By Selena Razack  


As the country turns to the next chapter of the pandemic – collectively, we are reacclimating to social circles, remembering some semblance of what “normal” life was like before the pandemic. The trauma of this past year cast a long shadow, and I think it’s safe to say no one has come out of this pandemic on the other side the same. 


June was the first month of country-wide reopenings, which happened to coincide with Pride month.  When June 1st hit, corporations and brands were quick to unveil rainbow social media profile pictures and temporary rainbow brand logos running wild, pushing out rainbow corporate deals and an array of rainbow themed merch. 


This year, the annual NYC Pride march organizers made a bold step in banning police presence from the march until 2025. It’s a significant positive step given the fact that Pride march commemorates the 1969 Stonewall uprising sparked by a police raid. This ban should be permanent given the long history of violence the LGBTQ+ community has and continues to suffer from at the hands of law enforcement. Despite the police ban this year, it still did not stop police officers from pepper-spraying people celebrating pride in Washington Square Park in NYC, where multiple were injured and arrested. 


Looking beyond the massive influx of rainbow themed merch and temporary bans, it seems we are entering a much darker period of reality in the unprecedented number of anti-trans legislation that has come forth in this year alone. More than 100 legislative bills have been introduced that restrict trans rights, many of them targeting trans athletes, making it the highest year on record with anti-trans bills. The epidemic of anti-trans violence and murders are on the rise. This year is on track as the deadliest on record as the ongoing culture wars dangerously intensify the hostility against the TGNBNC community. 


Earlier this year, President Biden signed an executive order repealing the transgender ban in the military. Many celebrated the ban’s repeal as a win and rejoiced the military having a bigger applicant pool to consider for recruitment. This June, New Jersey also announced that its prisoners would be placed based on gender identity, joining an increasing number of gender-responsive prisons across the country. The CIA released a new recruitment video widely criticized and mocked online for an over-emphasis on their “wokeness” as an inclusive and diverse agency. It was a blatant and pathetic attempt to pander, given the CIA’s existence as an agency whose existence is predicated on turmoil, planting seeds of instability, and destroying developing nations, governments, and their people-mostly marginalized individuals.


The struggle for queer and trans liberation and anti-violence work addressing systemic violence,  social injustice, and racial inequality of the most marginalized people begins with addressing state and federal institutions’ systemic design and failures. The recent executive order and the increase in gender-responsive prisons are not the inclusion wins we should celebrate and uplift. There is an increasing trend of LGBTQ+ people and lobbying groups joining privileged ranks where nationalism, power, and assimilation are required in exchange for complicity with violence, war, imprisonment, and racism. It is important to remember at what cost we are to accept so-called diversity and inclusion. Dismantling the very oppression and violence queer and trans people face must begin with examining the root causes of violence perpetrated by the Prison Industrial Complex. 

The Prison Industrial Complex can be defined as a trend that has developed over decades, causing the rapid increase of prisons and mass incarcerations of nonviolent crimes, mainly impacting marginalized communities. It is a machine made up of an intricate network of federal, state, business, and lobbying participants who prioritize personal and corporate financial gain over the rehabilitation of its prisoners. At its core, prisons are profit-driven and predicated on exploitation, fostering, and sustaining violence designed to maintain the status quo. It is evident to me that there can be no queer and trans liberation without dismantling the prison industrial complex and abolishing prisons. 


“The U.S military is continuing its path of destruction, and gays want to be allowed to fight. Cops are still killing unarmed black men and bashing queers, and gays want more policing. More and more Americans are suffering and dying because they can’t get decent health care, and gays want weddings. What happened to us?” —Captive Genders


As we move past Pride month this year, my intention with the following summary is to highlight the practical reasoning for prison abolition, which S. Lamble details in their compelling essay Transforming Carceral Logistics: 10 Reasons to Dismantle the Prison Industrial Complex Using a Queer/Trans Analysis in the book Captive Genders. I especially admire Lamble’s acknowledgment for prison abolition are not born nor contained within the privileged walls of academia but come from the imprisoned sharing their experiences of survival both inside and outside prison, the prison abolitionist activists on the ground, and the very communities the prison industrial complex has continually devastated, particularly the queer and trans communities of color. Lamble’s call to question the normalcy of prisons and their reasoning detailing how the prison industrial complex’s ability to thrive is directly tied to the struggles of queer and trans liberation is a brilliant analysis to take in. 


As I envision this world as one without prisons, I consider Lamble’s essay an extremely useful and digestible guide in my journey towards understanding abolition as the future. Not as a utopian ideal, but recognizing the prison industrial complex goes hand in hand with white supremacy, maintaining the status quo and further enabling systemic and individual violence against marginalized communities. Gender-responsive prisons are not the inclusive flex we think it is. Especially when queer, trans, gender non-conforming people, poor, working class people, immigrants, people with learning disabilities, and mental health issues disproportionally suffer the highest incarceration rate and violence under the prison industrial complex. 


