Starting Point. Directed by Michal Szczesniak. New York: Grasshopper Film, 2016. 26 minutes.
Like Any Other Kid. Directed by Victoria Mills. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2017. 89 minutes.
Feminist abolitionists have long struggled with the question of how to challenge deleterious conditions of confinement faced by incarcerated people without expanding the reach (and, indeed, shrinking the scope) of carceral systems.1 While neither Starting Point nor Like Any Other Kid weds itself to the promises of abolition, both provide opportunities for students in the feminist classroom to think about prisons—and prison reform—in abolitionist and feminist ways.
Starting Point explores life inside a Polish prison, focusing on Aneta Cieślik, a white mother who faced gendered oppression before incarceration and now fights for redemption and the right to parent from inside. Aneta’s story teaches students about the gendered nature of criminalization in a context that may resonate with abolitionists who seek to challenge dominant ideologies of crime and punishment and (re)articulate community-based strategies to create safety and systems of accountability outside of carceral regimes (see Davis et al. 2022). The film emphasizes that gendered oppression can pressure many marginalized women into struggles for survival that lead to criminalization. Aneta survived an abusive husband (“a soldier who brought his work home”) and “humiliating” forms of sex work,2 and she contemplated suicide when she “didn’t see any other way out.” She fears her daughter “thinks I left because I don’t love her” and feels powerless to parent (“I have no right to instruct [my family] how to raise her”) but, like many incarcerated parents, she chooses to “fight” for her child anyway.
Core feminist concepts to discuss with students include the gendered division of labor, sexualized labor, underground economies, addiction, gendered expectations of motherhood, and the ways in which survivors become criminalized for experiencing violence, but instructors must also discuss how other systemic oppressions inform criminalization. Given the inexorable impact of structural racism, ableism, heterosexism, transphobia, and poverty (among others), students need background in how carceral systems globally disproportionately target poor people, people of color and particularly Black communities, and queer, trans, and disabled survivors of violence.3 Classroom strategies may encourage students to articulate ways that multiply-marginalized people experience gendered oppression and carceral systems differently. Feminist abolitionist discussion resources include the toolkit developed by INCITE!, Law Enforcement Violence against Women of Color & Trans People of Color; Arrested Justice (Richie 2012); the book Invisible No More and accompanying study guide (Ritchie 2017); Captive Genders (Stanley and Smith 2015); Decarcerating Disability (Ben-Moshe 2020); and curricula to decriminalize survivors of violence from Survived and Punished.4
While no system of incarceration is a “just” one—a cage is a cage—the Polish prison has a few practices that may be useful to abolitionists who seek to address problems inside without expanding reliance on the prison industrial complex. This issue is not a straightforward one; many efforts to improve conditions inside are used to legitimize and justify the continued use of carceral systems as an (inefficacious) solution to problems primarily rooted in systemic injustice (see Kaba 2021). Therefore, activists must work with social movements—led by people of color and people impacted by these carceral systems—to dismantle carceral institutions and ideologies and to build community sustainability through strategies that decarcerate, build capacity to prevent and address harm, and generate accountability processes instead of punishment. While not abolitionist on its own, there is something to learn from the fact that Aneta’s cell contains items typically banned because they, presumably, could be weaponized. In one scene, a guard stands nonchalantly next to an incarcerated person buttering toast with a pointed metal serrated knife. My experience working as an attorney for people in prisons suggests that in the United States, this act would likely lead to brutality from guards, disciplinary time in solitary confinement, and possibly additional serious criminal charges including assault and/or attempted murder of an officer. Many of these ostensibly dangerous items are also personal in nature; they are things that provide comfort and a sense of individuality that may help incarcerated people feel more like people in a place that attempts to strip them of humanity.5 Humanity-affirming measures may begin to challenge the profound negative impact of policies that stem from the stereotype that incarcerated people are inherently violent and, when tied to broader social movements, these measures may even become abolitionist (see Gilmore 2022). We see such nascent imaginings in Aneta’s story: she leaves the prison for work with a vulnerable population (she wants “to be helpful to others”); she spends her days with senior citizens, even though the person she harmed was her grandmother—and,partly because of this work, Aneta’s sentence will be reduced. Aneta’s story shows that community accountability mechanisms—and not “doing time” locked away from society—are an effective means to address harm, promote healing, and transform people, including so-called “perpetrators” (see Dixon and Piepzna-Samarasinha 2020). It may be a while until Aneta’s family forgives her (and the separation of imprisonment may have hindered that process), but her community work put her in a position where she may begin to forgive herself and rebuild these important connections—as a free person. Educators can use the Critical Resistance worksheet “Reformist Reforms vs. Abolitionist Steps to End Imprisonment” and the book Abolition. Feminism. Now. (Davis et al. 2022) to discuss Aneta’s experiences and envision strategies that might align with feminist abolition.
