A curator, educator and activist spoke about the systematic problems of the prison system and ways to reform it in a Thursday night edition of the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

Mariame Kaba has dedicated her life to ending violence, dismantling the prison industrial complex, supporting youth leadership development and transformative justice — all topics touched on in her lecture. She said she is working toward a world in which there are no prisons or any form of containment or control.

Kaba said the mass incarceration problem in the U.S. is more of a mass criminalization problem, one with traumatic and destructive effects primarily on low-income people of color. She believes prisons cannot be reformed, but instead must be abolished completely with the implementation of something brand new. 

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“I’m committed to embracing the humanity of the traumatized and the profoundly human people who I share this space with on earth,” Kaba said.

One way Kaba is changing the “punishment mindset” is through transformative justice, which she curates through Project NIA, an organization she founded and currently directs. 

Transformative justice focuses on responding to harm and healing it, unlike the criminal justice system, which attempts to prevent harm altogether, Kaba explained.

“A key part of transformative justice for me is healing work,” Kaba said. “Making sure to tend to the wounds caused by oppression. It’s a framework and a way of thinking about things in the world that takes trauma seriously.”

Kaba encouraged people to think about what actually generates safety in communities, instead of accepting the narrative that prisons keep communities safe.

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Recognizing the interconnectedness of social issues like housing, immigration, mental health care, education and jobs is important, Kaba said.

“It isn’t just about the prisons,” Kaba said. “It’s about all of the institutions that people need that will allow us to create the conditions where people will no longer feel like the incarcerating institutions are necessary.”

Kaba explained ways people can dismantle the industrial prison complex on a day-to-day basis — and make long-term impacts.

Coming up with alternatives to calling the police, especially in mental health crises and reducing the level of surveillance and police from schools were some of the steps she discussed for dismantling the prison system.

“I always cling to the idea that transformation is possible,” Kaba said. “I believe that structural change is possible. I believe that we can uproot oppression. It’s why I do the work that I do even though sometimes I get tired, and surely you do too.”