first person

Aching for Abolition

As a survivor of sexual violence, I know prison isn’t the answer.

Photo: Getty Images

No one really asks a survivor what she wants. When a woman is raped, it becomes an assault on the state, not the person. She could decide that she would rather not pursue charges and the state can decide to move forward anyway, without her consent. I am a survivor, and have been for most of my life. I am also a prison abolitionist, and have been for most of my life, years before I had the words to describe my intuition.

Often, those who stand against abolition speak on my behalf. They ask hackneyed, hoary questions about what we will do with the rapists and the murderers. I know that those questions are questions of fear and not of concern, that they have little to do with a desire to protect or comfort me. I want you to know why these questions enrage me.

His name was Archie*. Archie was my cousin. Archie was the only person who mattered to me, really. He terrified me and impressed me. I wanted to be Archie, and I wanted to be seen by Archie, as Archie was, by proxy, the marketplace for my childhood desires; a turn at the Nintendo, a frozen M&M, a corner-store snack, permission to see my best friends after school. At 8, I did not know that it was rape. I didn’t know it as anything other than an extension of our everyday games of hierarchy in which, as any big brother might, he would take from me (my candies, my turns, my friends) and would refuse to honor my protests.

I did not know that what happened in the basement bathroom in between rounds of Mario was rape, not until later, when the D.A.R.E. representatives came in to convince us not to do drugs (a rape might occur; there’s a one-in-three chance!) by describing to a class of elementary-school students how unwanted touching and penetration could be a criminal offense. That day, I learned that my cousin had been raping me, and that rape was criminal. I learned that he was a rapist, and that I had become a statistic, one in three. I learned nothing about who I was or what I needed.

Shortly after, I was sent home from school with a bad report. “What happened?” my mother asked. “Why are you acting like this?” I told the truth because I felt like I had to. And instantly, my mother became the mother of a survivor and the surrogate mother of a rapist. My mother and grandmother believed me, and believing me meant calling the authorities and opening a case. It meant opening me up to the pokes and proddings of an investigation, which meant I had to tell the stories of how he violated me over and over again, which meant I had to lie on a table designed for a woman five times my size and be examined by a gynecologist who could confirm that the lacerations on the inside of my uterus had been received by force. With that evidence, the state indicted him, and after he was indicted, nothing was in my control.

I knew what prison was. I knew that horrible, bad things happened there. That sometimes people were starved to death, or beaten to death, or sexually assaulted until they killed themselves. The thought of Archie sleeping in a jail cell because of me kept me up at night. It was not what I wanted, and it tortured me every day.

As a child, I didn’t understand the mechanics of the system enough to understand what was happening to Archie. I didn’t know the difference between charges and conviction and arrest. I didn’t understand that my case wouldn’t lead to a conviction because the prosecutors didn’t want to put me through a trial, or that my cousin had already been arrested and held for other charges. I didn’t understand that it was those charges, which had nothing to do with me, that would lead to his incarceration. All I knew is that I was interrogated, probed, analyzed — and he was in jail.

I didn’t know what I wanted to happen to Archie. I didn’t know what I wanted because no one asked me, and there were no options, but I couldn’t shake the guilt I felt, and that guilt only contributed to the shame I felt about the entire thing. I had no solace; my “telling the truth” had made it worse. As soon as I told the truth, I believed my admission would ultimately take my cousin away from my grandmother, his sister away from her brother, and essentially kill my dead aunt’s living memory. My nightmares over the years were marked by various manifestations of prison violence that could be exacted on Archie’s body, my healing compromised by the horror of incarceration.

To be a survivor is to be a relic of nightmares, responsible for both the romanticization and terror of sexual trauma. Sometimes a survivor is known; sometimes a survivor is not known. Either way, here is one thing a survivor knows: that when someone says they want to protect their children, their spouse from an “unimaginable violence,” they’re gesturing at you, they’re gesturing at your body. Their fear is not of you, or of your assailant, but of someone they love having to become you. They fear their own identity being complicated by a violence they cannot understand but have been complicit in, or silent about. A violence that they have either hidden away or hidden behind.