Like Any Other Kid follows a pattern typical to films lauding ostensibly novel carceral reforms. It tracks the implementation of the highly praised Missouri Model in juvenile detention centers, following institutions for boys in California and Louisiana and those for girls in New York. According to counselors in the film and reviewers who commented on the distributor’s website, it is “a heartfelt, moving, and impactful” film detailing “a model for reform” that offers “fully therapeutic” and “effective interventions” capable of “changing behavior through reflection and self-discovery.” As a feminist abolitionist, I do not believe that prisons can use “love and structure—instead of punishment” to make “youth transform before our eyes” as these phrases suggest; however, Like Any Other Kid offers students in the feminist classroom a platform to think critically about carceral logics and reforms.
As in Starting Point, Like Any Other Kid shows that struggle precedes incarceration. Youth are often “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” have lost family to death and substance abuse, and have survived neglect, homelessness, underground economies, sex, drugs, and violence. Here, too, instructors must situate individual experiences within broader contexts of oppression. For example, we see that many of the youth are kids of color, so we need to explain how institutionalized racism and the pervasive residual effects of transatlantic slavery, white settler colonialism, neoliberal capitalism, and white supremacy do not simply inform criminalization but are criminalization, comprising its intrinsically threaded constituent parts (see Haley 2016). Youths’ first-person narratives featured in Like Any Other Kid are even more compelling when contextualized systemically, such as in relation to the way the prison industrial complex makes individuals as well as entire marginalized populations disposable, immobilized, and debilitated.
Like Any Other Kid may be helpful in getting students to consider abolition and whether some reforms—despite good intentions—justify and legitimize carceral harms. The ideological frameworks undergirding the Missouri Model shift blame from institutional structures onto so-called dysfunctional families and/or damaged communities and people who supposedly simply make bad choices. This practice often relies on racialized and gendered stereotypes, particularly those directed at impoverished Black single mothers, and can also erase determinative social contexts of oppression and discrimination.6 The model’s counselors individualize systemic issues by stating that “youth have home problems,” and the strategies they forward—which purportedly “rehabilitate not punish,” albeit from inside a lockdown facility—focus narrowly on “making healthy choices” because “one wrong choice is what got us here in the first place.” Youth are taught that “the only thing that you can control is yourself,” but this message also holds them responsible for circumstances beyond their control, which concretizes carceral logics and obfuscates the structural inequities that inform people’s so-called choices. For example, because Maddy Melendez’s family is poor and battles addiction, she “needs to change,” “break the cycle,” and provide for her family. When counselors affirm, “it’s beautiful to want that,” they erase the structural conditions that contributed to Maddy’s situation and ask her—a child—to assume responsibility for adults—and the criminal consequences if she fails. Educators can use Maddy’s story to get students to talk about the root causes of incarceration and the contexts that underlie people’s choices. Why is poverty—especially when experienced by people of color—seen as caused by a wanton work ethic instead of something that results from centuries of uncountable compounding forms of institutional discrimination and a lack of meaningful gainful employment and educational opportunities today? How can we reframe drug addiction as an endemic public health crisis in the United States that ought not to be criminalized in poor communities of color but instead met with effective substance abuse support to treat it and with adequate and affordable health care and mental wellness resources to prevent it?
Proponents will argue that these facilities are “better than juvie” because they may alleviate some of the more horrific aspects of incarceration, and some youth may succeed. Yet many young people fail, and nothing is done to prevent other children from getting incarcerated (see Annamma 2018). Therefore, reforms unconnected to broader movements to “build communities not prisons” ultimately hurt criminalized people (and arguably all people) by legitimizing carceral systems and preventing systemic change.7 Transformative feminist pedagogical strategies can unpack carceral logics and help students connect personal experiences to structures of oppression (what role would your intersectional identities play if you were in the youth’s “shoes” and what does the “school-to-prison pipeline” look like for young women of color?). Resources for lesson plans include the designed-for-teaching films Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (2019) and Re-Visions of Abolition from Critical Resistance to a New Way of Life (2021); We Do This ‘Til We Free Us (Kaba 2021); Are Prisons Obsolete? (Davis 2003); and resources for curriculum building in the white paper “Toward Transformative Justice” (Kershnar et al. 2007) and the Critical Resistance website.8
The take-home point for students who view Starting Point and Like Any Other Kid in the feminist abolitionist classroom is that we need to move beyond fixing the way people are incarcerated and move toward finding the way out of incarcerating people. In beseeching our students to think about how—and if—prisons can—or should—be reformed, they will not only learn what people need in order to survive systemic oppression and criminalization now (like affordable access to healthy food, clean water, safe housing, resource-rich education, rewarding employment, childcare, transportation, and health care, which are often already present in affluent communities) but also imagine what our world will look like when we no longer use prisons at all.
