“The only way that we are going to get people to have a decent, equitable future is to completely re-envision this entire rubric that is suffocating and killing our people,” says lawyer Noelle Hanrahan.
More than 30 years ago, Noelle Hanrahan launched a journalism project called Prison Radio built on a simple idea: Give incarcerated people a media platform to tell their own stories.
Hanrahan, who made a name for herself producing radio commentaries by the well-known political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, told Stanford Magazine in 2001, “Given the corruption, I am not sure it would even be possible for [Abu-Jamal] to receive a fair trial now. But I have to believe in the justice system.”
Her views have since evolved, influenced by the abolitionist views of thinkers like Angela Davis and Ruthie Wilson Gilmore.
In 2020, Hanrahan, who already had a master’s degree in criminal justice from Boston University, went on to obtain her J.D. from Rutgers Law School so she could legally advocate for the freedom of the incarcerated people whose voices she helped to proliferate through Prison Radio.
In a wide-ranging conversation with YES! Racial Justice Editor Sonali Kolhatkar, Hanrahan spelled out why she no longer trusts the justice system and the courts to deliver impartial decisions, and how the resources that prop those systems up need to be reallocated directly toward people’s needs.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Sonali Kolhatkar: So you’ve had a front-row seat for decades to how the criminal justice system, and particularly the courts, operate. Can you lay out for me how badly broken our legal system is, from the perspective of minimizing harm to individuals and communities? It’s supposed to be the place that justice gets decided and meted out, but is it really?
Noelle Hanrahan: I think what we’re all really trying to come to terms with is [that] the system is designed to function exactly as it was planned. It is notbroken. It is doing a service for the ruling class, the capitalist class, those who want to manage people who are demanding food, work, and bread, and humanity. So, I think it’s working exactly as it was intended. It’s not broken.
I think that we have suffered, in particular, in [the] number of decades that we’ve all been alive, [and] our children are currently suffering from an escalation of the tactic of incarceration. The response to people’s demands for liberation was to criminalize and to incarcerate.
I learned a lot from reading a number of different people, including Mike Davis and Ruthie Gilmore, about how class interests are being served by managing people who deserve work and deserve health care and deserve humanity. And so, I think that is the response: It’s working exactly as it was planned.
Kolhatkar: When discussing abolition, it’s sometimes spoken about in terms of ending policing, sometimes in terms of ending prisons, and occasionally in terms of ending the entire criminal justice legal system as we know it. Where do you fall on the issue of abolition?
Hanrahan: It’s been an evolution, but I am firmly, a thousand percent, an abolitionist: to defund the police and to completely transform the criminal justice system, including the courts, [at every] level.
I think every morning when I get up in the morning, I think, What’s the Jenga piece that can come out from the bottom of the puzzle? Because it’s the whole system that’s corrupt, that’s trying to reproduce itself. It’s like cancer. The criminal justice system is criminogenic: It creates crime.
A number of years ago I went to get my master’s in criminal justice because I wanted to understand the boiling pot of water that we were in. It was in the last 40 [years that] we’ve had an immensely larger growth of mass incarceration, and we were in the middle of it. And so I was studying with a lot of cops and a lot of guards who were calling in or Zooming in from Bagram Air Force Base. And they were thinking people—they probably also wanted the pay bump for getting a master’s—but people thinking about this system, [one that] creates crime in and of itself.
I was trying to get this master’s program to look at any other country, any other country—no one else on earth does this. They do not control their population through mass incarceration. And we couldn’t; we weren’t studying anything outside of the U.S. As Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said, they were “tinkering with the machinery of death.” And so, you can’t tinker with the system. It has to be completely overhauled.
And it’s a public health crisis. I mean, the only way that we are going to get people to have a decent, equitable future is to completely reenvision this entire rubric that is suffocating and killing our people. And we all feel it. I mean, everyone feels it, whether they can see it and identify it as the thing that’s choking them and their children to death. But it is the thing that is allowing us to not be able to fund schools, to not be able to fund health care, that’s driving down our life expectancy. It is driving down our life expectancy across all categories.
And the violence that’s perpetrated by frontline police officers, by people in the system—on both sides of the wall, the prisoners and the guards—destabilizes our entire culture. And so, when the system fuels that, they’re privileging that violence, and that violence is everywhere, as is the number of diseases. Tuberculosis doesn’t respect prison walls. [Hepatitis] C doesn’t respect prison walls.
I mean, there are epidemics that our communities are facing: violence, the violence inside and outside. Guards are not immune from the violence. People in general are not immune from the violence that wreaks havoc on our communities. So, all of that needs to be looked at in terms of how we live and breathe every day.