The survivor is the ultimate victim. The survivor’s body is the site of an attempted killing, a simulated death, a death colored with the trauma of having had to live through and continuously recall a life-changing barbarity. Survivors are like zombies — and like zombies, the world projects its living haunts, its perceptions of good and bad, of safe and unsafe, on our bodies. Like the dead, we are trapped in this binary spiral, trapped in the clutches of another’s predictive, paternalistic, and performative understanding of safety.

At 28 years old, I am a political strategist working in electoral politics, surrounded by plenty circumstance and plenty pomp. Few of the solutions presented to us do what they are sworn to do, especially the carceral ones. I have never felt shame around being a survivor, but I have always felt shame around being unable to find safety in reform. I cannot see a way to fix systems that oppress us. I want to believe that the reforms that Black political leaders have fought for are good enough to protect our communities. I want to believe, for the sake of my siblings, and my friends, that safety can be constructed and un-safety can be punished away. I want to believe in that because it’s easy, but my body contradicts that belief, and in that contradiction is the birth of another, much more complicated world where the binaries of good and bad are flattened into each other and erased. That world, I am sure now, is an abolitionist world.

Prison abolition is a theory based on the simple idea that prisons should not exist. It is the knowledge that our desires to live in a safe world are made impossible because of the existence of the carceral system. It means the end of policing, and the end of incarceration. It means funding community resources that prevent harm, and empowering systems that allow for equitable accountability. It means invalidating the police, and rejecting the very premise of the carceral system, rejecting the idea that harm is criminal, and, instead, assuming that everyone causes harm — some more than others, when not given what they need to effectively prevent their own harm. It means building a world where prisons shouldn’t exist and don’t have to exist at all.

The problem with our criminal-justice system isn’t just that it lacks a regenerative intent — it also lacks a restorative intent. It has no interest in providing healing to the victim or the person causing harm. It is not interested in understanding or mitigating individual harm but in criminalizing harm and capitalizing on the fiscal benefits of punishment. It presents as retribution for the victim, but it returns nothing to the individual. The system feeds itself, and feeds off of the existence of harm — and so, by design, it can have no vested interest in reducing it.

If we wanted to protect rape victims and serve survivors, our systems would attack harm and its causes at the root. It would center its solutions in harm reduction, in transformative justice, in restorative processes of accountability, and move away from punitive solutions that do nothing to stop assault from happening. A commitment to ending harm is a commitment to providing housing, food, employment, free education, extensive, trauma-informed mental-health care. We would choose comprehensive gun reform instead of hyperpolicing our schools and streets and places of worship. Punishment does little to deter “crime.” What would have deterred my cousin from harming me is community. What would have deterred him was to have his mother alive and not killed by drug addiction. What would have deterred him was to never have experienced his own assault as a child. What would have deterred him was stability. What would have deterred him was care.

“Children make the best theorists,” the critic Terry Eagleton writes in The Significance of Theory, “since they have not yet been educated into accepting our routine social practices as ‘natural,’ and so insist on posing to those practices the most embarrassingly general and fundamental questions, regarding them with a wondering estrangement which we adults have long forgotten. Since they do not yet grasp our social practices as inevitable, they do not see why we might not do things differently.”

As a child, I tossed and turned through sleeplessness and guilt at night. I knew then, even without the exact words to say so, that vengeance is not justice, and that systems of retribution are echo chambers that only serve systems and can never serve the individuals who experience harm. Why would we want any iteration of this system — a system built to serve the demands of capitalism and the psychologies of slavery? What is there to reform or replace?

I once taught a poetry workshop on Rikers Island to a group of young women. This was five years ago and the first time I’d been on the island since visiting family as a child. I left the workshop, stepped into the cold sun, and weeped at the warmth on my face. Walking away from them felt unfair, the sun on my skin felt unfair. If the state could take the sun, a thing we could not create or re-create with human power, away from us, then what couldn’t it take? I could still see their bright faces, the young women leaning toward me as I read poems to them, putting their hands out for more books, for more metaphors. All I could think was that this system had stolen from them things it could never give back to humanity, and I recognized the ache I’ve felt since childhood.

