Prison-Industrial Complex Abolition
In a new course, Prof. Sophia Sarantakos introduces MSW students to prison-industrial complex abolition
In the syllabus for SOWK 4641, “Creating New Anchors: An Introduction to Prison-Industrial Complex Abolition,” Assistant Professor Sophia Sarantakos describes the course as a “10-week adventure” during which Sarantakos and MSW students co-create a space to “think collectively and speak boldly” about dismantling systems of settler colonialism, racial capitalism and white supremacy.
The course introduces students to the key tenets of prison-industrial complex (PIC) abolition and challenges them to identify and interrogate their own punitive mindsets, which help to sustain the legal punishment system. “We consider the ways that PIC abolition aligns with and diverges from the values and practices of professionalized social-change work and strategize about what an abolitionist praxis could and should look like,” Sarantakos explains.
For MSW student Riley McKelvy, abolitionist practice includes restorative justice and “radical empathy,” which she applies in her behavioral health policy and programming work. “I am called to humanize the patient suffering from a mental health crisis just the same as the individual who has committed a heinous act,” says McKelvy, whose concentration is in Organizational Leadership & Policy Practice (OLPP). “From the health care system to the carceral system, we cannot forget that radical empathy can and does lay the groundwork for transformative healing to occur.”
Students are asked to complete four assignments for the course: two personal reflections where they’re asked to write honestly about their learning journey in the course and with the framework, a write-up about a cultural item that exemplifies the ubiquity of the PIC (such as a true-crime podcast or a boardgame centered on warfare and colonization), and the development of a mutual aid project.
Students in the course come to understand how white professionalized social-change work has been carceral from its inception, Sarantakos says. “They’re making that connection and recognizing that one person can’t uproot the entire profession, but every single person in the profession can choose to do things differently. What if the nearly 1 million social workers in the U.S. chose, every day, to be in solidarity with people and communities and not systems and institutions?” What if, Sarantakos challenges, the focus was on supporting people instead of reporting them?
GSSW alumna Hye Min Nam, MSW ’22, says she applies these lessons to her work as a middle school social worker. After taking the abolition course, “I am now able to look at everything with a critical eye and think deeper about how it is enforcing the PIC,” she says, noting that the PIC shows up in schools, particularly through discipline practices. “I am able to meet kids where they are rather than automatic isolation or suspension as a form of discipline. I attempt to help kids understand that we live life with others … I present as someone they can trust rather than someone who is out to get them.”
An Abolitionist Classroom
Sarantakos — known as Dr. S in the classroom — developed the course while a doctoral student at the University of Chicago and brought it to the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) in 2020. The course has proved to be so popular at GSSW, Sarantakos is offering it during both fall and winter quarters this year.
Dr. S brings their abolitionist politic not only to course content but to the policies that shape the learning environment. During the first class, Sarantakos and students create their own community guidelines and articulate aspirations. Dr. S asks students what conditions are needed for them to take risks in the classroom, what they want to happen if harm occurs and what changes they want their labor to contribute to.
“This class breaks down the walls that can be found in other classes,” says OLPP student Ashley Escobar. “We are encouraged to question and reflect more deeply than I have in other courses as we strive to do social-change work. This course gives us the space to fully reflect and discuss the problems that are intertwined so deeply within our society.”
The ultimate goal of abolition, Sarantakos says, is creating a world where everyone thrives. “PIC abolition is an invitation to think bigger and bolder than those in power want us to,” Sarantakos shares in a welcome email to students. “This class isn’t about trying to turn you all into PIC abolitionists, but to expose you to a framework and practice committed to liberation and a world where all people, land, and more-than-humankind are treated as precious.”
Sarantakos says they want students to understand the abolition framework, but what students do with it is up to them. “You don’t need an MSW to be a good human being and do things in your community. Each day we can choose to behave in ways that sustain the harmful world we have or contribute to building a new one — one we all desperately need,” Dr. S says. “I hope that most of them get this by the end of the course. We can choose different every day.”
“Thinking radically about what is possible, finding hope in the people who are working for something better and in all the people who’ve come before, who’ve labored for change — that’s been my most meaningful lesson in the class,” says MSW student Shire Sheahan, whose concentration is in Mental Health. “I feel like this is what I came here to learn. I am glad I came to this school because of this class and this professor specifically. It instills me with a kind of radical hope that’s grounded in the reality of the challenges we face and also tangible.”
“Because of this class,” Sheahan says, “I know where to go to find this hope if I lose it.”