Incarceration, Abolition, and Liberating the Food System | Civil Eats

Incarceration, Abolition, and Liberating the Food System

Six food and agriculture organizers discuss the role of resistance, healing, and community in their work.

hands breaking free of chains in an illustration of liberation

Last summer, I published an opinion piece in Civil Eats with Randolph Carr, a field organizer for the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, in which we began to articulate a connection between plantations, prisons, and the contemporary food system. Partly motivated by protests and uprisings happening in every state in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we saw an opportunity to connect calls for police and prison abolition to the work we do in food. After all, the United States has a long history of using enslaved and incarcerated labor to produce food.

Carr and I were interested in asking: What does an abolitionist approach to food systems change sound and look like? That op-ed followed only one line of thinking, but for many others across the food system, applying abolitionist politics to the food world is a welcome challenge and necessary endeavor for thinking more holistically about what we’re transforming and how we should go about doing it.

For this conversation, I invited five inspiring people to talk with me about food in far more expansive ways than its biological function. Beatriz Beckford is an artist, educator, and strategist with over 20 years experience in community organizing. Kanav Kathuria is a co-founder and collective member of the Maryland Food and Prison Abolition Project. Navina Khanna is executive director of the HEAL Food Alliance. Joshua Sbicca is associate professor of sociology and director of the Prison Agriculture Lab at Colorado State University. And Randolph Carr joined us in this conversation.

From interrogating how policing functions to how people’s consumption is surveilled to what having incarcerated loved ones teaches us about redefining relationships, we reflected on what carcerality and abolition teach us about how to liberate the food system and ourselves.

What brought you to thinking about carcerality, abolition, and food?

Kanav Kathuria.

Kanav Kathuria.

Kanav Kathuria: The Maryland Food and Prison Abolition Project is a Baltimore-based collective working to change food conditions in prisons, really to explore the use of food as a tool of resistance. We recently published our capstone report on the Maryland Correctional food system, speaking to how food on the inside is a form of control, violence, punishment, a source of profit for private food service corporations, and ultimately a means of premature death with impacts that last long after folks are released. And then we also speak to the intersections between food apartheid in Baltimore, and neighborhoods with high rates of incarceration. Ultimately, our work is centered around positioning food sovereignty as an abolitionist project.

Navina Khanna.

Navina Khanna.

Navina Khanna: Health, Environment, Agriculture and Labor (HEAL) Food Alliance is an alliance of about 35 organizations that are working together to transform food and farm systems. What that really means is working towards our collective liberation. Food systems and the prison industrial complex intersect in a lot of ways. But the fundamental place we’re coming from is that our work for transformation and collective liberation is about reclaiming right relationships between people, and between us and the planet. [We look at] the prison industrial complex, incarceration, and criminalization of people who work in food and agriculture, and all of that is tied to the dehumanization of ourselves, of people, of communities.

joshua sbicca

Joshua Sbicca.

Joshua Sbicca: I come into this work from my work with Planting Justice, where I was a founding board member who served from 2009 to 2014. Planting Justice, like other similar organizations, was connecting economic, racial, food, and restorative justice frameworks, and mutual aid work alongside formerly incarcerated people to things like urban food system development and organizing. And this work started to get me to think about some connections between food and the prison industrial complex, and specifically how people were intervening in mass incarceration.

It led me to ask more critical questions. For instance: What if agriculture in prisons is actually a much more oppressive practice and institution [than people realize]? About two years ago, I started the Prison Agriculture Lab alongside Carrie Chennault, who is the co-director. This is a collaborative space for inquiry and action that focuses on agricultural practices within the criminal punishment system. Our research and advocacy focus on place, power, inequality, and resistance. We’re working to build out a map of U.S. prisons that have agricultural practices, as well as begin to tell a more critical story about what agriculture looks like in prisons and how it can be used as a site for imagining abolition and food justice.

When you say carcerality in your work, what are you referring to?

Sbicca: I see carcerality as both a material system and an ideology of social control. And so, while carcerality obviously operates through prisons and policing, it’s also operating through discipline and surveillance specifically aimed at racialized, classed, and gendered groups. It’s sort of this endemic part of the criminal punishment system, but it can take place all over, including in food systems. And it generally shores up profit and power over people.

Randolph Carr.

Randolph Carr.