I highly recommend reading the entire book Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex for those interested in a deep dive into the political and theoretical connection between queer/trans liberation and prison abolition. It was a truly eye-opening experience to read the collection of essays and mini memoirs within this book, and I will continue to hold this book close. Many thanks to my friend and colleague Lauren Bousfield for recommending this book to me.  


In Lamble’s essay, they consistently return to the root of how the prison industrial complex has infiltrated every corner of society. Lamble draws connections between neoliberalism’s toxic hand masquerading in social justice movement struggles while simultaneously developing closer ties with prison and military campaigns with queer, trans, and feminist politics being used to justify state violence and mass incarceration. Our prison system and brutal punitive ideals are as American as apple pie. We are a society that rewards rigid individualism and embodies “only the strong shall survive, and only the weak perish.” Is it any wonder that prisons and our institutions serve as the physical embodiment and the tool to uphold this American ideal at any cost? 

As Angela Davis writes, “Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo—obedient to our keepers but dangerous to each other.” 

  • Queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming people have been historically subject to oppressive laws, gender policing, and criminal punishment-a legacy that continues today despite ongoing legal reforms. 


The ongoing legacy of everyday violence against queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming people is one stained and rooted in our laws, policies, harsher penalties, and over-policing. We cannot train trans and queer hostility out of law enforcement or hire more “LGBTQ+ friendly” correctional officers and police officers. Doing so will only serve to ignore the true nature of the prison system functioning as it was designed–to disproportionately capture, control, and discipline particular groups of people who disrupt the status quo, especially communities of color and queer and trans people even more so. These systems only serve to perpetuate the myth further that these institutions are in place to protect us, and it’s essential to understand its legacy of violence.  

  • Queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming people, particularly those from low-income backgrounds and communities of color, are directly targeted by criminalization, punishment, and imprisonment. 


Queer, trans, and gender variant folks experience discrimination, violence, harassment at a much higher rate, thus leading to a greater risk of imprisonment.  The existence of the “school to prison pipeline” tends to target low income communities of color, particularly queer and trans youth, by making it difficult or next to impossible to access adequate social and medical services and support. These services are often another corner of discrimination and hostility as many are refused basic essentials for living or welfare access. Queer and trans youth find themselves unemployed, bullied at school from a young age, estranged from family, or targeted by sexual violence. Trans and gender-non-conforming people especially experience the most violence at the hands of law enforcement and prison guards as they are routinely harassed by the same officers sworn to protect us. 

  • Prisons reinforce oppressive gender and sexual norms. 


Most prisons divide people according to their perceived genitals rather than their self-expressed gender identity. Gender segregation is the state’s critical method in attempting to “modify” prisoner behavior in accordance with gender norms. As Lamble outlines, the mission is to “transform” women’s prisons into better domestic servants and men’s prisons into productive and highly disciplined individuals.  The recent growth of gender-responsive prisons is only used to justify the construction of even more prisons and perpetuate harmful and oppressive gender/sex hierarchies, in which sexual violence flourishes, intensifying the hold of the prison industrial complex as a whole. 

  • Prisons are harmful, violent, and damaging places, especially for queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming folks. 


We need to recognize the institutional structure of prisons as violent, complex entities that are primarily filled with individuals for nonviolent crimes. Rather than brand imprisoned people as “violent and dangerous,” it is crucial to keep in mind that violence within the prison system comes not from the prisoners themselves but fostering violence serves as the bedrock of the prison system and its survival, growth, and punitive function. As Lamble states, within prison walls,  queer and gender-non-conforming prisoners are at a particularly high risk of assault and abuse, denial of healthcare, solitary confinement, strip searching, increased risk of self-harm, and suicide. Accountability for the violence against these prisoners is extremely rare.                                                                                                             

  • Ending violence against queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming people requires a focus on the prison industrial complex. 


We must look more broadly when examining the prison industrial complex. By far, people are less likely to harm others if they feel part of a community. By sentencing people and imprisoning people, we take them from their communities and take away the community’s capacity to hold people accountable for their actions. Instead, we only further isolate these individuals for years on end from their families, partners, and communities.  In their essay, Lamble states the small number of prisoners who pose a genuine risk to themselves or others; prisons often make those risks worse, not better. Prison is not a healing process. It’s an essential cornerstone of anti-violence work to develop alternative community-based strategies addressing underlying issues and preventing future violence. 

  • Prisons reinforce dominant relations of power, especially racism, classism, ableism, and colonial oppression. 


