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State-sanctioned violence is oftentimes met with the people’s response, and in return, the people’s response is met with swift action from the state—often violence. That’s how the world of politics gets to operate with its own rules of physics.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan launched the federal government’s attempt to curb activity viewed by the legal system as criminal. Federal legislation served two distinct purposes: to create the concept of criminality and then superimpose that concept onto those least resourced and serviced by local, state, and federal governmental entities. Politicians funneled money into the construction of jails and prisons, increasing the number of incarcerated Black men from 143,000 in 1980 to 791,600 in 2000, and the accounts of those least likely to be believed and inform public policy continued to be eschewed away from Washington, D.C. Since the onset of mass incarceration, there have been urgent calls for abolition—the dismantling of the only justice system that America had ever known. 

Abolition calls for a reimagining of our shared punitive carceral system that favors community-based initiatives, a proper and anti-racist investment in education, health care, housing, food, and a right to self-determination, among other demands. It gained more visibility by advocates, many of them young, during the racial justice uprisings in the summer of 2020, continuing to assert that abuse and punishment by state powers and state institutions cannot be reformed into respect and love while the structures that facilitate that abuse and punishment remain. 

This credo continues to be put to the test. In December of 2020, the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) announced its lawsuit against the state of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections for creating unlivable conditions in its prisons and willfully neglecting the well-being of those incarcerated. The lawsuit, which surprised the Alabama Department of Corrections, followed a multi-year investigation into the state prison system, ultimately finding that the prisons facilitated what the federal agency called an “excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse, and prisoner deaths.” The justice department claims that by creating these conditions, Alabama has denied its incarcerated residents constitutional protections and rights, namely Eighth Amendment rights. 

The justice department found violence by corrections officers and incarcerated people alike, though most often those with the power to prevent violence were indeed responsible for starting or facilitating it. Corrections officers were found to traffic in drugs and other banned items, refuse to report extortion of imprisoned people or their family members, and outright assault the imprisoned people. One incarcerated person at Staton Correctional Facility in Alabama who had been beaten, sprayed, and slapped by corrections officers, said the officers resort to violence rather than follow standard disciplinary actions. Though prison officials were reticent to admit to any wrongdoing or negligence, the state did close one of its facilities while the DOJ’s investigation was ongoing because the state found that the facility in question was “no longer suitable to house inmates, or to be used as a correctional facility.” Even then, in response to the justice department’s lawsuit, the Alabama prison system vowed to “fervently defend” itself against what it views to be an attack. 

Prisons are built on force. They enforce a standard dress code, they dictate when and what imprisoned people  can eat, where they can sleep, who to communicate with (and how), and when or if they can leave. Alabama is accused of excessive force, but the very existence of prisons is already an excessive force. The DOJ cites extreme overcrowding as a precipitating force behind the rampant violence in Alabama prisons: “Staton, a medium security prison, is designed to hold 508 prisoners and held 1,385 in November 2018 for an occupancy rate of 272.6%. And Kilby, a close security prison, has a design capacity of 440 beds, and held 1,407 prisoners at the end of November 2018—an occupancy rate of 319.8%.” It’s not uncommon for prisons to be overcrowded. Almost half of the U.S. prisons are at or over capacity

Any announcement of so-called DOJ “success” would be illusory and limiting. A successfully argued lawsuit removes potential harm for those forced to live in prisons, while also undercutting abolition. A failed lawsuit proves reform isn’t possible and sentences incarcerated Alabamans to further violence and abuse. To be clear, the DOJ lawsuit serves a purpose, for there are people bearing the material brunt of the state’s inadequacies—those who are incarcerated and those who love incarcerated people. Immediate intervention by the federal government will surely make the lives of all these people better. But a DOJ lawsuit cannot undo the multiple harms brought onto the people inside, and a lawsuit cannot bring back to life people like Ryan Rust, who was found dead in a solitary confinement cell at Alabama’s Holman prison. 

A reform-minded action like a lawsuit proves the failures of reform because it depends on the assumption that the prison system exists in a sort of balanced state that merely requires occasional corrections. It proposes that abuses such as legal loopholes, uncompassionate corrections’ officers, a shoddy healthcare system, and a lack of privacy, are aberrations that can be permanently fixed. The truth is that an “ideal prison state” is a system in which violence, abuse, and substandard care for incarcerated people are features, not bugs. We know this because this isn’t the first time that the federal government has attempted to reform a state’s prison system. 

An ACLU report found that people incarcerated in Mississippi in the late 1800s through 1900s reported “profound isolation, unrelieved idleness and monotony, denial of exercise, intolerable stench and pervasive filth, grossly malfunctioning plumbing, and constant exposure to human excrement,” columnist Jamelle Bouie explained in The New York Times. The same unsanitary and harmful prison conditions of the last century continue to arise in our current one, as DOJ investigators found “standing sewage water on the floors” as well as “rats and maggots in the kitchen.” The problem of inhumane prisons is one that is centuries-old.  

The findings of the DOJ investigation pose a question worth considering:  Should we expect prisons to operate any differently than they already do? Are reforms enough for a prison to reject its fate? Prisons are cruel institutions, forcing one’s body to be somewhere it would not be otherwise, and in the case of Alabama’s prisons, forcing one’s body to withstand continued and unrelenting sexual, physical, emotional, and psychological abuse. By this measure, the conditions of the Alabama prisons amount to torture, which, when applied to the DOJ’s case, means that the federal government is advocating a state system of incarceration be less torturous. If creating “less tortuous” systems is our collective aim, then we’ll forever be caught in this wheel of systemic violence.

Ray Levy-Uyeda

Ray Levy-Uyeda is a Bay Area-based freelance writer who covers justice and activism. Find her on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.