Randolph Carr: For me, it’s a response to people and ideas that are considered excess—[people] who we don’t have actual responses to, who we don’t actually have the care for, the love for. Our response is to cage them, to hold them, and like Josh said, to control them. I’m [interested in] talking about the lived reality of carcerality. The actual, everyday realities of it. But I do think it is important that we’re precise in terms of defining things.

Kathuria: I completely agree with both Joshua’s and Randolph’s framing. The only thing I would add is Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s framing of carceral geographies, tying it to place as well as to a global scale. Beyond just the physical institutions, [I’m interested in] looking at spaces of unfreedom in whatever shape or form they take across the world. I think of carcerality as an imperial and neocolonial project.

Khanna: I really see it as a culture of fear that we live in together. The idea of private property ownership [is central], and we’re not living in a culture of care where we are making sure that everybody’s needs are met, and everyone is nourished in different ways. Instead, there’s some material thing to be protected over the lives of humans and our planet.

Beatriz Beckford.

Beatriz Beckford.

Beatriz Beckford: The only thing I would add is we’re responding to the ways in which white supremacy [sends] tentacles into our lives and seeks to subjugate our bodies, particularly Black bodies. Carcerality is a tentacle of white supremacy that seeks to subjugate and subaltern Black people. Whether within the food system or outside of it, we are seeking to create the beloved [community], to create the type of world and societies where [no] Black bodies, no bodies, are disposable or rendered subaltern. We are resisting carcerality, and we’re resisting white supremacy. The two are intertwined and deeply entangled.

How did you come to abolition as a way of thinking through your work with food?

Carr: A big part of how I understand that world is it’s where I grew up. I come from a family where my cousins’ [father] and my sister’s father were locked up when I was born. My father was locked up when I was five and remains locked up. And so when we talk about abolition, it’s first from a place of intimacy; the people I know and love the most have experienced for most of their lives or throughout their lives, some form of incarceration. A number of people in my family have also been deported. My most intimate moments, my upbringing, was defined by different aspects of the carceral system—prisons, policing, surveillance.

I gained a more precise understanding of how power works through my organizing, and through a series of happy accidents. In 2010, during my first year in college, I met a woman, Susan Burton, who was from my hometown, Los Angeles. And she started A New Way of Life Reentry, an organization around women in [the] Watts [neighbornood]. She was also part of a broader, California-based coalition of formerly incarcerated people, All of Us or None. She gave me a book called The New Jim Crow. From there, I started running with it.

I joined student organizations that were challenging the presence of police on campus, and that grew into a deeper understanding of how police show up in communities. I met Jalal Sabur, who was bringing some surplus vegetables to Cop Watch meetings from Victory Bus Project [which brought children to see their parents in prison and fed them at the same time]. He asked me: “You know what you’re fighting against, but do you know what you’re fighting for?” And he introduced me to a world of farmers, to this conference called Black Farmers and Urban Growers. That’s where I met Beatriz. He connected me to good people upstate, and I ran into the National Black Food and Justice Alliance.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

Kathuria: I came to abolition as a form of uncovering or reclaiming imagination in a sense. I was searching for answers. I grew up in India, the grandson of migrants [who left] around the time of the partition of Pakistan and India. And [I grew up] with the understanding that prisons, policing, and courts have never been the answer. It was just so blatantly visible all around us there. In coming [to the U.S.], especially to Baltimore, I found that for the answers I was seeking and the types of worlds I was looking to create, revolutionary abolitionist language really led the way. I found light in it. I found hope. I found parts of myself that I had been suppressing for a long time, as a lot of immigrants are taught to do in this country.

“I grew up with the understanding that prisons, policing, and courts have never been the answer. In coming to the U.S., especially to Baltimore, I found that for the answers I was seeking and the types of worlds I was looking to create, revolutionary abolitionist language really led the way.”

Beckford: I grew up first-generation with parents who immigrated here from the Caribbean, and from the minute they landed on this land, they were criminalized. I watched uncles, my father, parents, people who were caregivers, whisked away into prisons and jails. When I became a teenager, I experienced a sexual assault during a “routine traffic stop” by a police officer. And so being able to position a body of work and a range of relationships, kinship bonds, was ultimately my way to heal.

There are a whole host of ways in which we can define abolition, but ultimately, it is the deconstruction of those systems by way of our relationships, by way of building the beloved. And we do that by building deep, deep bonds with each other through our personal narratives and stories. We’re always going to be in tension with the state. We’re always going to be fighting for the abolition of [carceral] systems, and the harms that are evoked in us by the state. But we do that by way of relationships.

