Activist talks US prison abolition, flaws in prison system

Saachi Subramaniam

A group of human rights leaders, students and self-proclaimed prison abolitionists deliberated the abolition of the United States prison system as a part of a lecture series Thursday night. 

In the keynote lecture, presented by the Rothko Chapel and Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, activist and public scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore spoke on prison abolition and how it relates to the fight for basic human rights. Rapoport Center founder Karen Engle said around 400 people came to listen in the School of Law Francis Auditorium — a record for the lecture series.

“Leading sometimes with your heart instead of your head needs to be done to get this movement done,” said Gilmore, director of the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the City University of New York. “Prison abolition is a practical program of change. We know we won’t bulldoze prisons tomorrow, although we are willing to try.” 

Gilmore said the fight for a more mainstream abolition ideal is vital. She described public prison systems with state-funded doctors, which she said resulted in many premature prisoner deaths. She also covered the prevalence of organized crime, racism and sexism in prison systems and the changes within the prison abolition movements that span across the U.S.


“The mythical figure that 1 in 3 black men go to prison or that black people are the minority in college is all untrue, and we repeat these things, and these things will be perpetuated,” Gilmore said.  

Before her speech, professors and human rights advocates read poetry and literary works regarding mass incarceration and the structures that uphold it. Speakers at the lecture also spoke about the effect that legislators and the federal prison system have on disenfranchised people in vulnerable situations.

David Leslie, executive director of the Rothko Chapel, said the source of political problems in the prison system is an “existential” and “spiritual crisis.”

“The judicial system has the tenacity to strip people to numbers,” Leslie said. “It is easy to become complicit, if not despondent.”

Public relations senior Jacob Gonzales said he attended the event because he wanted to show his support for conversations like these.

“There’s always been a conversation at the University about the effects of the incarceration system, but now it is even more important as we see flaws in structure via the media and entertainment,” Gonzales said.