Why I am an abolitionist

Speech for the Infrastructural Inequalities panel: Critiquing the Carceral State, Organising Abolitionist Futures of 14 May 2021


Ngata, my name is Tabitha or as my ancestors know me, Budhin Mingaan.

I am a Gunditjmara woman, born and raised on Kaurna yerta. I speak today from the unceded lands of the Kaurna people and I pay my respects to their Elders and thank the Kaurna people for their ongoing custodianship of this country.

Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

I would like to also acknowledge any sovereign lands that you stand on today, as well as fellow Indigenous people among our readers.

I would especially like to pay my respects to my brothers, sisters and kin who are currently sitting in cages on their own country – my brothers, sisters and kin who are currently enduring carceral violence, torture and for many of our sisters and children, sexual violence sanctioned by the state. It is for them that I raise my lived experience voice.

A special note for fellow Indigenous people: this speech will contain the names of those who are deceased.

I am a criminalised Blak woman, having spent two years in prison and an accumulative two years on home detention. I am still tethered to the system, on parole or – as I like to call it –open air prison. I am #177057. I’ve made mistakes in my past, and some of them were despicable. My face was splashed across the television and newspapers. My life became a magazine anyone could thumb through. The reason I am telling you this is not to offer myself up for your judgement, but because I know how people like their information packaged in bundles of objectivity. But that is not what today will be.

Many of you know that I am an abolitionist: a staunch and unwavering and unapologetic abolitionist. But today I want to use my experiences to tell you why I am an abolitionist. Why I think abolition is the most common-sense idea, and why abolition is the only way I think any of us Blak fullas can survive this colony.

When I went to prison, I thought it was the very worst day of my life – in fact, I thought it was the end of my life. Going to prison is like descending into the depths of hell. Every person in a blue uniform is like the foot soldiers of the devil himself. And in some ways, it was the end of my life. That life. Because walking through those prison gates forever altered my dialogical relationship with the state – and frankly, also with the broader community. Add to that, I was torn away from my children, my family, and I was taken to the Adelaide Women’s Prison to sit in a cage. I cried for the entire first ten months – silently in my cell and silently in the showers – because god forbid you show weakness to anyone in that place, or any sign of mental distress, or you’ll get thrown in a hard cell. For those long ten months, I barely left my cell, only to venture out occasionally to play Uno with someone who would smile back when you glanced their way.

I mourned my life, my kids, my liberty and I was scared. I was so scared that when I arrived at prison and they asked me ‘are you Aboriginal?’ I hesitated.

Now, that is a very shameful thing for me to admit, and frankly I think it is the first time I have said these words out loud to another soul. Please know that I understand how much privilege I am dripping in when I tell you these things, because I could pass – I mean, my fair skin means I could likely pass for white. And for me, white skin equaled safety in prison.  

So, I said, with hesitation and a nervous stutter, ‘I don’t want to tell you’. With their unsmiling eyes, scowled mouth, and angry eyebrows, they looked down at their paperwork, back at me, back to their paperwork (which by the way is always in some manila folder as if you have had a casefile with the state your whole life), they looked me in the eyes and said: ‘well the system says you are Aboriginal, you don’t want to start your prison life with a lie.’

I paused … and all I could hear was ringing in my ears and the words prison and life dancing around in my brain, because those two words seemed an oxy moron to me … life, in prison, life ….

I say that because for so many of my people, and for my community, prison literally sucks the life out of us, it extinguishes life giving oxygen from our lungs, it consumes our communities, our families, our brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles. And god, I was scared. Not just scared of the prison environment, and the people in there. I was scared that I would be killed. Not by fellow prisoners, but by those in the blue shirts.

Even today, that fear has not dissipated, I just learnt to live with the fear. I learnt to live with the constant anxiety and panic; and I exist in this hyper aware state constantly scanning for threat. I live with that fear and the ongoing onslaught of sexual violence and abuse at the hands of the state – in fact I present for my fortnightly dose of state violence every fortnight. Every single one of us caught in the carceral net exists in this state of constant surveillance and hypervigilance while carrying and the shame of constantly being seen.

So, I endured, and I survived. I survived two years inside and I got out of prison onto home detention. It was tough, but again I survived, and now I am on parole and again I am just trying to survive – I don’t even think I have gotten to the living bit yet, because it seems that the devil’s playground exists above ground too, an open-air prison, with no barbed wire, except that which binds your heart and spirit.

But the thing is that with my survival, comes a responsibility. A responsibility to mob still sitting in cages. Hence my work on abolition. Because the thing about prisons and punishment is that it is relentless. It’s why those of us in the system talk about perpetual punishment. It NEVER ENDS.

Just this week I was maneuvered into a position where I had to resign from my casual position at a university. This has come about because some people won’t ever let you forget who you were in a very small moment of time. Some people want to drag you back to the past and force you to stay there. And that’s the thing about perpetual punishment. This is how the system is constructed.

In my case. it is to cast me as a savage yet to be tamed, and sadly some members of the broader community become the vigilante enforcers of this regime. They take on the surveillance of the state and become judge, jury, and executioner, because they have internalised this pull to vengeance, and I’m not even sure that they realise that this pull to vengeance is an impulse of the state. They have swallowed the carceral Kool Aid and become unofficial agents of the state. Mark my words: the state relies on this.

