Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Follow LeftTurn:

Special Offer from PM Press

Now more than ever there is a vital need for radical ideas. In the four years since its founding - and on a mere shoestring - PM Press has risen to the formidable challenge of publishing and distributing knowledge and entertainment for the struggles ahead. With over 200 releases to date, they have published an impressive and stimulating array of literature, art, music, politics, and culture.

PM Press is offering readers of Left Turn a 10% discount on every purchase. In addition, they'll donate 10% of each purchase back to Left Turn to support the crucial voices of independent journalism. Simply enter the coupon code: Left Turn when shopping online or mention it when ordering by phone or email.

Click here for their online catalog.

CR10, Strategy and Struggle to Abolish the Prison Industrial Complex: Ten Years and Counting

Isaac Ontiveros
Date Published: 
January 01, 2008

Next September marks the 10th anniversary of the first Critical Resistance conference held in Berkeley, CA, in 1998. That now-legendary conference drew thousands together—prisoners and former prisoners, families of prisoners, community organizers, legal workers, intellectuals, academics, and activists of a variety of stripes—to assess the legacy, impact, and trajectory of, as well as resistance to, the prison industrial complex (PIC). Ten years on we have seen the development—and intertwining—of a broad prison industrial complex abolitionist politic and the national grassroots PIC abolitionist organization, Critical Resistance.

Critical Resistance has been an integral force in pushing forward the idea of PIC abolition and has argued and organized around principles which call into question and move beyond mere reform of the system. Drawing on a politic that necessitates the abolition of not just the prison system but of the “industrial complex” that bolsters that system, Critical Resistance has also worked to redefine what it means to be an expert on the PIC and has struggled to move prisoners, former-prisoners, and prisoners’ family members into the forefront.

The heart of the project has been sustainable movement building. Critical Resistance co-founder and organizer, Rose Braz, states, “Fundamentally if you want to build a movement, you have to bring people together. And I think that’s one of the most significant things CR has been able to do—to bring people together who are specifically interested in building a movement to end the prison industrial complex, in building a real grassroots movement.”

The initial conference in 1998, the Critical Resistance East conference in New York City in 2001, and the Critical Resistance South conference in 2003, acted as platforms for PIC resistance organizations and the widest range of affected communities to come together, to analyze the state and efficacy of movement work previous, and to ask, “What can be done?” Critical Resistance is now in the middle of a national organizing project, CR10, that will not only celebrate ten years of the organization and ten years of struggle against the PIC, but will also provide opportunities to assess the challenges and successes of the movement while building analyses around how the PIC has adjusted in reaction to abolitionist organizing, and to ask a further question: “Where are we going?”

Working collaboratively

The CR10 project includes lead-up events in cities all over the country, the production of a variety of propaganda, engagement in dialogue and education, and an inclusive development of strategy—culminating in the 10th anniversary conference itself, September 26-28, 2008. The conference will once again bring together prisoners and all affected communities, advocates, and activists for workshops, performances, meetings, and a slew of cultural events.

CR10 organizers are using the phrase, “strategy and struggle to abolish the prison industrial complex,” on printed materials hyping the 10-year event, which have already found their way into thousands of hands across the country. The phrase is a succinct encapsulation of the work Critical Resistance has done thus far, the work yet to come, and the work going into planning the conference next fall. Indeed, one of the underlying challenges of the work is the definition of terms, and thus concepts, encouraging people to understand the nature of the beast while finding ground from which to act.

Dorsey Nunn, of All of Us or None—an organization conceived and led by formerly imprisoned people to coordinate a new civil rights movement among former prisoners, and which, incidentally, held its founding meeting during the CR South conference—marks Critical Resistance’s popularization of the term “prison industrial complex” as a victory. “They took an obscure term and introduced that into public language and public speak. So, the concept of the prison industrial complex is something that people all around the world will use freely, right now. Ten years ago, it was only used by academics.”

By understanding the prison industrial complex not singularly as prisons themselves, or even as just imprisonment, Critical Resistance has gone further to emphasize the “complex” part of the PIC, and to incorporate an analysis of policing, surveillance, capitalism, development, the state, gender oppression, counterinsurgency, to name just a few aspects. This framework has played out in Critical Resistance’s work by bringing the organization into close, collaborative contact with organizations not traditionally linked to the PIC including environmental justice organizations, teachers, health workers, farmers, immigrants’ rights organizations, child care collectives, and anti-violence organizations. These relationships are in some cases many years old, and current CR10 planning naturally draws into the assessment and strategizing the input of many other organizations.

“Critical Resistance 2008 is an opportunity to mark where we’ve been in the last 10 years and where we’re moving in the next 10 years,” says Mimi Kim of Creative Interventions and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. She sees the Critical Resistance conferences as moments of coalescence brought together by the collaborative work done in the interim between conferences:

Many of us have been working together locally and nationally [and this] gives us an opportunity to really sit down and see what we have really accomplished in terms of bringing together parts of the movement that had never been brought together before and [to see] that we’ve been able to make some accomplishments that we couldn’t have made as lone sectors in the past. It will be really important for us to be very thoughtful about what those accomplishments have been and what we need to do in the future—this conference will allow us that opportunity.

The coalition-building aspect of Critical Resistance’s work and the work that goes into building these gatherings cannot be over-emphasized by those who are doing the work and are affected by it. Linda Evans, former political prisoner and organizer with All of Us or None, participated in the first Critical Resistance conference over the phone from prison. She sees the conferences as entry-points for people, especially those most impacted by the PIC to get involved in the growth of a movement. “The challenge is to grow,” says Evans. “All of Us or None and Critical Resistance are really dedicated to building a political movement that has political power in the real world to change things.”

Evans’ words reverberate strongly how the CR10 project does its work—that work is not simply being done to plan a conference, but instead, the conference is the culmination of integrated, conscious organizing and a jumping off point for future struggle. In turn we can be encouraged to think about Critical Resistance not simply as an organization, and, in turn, to think about the conference not as simply another conference. Instead, we might be empowered to think of the work as building pieces in a movement that is fighting to win. Rose Braz sums up the importance and weight of the project: “CR10 gives people an opportunity to be part of history. Just like there were twelve people meeting in a print shop in London and 50 years later, slavery was abolished. I think that this is an opportunity to be part of something that is historic, that is unique and I hope that people will take advantage of this tremendous opportunity.”

CR10 needs input and support from a wide range of groups and individuals concerned about halting the deadly impacts of the prison industrial complex on our families and communities. We need help spreading the word about the CR10 project and conference. Holding lead up events; hosting conversations, roundtables, and film screenings about the issues; and adding information about the event to your newsletters, mailings, and on your websites are just some ways of doing that. We need help supporting people to come to the anniversary weekend (September 26-28, 2008). Starting to work on mobilizing your own communities and constituencies now will help us ensure the greatest breadth of participation. For more information about CR10 or to get involved, please get in touch: 510.444.0484 ext. 2# or cr10(at) We’ll see you next fall.

About the Author

Isaac Ontiveros is a member of the AK Press collective, volunteers with Critical Resistance, writes and edits for the Abolitionist paper, and makes video from time to time. Isaac lives and works in Oakland, California.