De-Twittering in an Age of Mass Incarceration and Social Unrest, Part II: From the Margins to the Mainstream

De-Twittering in an Age of Mass Incarceration and Social Unrest, Part II: From the Margins to the Mainstream
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Abolitionism, from the abolition of the police to the abolition of the prison, is generally considered a fairly radical theory. Even among critical criminologists who oppose mass incarceration, solitary confinement, or the racist nature of excessive surveillance, policing, and sentencing of black and Latino people, repeal is often seen as an extremist or unrealistic response to a broken system. For many, it’s better to identify specific ways to fix problematic aspects of the system than to want to tear the whole thing down.

For example, more mainstream criminal justice reform measures may choose to focus on helping “non-violent offenders”—such as those in prison for marijuana-related crimes (especially now that weed is legalized)—or create diversion programs, such as mental health or drug. trials for a portion of the prison population – all believing that prisons still need to exist to protect society from “dangerous” criminals. As discussed in “Abolition on Twitter Part I: What is Abolition?”, abolitionists do not limit their reform to “deserving” inmates—those deemed nonviolent or have not been convicted of a crime—nor do they believe that prisons. and prisons protect us. Jails and prisons harm individuals, families, and communities, and society would be safer for everyone if we eliminated the social conditions and criminalization practices that make incarceration possible.

Angela Davis has argued that prison abolition is not a “negative process of demolition” but rather one of “rethinking institutions, ideas and strategies and creating new institutions … that make prisons redundant”.[1] But how can this collective rethinking happen when so many people are uncomfortable even discussing the idea of ​​abolition?

in 2018 we began to notice (on our personal social media feeds) what appeared to be a radicalization of online discussions about prison reform on social media, with far-left and controversial ideas (such as abolition) being discussed more frequently. We decided to conduct a study to better understand these trends and analyzed more than 2 million tweets about criminal justice reform between 2011 and 2021. (as well as an in-depth qualitative analysis of a sample of approximately 5,000 tweets) to understand how discussions of criminal cases unfold. justice reform and abolition have evolved over time. This peer-reviewed article, “Twitter for Transformation: Prison Abolition and Criminal Justice Reform in 140 Characters,” is hot off the press. Sociological researchand can be accessed here.

We’ve seen a steady increase in mentions of criminal justice reform over the past decade, peaking in 2020 with widespread uprisings and protests against black police and vigilante violence, including the high-profile cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud. Arbery. in 2015 Criminal justice reform received fewer than 50,000 tweets in 2020. – more than 800,000. Perhaps this comes as no surprise to those familiar with the ways of the Movement for Black Lives Matter (M4BL) (commonly known as Black Lives Matter (BLM)). raised national awareness of issues of racism and how discussions of police violence and brutality cannot be divorced from the wider carceral state. Black Lives Matter places anti-Black violence in its historical and structural context as one (of many) manifestations of systemic racism and the ongoing violent oppression of Black people in the US and around the world.

What’s more surprising is how much of the prison reform debate includes prison abolition. Less than 25% of all tweets about prison reform mention abolition in 2019. in May, and in 2020 in May – more than 75%.

Abolitionists have long sought to change the way we talk about crime, punishment, and incarceration systems. Twitter is bringing these discussions into the mainstream in unexpected and powerful ways. As more and more people discuss abolition as a coherent and well-articulated alternative to oppressive penal institutions, our collective imaginations can reveal a path to a better world where prisons are not needed (of course, this path must be paved with strategic organizing and action).

It may seem unrealistic to think that America, the country with the highest per capita prison population in the world, will ever be a land without prisons. But it was once unrealistic to think that slavery, the backbone of the American economy, would be abolished. Today, many are disgusted by the legacy of slavery in America. Can we think differently about the penal system tomorrow?

[1] Davis, AY (2005). Abolishing Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons and Torture. New York: Seven Stories Press, p. 75, cited in McDowell, MG and Fernandez, LA (2018). “Dismantling, disempowering, and disarming”: Expanding the theory and practice of police abolition. Critical Criminology, 26(3), 377 p.

For more information and a complete list of references, see our open access publication at Sociological research:

Eschmann, R., Thompson, JG, & Toraif, N. (2022). Tweet Towards Transformation: Prison Abolition and Criminal Justice Reform – 140 characters. Sociological research.

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