Key Terms and Concepts
Understanding these terms may be helpful as you move through this guide. Check out our resource page for recommending readings to support further learning.
“[Prison Industrial Complex] abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.
From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives. Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.” — Critical Resistance
Examples of abolitionist strategies are mutual aid around health and safety, efforts to defund the police, community interventions that respond to gender-based violence instead of the police.
“Anti-blackness indexes the structural reality so that in the larger society, blackness is inextricably tied to “slaveness.” While the system of U.S. chattel slavery technically ended over 150 years ago, it continues to mark the ontological position of black people. Thus, in the minds of many, the relation between humanity and blackness is an antagonism, is irreconcilable. Anti-blackness describes the inability to recognize black humanity. It captures the reality that the kind of violence that saturates black life is not based on any specific thing a black person — better described as “a person who has been racialized black” — did. The violence we experience isn’t tied to any particular transgression. It’s gratuitous and unrelenting.” — Frank B.Wilderson as interpreted by Dr. kihana miraya ross in Call It What It Is: Anti-Blackness
“Capitalism is an economic system in which a small number of people maintain ownership and control of the means of production (the machines, factories, and land needed to make goods) and the ways of distributing and making money off those goods.”...“The [Prison Industrial Complex] is an important and expanding industry in the US. It fills spaces left open by factory and agricultural work AND it is a primary tool used by the capitalist state to control the working class (both employed and unemployed). The PIC controls these classes through increased state presence in work and labor sites and by warehousing poor people and people of color.” — Critical Resistance’s Abolitionist Toolkit
Capitalism is both a system defined by the private ownership of the means of production as well as a system geared wholly towards the production of capital/profit, often at the expense of people and the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic offers a clear example of the many ways that “the economy” is prioritized over people's lives and public health.
Carceral System/ Carcerality
The carceral system is the material institutions that make up criminal legal system (courts, police, parole, probation, jails, prisons, arrest diversion and “problem solving” courts, etc.), immigration, mental health, social service, education, and at times healthcare systems in the US. It also exists as an ideological system oriented around the punishment/control of difference, which includes all of the punitive beliefs, logics, and practices that are not only reflected in/engendered in institutions, but often seep into our relationships, with ourselves and with each other. — Kel Montalvo-Quiñones
"Yes, the carceral state encompasses the formal institutions and operations and economies of the criminal justice system proper, but it also encompasses logics, ideologies, practices, and structures, that invest in tangible and sometimes intangible ways in punitive orientations to difference, to poverty, to struggles to social justice and to the crossers of constructed borders of all kinds." — Ruby Tapia, U-M English and Women's Studies at Carceral State Project's 2018-2019 symposium
“The carceral state is also a wide, expansive net of all the ways marginalized communities are monitored or surveilled. Women of color, particularly Black and Native women, have a long history of entanglement with social systems such as child protective services. Survivors bring historically founded fears of children being taken away when engaging with court systems where protection orders are filed, or stigma from social workers when accessing psychosocial supports to heal from violence, or concerns about deportation when attempting to access services. All of these actors actually buffer the entire carceral state." — Alicia Sanchez Gill
“Carceral feminism describes an approach that sees increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to violence against women. Carceral feminism ignores the ways in which race, class, gender identity, and immigration status leave certain women more vulnerable to violence and that greater criminalization often places these same women at risk of state violence. Casting policing and prisons as the solution to domestic violence both justifies increases to police and prison budgets and diverts attention from the cuts to programs that enable survivors to escape, such as shelters, public housing, and welfare. And finally, positioning police and prisons as the principal antidote discourages seeking other responses, including community interventions and long-term organizing.” — Victoria Law, Against Carceral Feminism, Jacobin
This term was first coined in the 2007 article “The Sexual Politics of the ‘New Abolitionism’” by Elizabeth Bernstein about current anti-trafficking movements in the US and was explored in the context of domestic and sexual violence by Beth Richie in Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation, Mimi Kim in Dancing the Carceral Creep, and by INCITE!.
“The [practice] of invading other lands & territories, for the purpose of settlement and/or resource exploitation.” — Zig-Zag in Colonization and Decolonization
Colonization throughout the world has robbed Indigenous people of their land and resources for capitalist gain.
Criminal Legal/Justice System
A criminal justice system is a set of legal and social institutions for enforcing the criminal law in accordance with a defined set of procedural rules and limitations. In the United States, there are separate federal, state, and military criminal justice systems, and each state has separate systems for adults and juveniles. Many people use the terms ‘criminal legal system’ or ‘criminal punishment system’ because these systems do not offer true justice, but rather perpetuate many injustices.