And so carcerality has also ultimately been the way in which I have sought healing. And I come in as an organizer who believes that those loved ones who have been affected are best positioned to come up with the solutions and strategies to evoke change. And anybody else in the conversation is there to support and should not be leading.

Khanna: Like Kanav, I grew up in the U.S. and in India, and really started my adulthood in the U.S. right around September 11th. It’s always been so clear that the systems were not designed for Black or brown people. I started seeing people who look like me, my family members, surveilled and stopped all the time while traveling. And then, of course, I met and fell in love with folks who had had family members incarcerated, or who had been incarcerated, or who were undocumented and living in fear because of the formation of ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], which came very shortly after 9/11.

Abolition as a framework is a newer articulation for me. But it has always been clear that the system throws people away and has always worked against us and our people. The only way to the other side of that is by destroying this entire system and building something new.

What Beatriz was saying around these kinship connections and relations has me thinking a lot about abolition as a politics of scale. At what scales do we practice abolition? We talk about the destruction of these harmful systems [at a large scale], which I think is really important, but, what does your daily abolition practice look like?

Beckford: You’re absolutely right. So much of abolitionists’ conversations are system-wide. But the practices are actually more ritualistic, more ancestral. My abuelita, while on food stamps—despite having sons and daughters ripped from her and pushed into the prison system—always maintained her rose bushes. And she built her own grape arbor because she wanted to make her own wine—bottles of cojito—every holiday. And my grandmother, on my Jamaican side, always started seedlings and gave them to her children to have in the homes—everything from Scotch bonnets, to callaloo grown in the projects of Brownsville. And my dad, who has been clean and sober for 11 years now, moved back to Jamaica to farm as a way of continuing the legacy of my grandparents.

I think about it in relation to the way that I raise my children, and the way that I build chosen family. And the decisions that I make around where I shop and how I support my kin when they need me. Those are the ways we embody abolition in our everyday lives. And I think it is about really sitting with the materiality of the things that intersect in our lives. And how just by interrogating those things, we are pushing against harmful systems broadly, even beyond the food system.

“I think about abolition in relation to the way that I raise my children, and the way that I build chosen family. And the decisions that I make around where I shop and how I support my kin when they need me. Those are the ways we embody abolition in our everyday lives.”

Carr: I’m thinking about my own position as a man and about carcerality as not just a system of white supremacy and capitalism, but patriarchy, too. [This is] one of the spaces of conflict that I’ve been called into several times, to support other men who are [working through] patriarchy. The best way to call someone in—and not call them out—is to share a meal. And to bring up the most harsh but loving criticism while handing them a plate, by taking care of them, by showing part of what it means to be in community.

For me, [abolition is] really about Black folks fighting for our freedoms in the context of the U.S. That is the how that philosophy emerges—from enslaved Africans. And recognizing the ways they built intimacy, bonds, relationships, and care, but also the way they turned that indignation into something consequential.

Sbicca: I’ve been thinking a lot about my practice in the context of the university system. Universities are deeply entangled in the prison industrial complex, in militarism, in white supremacy, in many of the oppressions that we’ve been identifying.

“If we can’t change the places where we work, it’s going to be really difficult to change these other practices.”

On a practical level, universities have investments in so many carceral practices and institutions, and they support carceral systems through their purchasing practices. If we take food, I’ve been living in Florida for the past year [during sabbatical], and I’ve been supporting some of the work of a group of college students and community members working to get the University of Florida to change their purchasing practices away from corporations and companies that contribute to the prison system, either in using labor or selling food to prisons.

I have the mindset if we can’t change the places where we work, it’s going to be really difficult to change these other practices. I’m inspired by the work of folks doing Cops Off Campus. I think this is a great example of how people are seeing how carcerality functions to police places of learning, and how that gets in the way of actually learning.

What piece of advice or encouragement would you give to someone who is trying to connect abolition to food?

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

Khanna: I loved the last question, so I will answer both. It made me think of that beautiful quote from Camus: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of liberation.” And I was thinking about the places where I find the most freedom.

