Creating Accountable Communities: An Alternative to the Prison-Industrial Complex

When I imagine a world without prisons, I also imagine that communities have created tools that are alternatives to the current "justice" system. I want to stress that these tools aren't something that will come easily; they take work.

Creating Accountable Communities: An Alternative to the Prison-Industrial Complex

My views on prison abolition are inherently tied to my identity as a survivor of violence.

When I imagine a world without prisons, I also imagine that communities have created tools that are alternatives to the current "justice" system. I want to stress that these tools aren't something that will come easily; they take work. I also want to stress the importance of acknowledging the work that people are already doing to end violence in our communities. There are several organizations I recommend checking out, both local to Seattle and located elsewhere, which will be listed at the end of the article. In this article I will discuss ways that we can incorporate transformative justice skills into our everyday lives.

I say that my views on prison abolition are inherently tied to my identity as a survivor of violence for a few reasons. First, I found out about and really came into my views on prison abolition through a local organization here in Seattle called API Chaya. They do work with survivors of human trafficking, sexual assault, and domestic violence, but they also incorporate a transformative justice and prison abolitionist framework into the work that they do. I was first drawn to become a volunteer with API Chaya because of my identity as a survivor, but it has now become so much more than that. API Chaya introduced me to the concept of transformative justice—an alternative for dealing with violence in communities that doesn’t rely on the state. (I will provide a link to API Chaya's website at the end of the article.) I am not sure if transformative justice would have resonated with me as deeply as it does if I wasn’t a survivor, or if my abuser wasn’t imprisoned, or if he didn’t die in prison, but I strongly believe that these things are what make transformative justice mean so much to me.

Before I start talking about what transformative justice (or TJ for short) means to me, here’s a quick definition from Generation Five (p. 5):

“Transformative Justice responds to the lack of—and the critical need for—a liberatory approach to violence. A liberatory approach seeks safety and accountability without relying on alienation, punishment, or State or systemic violence, including incarceration and policing.”

Transformative justice provides an alternative to the prison system not just for abusers, but for survivors as well. The possibility of creating a future where communities and survivors can heal themselves without relying on a state that oppresses them is another reason why my identity as a survivor is tied to my views on prison abolition. What if people who cause harm are properly held accountable and given an opportunity to change their behavior? What if survivors are given the tools to properly heal from the violence inflicted on them? I think the answer to these questions lies in a future based on creating communities where people feel safe not only saying that they have been harmed by someone, but also where people who cause harm can get the support to change their harmful behaviors.

I would also like to preface and really stress that nothing I know about transformative justice is possible without the work of others and the relationships I’ve built with others around these principles. I have learned so much from my community and from the people who have been doing this work much longer than I have. I am just one person hoping that writing this will help others understand how incorporating transformative justice into our lives doesn’t have to just be something we dream about—we can start creating the future we want to see in our lives right now. I think that one of the many beautiful things about transformative justice is its acknowledgement that we don’t do anything alone—we rely on our communities. This article is a result of one person learning from their community and wanting to share their knowledge with more of their community. I am always happy to have conversations about transformative justice, to be a part of someone’s pod (people you can call on to either hold you accountable when you cause harm, or people you can call when you’ve experienced harm), to hold and be held accountable. Really practicing the principles of transformative justice in my everyday life is the only thing that maintains my belief that something other than capitalism, other than oppression is possible.

One of the main pieces of transformative justice is accountability—mainly, community accountability. Community accountability was theorized by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.

Community Accountability image; image description below the image.

Image Description Start: One small circle that says “community accountability” in the middle of four larger circles that say the following:

  • Create and affirm VALUES AND PRACTICES that resist abuse and oppression and encourage safety, support, and accountability
  • Provide SAFETY AND SUPPORT to community members who are violently targeted that RESPECTS THEIR SELF-DETERMINATION
  • Develop sustainable strategies to ADDRESS COMMUNITY MEMBERS’ ABUSIVE BEHAVIOR, creating a process for them to account for their actions and transform their behavior
  • Commit to ongoing development of all members of the community, and the community itself, to TRANSFORM THE POLITICAL CONDITIONS that reinforce oppression and violence

Image Description ends.

Creating a community that relies on community accountability means incorporating the main four points above into our lives. Community accountability is ongoing and depends on people creating relationships in which they can practice being vulnerable, honest, and accountable. Accountability itself isn’t something that is done once and it’s over; it isn’t something only for “bad people.” Accountability is something we can all practice.