“Criminalization is the process through which actions become illegal. Actions become crimes only after they have been culturally or legally defined as crimes. Ideas about what is criminal reach far beyond specific actions. What counts as crime changes across both time and space, and sometimes happens really fast. Often those changes happen because of political forces that are manipulating public fears instead of responding to them.”...“The process of criminalization is an important piece of the PIC. It is one of the tools that make it possible for police and courts to target specific actions as well as specific groups of people.” — Critical Resistance’s Abolitionist Toolkit
Freeing people from prisons, jails, detention centers, and psychiatric institutions. “We are at the beginning of a new movement against the prison. It works to shrink the prison system by using radical critique, direct action, and practical goals for reducing the reach of imprisonment. I would like to call this a strategy of decarceration. It is the demand to close prisons and reduce policing—but also to open schools and build communities. It is a strategy that takes advantage of political conditions without sacrificing its political vision.” — Dan Berger, Decarceration: A New Strategy Against Prisons
Decarceration is not only a strategy for abolition, but also for public health.
For the purposes of this guide, decriminalization means ending the legal justification for people to be surveilled, arrested, prosecuted, or detained for strategies that help them to survive including drug use, sex work, living outside, migration, defending oneself against gender violence, and more. It also refers to ending the criminalization of people whose life circumstances and identities are targeted by the criminal legal system including people living with HIV, mental illness, disability, who are trans or LGBQ, who are neurodivergent. Lastly, it can refer to employing transformative justice strategies to social problems that the criminal legal system exacerbates such as interpersonal violence and abuse.
When someone is locked in custody in jail, prison, immigrant detention centers, juvenile detention centers, psychiatric facilities, or is under suspicion of violating a law, not following the terms of their parole, or while awaiting a verdict or sentencing.
Violence that perpetuates gender hierarchies, inequities, and binaries in our society. This includes, but is not limited to, intimate partner violence, sexual violence and rape.
Family Regulation System
The work of Dorothy Roberts, the Movement for Family Power, and other advocates demonstrate that “‘child welfare system” is an ahistorical and inaccurate term: Parents, advocates, and social workers inside and outside the agency lament the lack of welfare services that the system is able to offer. “Child protection system” is inaccurate at best and harmful at worst: It paints the agency as an intervening body that shields children from the harms of their families, demonizing families before an intervention has even begun. Some advocates who are similarly critical of the system opt for “child removal system” or “foster system,” but I want to challenge us to think beyond these terms: This system is harmful even when children are not removed or placed in foster care. It is harmful even when children are removed and then quickly reunited with their families, when a parent’s rights are never terminated, and when an investigation is never indicated.” — Emma Peyton Williams in “‘Family Regulation,’ Not ‘Child Welfare’: Abolition Starts with Changing our Language”
The Harm Reduction Coalition defines “harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.” Harm reduction can refer to strategies to make people safer while using drugs, but can also refer to efforts to reduce harms caused by systems.
“Healing Justice is a political strategy seeking to transform generational trauma from systemic oppression, colonization & slavery including; the exploitation, experimentation and harmful abuses of the Medical Industrial Complex & Prison Industrial Complex, by regenerating our cultural, spiritual, physical, emotional, psychic and environmental practices & traditions as integral to our political liberation.” Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective
Values of HJ by the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective:
An umbrella term coined by Amita Swadhin, refers to the continuum of intimate forms violence that people experience throughout their lives such as child sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, family violence, relationship abuse, dating violence, elder abuse, and other forms of gendered violence.
For the purposes of this guide, this refers to ways in which health and social service fields and society more broadly have, over time, developed an analysis and response to social issues and non-normative ways of being as individualized problems that should be researched, diagnosed, treated, cured, or controlled. This often results in stripping marginalized people of autonomy and exposing them to violation, coercion, surveillance, and trauma. Examples of this are examining “risk and protective factors” for engaging in survival strategies without just as deep analysis of, or changes to, structural conditions, forced drug or mental health treatment, requiring people to “prove” their disability or stay single in order to receive benefits, having a diagnosed mental illness as a prerequisite for services, understanding the impact of trauma and violence only in relation to a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or as something only experienced by individuals, and more.
