What do we do with abusers like R. Kelly if we abolish prisons?
Prison is a tool of the abusive, patriarchal white supremacist state, designed to exploit, violate and rape whomever that state deems worthy
Editor’s Note: This essay contains discussions of childhood sexual violence
I didn’t order that extra whiskey ginger last week. I went home when my body told me to, even though it was still early and my friends were still partying. I rested when I got sick, or as much as I possibly could without missing necessary work deadlines. So I’m trying to forgive myself for jumping into the R. Kelly wildfire, something I said I wouldn’t do for my own self-care. I’m really committing to my health this year—mental and physical—but there seems to be a limit on the care I can give.
I’ve barely started writing and the anxiety is boiling over already. Bodies made of water tend to do that when thrown into fire. Mine feels as amorphous as one with my stomach up here in my throat. As weak as one. I don’t know how these barely solid legs could possibly hold any weight when I stand, so I won’t. Not for a while.
I told myself I wouldn’t do this because to ruminate on R. Kelly’s abuses is to once again feel the veins of my own abuser pulsing in my mouth when I was ten. I told myself I wouldn’t because again I hear my family member’s words as she ran out of the room when her childhood tormentor entered, and I never, ever wanted to hear them in the first place. “I haven’t told anybody,” she said, shaking like the earth had split apart, “but he used to touch me, and I just can’t be in there with him.” I don’t know where the water goes when it’s finally all steam, or if I will even still have a body. But I have been through this fire before. That’s how I know it will only keep raging until it’s fed with the last of prisons, and that’s why I’m here, liquid and quaking, trying to feed it just that.
A friend recently sent me a meme that asked what we should do with men like R. Kelly if we abolish prisons. dream hampton, the executive producer of Lifetime’s new powerful docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which has sparked this latest round of reckoning with Kelly’s abuses of Black children—Black girls specifically—told Shadow and Act, “I want to be someone who identifies as [a prison] abolitionist, and then gender violence and sexual violence happens and then that gives me pause.” I’m trying to hold these questions with care, despite all of my limits, because I want to believe when we talk about prison abolition we are honest about how we struggle with this idea.
If R. Kelly is not a monster, he has done the most monstrous things. Even after hampton took care to document Kelly’s own sexual violations as a child in the series, I still can’t muster up any empathy for the singer. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I know empathy is not necessary for me to be an abolitionist. I don’t believe in putting anyone in human cages, and that has little to do with how much I feel for abusive people. It has to do with recognizing the possibility of ending the problem of abuse rather than running from it. It has to do with needing to end it, needing more than temporary answers that always seem limited in addressing the long standing health issues within our community, and knowing there will never be an opportunity as long as prisons stand.
Prisons are systemized abuse. Prison is a tool of the abusive, patriarchal white supremacist state, designed to exploit, violate, rape, and enslave whomever that state deems worthy of exploiting, violating, raping and enslaving. This is what it has always done, and done so particularly well to Black people. Particularly to Black children. To Black queer children. To Black queer disabled children.
So when I say I am a prison abolitionist, I’m not saying anything about sympathizing with abusers. I’m saying we need to get rid of the abusive system that enables abuse. That trains for abuse. That structures society so much so that a proud abuser is the leader of this country. I’m saying I don’t want to give power to the abusive, patriarchal white supremacist state or the people it’s built to protect (people like R. Kelly) so that they can abuse whomever they want and call it ok/right/justice. I’m saying it’s not okay to deal with abuse by enacting more abuse. It’s not okay for Kelly to violate children just because he was violated as a child. And it’s not okay for the state to abuse abusers just because it determines they have abused someone else. Abuse is never okay.
In “All prisoners are political prisoners: the #VaughnUprising and how ignoring hostage strategy forgoes our freedom”, historian Jess Krug asks, “What is the relationship between acknowledging that the criminal code of this nation is structured to continue alienating Black people from our communities and the benefits of our own labor, and glorifying a vision of the very architects of that system as portrayed through the idioms and bodies of the descendants of the enslaved?” If we turn to a system created by abusers, that has always protected abusers, and that is reliant on abuse to handle other abusers, where does it end? Do we want an end? Is an end possible?
Abolition is not just the closing of physical buildings that hold prisoners. It’s closing the chapter of history that birthed prison culture because it relies on abuse to exist. It’s knowing that prisons are what they are because we live in a culture that is built on the abuse of those who can be criminalized. It’s knowing that little Black girls can always be criminalized. She’s too fast. She was asking for it. It’s her parents’ fault. It’s challenging our own tendencies of abuse, and changing them. It’s knowing that leaning onto prisons to address violence is a tendency of abuse.
We can’t get rid of prisons without getting rid of the abusive culture that relies on them, and so there is no void prison abolition leaves behind that we should fear will be filled with more abuse. The void is prisons, and they are already being filled with the abuse of Black people and children everywhere. When prison abolition is here, the state that teaches men like R. Kelly that they can abuse Black children without facing accountability is abolished too, because prison culture is central to that state.
When prison abolition is here, the wildfire is abated, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to then tend to the scorched earth. When prison abolition is here, the nightmare of my abuser and my family member’s abuser doesn’t disappear, but it can be addressed. It can be healed. It can come to an end instead of returning whenever I hear the story of another abuser, which, in a prison culture, is day after day after day.
There is always a limit to the care we can give in a world built by prisons. In a world built on the blood of the Black and criminalized. And I understand when we turn to temporary solutions. I understand avoiding our issues and calling it “self-care,” because I do it sometimes too. I understand the urge to turn to the police to handle our issues, although I do not do that anymore. The world burns around us, but at least when we face somewhere else it doesn’t feel like we’re made of water. Like we are fallible, and have our own weaknesses. The same weaknesses that have always been exploited.
But at some point we have to acknowledge a body of water is more than enough to put the blaze out, and I believe facing our weaknesses is the only thing that can. We have to do this work, we have to challenge all of our tendencies for abuse, even when it’s hard and unimaginable, if we want this to end. As the poet June Jordan said, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.”
I don’t know what a world without prisons looks like any more than I know whether being unable to empathize with Kelly is good or bad. I don’t know if you can kill abusers and not have that come from a place of the same abusive punitivity that drives prisons, even though I want to kill him. Even though I want to kill the man who abused my family member too. But I know solutions can go beyond the binaries of “good” and “bad,” “guilty” and “innocent.” I know the answer doesn’t have to be simple, and abolition doesn’t mean that sometimes people don’t have to die. I know that fighting doesn’t have to be about punishing someone else, but trying to find freedom. I know that in a world of prisons, people who do kill their abusers, who do fight for their freedom like Cyntoia Brown, go to prison too. I know we won’t always get fighting right. I know there are already people like Dr. Krug and Mariame Kaba of Project NIA and Assata’s Daughters and the prisoners who lead uprisings whose names we will never know trying to get it right. And I know, if we try together, our wildest dreams are possible.
I want those who have been abused to have alternatives to drugs and drinking and avoidance to numb their pain. I want us to be able to believe our bodies everyday. I want us to be able to rest. It seems to be a limit on how much we can do these things. We turn from the fire and the whiskey is there. The gaslighting is there. The nightmares are there. There is always a limit to how much we can avoid abuse and conversations surrounding it. That’s why I’m committed to prison abolition this and every year until this body made of water is finally all steam, even if I won’t recognize what comes next.