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A conversation on abolition with Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley

Prison abolition isn’t a new concept, but after the sustained protests during the summer and fall of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, it has garnered more attention both in Washington State and nationwide.

Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley is an open abolitionist, and as far as she knows, the first to serve at the state level. In Seattle, there are two abolitionists running for public office, and both won their races in the August primary election. Nikkita Oliver is running for Pos. 9 on the city council, and Nicole Thomas-Kennedy is running for city attorney. 

The current abolitionist movement is concentrating on what it means to build alternatives to incarceration and policing, Harris-Talley said. 

Harris-Talley traces the roots of abolition back more than 400 years to the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade. The abolitionist tradition encompasses Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and more modern abolitionists like Angela Davis, who outlined the modern theory in the seminal 2003 work Are Prisons Obsolete?

“The reason we still have an abolitionist fight is because in this country, we did not end slavery,” Harris-Talley said. “…When I say that our prison system is directly linked to slavery, I am saying directly.” 

The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in the U.S., with the notable exception that it can be used as punishment for people convicted of crimes. Almost immediately after the 13th Amendment was ratified, Mississippi created Black Codes, which enacted policies like vagrancy laws and requiring Black people to carry proof that they had jobs, or risk being re-enslaved. 

Harris-Talley said that legacy continues. Until a decade ago, people giving birth in prisons were shackled to their beds. Washington State finally banned the practice in 2010. In another example of continuity, she said prisoners are still frequently moved from prison to prison, oftentimes hundreds of miles from their families in a way similar to how slave owners broke up and dispersed families. 

Many prisoners often work for extremely low wages while incarcerated. 

“We have an active system of fighting fires in our state. Folks maybe don’t know that we have a program where between 200 and 300 incarcerated individuals are paid well below that of paid and trained firefighters.”

There’s a racial disparity in prisons across the U.S. that has been well-documented, and Washington State is no exception. According to the 2020 Census, people who identified as Black alone account for 3.8% of Washington’s population, but as of March 2021, according to the Washington State Department of Corrections, 18.2% of the state’s prisoners were Black.

But when she brings up abolition, the topic can make people uneasy. What would that look like? 

“When I ask folks to sit and imagine a world with alternatives to incarceration, I say ‘Think about the richest and most affluent neighborhood near you,’” Harris-Talley said. 

Those neighborhoods don’t have a constant police presence looking for broken windows, people are employed and have full health care, access and transportation to school, and enough financial savings to weather catastrophes, she said. These communities have these upstream supports that help people avoid the legal system in the first place. 

“Those are the alternatives,” she said. 

Some of those upstream changes came by way of the Blake Decision, Harris-Talley said. The state Supreme Court decision removed state law that criminalized simple possession of drugs. The Legislature re-criminalized simple drug possession in ESB 5476, but made it a misdemeanor instead of a felony, and before being charged with a crime a person must be diverted to services at least twice. 

For Harris-Talley, this means that instead of incarcerating someone with substance use disorder, the state would instead provide counseling, medical and detox services which she said will ultimately save money and help the individual more than jail or prison. 

It also means keeping imprisoned youth close to their families and communities, and in school. It’s an issue Harris-Talley thinks about frequently in her role as vice chair of the House Children, Youth and Families Committee

The idea of transformative justice figures into abolition, which focuses on community-based models of making amends and addressing damages with a goal of transforming both parties. 

“We’ve been in a certain paradigm about how we’ve been using policing and prison resources,” Harris-Talley said. “People are asking, ‘Are our communities actually safer than they were 40 years ago?’ For many people, the answer is no.”

Harris-Talley also pointed to the last session as a positive one, where a number of policing bills were passed. 

“We passed 12 policies looking at police accountability and policing systems, and what does it actually look like to build a bridge between community and police,” where people trust police, and police can do their jobs, she said. 

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