The Ecology of Structural Violence: On Prisons as a Multicellular Organism (Part One)

If we can’t abolish prisons we have to work towards making them obsolete. Further, if we can’t convince enough people to believe in the missions and philosophy of prison abolition, we can try to highlight the importance of healing our communities.

By focusing on direct action initiatives in our communities we can possibly impact rates of arrests and behavior that leads to arrests. Arrests will still happen, of course, due to the fact that police departments are still inherently racist, classist tools of the violent state run by the exemplars of state violence. Also due to the fact that structural, institutional, and system inequity are still facts of reality so people will still act according to their own logics of survival which, for some, means making a living doing work that is illegal.

The vision I have involves changing and engaging in respectful discourse about mental health, intergenerational trauma, and the ways in which violence permeates our communities. Life as marginalized folx in the afterlife of slavery is marked by trauma and pain but by focusing on a healing-centric philosophy of community-building we can continue the work of building healthy communities that also seeks to make prisons obsolete.

We have to keep in mind that prisons serve a specific function in society. On the surface that function is to keep certain people away from society due to their harmful behavior. When we examine the history of prisons, jails, and the concept of crime itself we see another picture. One that reveals the insidious nature of the prison system. One that reminds us that police evolved from slave catching mobs and that prisons became a means of dealing with poverty and mental illness centuries ago. One that leads to counties basing the bed-counts of jails on elementary school retention rates. One that leads to millions of people being held in jail cells simply because they can’t afford bail, even if they have yet to be convicted of a crime.

It’s easy to forget, or not understand, that the prison system is a multicellular organism within a larger ecology of structural violence. Hospitals, schools, and even our homes are a part of this vast network of surveillance and conditioning that filters us in and out of spaces that are harmful.

In The Paradox of Hope by Cheryl Mattingly, the concept of the borderland is central to her ethnographical examination of the lived experiences that orbit and impact one another in a hospital wing in which Black and Brown terminally ill children seek treatment. Borderlands became a central figure in the academic imaginary following, according to Mattingly, “the recognition that social worlds are porous, that boundaries are fluid and contested, and that objects and people are bound together or travel in all manner of unexpected ways.” When Mattingly describes the “travels of the displaced across tenuous political boundaries” and “the spaces around national boundary lines” she is referring to borderlands.

Expanding on her conceptualization of borderlands, and inspired by the work of Angela Davis, Michel Foucault, Immanuel Kant, and Alexander Weheliye, I thought of a reimagining of our relationship and proximity to the mechanisms of State violence. A reimagining that takes into account an ecology of structural violence. As we navigate different institutions, we are never fully inside or outside of them. Rather, we transgress the boundaries of institutional borderlands as outsiders looking in and insiders looking out. Be it schools, clinics, war zones, geographic territories, jails, prisons, hospitals, or even our own families, institutional borderlands make up the spaces marked by fluid boundaries. We, too, are marked by fluid boundaries we call identities that fuel our work and give life to our passions. They also, though, can fuel our drives to commit harm and give life to our demons.

I encourage you to do a few minutes of research to see the ways in which prisons and jails rely on underfunded communities, underfunded schools, food deserts, and communities lacking access to mental health care. The revolving door of the prison system seeks to fill cells with bodies in order to keep the business booming.

How can we force them to close up shop?

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