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Drawing a line in the sand, and speaking up for abolition of the prison industrial complex

Introduction by Croakey: The National Network of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women & Girls was established in 2020 to represent people who have been in prisons and to advocate for abolition of the prison industrial complex.

Below two of the network’s founding members, Debbie Kilroy and Tabitha Lean, say it is time to stop talking about reforming prisons and to start working for their complete abolition, including through funding community resources that prevent harm.


Debbie Kilroy and Tabitha Lean write:

In all our lives we get to a point where we have to draw lines in the sand.

Sometimes those lines are in the relationships we forge, and sometimes they are in the movements we occupy.

Many criminalised people struggle with drawing those lines. For many of us, our boundaries and lines haven’t been respected in our past – boundaries have been violated by people in our family, by organisations, or by the state.

We have, somewhere along the way, traversed society’s arbitrary lines of ‘good’, and ventured into the realm of ‘bad’. Most of us ‘criminals’ are considered so hopeless at keeping within these lines that we have spent whole lifetimes teetering along society’s edges of morality, tripping over the lines that the legal system lays out for us like trip wires, falling into their carefully laid traps, ensnared, and ultimately pushed into human warehouses for recalcitrant humans.

The formation of the National Network of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women & Girls is a firm line in the sand.

It is a crucible moment for criminalised women, girls and gender diverse people across so-called Australia.

The National Network is setting the terms of engagement. We are determining the terms through which we seek freedom and emancipation from cages.

Our business, done our way.

About time, we say.

This country is filled with people who mean us harm, want to damn us to hell, or with do-gooders, or with people who are satisfied just to shave off the harder edges of the criminal punishment system and satisfy themselves with a reformist agenda which sees people still stuck in cages, albeit “nicer” ones.

So, the time has come to draw some firm lines in the sand.  And who better to do it than an organisation that consists ONLY of people who have seen the inside of a cage? Who better than a group of people driven by one agenda.

Freedom.

This is our line in the sand.

Dismantle, not reform

The National Network are unapologetically abolitionists. This means we want to dismantle the entire prison industrial complex, not just shave off some off its more grotesque flourishes to make it more ‘humane’. Our position means we will not allow reform to creep in as the compromise. We will run straight and demand the total annihilation of the carceral system as we know it now.

And we will not be wearing a jailing is failing t-shirt while we do the work.

In fact, we are tired of seeing those t-shirts in the wild.

Jailing is NOT failing. It is lazy and poor analysis to suggest it is, and entirely offensive to the people it harms with a deliberate and vicious hand, and with impunity. This phrase allows those who haven’t been criminalised to feel good about themselves, “the helper”, the “academic”, the “reformer”, those who believe that prisons are needed.

Jailing is working exactly how it was intended.

The Australian punishment system has never been a system designed to keep everyone safe. It has never been a system designed to rehabilitate. It has never been a fair system, a just system or a system of radical social change. To the contrary, it has been an instrument of ruling class oppression. The legal system, from its founding, was about preserving distributions of wealth and property and white supremacy. The criminal punishment system has consistently been deployed by settler-colonial states to uphold the colony, and to further the colonial project that is Australia.

The system is not broken.

The system is not failing when you consider its real intent.

We are told that our justice system is about public safety and human flourishing, but if you think that our legal system is really about creating a society of equality and justice and liberty and public safety, all you have to do is look around to understand that it’s failing miserably at that. That’s why you hear so many people, from all over the spectrum, saying the criminal justice system is “broken.”

It’s only broken if you think that those are its purposes. If you actually think that its purpose is controlling certain populations, oppressing certain people, conserving the hierarchies of wealth and power, then it’s actually functioning very well.  It’s booming, one of the biggest businesses in the country other than family policing and policing.

Jailing is in fact, working.

It is working for all the people who benefit from the prison industrial complex – and by that, we mean the entire overlapping interests of state and industry that employ policing, surveillance, imprisonment and punishment as a means of controlling people.

It is working for the gammon allies with the word ‘abolition’ in their social media bios, who are way too jelly backed to stand up to the prison industrial complex, who are complicit in the violence perpetrated against criminalised people while pretending to be on our side, using our lived prison experience against us or for their own gains (and don’t think we don’t notice some of you formerly incarcerated mob in this group, too).

It is working for the cops who garner a wage from enforcing this colonial regime. It is working for the lawyers making their careers off the system. It is working for the private companies that profit from managing prisons and manufacturing carceral restraints like, Home Detention hardware and cop cams.

Jailing is working for the media who make their headlines from sensationalist and salacious crime reporting and “true” crime dramas. It is working for politicians who reap the benefits of their tough on crime stances and hold portfolios that manage prisons and policing and so-called corrective services. It is benefiting the child family policing workers who pipeline our kids into “care” into prisons.

Jailing is working for the colony. The entire construction of the prison and punishment system enables the subjugation and oppression of Blak bodies, because prisons are a deliberate part of the arsenal of the settler colonial war machine, and jailing is a strategy.

It is no accident that our prisons are filled with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is by design that First Nations people are criminalised and caged. The colonial state deploys the criminal punishment system to mediate conflict between the two races and relegating First Nation’s people to the class of ‘criminal’ is a convenient way to legitimatise large scale land theft, as well as constructing them as a menace to society that must be controlled.