One of them is being in the space where we are constantly willing to learn and be in authentic conversation with each other. To learn the ways that our minds have been colonized. To unlearn that, and to root into how we are in active practice with each other in our workplaces. How are we in active practice with each other in our families around what you called the cops in their minds, right? How do we just break that up? It’s one piece of it.

A part of that is always recognizing where I have power to confront something. And being willing to be a part of nonviolent direct action that confronts systems as they are and use the position and privilege I have to take risks that a lot of other folks can’t take.

“Find community and others who wish to organize, who want to make change and make solutions. There’s always a solution or alternative to combat the prevailing ideology, which is that there is no alternative.”

Carr: A bit of advice is to find community and others who wish to organize, who want to make change and make solutions. There’s always a solution or alternative to combat the prevailing ideology, which is that there is no alternative. And if we find the parallels [across history and experience], we can build alternatives. Keep loving, keep living.

Beckford: There’s something about doing your work, right? Doing the work on yourself, and not in the traditional sense. Yes, go and get therapy, talk to your people, and do the lineage stuff, but also [do] the work of giving yourself permission to be fully in this work. To be wayward, to embody fugitivity.

And so I would suggest people do that in creating spaciousness for yourself to do what Randolph just lifted up so beautifully—the right to live, to love, to connect, to research, to search, with a sort of fanaticism. We always come out different on the other side. And the movements we touch, the lives we connect with, always come out different on the other side.

Kathuria: I’m really grateful for these answers. In thinking of practice, and in thinking of, as Joy James puts it, abolition as a plurality, one form comes through restorative practices and restorative justice, and [thinking about] what it really means to address all relationships in life—including our relationships with ourselves—from a restorative mindset, especially in conflict.

I’m also thinking of abolition as a creative practice. Capitalism has divorced and alienated us from our own creativity, capabilities, and relationships to food and land. And creative forms include grounding, returning home to the self. I’ve been lighting palo santo this whole time. And that, to me, is a way of coming home to the self and being rooted.

But also the act of growing food. Capitalism has divorced us from producing our means of sustenance. What does that look like? For that I give thanks to Black Yield Institute in Baltimore. Another hopeful practice rooted to food is cooking for my mother, who has a lot of health-related issues that are rooted in colonialism, in her journey to the U.S. as an immigrant. It is not an uncommon phenomenon for South Asian women over a certain age. For me, as folks have already lifted up, abolition is a practice that is rooted in love in all of its forms.

Sbicca: The only thing that I would add is to remain hopeful. One thing that I’ve learned from Mariame Kaba, for example, is that hope is a discipline and it requires energy and effort to remain hopeful in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I have two young children, and I cook breakfast every morning for them, and lots of dinners. It’s become a space to start having conversations about the complexities of the world and the things that they’re experiencing and learning or mis-learning. I’ve been seeing that as a space to give in to love. It’s this idea of growing where you’re planted. So find those spaces where you’re embedded and can enact abolitionist nows and abolitionist futures.

Reese: I would give someone the advice to sit with the contradictions of the world that we want versus the world that we have. That space between those—that’s where the process is. But until we get there—and we might not ever see it in our lifetimes—we just have to embrace the contradictions.

Thanks, y’all. This was fun.

Ashanté M. Reese is a member of Civil Eats' Advisory Board. She is an Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Reese works at the intersection of critical food studies and Black geographies, examining the ways Black people produce and navigate food-related spaces. Animated by the question, who and what survives, Reese’s work has focused on the everyday strategies Black people employ while navigating inequity. Her first book, Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C., takes up these themes through an ethnographic exploration of antiblackness and food access. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

More from

Food Justice


hickens gather around a feeder at a farm on August 9, 2014 in Osage, Iowa. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

What Happened to Antibiotic-Free Chicken?

With the biggest poultry company in the country backtracking and other commitments to raising healthier birds unmet, the future is rockier than it once seemed.


Nik Sharma Offers His Top Tips for Home Cooks to Fight Recipe Fatigue

Nik Sharma baking at left, and tossing a chickpea dish at right. (Photo credit: Nik Sharma)

Far From Home, the Curry Leaf Tree Thrives

Zee Lilani of Kula Nursery stands among her curry leaf tree starts in Oakland, California. (Photo credit: Melati Citrawireja)

A Guide to Climate-Conscious Grocery Shopping

Changing How We Farm Might Protect Wild Mammals—and Fight Climate Change

A red fox in a Connecticut farm field. (Photo credit: Robert Winkler, Getty Images)