The thing about having a record is that we can’t complain, and we can’t get angry: we have to remain silent, contrite and quiet. We can’t make waves, we can’t fight back, we can’t ever mutter the words, ‘this isn’t fair, you are victimising me’. And that’s because the system is stacked against us.

It doesn’t matter how good I am, how ‘reformed’ I am, how much effort I put in, how many times I reinvent myself, I will always be a criminal, an ex-con (if I’m lucky). My existence in some spaces will always be a problem. Now this isn’t some ‘woe is me’. I am aware of my debt to the state and to the community. But I guess what I am asking is if you’re happy that this kind of justice is meted out in your name.

Because let me tell you that everything that has happened to me, and continues to happen to me, is happening for you. This system is designed to keep people like you safe from people like me. So let me ask you, when do you think my debt to society is considered paid? When should I be free? When I came out of jail? When I finish parole? Is it in ten years’ time, when I’m still rejected from workplaces because I can’t get a police clearance? Will it be when I’m eighty years old, and have lived seventy-eight good years to my two bad ones? Or is it only when I finally die?  

And die we do. Our people are being killed by this system – whether its behind bars, in the backs of correctional services vans like brother Fella Morrison, in police cells like Ms Dhu, in the streets like too many of our kids, or in our bedrooms like brother Kumanjayi Walker. We are killed.

We do not ‘die in custody’.

We are killed.

We are killed by the state.

We are systematically broken down to a six-digit number. I know because I am #177057. I am one of this country’s disposable people. And every single week I struggle to survive a system designed to kill, dehumanise and eradicate my kind. And this is why abolition is the only common-sense option for me. This is why I argue that abolition might be the only thing that breathes life back into my communities and into the lungs of my people.

Abolition for me is crucial and is urgent, so damned urgent. It isn’t a catch phrase for me, nor is it a whim, or a slogan for a sticker on my laptop, or a word blazoned across my t-shirt. My people cannot wait for the rest of so-called Australia to see the value in abolishing systems that suck the very life from our communities. We can’t wait until your social media profiles fill up with Black squares or another life is taken on international soils for you to care about the lives of our mob here in this country.

We must start to imagine different kinds of justice. A justice free of prisons, policing and surveillance. This is an opportunity to imagine a future free of punishment, imprisonment and exile. And you know, abolition may sound like a radical new idea, but people have been working toward it for decades. Certainly, Aboriginal people have been fighting against the enslaving and incarcerating of our people for 233 years.

Safety (individual or community safety) cannot come without freedom and justice because who we are and what we are comes from the alchemy of our struggles. If we dismantle systems that cage and punish, we can explicitly fight genocide and dispossession and create a world focused on radical reciprocity and accountability.

Abolition allows us to dislodge the logic of imprisonment. If you are banging on about decolonisation in your workplaces, pedagogies, classrooms, policies, organisations and articles and you aren’t an abolitionist then you are NOT decolonising. If you are judging people and exiling people and punishing people, then you ARE an agent of the carceral state. Because abolition absolutely requires us to all disentangle ourselves from the pull to vengeance, the pull to retribution and revenge, the pull to punishment, the pull to surveillance, the pull to act like a cop – and yes, that even means the little cop in your head.

For me, abolition is not just about getting rid of cages, it’s about actually undoing the parts of society that continue to feed on and maintain the oppression of masses of people, mainly my people, through punishment, violence, and control. Because the prison-industrial complex isn’t an isolated system, so abolition must be a broad strategy. And so, I’m interested in building models today that develop and represent how we want to live in the future. I see abolition as both a practical organising tool and a long-term goal.

Now, to end up my part of the yarn, I think I want to issue a call to action: right now, my friend and kin, Latoya and their family are sitting in the supreme court of South Australia fighting for answers, truth and justice for their brother Wayne Fella Morrison who was killed in the back of a correctional services van at Yatala Labour Prison. Not only are they fighting for their brother, but for every single Blak person who has been in jail, is in jail or will go to jail. Please get behind them. Sign their petition to ban the use of spit hoods, and please put your money were your decolonial or abolition mouth is and donate to their GoFundMe. Because that family, like all the families who have had people taken from them by this system (your system) are on the front lines. They are battling a system designed to shield itself and protect its own kind, but they turn up every single day. Every single damned day to hear things that no family member should ever have to hear or bear witness to the grossest acts of conspiracy and silence.

So people, I look at it this way, we have to wage war against the system, and all that is left to do, is for you to decide which side you are on, and if you want to breathe life back into people, into communities, into this world, if you want to prioritise healing over harm, abundance over scarcity, love over hate, life over death, then roll your sleeves up and get to work.


Image by engin akyurt


Tabitha Lean

Tabitha Lean is a Gunditjmara woman, born and raised on Kaurna yerta. A story teller, poet, artist and abolition activist, she is blessed to have her mother's stories and the blood of all the women before her coursing through her veins. It is in their honour, that she centres their unique knowledges, and privileges their voice in all her work. You can find her writings at The Revolution Ware. Twitter: @haveachattabs.

More by Tabitha Lean ›

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  1. Peace be with you Tabitha.
    Under a privatised prison system, abolition seems a distant dream.
    Governments are loath to interfere with corporate profits.
    Good luck in your efforts.

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