Julia Chinyere Oparah
Transformational Leader * Social Justice Educator * Activist Scholar
and community accountability
I was raised in a prison town. Built behind brick walls on the site of the medieval gallows, Her Majesty's Prison, Winchester was invisible to me when I was growing up. I didn't think much about the prison, or who was caged there. It was just background to me, so inevitable it could hardly be seen, let alone questioned. Years later, I would return home, pass through the huge gate, and discover that behind those walls were the black women and other women of color who had been absent during my childhood years.
It was veteran feminist abolitionist Angela Y. Davis, who first encouraged me to look question the inevitability and untouchability of the prison. Angela invited me to join a motley crew of academics, prison activists and former prisoners, homeless advocates, sex workers, queers, students, feminists and antiracists to plan a conference and strategy session. Our goal: to build a mass movement to dismantle what Mike Davis first called–after Dwight Eisenhower's critique of the cozy relationship between the U.S. military and the arms industry–the prison-industrial complex. Our work was informed by political prisoner and anti-imperialist Linda Evans who wrote about the unholy alliance between corrections officials, prison suppliers, private prison corporations, and politicians from inside the federal pen. The Critical Resistance conference took place at U.C. Berkeley in 1998. Attended by over three thousand organizers, prisoners and their families, former political prisoners, students, high school youth, artists, indigenous leaders and community members, the event sparked a new abolitionist movement.
15 years later, the number of people incarcerated in prisons and jails in the U.S. has more than doubled to over 2.5 million. Around the globe, as I document in my essays, governments are implementing law-and-order U.S-style and the prison-industrial complex has become a transnational virus bleeding public coffers of much-needed resources. Yet there is reason for hope. The prison-industrial complex abolition movement has educated thousands, the term "prison-industrial complex" is used widely in college courses and media reports, cash-strapped states are more vulnerable to arguments against continuing the prison-building binge, and the general public is much more savvy about the tricks of the pro-prison construction lobby.
Our movement has also matured. Many of us are creating real alternatives to mass incarceration. We are imagining and building communities in which we work to hold one another accountable and create safety without relying on punishment and prisons. We are working in solidarity with other movements that seek to win fair housing, universal healthcare, decent schools and healthy nutrition for the 99%, in the knowledge that this is where true security lies. And we are paying attention to the voices that were previously left out of the abolitionist movement, from transgender prisoners to survivors of violence.
Please check out Global Lockdown and my essays. Read Abolition Now! and the special edition of Social Justice Journal on community accountability. Learn how you can get involved in efforts to build community accountability and restorative justice, to oppose gang injunctions and unfair policing, to support hunger strikers and transgender prisoners, and to push President Obama to end the failed war on drugs.