“Patriarchal violence is an interconnected system of institutions, practices, policies, beliefs, and behaviors that harm, undervalues, and terrorize girls, women, femme, intersex, gender non-conforming, LGBTQ, and other gender oppressed people in our communities. Patriarchal violence is a widespread, normalized epidemic based on the domination, control, and colonizing of bodies, genders, and sexualities happening in every community globally. Patriarchal violence is a global power structure and manifests on the systemic, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized level. Examples include normalization of rape culture; the harassment, abuse, and murder of Black women by police and by community members, the criminalization of sex workers, homophobic and transphobic violence, the leading cause of death of Black trans and cis women being murder by partners, and the erasure of trans and nonbinary people in local and national policies.” — from Black Feminist Futures
The practice of surveillance to ensure compliance with the law, the state, or social order, including use of ticketing, Stop & Frisk, arrest, detention, use of force. Policing often includes more agencies than just the police (e.g. mandatory reporting), and police sometimes engage in practices that are neither related to a law or are legal themselves. Laws that policing enforces are often created on discriminatory grounds or enforced in ways that are discriminatory or disproportionate.
Prison Industrial Complex
“The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.
Through its reach and impact, the PIC helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges. There are many ways this power is collected and maintained through the PIC, including creating mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant. This power is also maintained by earning huge profits for private companies that deal with prisons and police forces; helping earn political gains for “tough on crime” politicians; increasing the influence of prison guard and police unions; and eliminating social and political dissent by oppressed communities that make demands for self-determination and reorganization of power in the US.” — Critical Resistance
Prisons and Jails
Jails are local facilities under the jurisdiction of a city, county or other local district where the people detained have recently been arrested, are awaiting trial or sentencing, or have been sentenced for a shorter amount of time. Prisons are facilities under state or federal jurisdiction where people serve longer sentences after being found guilty of violating a state or federal law. Jails and prisons (and detention centers) are sometimes privately owned and operated by corporations, or have service contracts with corporations, or employ cheap prison laborers. Regardless of whether the jail/prison is owned by the state or by a company, more people, being jailed longer and more often is financially beneficial to the jail/prison. Prisons and jails have also become a significant source of employment, particularly in small towns and rural communities, further entrenching their economic value beyond the purpose of “corrections”.
The World Health Organization defines public health as “all organized measures (whether public or private) to prevent disease, promote health, and prolong life among the population as a whole. Its activities aim to provide conditions in which people can be healthy and focus on entire populations, not on individual patients or diseases.” Government public health entities operate at the local, state, national levels. Public health seeks to address structural problems that lead to poor health outcomes for communities. Public health uses research, policy advocacy, and population level health interventions to promote health.
Punitive and Punishment
“Prisons are part of a larger system called punitive (or retributive) justice. Under this system, if someone breaks the law, they’re punished for that wrongdoing. The punishment is supposed to be proportionate to the crime and should accomplish two things: rehabilitate the original law-breaker and stop others from committing the same crime. On paper, that looks pretty simple, and it looks fair.
In reality though, punitive justice in the United States is far from being simple or being fair. Our punitive justice system is inherently anti-Black, racist, and classist. Historically, the prison system and the police force in the United States were both used as tools of white supremacy. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is one of many resources that go into details about how our so-called justice system disproportionately attacks Black people...This means that Black, Native, Latinx, LGBTQIA+, and low-income people – many of whom have more than one of these identities – are all overrepresented in the punitive justice system.” — Why Punitive Justice Doesn’t Work via everydayfeminism.com
The commodification and exploitation of Black and Indigenous peoples and other people of color in order to gain and maintain existing white supremacist structures of economic and social power. Coined by Cedric Robinson in Black Marxism: the Making of the Black Radical Tradition “the centrality of race in structuring social and labor hierarchies in capitalist economies. This system ensures ‘a vulnerable supply of low-wage workers’ through ‘dual-wage systems, racially-exclusive labor unions, racialized divisions of labor, share-cropping, and related practices’ (8, p. 528),” as explained in Racial Capitalism Within Public Health—How Occupational Settings Drive COVID-19 Disparities.
To change or institute new laws to shift how police and the criminal legal system operate. Reformist policies further entrench the legitimacy of police and prisons as a solution to social and public health problems and often lead to more funding for harmful systems. Critical Resistance makes the distinction between “Reformist Reforms” and “Abolitionist Steps."
“The human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities...Mainstream movements have focused on keeping abortion legal as an individual choice. That is necessary, but not enough. Even when abortion is legal, many women of color cannot afford it, or cannot travel hundreds of miles to the nearest clinic. There is no choice where there is no access...Abortion access is critical, and women of color and other marginalized women also often have difficulty accessing: contraception, comprehensive sex education, STI prevention and care, alternative birth options, adequate prenatal and pregnancy care, domestic violence assistance, adequate wages to support our families, safe homes, and so much more.” — SisterSong What is Reproductive Justice?
