Ruth Wilson Gilmore was in Chicago to deliver a lecture, "Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex: The World We Want Is the World We Need." The Sept. 26 event, which drew more than 200 attendees, was held at the Student Center East on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Gilmore, a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is also a widely acclaimed anti-prison activist and her 2007 book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California is frequently referenced as a standard text on what is known as the prison industrial complex (PIC), a term used to describe the proliferation of links between prisons, legislators and industry. Anti-prison activists see the prison industrial complex as instrumental in creating a profit-motivated system that encourages higher rates of incarceration.
Gilmore is also a founding member of Critical Resistance (CR), an organization that focuses on prison abolition; her lecture capped a series of CR-led events on prison abolition work amongst local activists.
Prison abolition work in Chicago is significantly LGBTQ-led, and this was evident in the number of LGBTQ activists who participated in the various events, including the lecture, over the weekend. They included Owen Daniel-McCarter, of the Transformative Justice Law Project, Joey Mogul of the People's Law Office and Beth Richie, who introduced Gilmore to the audience. A forthcoming piece in Windy City Times will further explore LGBTQ connections to the prison abolition movement.
Defining abolition, Gilmore said, "[Abolitionists] try to describe the problem and our solutions to it in such a way that prison cannot be thought as a normal future condition for any society."
Gilmore pointed out that abolition was not a new concept, and that radical civil rights discourse and activism has always embraced it. She also emphasized that abolition "works simultaneously at all scales of analysis and action" and that a group did not have to be as explicitly anti-PIC in its mission as CR to claim it as a motivating part of its work.
As an example, she pointed to harm reduction strategies engaged by some grassroots organizations; while not explicitly anti-prison strategies, they focus on working with vulnerable populations to negotiate the constant threat of imprisonment.
Presenting ways to combat the proliferation of prisons, Gilmore spoke of the work of resistance in local communities in California and elsewhere where prisons are offered as a stimulus to economically strapped areas. She said that an emphasis on prisons95 percent of which are publicly fundedas economic alternatives inevitably resulted in a depletion of resources to essentials like housing and education.
The audience spanned students, faculty and prison activists. The event came on the heels of the Sept. 21 execution of Troy Davis, which had been intensely followed by anti-death-penalty and anti-prison groups, and comments and questions during and after the lecture made it was clear that this was still a charged moment for the audience.
In the question-and-answer session, she was asked what to do in the case of criminals and responded, "We have to think about what makes things happen." Referring to Lawrence Brewer, who was executed for the racially motivated murder of James Byrd Jr., on the same day as Troy Davis, she pointed out that, by all accounts, "he became a racist in prison."
Explicitly positioning abolition work as an end to prisons, as opposed to prison reform, she said that "rather than more humane punishment, the point is how do we become more humane." Pointing to the U.S. investment in the PIC, she said that "[o]ne in four people locked up on the planet are locked up here" and that ending the PIC would require a systemic change in how we conceive of crime and punishment: "The [United States] is addicted to prisons. To recover from addiction, you only have to change everything."