Abolition is a journey I am walking — a journey with long roads, steep staircases, and tactical steps — from defunding the police, to Mariame Kaba’s call to cut the police population by half, her call to abolish policing, to delegitimizing policing as a whole. But to get on that road at all, I had to start with the understanding that carceral justice is no justice at all. As Derecka Purnell so plainly puts it in an essay about police abolition, that misguided belief causes all kinds of social anxieties, “moral, economic, and otherwise.”

Sometimes I feel helpless in the face of  those anxieties; sometimes it feels like they may win out. But when I feel unsure, I invest in that innate knowledge by turning to the thinkers who have been fighting for much longer than me, and I rely on them to affirm what I know and teach me what I don’t. I read their writings and I join their organizations and I listen. I read Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, I mute the doubters, I reject the limit to their imaginations, I read writings of the thinkers who are fighting for abolition in practice, who have been thinking and writing and talking about abolition for decades, I listen and listen and listen. I am comforted by abolition. I am comforted by pointing my faith toward a different kind of justice that we have not considered.

For years, I hid from publicly announcing my belief in prison abolition because I felt like I had insufficient answers to my own questions. It wasn’t until this winter, when I gingerly asked an abolitionist friend, “What do you think replaces the criminal-justice system?” and she said, “Nothing replaces it,” that I said out loud, with my own mouth, “Nothing replaces it.” It’s not the answer that is inadequate but the question itself.

We live in a world immersed in carceral justice. In this tainted water, it can be hard to imagine a world where police aren’t the primary solution, or the salve to the nightmares of your imagination. I know your nightmares. I have seen them up close, over and over. My body and what has happened to it is your nightmare. The salve has been community. What has saved me is not the closed door of a cell but the openings presented by abolition, where justice is an experiential and ontological journey and not a retributive one. I didn’t always know that the true salve to the harm I faced was a complete reimagining of the justice system as we know it today. But could you have known your name before it was assigned to you? Could you have known the answer to the question until someone presented it to you?

All across the nation, in pockets that burst open like ripe fruit, our people are reimagining their relationship to policing. They are questioning their own complicitness, their discomfort, their fears of the unknown. They are listening to the leaders fighting for a vision that many of us are brand new to. They are submitting to the notion of being led. They are submitting to the idea that there are choices we have not yet encountered, decisions we have not yet made, that may save and protect us.

If you want to protect the 8-year-old me, the 8-year-old you, I am asking you to listen. More than anything, I am asking you to be led. I am asking you to invest in better choices for you and me. I am asking you to invest in agency. I am asking you to resort to your childlike impulses and to pretend that nothing is the way it is because it has to be. I am asking you to reject the binary of safe and unsafe. I am asking you to realize that no one is born a criminal, that we all do harm and, thus, that we are all required to understand and be responsible for our collective accountability.

My cousin’s life was and is precious to me. The carceral system threatened to violate that core belief and made me feel responsible for that violation. It robbed me of true justice: the ability to know that my cousin was remorseful of the pain he caused me and that he was given the care and rigor he needed to never commit that harm again. When he came home, I chose to avoid family members who chose to interact with him because I didn’t know if I could trust him with my body or theirs. I couldn’t know if he would do the same thing to his nieces, or to my sisters, if they were to encounter him. All I knew is that he went to jail, where unspeakable things happened to him, and that he was “home.”

I have no idea if my cousin is a good man, or a safe man, or a man I would want to know. I have no idea if he is doing more harm or working to reverse it. To know those things would be justice for me. Even as an 8-year-old, I knew that his incarceration would not have been justice for me. To have participated in reshaping his reality would have been justice for me. But it is a justice made inaccessible by a system that would rather punish him than restore me. The carceral system took away my agency, and failed to consider what justice would be for me outside a conviction. If I had been given choices, perhaps I would have chosen some sort of restorative process or to punch him in the face. But I’ll never know, because none of it was up to me.

*Name has been changed.

Camonghne Felix is a political strategist and the author of Build Yourself a Boat. Her book of essays, Let the Poets Govern, will be published in 2022.

If you are in crisis, please call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE for free, anonymous support and resources.