By Catherine Conlan
If you’ve gone out to lunch with me in the past year, I’ve probably come at you with the concept of police and prison abolition. About a year ago I attended a day-long seminar from the University of Minnesota’s Labor Education Service about Labor and Mass Incarceration, and to say it blew my mind was an understatement.
During the class, we learned about the role police and prisons have in the community, and whether they’re effective or not. It’s hard for me to do the class justice in a short column, so suffice it to say I will never forget the patience of the instructors as they walked us through different thought exercises, and how I could literally feel my brain rewiring as it took in new information and what it might mean for me as a citizen, as a union member, as someone who wanted better for my community.
The next day I had lunch with a dear friend from my college days. I was bursting with this new information about was ready to forge a new prison and police abolition advocate for the cause. And when I told her what I had learned, her reaction was one we’ve seen a lot over the past few weeks: “You want to what?”
It was a reminder of how hard it is to build a movement. Changing minds and having hard discussions is where the unglamorous but important work is, especially when you’re struggling with changing long-rooted institutions. So let’s look at some smaller steps.
One of the things that got me to abolition was an excellent lesson from LES’s current director Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, who has done research and reporting about prison labor in the Minnesota corrections system for Workday Minnesota.
During his lesson, he showed the connection between the abolition of slavery in the United States and the loophole in the 13th Amendment that allows all but chattel slavery of incarcerated people, and how even state prisons (not the dreaded privatized ones) sell out the labor of incarcerated people for profit and exploitation, and to compete with workers “on the outside.” But that might be coming to an end in Minnesota.
During this special session, Rep. Rena Moran has introduced a bill that would bring the issue to voters to amend the Minnesota Constitution to fully abolish slavery by eliminating the clause excepting people who are incarcerated. A similar bill was knocking around during the regular session, but the killing of George Floyd and subsequent focus on race, policing and the prison industry have made the issue more urgent.
There are a lot of important, difficult questions Labor will need to wrestle with in the coming weeks and months. Historically, the concept of a police force has been used as just that — a force that acted in the interests of capital and bosses by oppressing people escaping slavery and, later, immigrants and labor organizers, all trying to build a better life for themselves and their families. As communities reexamine their police departments, Labor must be there to ensure old systems of oppression aren’t reproduced.
But in the meantime, supporting Moran’s bill is a small but easy change that Minnesota is ready for. Many of the reforms are already garnering opposition from the usual corners in the Legislature, but ending slave wages through prison work should be a no-brainer.
Hard work, easy changes
By Catherine Conlan