Accountability can be practiced by identifying behavior that caused harm, accepting that harm was done even if causing harm was not the intent, because the impact of your actions on other people is more important than what your intent was with your initial actions, and changing your behavior. It might sound easy when it’s all laid out, but being held accountable and holding others accountable is really difficult! Our culture—even in activist circles—focuses on disposing of (AKA “cancelling”) people who cause harm, rather than believing in people’s ability to change. You can start practicing accountability in small ways—maybe you hurt a friend’s feelings with an off-handed comment. Acknowledge that you harmed them with your comment, and work on changing your behavior. This is something that takes time, and maybe you will mess up again. What’s important is that you are practicing accountability—you are practicing something that our society doesn’t teach us, because society would rather have you believe that you are a “bad” person, rather than that you are a person who makes mistakes and can change.

In the process of writing this article, my editor mentioned that they as a reader would be interested in learning more about real-world examples of community accountability, especially in regards to severe violence. I certainly know of many communities who practice community accountability—including some indigenous nations—and have practiced it in the face of severe violence. I would love to have included those stories in this article. However, due to the length of time it’d take to compile information on something like that, we decided it would be best to publish this article on its own and publish another article on real-world examples of community accountability. Make sure to be on the lookout for that article coming in the next few months!

The next few things you can do are things I’ve borrowed from adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy, specifically the section on resilience and how to create liberated relationships. Liberated relationships are ways that we can be more genuine and intentional about the way we are in relationships with each other. It’s important to think about interpersonal interactions as being an important part of building the future we want. This is highly suggested reading, by the way, especially if you agree with or want to know more about anything I’ve written. Or even if you don’t agree, I would recommend Emergent Strategy to everyone who thinks that the current system is unacceptable, and wants to know what the alternatives are.

“Here are some of the principles in development for Liberated Relationships:

  • Radical honesty. No omissions, no white lies, no projections. Ask the questions you really want answered, speak your truth, and let the relationship build inside all that reality. Just a note from experience, the small lies can be the hardest to stop telling. “No I don’t want to get on the phone right now, can we just text?”; “I’m busy catching up on my reality TV show”; “Real cow milk ice cream”; or “I know I said I didn’t want to _____, but now I do.” However, the more you practice this, the more you will find yourself spending your waking hours in the ways you want to, the ways that honor the miracle of your existence, which was not given to you to waste in polite avoidance of hurting people’s feelings. You will find that you can be honest and kind, you can be honest and compassionate.
  • Acknowledge the dynamics, then keep growing. Have an understanding on the front end of the race, class, gender, ability, geographic, and other power dynamics that exist between you. And also remember that these are constructs. Be in the complexity of living inside these constructs while evolving beyond them through relationship.
  • Relinquish Frankenstein. You are not creating people to be with, or work with, some idealized individuals made of perfect parts of personality that you discovered on your life journey. You are meeting individuals with their own full lives behind and ahead of them. Stop trying to make and fix others, and instead be curious about what they have made of themselves.

Ok, do you want to try Liberated Relationships? I suggest starting with one and building from there. Pick one person who is in your life right now, someone you want a more authentic relationship with, and tell them exactly that. Ask if you can practice radical honesty together. It is difficult at first, but the results are unparalleled freedom and satisfaction.” (brown, 2017, p. 143-144)

I can honestly only think of one person in my life whom I have a Liberated Relationship with, but I am hoping that writing this article will show people in my life (and people in your life!) that there is a desire for more authentic connections. We don’t have to settle for what this capitalist society tells us is appropriate. Building authentic connections, holding each other accountable, learning about ourselves and each other—this is what transformative justice means to me.

This work is neverending, and transformative justice isn’t something I just talk about. I care deeply about this framework, and I care deeply about it because it was developed/created by survivors like me who don’t want anyone else to go through what we went through. It’s a beautiful possibility of a future without violence, a future where communities support and love each other and work through difficult, ugly things because it’s something we need to do. Pouring myself into transformative justice is central to my healing process.

If you’re interested in learning more about transformative justice and community accountability, I recommend checking out Mia Mingus, Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (BATJC), and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. API Chaya is the organization I mentioned that I’ve been volunteering with here in Seattle. They offer support for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking, and also provide free community education seminars every few months. Another great organization that is based in Seattle is The Northwest Network of Bisexual, Transgender, Lesbian, and Gay Survivors of Abuse (NW Network). NW Network offers a series of relationship skills classes that teach people accountability, communication, boundaries, and other important skills that help create stronger communities.

You can also feel free to reach out to me with any questions or if you would like to have a more in-depth conversation about any of these topics. You can find me on Instagram at @fucck_0ff, Twitter as @smsh_my_heart, or you can email me at [email protected].