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If Not Prison, What Do We Do with the R Kelly’s of the World?

Last year, I had a conversation with a friend, in which I exclaimed, “All prisons should be abolished, but serial rapists should rot in jail forever.” A clear contradiction that I didn’t ignore, but one that I couldn’t reconcile.

I mulled over this issue for a while, searching for a resolution, but eventually I forgot about it.

That thought flooded my mind again this week, as Surviving R. Kelly aired; a docuseries profiling the artist’s sexual abuse of Black girls that has persisted for decades.

The question remains. For myself and others who promote abolition, what do we do with the R Kelly’s of the world? How do we simultaneously demand an end to the prison industrial complex (PIC) while dealing with the worst of the worst? How do we condemn heinous behaviours, rehabilitate abusers, and protect communities?

What is the prison industrial complex?

The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a system created by the state to deal with acts deemed undesirable and immoral by society and/or those in power. The PIC can be defined as the collaboration between governments and corporations to use prison to hide social problems while simultaneously profiting from the imprisonment of people. Imprisonment has become the go-to response to many social problems that burden marginalized groups, veiling these problems under the umbrella of “crime.” The PIC isn’t just prisons, but a web of relationships between prisons and probation service, police, courts, and companies that profit from transporting, feeding and exploiting prisoners. 

The PIC doesn’t sweep social issues under the proverbial rug of prison because it’s lazy or confused, but rather because the PIC is a tool of the patriarchy. It’s abusive, sexist, colonialist, and racist. It was built by white men centuries ago to exploit and violate those the state deems unworthy. The PIC, simply put, is systemized abuse. 

What is prison abolition?

When most people think of abolition, they think of people calling for society to immediately crack open the gates of prisons and release all inmates. In reality, abolition seeks to create a world where prison is not the primary mechanism of punishment, and where punishment is no longer equated with justice.[1]

Abolition holds that the criminal system is a tool of colonialist white supremacy and capitalism, disputes that the system’s purpose is to promote public safety and justice, and rejects the claim that its practices are effective in responding to human transgressions.[2]

Abolitionists desire a world that addresses the root causes of crime — education inequities, poverty, harmful societal norms/ideologies, and mental illness — and moves away from seeing imprisonment as the only solution.

Abolition is a long term process; it may never be fully realized, but it governs how we act and make decisions as we try to build a more fair, just, and humane society.[3]

As Hari Ziyad writes, abolition is more than hanging up a ‘Sorry, we’re closed’ sign on the front doors of prison buildings. Abolition seeks to eradicate our culture of abuse that came to rely on those physical buildings. Abolition is about not being complacent in the face of horror because we rest easy knowing those people can be locked away. It is recognizing that our reliance on the prison system is, in itself, a form of abuse.

Abolition is a fundamental shift in attitude towards justice, healing, accountability and responsibility.

The ultimate goal of abolition is not to shut down prisons and then try to convince the R Kelly’s of the world not to rape. The end goal is to create a society in which the R Kelly’s are not taught that they can systematically abuse young girls without repercussions, and then shut down prisons because this behaviour becomes a deviation from the norm, rather than a extension of the norm, that can be dealt with inside the community.

Sexual assault: A league of its own.

Sexual assault is pervasive and it affects entire communities. When someone is sexually assaulted, it adversely impacts not just the survivors, but also their families, friends, and the larger community. Families are torn apart; cycles of abuse are created; fear, shame and regret shape a community.

Sexual assault presents a specific challenge to abolitionists. It is exactly because it’s a difficult issue – with very tangible effects on the individuals and communities involved – that it is neglected in most abolitionist initiatives and writings.[4]

But just because it’s tough, doesn’t mean we can ignore it. 

Feminists cannot rely on the criminal justice system.

For centuries, the preferred ‘solution’ for social problems has been carceral punishment – i.e. jail. Since feminists have grown up in this environment, our vision of consequences has also been narrowed to carceral feminism – i.e. believing predators should go to prison. Mainstream movements fighting against sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) – most notably #MeToo – heavily rely on the PIC as a solution. 

We chant “lock him up!” We take our abusers to court. We lobby to make new acts illegal. We set up funds for survivors to retain legal counsel. We petition to increase the punishment for existing crimes.

While this energy is good, it’s misdirected.

Simply put, feminists cannot and should not rely on the PIC. We shouldn’t seek support from the system that has perpetuated this problem for centuries. We shouldn’t ask the paradigm that oppresses marginalized groups to be a champion for marginalized groups. Violence against women is a symptom of the patriarchy and our PIC is a tool of the patriarchy. It’s therefore misguided to assume that the PIC (the patriarchy) can save us from sexual violence (the patriarchy.)

How can we expect an inherently unjust system to serve justice?

Yet, when addressing serial perpetrators like R Kelly, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, it’s hard not to revert back to old bad habits. We have worked within and along the PIC for so long, it’s understandable to rely on it. Prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba has said that when people are raised on carceral logics it is hard for them to imagine, or even desire, alternatives to incarceration. So when we are faced with a despicable person – someone who is so harmful, their acts so cruel – we are at a loss for what to do besides throwing them in a cage.