Jailing is working for the system of racial capitalism which benefits from the large-scale warehousing and caging of human beings. We mean racial capitalism is clever. It has promoted this project of warehousing and caging as a project of justice.

By industrialising punishment and promoting the belief that eliminating crime requires intensified policing, surveillance, and further criminalisation of populations that are already the most vulnerable and socially oppressed, as well as developing a rationale that simultaneously blames the victims of systemic racism and social inequality, they have been able to perpetuate and entrench systemic racism and social inequality in the name of “justice.”

So, yep…jailing is not failing

It is not broken.

It is working exactly how it is intended.

Those who argue otherwise are usually furthering their own self-interests, not the interests of those of us caged, particularly those working and receiving a pay checks off our backs.

Because the so-called justice system in this country appears like we are enforcing the laws against all people, when in fact, law enforcement in this country just enforces some laws against some people.

There is no way that much of what happens in the punishment bureaucracy would be tolerated if it were happening to people who looked different or had more power. Because ultimately, the way that law is enforced in this country reflects distributions of power in our society.

It’s not enough for us to say that jailing is failing. It’s not enough, because it hints at reform. It allows us to think of ways to make prisons better, more rehabilitative, more just, more fair. But prisons themselves are a form of reform. There is no cutting the corners off them to make them safer, more humane, more just, less harmful or more successful.

Besides, that’s not their true purpose.

And that brings us to another line in the sand.

Abolish the cage

As a National Network we will not be supporting the Raise the Age Campaign. We will be campaigning on a platform of ‘Don’t Raise the Age, Abolish the Cage.’

We will not kneecap our demands and we will not leave anyone behind. We will not go into our youth prisons and tell a 14-year-old that they should stay in prison while their 13 year old friend shouldn’t be.

We stand for the freedom of all of us from the confines of cages.

It is time to stop talking about reforming prisons and to start working for their complete abolition. It’s time to think about fundamental change. This means the end of incarceration in its totality. This means funding community resources that prevent harm, and empowering systems that allow for equitable accountability. This means invalidating the very premise of the carceral system, and instead building a world where prisons don’t have to exist at all.

To do this, we must reckon with the fact that prisons CANNOT be reformed, since the very nature of prisons requires brutality and contempt for the people imprisoned. We must accept that prisons are used to punish people for being Blak, for being poor, for being unwell. We must imagine a world with fewer laws, and a world in which jails and prisons aren’t the default response to all social problems – and instead of beginning with punishment, we must begin with compassion.

Compassion for ourselves and one another.

We cannot do that alongside or within the carceral state. We must do it over the top of and in spite of. You will not see us calling the cops on our mates. Because this system, the system of policing and imprisonment is not broken; the system’s extreme racial disparities and daily dehumanisation do not result from a glitch in the system, but rather from the smooth functioning of a system designed to control and contain poor, Black, and unwell people.

If we persist in trying to reform a system that continues to serve only the interests of private property and capital while enacting extreme violence, we will not realise safety for all. Ultimately, abolition is about recognising the complexity of harm and the indispensability of humanity. It enables us to challenge the ubiquitous belief that there are disposable humans. Abolition enables us to connect with our communities, learn how to take accountability, and foster communal responsibility for preventing and responding to harm.

Abolition enables us to dispense with suffering, punishment and exile. We can focus on abundance and healing, rather than scarcity and harm.

The National Network will over the next 12 months invite you to see the system through our eyes, to recognise its true purpose and stand alongside us to abolish it. Stand with us to clear out prisons and tear down the walls, because liberation for those caught in the carceral net has the capacity to pave a liberatory pathway for us all.

Abolition has the capacity to change the face of justice in this country and deliver love, safety and real liberty.

Maybe the National Network isn’t drawing a line in the sand, maybe we’re fucking carving one out of stone, because we will not be washed away by the waves, we’re here to stay and we will not be moved.

Abolition now, freedom forever.

• To find out more about the Network, contact Debbie Kilroy.

Author details

Debbie Kilroy OAM was first criminalised at the age of 13 and spent over two decades in and out of women’s and children’s prisons. Driven to end the criminalisation and imprisonment of girls and women, Debbie established Sisters Inside, as well as her law firm, Kilroy & Callaghan Lawyers. An unapologetic abolitionist, Debbie’s activism work centres on dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex and all forms of carceral control and exile. With a firm belief that there should be ‘nothing about us without us’, Debbie established the National Network of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls to centre the voices, experiences and aspirations of criminalisation and imprisonment women and girls in order to change the face of justice in this country.

Tabitha Lean is an activist, poet and storyteller. An abolition activist determined to disrupt the colonial project and abolish the prison industrial complex, she’s filled with rage, channelling every bit of that anger towards challenging the colonial carceral state. Having spent almost two years in Adelaide Women’s Prison, 18 months on Home Detention and three years on parole, Tabitha uses her lived prison experience to argue that the criminal punishment system is a brutal and too often deadly colonial frontier for her people. She believes that until we abolish the system and redefine community, health, safety and justice; her people will not be safe.

Debbie Kilroy (L) and Tabitha Lean. Photos provided.

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