnard Bulletin article critiqued police and military brutality, and quoted an African-American youth organizer as saying, “Jim Crow Laws have only been replaced by the prison industrial complex [PIC].” This seemed to be the first explicit mention of the PIC in the Barnard Bulletin, suggesting a large shift away from rhetoric focusing on instances of abuse and violence within the prison, toward a rhetoric which saw prisons themselves as intentionally, inherently violent and exploitative institutions. This was a theme also picked up in more mainstream politics. A Barnard Bulletin article focusing on third-party presidential candidates featured one candidate who chose Mumia Abu-Jamal, a man on death-row, as his running mate, while another candidate advocated for a moratorium on prisons.

BCRW also began hosting multiple speakers working against the PIC, including Amber Hollibaugh’s Spring 2000 talk on women with AIDS in prison and a conversation titled, “Women, Prison, Punishment.” BCRW also hosted an event in September 2000 titled “Voices from the Inside: Women’s Prison Writing in Performance.” 

The momentum surrounding prison abolitionist work and conversation continued into the new year, even with the occurrence of the attacks on 9/11. One speaker, Sister Helen Prejean, a death-row abolitionist activist who befriended a man on death row and fought for his acquittal, gave a talk just two days after 9/11; the talk became an interesting combination of her ideas on death penalty abolition and a reaction to terrorism. Angela Davis, who spoke a few years later at BCRW in 2003, responded to and countered the theories and ideas which Prejean had posed, arguing instead that incarceration also constituted a sort of death penalty—a penalty of civil death—and should therefore also be abolished. 

In the following years, BCRW and Barnard students took an active role in the prison abolitionist movement of the early 2000s. From a zine by Club Q (Barnard’s queer student organization), featuring opposition to racist police and prisons, students rallying to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and speaking up against the racism of drug laws—specficially, the proposed Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Other engagements with abolition at BCRW during this time include the Women Seeking Justice series, an exhibit on Women’s Prison Activism, and an edition of the Scholar and Feminist Online in 2007 titled “Women, Prisons, and Change.” The early 2000s were an important and active time for prison-abolitionist mobilization.


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