Prison is an extension of colonialism and slavery. Historical, socio-economic dynamics and oppression are in full play as its targets are criminalized at a higher rate. It’s impossible to ignore classism, racism, and ableism that exist quite possibly in its most oppressive state within the prison system walls. Lamble states, “when we recognize “crime” as symptomatic of broader social injustices rather than as individual “bad choices” we are able to devise strategies that address root causes and actually reduce harm and violence.” Lamble further states, for example, in 2003, the Canadian Human Rights Commission found that 80 percent of all federally sentenced women were survivors of physical and/or sexual violence. For Aboriginal women, the rate increased to 90 percent. 

  • Prisons and policing take vital resources away from much-needed community programs, services, and self-empowerment projects. 


Prisons are undoubtedly the most expansive and one of the most well-funded institutions, especially the private prison sector.  More funds for prison expansion in no way equates to more favorable environments for prisoners. Cheap and unpaid labor runs rampant across prisons all over the country as funding cuts to welfare, violence prevention programs, social programs, HIV prevention programs are on the rise. Funding for crucial social programs is being redirected to more prisons, coinciding with a massive increase in police and law enforcement budgets. It’s been proven repeatedly that states and countries with better-funded social/community programs and more equal distribution of wealth have lower incarceration rates. 

  • Prison growth is reaching a global crisis, and LGBTQ people are becoming increasingly complicit in its expansion.


Many assume prison expansion is a response to an increase in crime. It couldn’t be further from the truth. From the “war on drugs” in the 1990s to the “war on terror,” – governments are on the warpath to criminalization. Between 2000 and 2007, Lamble states the U.S Congress added 454 new offenses to the federal crime code, coinciding with a 32 percent increase in federal prisons.  Endorsement of “law and order” politicians – even those from LGBTQ+ communities and organizations are often complicit in prison expansion.  Many LGBTQ+ groups lobbied for the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act in the U.S, which at one point in time included the death penalty as a potential punishment for a hate crime. These Acts are just one of many hate crime laws passed with more severe punishment, locking more people up. Hate crime laws and Acts only help legitimize imprisonment and perpetuate the violent prison industrial complex with no actual research backing any real deterrent effect connected to passing hate crime legislation. 

  • Prisons and police do not make queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming communities safer. 


Cops and prisons do not make us safer. The history of violence the queer and trans community has suffered at the hands of law enforcement and within prison is an extremely long, complex history. Many in queer communities do not feel safe going to the police for help. Lamble states that some would encourage people to report violence to the police and advocate for criminal punishment. Hate crime laws have not reduced violence against queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people, and much evidence shows that supporting harsher prison sentences does not reduce crime. Yet, we often ignore the root causes of harm being born out of complex social, economic, and racial factors, let alone meaningfully address those root causes. Prison rehabilitation programs are rarely successful as they focus on the individual rather than systemic oppression and circumstances. 

  • Alternatives to prisons will better prevent violence, strengthen queer and trans 

communities, and foster social, economic, and racial justice. 


Lamble’s reasoning for moving forward in a prison free world is rooted in truth and is incredibly compelling. For far too long, we have lived in a society obsessed with punishment/how can we make money off of your suffering. Moving away from this model that has enabled and perpetuated the punishment machine is vital for real transformation. We can and should move towards restorative/transformative justice initiatives, strengthening community and social programs. Most of all, looking to community based alternatives with an emphasis on healing and crime prevention – something a cage never has and will never be able to do. 


In one of the many takeaways from Lamble’s essay, I understand building trust in the community and adopting an abolition mindset as everyday practice in our daily lives as the necessary foundation for working towards toppling the prison industrial complex. There is a long shadow of inescapable trauma that has followed and devastated marginalized and imprisoned people, both surviving in and out of prison. Living abolition as practice means we question harm within our workplaces, intimate lives, friendships and advocate for restorative/transformative justice initiatives in our communities and beyond. Building trust in the community means redirecting time, energy, funds for community organizing, and most of all, encouraging social inclusion and support to help people feel part of and responsible to their communities. 


What I appreciate most is Lamble’s centering on the community as the heart of prison abolition and anti-violence work and in the parallel fight for the development and access to better social programs, free healthcare, decriminalization of sex work, and many other broader racial, social, economic, and racial justice causes. In the continued struggle for trans and queer liberation, we must move away from making prisons more “LBGTQ+” friendly, refocus on building community alternatives, and instead move to question and fight the prison system’s very unjust existence and reduce its power at every turn. 


To conclude, another writer, Cholo writes within Captive Genders what I feel is the essence of the kind of thinking we must center going forward to move and fight towards abolition as our future truly “The truth of the matter is that we will not survive; we will all perish if we continue to do ourselves that which the enemy is doing to us, and this will happen sooner than we think if we do not come together. And I use the word together because I realized our strengths rests within our unity and that our downfall rests within the opposite.”