“‘The state’ is at its simplest the government. It is the set of people and interests that determine the laws, policies, and practices (including economics) of a geographical area. Many of the people most involved performing the state’s power are those who benefit from it most directly.
For example, racism is a tool the state uses to maintain white supremacy and keep resources and power from people of color. The PIC is a tool the state uses to control people, maintain its own power, and legitimize itself by claiming that only it can create 'safety' for people living under it.” — Critical Resistance’s Abolitionist Toolkit
Survival Economies and Practice
For the purposes of this guide, survival practices refers to the means that people use to be able to live, pay their bills, increase safety and self-determination, foster community, etc., particularly in ways that are criminalized and for people whose identities are criminalized. Queer Survival Economies is a project and frame developed by Amber Hollibaugh to examine what economic justice looks like for people who are queer, gay, lesbian, trans, migrants.
“Sociologist Cecilia Menjívar provides a useful conceptual framework for understanding the various forms of state violence. Typically, when people think about violence, they often think about the various forms of physical violence, including assaults, beatings, and even state sponsored murder. While these forms of state violence are some of the ways in which states enact violence upon individuals and communities, Menjívar argues that it is also useful to expand our analytic lens to examine instances of violence beyond those just embodied in physical pain and injury, in order to provide a multifaceted analysis of the various forms of violence. By doing so, it allows us to make connections between (macro) structural violence with interpersonal (micro) forms of violence, state or otherwise, that originate in broader social structures. In this sense, violence is not always an “event” but rather a process or ongoing social condition embedded in our everyday lives. It is our contention that state violence takes both physical and structural (non-physical) forms and manifests in racialized, gendered, classed, and sexualized forms. While it is easier to “see” direct violence, such as police killings, or the bloody aftermath of US drone killings around the world, structural violence is a by-product of our highly unequal social system: a social and economic system that is permeated by racial, gender, and class-based inequality.” — Jake Alimahomd-Wilson and Dana Williams paraphrasing Cecilia Menjívar
Structural racism refers to the way racism is embedded within, perpetuated by, and endemic to our social, economic, and political structures: Embedded because racism is built into these structures and manifests as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances. Perpetuated when resources are unevenly distributed and when people of color are targeted, criminalized, and discriminated against by these structures.
The observation of people, places, and/or property. In public health, this refers to monitoring a health issue and the people impacted by it through databases and medical records. Carceral systems practice surveillance to observe, charge, prosecute communities. This could include:
Surveillance has been used as a tool of white supremacy, monitoring communities of color, especially Black communities, in an effort to further entangle people in the PIC.
“A political framework and approach for responding to violence, harm and abuse. At its most basic, it seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence and/or engaging in harm reduction to lessen the violence. TJ can be thought of as a way of “making things right,” getting in “right relation,” or creating justice together. Transformative justice responses and interventions 1) do not rely on the state (e.g. police, prisons, the criminal legal system, I.C.E., foster care system (though some TJ responses do rely on or incorporate social services like counseling); 2) do not reinforce or perpetuate violence such as oppressive norms or vigilantism; and most importantly, 3) actively cultivate the things we know prevent violence such as healing, accountability, resilience, and safety for all involved.” — Mia Mingus, Transformative Justice: A brief description on TransformHarm.org
War on Drugs
A series of campaigns and policies formally introduced in the Nixon administration, as a direct response to Black Power and civil rights movements, that ostensibly sought to reduce the use of certain substances through criminalization and resulted in the hyper-incarceration of Black and brown people in the United States. These policies warped all facets of community life including schools, housing, healthcare, support-seeking, families, and neighborhoods.
War on Trafficking
For the purposes of this guide, this refers to the ways in which human trafficking was increasingly viewed as law and order issue that must be solved through the criminal legal system, rather than a labor or human rights violation. Policies and approaches that comprise the War on Trafficking often perpetuate the belief that trafficking is inherent to the sex trade, that there are explicit victims and villains, and that buying and selling sex is amoral and should be criminalized. This does not include the many non-coercive, non-punitive efforts to support people who have experienced human trafficking and other forms of labor exploitation to access safety and self-determination and to meaningful change to the conditions that allow human trafficking and other forms of labor exploitation to occur.
“A political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.” (Ansley 1989)
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Last updated May 2021