Stepping Out of the Shadows into the Light: Standing for Transformative Justice, Abolition, and Reform

Star light, star bright,

First star I see tonight,

I wish I may, I wish I might,

Have this wish I wish tonight…

To see an end to this emotional plight

To find these carceral cages gone tonight.


Years ago, activist and former Black Panther Miss Angela Davis once said:


Earlier this month on April 13th and April 14th, Princeton University’s student organization Students for Prison and Education Reform (SPEAR) in collaboration with their Office of Religious Life held their fifth annual conference, Shadows of the Prison. During these two days, speakers from across the country came to discuss with us both the highly visible and more so “hidden” impacts of mass incarceration, parole and probation, and policing. Often our discussions around mass incarceration prioritize popular statistics and center partial narratives of a specific population: Black and brown men. Yes, based on the 2010 census, Black and Latino men are incarcerated at rates higher than white men even though they constitute less than 30% of the U.S. population collectively. However, constructing our understandings of mass incarceration based on the narratives of these two populations, erases the identities of the more than 2.3 million individuals who are physically being held in prisons, jails, and other confinement centers, and it also erases the narratives of the millions who are under state supervision (i.e. under probation or parole). As referenced by the quote from Davis earlier in this piece, the U.S.’s carceral state polices the country’s most vulnerable populations based on identities and abilities. Our limited and racialized definitions of ability and disability have privileged specific perceptions of what can be considered normal, and who is worthy of care, compassion, and aid. As human beings, we are all subjected to specific dependencies and states of vulnerability, however, as stated by young Ki’tay D. Davidson, “non-disabled people have had their dependencies normalized,” and because of this, both our social and medical models of disability leave so many populations stripped of basic human rights. We see an example of this less than 15 minutes from Swarthmore’s campus.

For years, the borough of Swarthmore and Swarthmore College have had a relationship with the neighboring city of Chester. Home to a predominately Black and low-income population, the community of Chester has long experienced a systemic erasure of its residents through incarceration at the Chester State Correctional Institution, exposure to toxic waste from the city’s waste treatment facilities, and high rates of poverty and unemployment due to disinvestment and deindustrialization after World War II. Over the years, the institution of Swarthmore and groups of Swarthmore students have conducted a number of initiatives and interventions in an effort to aid the Chester community. However, despite the good intentions of these interventions, little long-lasting change in the material conditions of Chester prove evident. And these changes will remain miniscule until we push for a systemic change in the way resources and aid are allocated, the way we respond to communities plagued by violence, and the way we approach the preservation of basic human rights for all people.

Taking into account the U.S.’s history as a nation built upon the backs of enslaved Black and brown bodies and poor people, and the long lasting systemic oppression of these peoples, we must understand violence as a learned behavior that often manifests in large scale ways because of an accumulation of certain pressures that strip people of their agency and humanity (i.e. for instance the race riots of the 1990s). With this in mind, we should wonder what it would mean to envision violence as a disease caused by severe exposure to trauma? As a natural response to injustice? And how power works to maintain itself at the expense of humanity and mental health? Can we come to an understanding that incidents of police brutality cannot exist when policing itself is inherently violent? That policing and prisons would not need to exist in world where we allocated resources to fund systems of true community control and the de-stigmatization of mental health care and treatment?

If this is a world you can invision, than you are a STAR student: a student for transformative justice, abolition, and reform. There are already many of us doing this work off-campus and taking Inside-Out courses, but we need a space to be in community with each other and talk about the nature of this work. We have to examine the ways in which we are complicit on campus and create a base from which we can work for positive change. We are always stronger together.

If you see your purpose in life as working alongside and under community leaders and activists to fight against systems of oppression, such as the prison industrial complex, then please join Lelosa Aimufua ‘20, Coleman Powell ‘20, and Taylor Tucker ‘20 as we work to establish Students for Transformative Justice, Abolition, and Reform (STAR) throughout next semester. On May 11th, we will be holding a documentary screening as our first step to collectively learning about the visible and shadowed effects of the prison industrial complex and the populations who are most susceptible to the violence embedded within this system. If you want to organize with us around issues of mass incarceration contact us at

In the meantime, please consider donating as much as you can to one of the several bailouts that are occurring before Mother’s Day to help moms and motherly figures get back to their communities and families by May 13th.