Annamma, Subini Ancy. 2018. The Pedagogy of Pathologization: Dis/abled Girls of Color in the School-Prison Nexus. New York: Routledge.
Ben-Moshe, Liat. 2020. Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Davis, Angela Y. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.
Davis, Angela Y., Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Richie. 2022. Abolition. Feminism. Now. Chicago: Haymarket.
Dixon, Ejeris, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, eds. 2020. Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. Oakland: AK Press.
Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2022. Abolition Geography: Essays towards Liberation. Brooklyn: Verso.
Haley, Sarah. 2016. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Kaba, Mariame. 2021. We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice. Chicago: Haymarket.
Kershnar, Sara, Staci Haines, Gillian Harkins, Alan Greig, Cindy Wiesner, Mich Levy, Palak Shah, Mimi Kim, and Jesse Carr. 2007. Toward Transformative Justice: A Liberatory Approach to Child Sexual Abuse and Other Forms of Intimate and Community Violence. Oakland: Generation FIVE.
Mogul, Joey L., Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock. 2012. Queer (In)justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. Boston: Beacon.
Our Voices Within: Out of the Shadows. 2005. Directed by Free Battered Women. San Francisco: California Coalition for Women Prisoners. 34 minutes.
Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. 2019. Directed by Jacoba Atlas. San Francisco: Women in the Room Productions. 79 minutes.
Re-Visions of Abolition from Critical Resistance to a New Way of Life. 2021. Directed by Setsu Shigematsu. Riverside, CA: Visions of Abolition. 87 minutes.
Richie, Beth E. 2012. Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation. New York: NYU Press.
Ritchie, Andrea J. 2017. Invisible No More: Police Violence against Black Women and Women of Color. Boston: Beacon.
Stanley, Eric A., and Nat Smith, eds. 2015. Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. 2nd ed. Oakland: AK Press.
Young Women’s Empowerment Project. 2009. Girls Do What They Have to Do to Survive: Illuminating Methods Used by Girls in the Sex Trade and Street Economy to Fight Back and Heal. Chicago: Young Women’s Empowerment Project.
1 I use the term “carceral system” to draw attention to the interconnected systems of policing, surveillance, criminalization, and punishment, which include not only prisons but also jails, immigrant and juvenile detention centers, and psychiatric hospitals. Carcerality also includes and goes beyond the numerous ways people are policed, surveilled, and recriminalized after incarceration (e.g., deportation, “halfway” homes, “community supervision” [a euphemism for conditional release programs like probation and parole where the consequences for violation can be severe, including reimprisonment], home monitoring where people are kept under observation from inside their own homes instead of prison, reentry restrictions that preclude people with certain types of convictions from accessing some social welfare programs, and other forms of conviction-related disenfranchisement and legal precarity).
2 Sex work is not necessarily an exploitative profession; however, Aneta describes experiences where she felt powerless and debased (“I lost respect for myself”). Without question, sex work should be decriminalized. See the Young Women's Empowerment Project report (2009).
3 This is necessary even if the country of context (here, Poland) has a small population of people of color and/or ethnic minority groups. No demographic data were available for Polish prisons; however, the criminalization of minoritized—especially racialized—populations is commonly understood to be a global problem.
4 Other great resources include Queer (In)justice (Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock 2012) and the film Our Voices Within (2005) produced by Free Battered Women, a former project of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. See also INCITE!, which is a network of radical feminists of color committed to ending state and interpersonal violence, and the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women.
5 For example, women wore their own clothes and jewelry, they had unique bedding items, and their cells were decorated with ceramics, pictures encased in glass, mirrors, holiday items, etc., most of which would be contraband in the United States.
6 Because poverty is portrayed as self-perpetuated, born from individuals’ flawed value systems and poor “choices,” reforms grounded in these arguments appear in liberal frameworks as efforts to “take pity” on marginalized people in order to “save” them in accordance with colonial/white-savior tropes.
7 This framing and language comes directly from what I have learned working with social movement organizers from Critical Resistance, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, All of Us or None, and A New Way of Life.
8 See the review of Pushout in this issue of Films for the Feminist Classroom.