Prison Abolition Developments in the Law 132 Harv. L. Rev. 1650

In Spite of Prison


How does a former gang-banging, gun-toting Latino serving a thirty-year prison sentence, the product of an elderly uneducated immigrant father and a drug-addicted mother, go from a prison cell to law school? It was not because of prison, but in spite of it.

* * *

“The prosecutor is offering you a plea deal of seven years in juvenile prison, and if you don’t take it, they’re going to direct file and send you to the adult side. What do you want to do?”

Seven years seemed like an eternity — half of my life at the time to be exact. I was fourteen years old. I tried to process everything.

I responded, “So I either take juvenile prison for, like, forever, or I go to the adult jail where they have honey buns and radios and where I can maybe get a bond?”

To me, the choice was obvious. I refused the so-called offer. With my stomach growling, I went back to my cell, looking forward to the honey buns that I could get in the adult jail. In retrospect, there was something seriously wrong with my fourteen-year-old, shortsighted immaturity in focusing more on honey buns than on my future. I could not appreciate the fact that the rest of my life would be marred by an adult criminal record; in fact, I couldn’t have cared less at the time. In my hood, jail was expected, almost like a rite of passage.1 However, more concerning was the fact that the law permitted prosecuting a fourteen-year-old as an adult,2 and that all the adults in the courtroom were happily complicit in doing so. Despite the fact that I was offered a juvenile plea indicating that I was still supposedly redeemable, I was quickly waved over to the adult side by laws that now rendered me an irredeemable superpredator.3

In this Essay, I will narrate experiences like these to bring readers into the lived reality of our prison system — its effects, its contradictions, and its failure to rehabilitate offenders or promote public safety. I use the terms “prison,” “prisons,” and “prison system” interchangeably in this Essay to mean the prison industrial complex, which refers to the symbiotic and reinforcing relationships among carceral institutions, private corporations, state-sanctioned violence, legalized exclusion, law enforcement workers, media narratives, technological imprisonment, politicians, and the court system.4 Therefore, when I speak of abolishing prisons, I mean contesting the relationships and psyche that create and reinforce the need for prisons and replacing them with alternatives that render prisons obsolete.5

If the first sentence of this Essay caught your attention, it is likely because it is packed with stereotypes and images that both sensationalize and dehumanize certain populations and justify prisons. The image of a “gang-banging, gun-toting Latino” may drum up enough fear to make us feel like prisons are necessary. Or the idea of uneducated and drug-addicted parents may allow us to focus on family dysfunction (or even cultural pathology6), while ignoring deeper societal dysfunctions that need correcting. Even success stories of people who thrive after prison are used to argue that prisons are not bad and are even effective. Our own amazement at those stories, however, shows that deep inside we are aware that prisons are not really expected to make people better.

This Essay deconstructs many of the stories we tell ourselves. Part I discusses the importance of having narratives and firsthand accounts in prison-abolition literature and challenges academic institutions to do their part in seeking out and equipping directly impacted individuals to produce such literature. The rest of the Essay narrates my experiences, taking the reader through aspects of the school-to-prison pipeline (Part II), the prison institution itself (Part III), and the so-called reentry process (Part IV), before concluding with the continuing effects of punishment and exclusion that endure long after the so-called debt is paid.

This Essay is not a “frontal” theoretical argument but rather an “insinuative” one allowing different audiences to extract different and even multiple meanings and applications.7 The nonabolitionist may learn how kids are tracked into prison and handicapped upon release, or how prisons are part of the problem and inherently inhumane. The directly impacted reader may be inspired with renewed motivation to keep fighting and even stirred to write about her experiences — especially those not addressed in this Essay. The abolitionist activist may derive insights on ways to combat the interconnectedness between the school-to-prison pipeline, the penal system, and the failing reentry process, while keeping in mind the real lived experience of those impacted. Some may even complain that this Essay has a reformist tone. I provide abolitionist sources to undergird my narrative; however, the narrative itself permits the reader to judge for herself what, if anything, ought to be done and how. I understand this may not be abolitionist enough for some. I also tend to focus on the treatment of prisoners and access to education within prison.8 Part of the reason for this is because after serving over a decade in prison (and having a sister who is currently in prison), I yearn to empower and alleviate the inhumane treatment of the imprisoned, even if it is within existing structures. I believe that the prison system is like a social cancer: we should fight to eradicate it but never stop treating those affected by it.

* Legislative Analyst, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC is the organization that founded the successful campaign to restore voting rights to returning citizens in Florida through Amendment 4 in 2018); J.D. Candidate 2020, University of Miami School of Law; Candidate for Membership 2019, University of Miami Law Review; B.A. 2017, University of Central Florida; A.A. 2014, Valencia Community College. I first want to thank God. My faith in God is what sustains me and fills me with a heart focused on love and paying it forward. I want to thank my father, Enrique R. Sanchez, who has been the most influential person in my life. And I want to thank the Harvard Law Review staff. They were so invaluable in the editing process. There are also a number of people whom I mention in this Essay by position or title but not by name, so I would like to recognize them here: thank you Dexis Montiel, Victor and Alex Curtiellas, Levvon, Kent Guzman, Kenya Richardson, Tullio Bushrui, Wilfredo Ortiz, Barry Edwards, Cynthia Schmidt, Maria Elena Verde, Miguel de la O, Kathleen M. Williams, Sandy Shugart, Darren Soto, Valerie Burks, Sylvester Robinson, Ms. Rodríguez, and Mr. Williams. There are two institutions I will forever thank every chance I get: Valencia Community College and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. I also want to thank all of my community college, undergraduate, and law school faculty who have empowered me, encouraged me, and advocated for me. I want to dedicate this Essay to those who have been impacted by the legal system or who have a loved one that has been impacted by the legal system. Lastly, I want to dedicate this Essay to my niece and nephews who, despite being children of an incarcerated family, are proving themselves resilient and loving. Destiny Montiel, Raynaldo McNealy, and Reynard McNealy, I love you and I am so proud of you — I am lucky to be an uncle that you look up to. I can’t wait to see you all in college someday.

  1. ^ See Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? 15 (2003).

    Return to citation ^
  2. ^ See Fla. Stat. § 985.557(1)(a) (2011).

    Return to citation ^
  3. ^ See infra section II.C, pp. 1659–62.

    Return to citation ^
  4. ^ Davis, supra note 1, at 84–88, 107.

    Return to citation ^
  5. ^ See id. at 105–15; see also Dylan Rodríguez, Abolition as Praxis of Human Being: A Foreword, in Developments in the Law — Prison Abolition, 132 Harv. L. Rev. 1575 (2019); Allegra M. McLeod, Envisioning Abolition Democracy, in Developments in the Law — Prison Abolition, 132 Harv. L. Rev. 1613 (2019); Patrisse Cullors, Abolition and Reparations: Histories of Resistance, Transformative Justice, and Accountability, in Developments in the Law — Prison Abolition, 132 Harv. L. Rev. 1684 (2019).

    Return to citation ^
  6. ^ See Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration, The Atlantic (Oct. 2015), [] (criticizing the Moynihan Report, a 1965 government report, for blaming the problems plaguing the black community on a “tangle of pathologies” instead of focusing on the “tangle of structural perils” that held the black community back).

    Return to citation ^
  7. ^ See Richard Delgado, Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative, 87 Mich. L. Rev. 2411, 2415 (1989).

    Return to citation ^
  8. ^ See Davis, supra note 1, at 108 (“Schools can . . . be seen as the most powerful alternatives to jails and prisons.”).

    Return to citation ^