Abolitionist Entanglements with Guards: Engagements to Deepen Analysis and Organizing.

AuthorMeiners, Erica R.


In the United States the punishment industry is always hiring. Yet--despite a few exposes and memoirs--we know little about the intimacy of this labor, particularly as people of color are increasingly pulled into working in prisons near urban contexts. Abolition means dismantling or removing the institutions and systems--such as prisons and policing--that perpetuate violence and mask our ability to address root issues such as poverty, white supremacy, and transphobia. But abolitionist praxis is also opening up flourishing life pathways for all. Rooted in interviews with people who work in corrections in Illinois, and my own work inside a prison, this essay offers snapshots of intimate entanglements with guard labor with the goal of opening up more sites for abolitionist praxis.


Her hands pat firmly at the top of each of my breasts as I pull at my shirt and shake out the bottom of my bra. She meets my gaze as I offer my learned response to her question: "Yes it is a real bra. "As she searches my body and my small pile of items I comment about the weather and the day. Some days she will offer a tiny morsel that I enjoy--a complaint about the uniforms, an observation about today's traffic--but generally my commentary is adroitly rerouted or ignored. Her clear and consistent message: we are neither friends nor friendly--I am doing my job.

Like many other Black and Latinx women at this maximum security prison for men, she is a guard, or officially, a CO or corrections officer. An official nametag spells out her last name: DM. While I experience my weekly pat-down as slightly awkward, the job of the guard entails--as needed--strip searching other visitors and probably some of my inside comrades. DM has likely placed people I care about in segregation or denied someone I know visits with loved ones. Despite knowing the harm she has almost certainly perpetuated, I like the tiny slivers of our clipped conversations. I know from listening that she, like some of her female coworkers, is apart time student at a local community college.

I am part of a project in Illinois that works to support access to education for people inside prison and after release, and more centrally works to redistribute resources and support abolitionist organizing. After all these years of intimate pat-downs it feels more than misplaced to know less and less of this woman as I know more and more about the prison, those locked inside, and my outside communities which feed this system. I keep thinking about what is lost as she is left out of our engagements. Our organizing is dear--eradicate her paid work and all the violence it represents--but we are propelled by abolitionist and feminist desires andprinciples that do not leave her behind.

The uprising of the summer of 2020--spurred by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others--ignited the longstanding core demands of abolitionist organizers. (1) Campaigns to defund police and invest in affirming and meaningful forms of community safety garnered traction across the globe. (2) Slogans such as "ACAB" and "FTP" and "1312" proliferate on buildings and in street actions. (3)

Abolition means dismantling or removing the institutions and systems--such as prisons and policing--that perpetuate violence and mask our ability to address root issues--poverty, transphobia, white supremacy. But abolition also means opening up flourishing life pathways for all. Yes, we must dismantle the prison, but simultaneously surface and dismantle the ways carcerality shapes individual and collective bodies. Few desire a future of endless labor and fewer envision working at a job predicated on the capture and confinement of others and the endless (and often boring) labor of surveillance and punishment. Yet, the world's largest prison population requires the world's largest prison staff. Incarcerated people, and all those who love them, never do the same time as those who hold the keys. Building abolition requires organizing to end the ubiquity and the naturalization of the labor of the guard/corrections officer, a position, in urban centers, increasingly filled by Black and Brown people, particularly women like DM (as is the case at the prison where I collaboratively teach and organize in Illinois.)

People. Places. Resources. Abolition geography, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2017, 227) writes, "starts from the homely premise that freedom is a place. Place-making is normal human activity: we figure out how to combine people, and land, and other resources with our social capacity to organize ourselves in a variety of ways." We collectively dream and plan and place-make for ways of being outside of the crushing ubiquity of paid work. And people need flourishing life pathways as we engineer the end of racial capitalism. Yes, police and corrections officers are the foot soldiers who execute, literally, the killing power of the state: many people actively sign up to do these forms of paid labor and to engage in violence. Yet to fail to engage these working bodies entrenches an asymmetry: it further flattens or erases the violent cords that bind.

