This story is part of Prism’s series on incarceration as gendered violence. Read the rest of the series here

When I was fresh out of undergrad, I worked as a victim advocate with people who survived violent harm in Essex County, New Jersey, and the memories of the survivors and victims replay regularly in my mind. I cannot forget the story of a Black woman, Monica Paul, who was murdered at a local YMCA by her ex-boyfriend while she was watching their son’s swim lessons. To this day, I feel a visceral anger at the Black man who could snatch the life from another human being in front of their own children. At the time, I didn’t have a critique for the system that failed to protect Monica. I think many of us believe the lie that the murder couldn’t have been prevented, and the only thing our society can control is how we mete out punishment. It escaped me that she already had a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend through the same criminal legal system, and it failed to keep her alive.  

Our system’s focus on retroactive punishment means that the hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money going toward incarceration do not go toward preventing another Black woman from experiencing the same fate. There was no commitment being made to ridding our country of deeply rooted toxic masculinity or the addiction to power and control that create the conditions for harm. The focus on retribution offers a false sense of security. 

Black women deserve to experience safety, and to have close familial and intimate partner relationships that are filled with love and support. Yet for Black women and girls, one of the leading causes of death is murder at the hands of a partner. Even facing that violence, Black women don’t like calling the police because we know that each time we involve any form of law enforcement in our lives, we risk the safety of our loved ones and ourselves. And beyond the harm to others, Black women know that the prison industrial complex will punish us for trying to survive. That’s what happened to Marissa Alexander, a Black woman who tried to defend herself from an abusive partner by firing a warning shot with a gun that she was licensed to carry. The result was a 20-year prison sentence. Marissa was prosecuted in the same state that allowed a white Latinx man to walk free after murdering a teenaged Trayvon Martin.

Mariame Kaba, one of the most prolific abolitionist organizers of our time explains that, in the eyes of the state, Black folks “have no selves to defend.” Black women and girls like Marissa, and like Bresha Meadows, Chrystul Kizer, Cece McDonald,Cyntoia Brown, Tracy McCarter, and the thousands of Black criminalized survivors whose names we may never hear, know better than any of us that the prison industrial complex does not protect survivors. I often think of the overlooked Black trans people like Tony McDade who are killed, criminalized, or assaulted by law enforcement. I think of the New Jersey Four, and some of the young people I worked with when I was practicing law on behalf of girls and femmes in the criminal legal system in New York. I cannot forget a young woman I met on Rikers Island who had physical scars from violence and survival after. experiencing commercial sexual exploitation (trafficking). When we talked, she mentioned nothing about wanting her “pimp” prosecuted. Instead, she made clear that she needed a safe place to live.  

While carceral feminists point to stories of girls and women who are trafficked to justify a reliance on the prison industrial complex, they often ignore the nuance and complexity of survivorship. For girls who have been exploited, going back to the harm-doer provides for their most basic needs—housing, food, and protection—that are not met through a structure of racialized capitalism, and no arrest is going to prevent them from doing whatever they need to in order to survive.

Black women know the harm that can come to us if we look to the criminal legal system for our safety, and it has made us most committed to reimagining safety. We also know intimately the pain of racial trauma and we desperately want healing and transformation for the very people who harm us. That’s why Black women are probably the most well-positioned to be anti-carceral feminists. Anti-carceral feminists believe in the liberation of all people from racist, sexist oppression and know that freedom must begin with dismantling anything related to putting people in cages.  

In a moment when people across the United States are being forced to reckon with the violent nature of policing and prisons, the question of “what do we do with the  rapists and murderers” has re-emerged. Anti-carceral feminists and abolitionists have responded and continue to say, we want a world where all people, regardless of gender or gender presentation, can experience safety and wellness, and we know that is not possible through the prison industrial complex.

People who commit acts of violence know full well that prisons exist, and that knowledge does not act as a deterrent. The mountain of evidence points to a different conclusion, that prisons and policing are criminogenic in and of themselves. They are not only failed investments, but extensions of U.S. chattel slavery. Ultimately, Black women are under constant threat not because there aren’t enough prisons or police to “catch” the people who perpetrate violence, but precisely the opposite, because the reliance on prisons stifles our collective ability to imagine a world where healing, safety, and wholeness exist.

Black feminists in the Combahee River Collective crafted a vision of freedom and safety decades ago when they explained that in order to experience liberation, we would all have to work to dismantle systems of oppression; including capitalism, which depletes so much of our creativity and ability to vision. Capitalism buoys our collective dependence on the prison industrial complex to solve every problem. The energy required for community building gets siphoned off into the hustle of making ends meet, leaving little time for pulling together mutual aid, healing from racial trauma, or finding out who in your community you could partner with to create hyper-local accountability systems.

I am inspired by the workhappening to make something different, but many of the transformative justice processes that I’m familiar with happen in the context of community organizations where there is already an infrastructure for accountability. There are real questions about how we respond to violence when the person who has done harm doesn’t want to engage in a process, or when they are not connected to a community group.  

I do not pretend to have the answers, nor do I pretend to not have considered a myriad of frightening circumstances that an uncharted future could create. The desire for a neatly written recipe for safety, does not negate the fact that the prison industrial complex murders Black people all the time, and it cannot be reformed. The lack of answers have compelled Black women to build, to create, to imagine, and to organize against the system of racialized capitalism that steals away the energy and radical imagination of the most marginalized people.  

Ashley C. Sawyer, Esq., is a Black, Christian, feminist working to dismantle systems of oppression and create space for Black and marginalized people to live in safety, freedom, and joy. She is a Howard...