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Queering the debate on the usefulness of prison

New book calls for prison abolition

Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, from radical publishers AK Press this August, is an excellent addition to the growing body of international scholarship calling for prison abolition.

Aimed at queer and gender-non-conforming readers and their friends, and including contributions accessible to readers of almost any age or identity, the book makes a strong case for putting abolition near the top of every activist’s to-do list.

The book asks important questions, and leaves space for multiple understandings: Where does the prison industrial complex [PIC] begin and end? How do social inequality and the PIC reinforce one another? Whose idea of justice is served by systems of surveillance, regulation and imprisonment?

And importantly: What alternatives are possible?

As experts of their own experience, the numerous contributors to this anthology have developed creative and varied responses to these and related problems, sharing with readers a diversity of tactics to understand and resist the social “normality” of the prison system.

As editors Eric A Stanley and Nat Smith explain, “Abolition necessarily moves us away from attempts to ‘fix’ the PIC and helps us imagine an entirely different world — one that is not built upon the historical and contemporary legacies of the racial and gendered brutality that maintain the power of the PIC.”

From this framework, Captive Genders reveals important threads to be taken up by activists within queer/trans communities. These include the interrogation of broadly held goals (such as equal participation in marriage, military service and other forms of nation-building) that are marked by ideological assimilation, and the reevaluation of “gay culture” as it increasingly blends with the constructs of capital and empire.

Clear and straightforward arguments for questioning reform “in the name of” queer (and to a lesser extent, trans) people within the broader spectrum of the “rule of law” are also present. Together, the authors bring oft-silenced and unpopular critiques within frame.

Readers concerned about the increasing criminalization of youth, HIV-positive status, poverty and sex work, or about racism and social/class hierarchies within hegemonic gay communities, may find new possibilities for collaboration within these pages. Captive Genders is the kind of book that overlaps with itself, as narratives intersect and common themes recur through different lenses.

Tales of survival and solidarity in the face of severe repression will inspire, while facts about the lived experiences of gender-non-conforming prisoners (whether convicts, untamable youth or immigration-hearing detainees) will outrage.

Thankfully, numerous resources included as appendices to the text instantly expand the dialogue to a world the reader can access, to a space where these truths become fuel for mechanisms of resistance.

Captive Genders illustrates how, just as a queer or gender-non-conforming identity may challenge mainstream concepts of personhood, queering the debate on the usefulness of prison challenges the foundations of what is possible for the future of this society.

Abolition is an anti-racist, gender liberationist and anti-authoritarian project, and as the contributors remark, it is something that is both yet-to-be and always-already-being done.

Captive Genders is a crucial book, furthering an understanding of the evolving struggle for sexual and gender liberation, driving home the impossibility of freeing some, but not all, and calling it victory. From well-footnoted academic pieces of varying complexity to first-person essays, conversations and creative non-fiction, the breadth of submissions demonstrates the intersection of all walks of life with the prison industrial complex. As contributor Stephen Dillon suggests, they can “push us toward imagining the impossible and reckoning with the unimaginable.”