This article is motivated by tensions and questions in my own collective abolitionist feminist engagements and practices. (4) Unravelling and engaging people's attachments and engagements with the working structure of the prison is necessary abolitionist labor. With snapshots of intimate and messy entanglements, particularly from my contexts in Illinois and Chicago--slivers of conversations and interviews from the prison industrial complex in the United States--this project is a beginning attempt for me to sort through these "unfree associations" and--if possible--to open up and deepen sites for praxis (Moten 2022). (5) How do abolitionist organizers engage with guards structurally and interpersonally? What kinds of abolitionist and feminist interventions are possible and necessary?

The Landscape: Guard Work

V spent five years working at a youth prison in Illinois close to where she lived. She started out working for G4S, the world's largest private security company, which held a contract to help staff this prison. In those early days she mainly did "transpo, "or moving people to and from the prison and court. Working for G4S paid okay but it had no benefits. When the prison learned she had an undergraduate degree she was recruited from G4S to work directly for the prison as a Youth Development Specialist, a fancy way of saying a guard, V says. Frontline staff were mainly Black people, then some Latinx folks like her, and only a few white people. A musician--she played the viola--V was the first in her family to go to college. While she initially loved her major and wanted to perform or to teach music, she was always worried: "am I going to find a job?" Switching her major to criminal justicefelt safer, she said, and shefound the classes interesting. Getting hired at G4S and the youth prison was easy--and it was steady work. (6)!

With 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population, the United States naturalizes the necessity of prisons:

The number of state prisons increased from 592 in 1974 to a little more than 1,000 in 2000. Texas, California, New York, and Michigan built a total of 429 prisons during the 1980s and 1990s, many of them on the outskirts of cities and in predominately white rural towns. (McCoy 2017, 76-77)

Yet research clearly documents that these prisons are far from a boon to local economies. Instead, their impact is complex: prisons often fail to employ local people in the higher paying and union jobs. Towns often incur debt to offer financial and other concessions to attract prisons, including free or cheap land or a promise to upgrade water systems. The prison itself--with permanent bright lights, ugly fences, and barricades--is far from an ideal or aesthetically pleasing neighbor and instead is an environmental and economic catastrophe. (7) Furthermore, prison can serve as a town's "scapegoat for impoverishment and resultant anxieties about crime and containment as a force of racialization" (Morrell 2018,59).

Prisons (and jails and borders) require thousands of working bodies. Across the United States, "one in eight state employees works in corrections" (Gottschalk 2015,32). Beyond the public sector, the United States employs more guards (per capita) than any other industrialized nation. According to economists Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev (2014), 5.2 million people in 2014 worked as some form of guard labor, a field that encompasses police, private security guards, and soldiers. In 2014, the United States employed "as many private security guards as high school teachers--over one million of them, or nearly double their number in 1980" (Bowles & Jayadev 2014). Kentucky employs more people in corrections (6,640) than in the coal industry (3,760) (Schept 2022).

In 2020 the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) employed 11,913 people and imprisoned approximately 38,000 people (consuming $1,275 billion tax dollars) (Civic Federation 2020). Erased in this count of official paid employees are the thousands of imprisoned people who run the prisons for almost no wages--who cook food, mop floors, wash clothes, and who also do crucial and often unpaid labor such as caring for the dying, legal advocacy, medical support, tutoring, and more.

In Illinois the 2021 starting salary for a corrections officer trainee was $42,432 per year plus full benefits and bumps to $48,432 after the completion of a 7-month probationary period. Minimum requirements, according to the IDOC website, are as follows: "valid driver's license; High School Diploma or GED certificate; U.S. citizen or authorized alien with proof of a permanent resident card; Speak, read, and write English." (8) These qualifications and the compensation are representative of the field of corrections nationally, according to...

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