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Just today, Jacob Walter Anderson – a former Baylor fraternity president – was indicted on four counts of sex assault for raping a woman repeatedly. He received no prison time and was not placed on the sex offender registry. He only had to pay a $400 fine. Our society deemed the act to be so minor, it did not require condemnation. The woman’s self-worth and justice so minor, it was only worth $400.

My first reaction is anger. Angry that Anderson only paid a $400 fine. Angry he isn’t on the sex offender registry. Angry he is not doing any community service. Angry he is not facing any real consequences. And, I admit, I am angry he did not get any jail time. Angrier, still, when I imagine the kind of jail time a Black man would have received for the same crime.

But, that’s exactly my point. The system is racist, sexist, classist and fails to deliver justice too often. Once again, the system is not serving the victim. Once again, it protects the white man. My relationship with the criminal justice system feels a little like Stockholm syndrome – I know it’s bad, but I don’t know anything else.

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For many, our visceral reaction is “his ass should rot in jail.” I’m not sure if that’s okay, but it’s true. It’s our reality. We’ve thought this way for so long, and we can’t change our gut reaction overnight. But perhaps we can, over time, if we start to imagine new ways of achieving justice, accountability, and healing.

It’s fairly easy for me to imagine a world with almost no prisons. Prisons only for the really bad guys. But almost no prisons, would be too many prisons. But no one would agree on who the really bad guys are. And more simply, I don’t believe in locking people in cages.

If the future is feminist, we must move forward.

If we are interested in reconciling the goals of #MeToo with abolition, then we must find a way to address sexual violence from an abolitionist perspective.

How do we imagine a path to justice and healing for the R Kelly’s of the world? How can we hold them accountable for their actions without putting them behind bars? How can we heal communities and how can we deter others from this behaviour?

In the case of R Kelly himself, instead of advocating for life in prison, perhaps we require him to participate in life long therapy, to pay for the therapy of his victims, and to be banned from having any contact with minors. Perhaps we look beyond R Kelly himself and address those institutions and people who were complicit in, and who profited from, his decades of abuse. We could order his accomplices – label, agents, publicists, friends, etc. – to undergo therapy as well. We could order music streaming platforms to remove his music, and radio stations to stop playing it. We could order the agents and musicians who worked with him to relinquish their profits from those projects to the victims or designated non-profits.

These are all ways to try to address not just the individual who abused so many, but the environment that allowed it to happen. These are ways that could help to chip away at society’s racism and sexism. As hampton said, R Kelly created an “ecosystem around his predation” – through agents, producers, artists, drivers – so that he could rape young Black girls without repercussions. The perpetrator is only half the battle in the quest for justice, the other half is everyone else.

It’s broken, let’s fix it.

I don’t know what a world without prisons looks like. If I did, this essay would be a lot clearer. If I did, I’d be shouting it from the rooftops. My imagination, so far, has failed me.

But I do know that what we have isn’t working. I do know that, despite our best efforts, we don’t always capture ‘the bad guys’ and save ‘the pious victims.’ We set free the OJ’s of the world and we imprison the Cyntoia Brown’s of the world. Though statistics show that it’s predominantly white men who commit sexual assault, Black men are on the sex offender registry at twice the rate of white men.

I also know that my end goal is to live in a world where sexual violence is not a pervasive problem. We have had the PIC for centuries and it has not solved this problem. The only thing the PIC has allowed us to do is run away from the problem, rather than directly addressing it. Anytime sexual assault rears its ugly head into public spotlight, we throw the individual perpetrator in jail and sweep the larger issue under the rug.  

Jail cannot teach people how not to rape. Prisons cannot teach men to value women, nor white people to respect minorities. A jail cell cannot abolish racism or eradicate misogyny. Probation services don’t teach judges and jurors to address their unconscious biases. 

If we wait for perfection, it will never come.

Today, new outlets reported that the state of Georgia is investigating R Kelly for multiple counts of sexual assault as a result of the Surviving R Kelly docuseries. I had mixed feelings reading the articles. One the one hand, I want R Kelly to pay for what he has done and continues to do. I want him to be held accountable, and I want to be shown that society condemns this behaviour. On the other hand, I wish there was a better way for us to achieve those ends.

Perhaps, today, prison is the best place for the R Kelly’s of this world. But perhaps, one day, we will create a better system to deal with perpetrators. And perhaps, another day, we will so fundamentally change society that we won’t need to send perpetrators away at all.


[1] Marc Lamont Hill, “A World without Prisons: Teaching Confinement Literature and the Promise of Prison Abolition” (March 2013) English Journal 102(4) 19 at 19.

[2] Michael Coyle and Judah Schept, “Penal abolition and the state: colonial, racial and gender violences” (Setpember 2017) Contemporary Justice Review 20(4) 399 at 400.

[3] Marc Lamont Hill, “A World without Prisons: Teaching Confinement Literature and the Promise of Prison Abolition” (March 2013) English Journal 102(4) 19 at 19.

[4] Adina Ilea, “What About ‘the Sex Offenders’? Addressing Sexual Harm from an Abolitionist Perspective” (2018) Critical Criminology 26(1) 357.

Paula’s Top Feminist Fiction Books.

Offset, Mr. Markle, and Abuse Masquerading as Love.