Kolhatkar: I want to pick up on what you just said earlier in your answer around how there aren’t other countries that try to control their population through incarceration. Is that really true? Don’t most countries have prison systems?
Hanrahan: We incarcerate the most people per capita of any country on earth. So that is just a fact. We also are doing it in a certain kind of way that’s systemic. Other countries deal with crime and drugs and criminalization in far different ways than we do. Like, you can name any country… there are a couple of countries that are right below us on the incarceration spectrum—probably I wouldn’t go to those. But we need to look at other models of how people police.
It may very well be true—I think it is—that no other country privileges the access to guns that we privilege, the way in which they saturate the community with armed police officers—that’s very unusual. It’s not generally a response to health issues or community issues. So I think, yes, this country creates crime through its criminal justice policies, and then it creates the courts and the justice system to have an appearance of finality in approving those unjust arrests, the criminalization of entire populations.
It’s criminogenic. So it is criminalizing and penalizing people through fines in vast ways, as was demonstrated in Ferguson, [Missouri], when most of the population had outstanding fines and could be picked up at any time. The way in which the system is designed, it’s designed to control people.
Kolhatkar: And generally it’s poor folks, it’s people of color, and some would say that this is a direct line from what policing and the courts stemmed from historically, as a way to control Black people, as a way to control enslaved folks, or as a way to control people after slavery, during Jim Crow segregation. Would you agree that it’s basically an extension? We’ve never really truly built the system from the ground up to deliver justice. And therefore, since it was built on injustice, it remains that way?
Hanrahan: I think it was designed to keep the inequities, to privilege only a few certain things, and to gloss over with colorful language the essence of liberty. It was not designed to liberate or empower all. It was designed to privilege [the] few—and predominantly white men.
And I think it’s true that those systems have been evolving. But if you look at it, the 13th Amendment privileged slavery in prisons—you know, slavery’s abolished except upon commission of a crime. So, that is just one example. But the U.S. Constitution is littered with racial language that privileges inequities. And it was those inequities that benefited a certain class that have been continually privileged.
Larry Krasner, our progressive, revolutionary district attorney [in Philadelphia], said in [The] Atlantic magazine that everyone knows—and here, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, everyone knows the reason why we have over-incarceration and we have such corruption in our police department is because they are arresting poor [people] and people of color in order to increase their pay bump for overtime. When they visit the courthouse the next morning, those warrants are fabricated and everyone knows it. And it was going on for decades, where they trained each other—a majority-white police force—we had 6,500 active police officers, majority-white in a majority-Black city, where they have very little education—and they were going to arrest people who were perceived as not having enough power to fight it. The Brown and Black bodies were being [sent in] an assembly line through the Juanita Kidd Justice Center, and the courts were just approving it.
Kolhatkar: This is in Philadelphia specifically?
Hanrahan: It is, to this day, it’s in Philadelphia. So they come in the next day for police overtime, so they get a pay bump. So I said to [councilmember] Kenyatta Johnson’s legal director, I said, “What’s up with this?” And he goes, “Oh, everybody knows that’s what’s happening because they have to pay their Jersey mortgages. They have summer homes in Jersey, or they have a home in Jersey, or oh, it’s the last three years and they have to get that pension bump. And so, they need to really stack up the hours. But that’s why we can’t fix anything. That’s why we don’t have any money.”
I mean, everyone knows that the system is completely corrupt here.
Kolhatkar: Speaking of money, it is a huge resource sinkhole: policing, prisons, and the courts. And the idea of abolishing police for that very reason was accompanied by a call to “defund the police,” to start moving resources away from policing and into the things that would make policing obsolete, such as providing people with all of the things that they need: shelter, food, health care, etc. From an attorney’s perspective, what are the legal resources that could benefit from being funded, that could be transferred from the courts and put toward things that would make the courts themselves obsolete?
Hanrahan: Everything that is currently being funded has to be reimagined, and they [should] have to justify what they’re doing. And we need social workers and not police officers. We need the community to have health care and jobs. We do not need incarceration and policing. And the courts are just there to put a rubber stamp on it. We would have a lot less of that if we could address the social inequities and also the problems that have been stoked by defunding our schools and defunding our health care and not having enough jobs for people. That’s what we need.
We need that behemoth of a police budget, the billion-dollar police budget, to be completely defunded, and it needs to be reallocated in a way that’s going to actually support people in their lives.
And there’s other things that the criminal justice system does. They commodify everything. They commodify the mail, they commodify phones, they commodify people’s bodies. And they do that [in this way]: Anybody who in Pennsylvania is convicted and sent to state prison, they lose their vote. But the rural county that they’re incarcerated in gains their vote. And even after they’re released, it keepstheir vote. So it’s transferring the votes. Like, they get more congresspeople in rural counties because they have three big prisons. That kind of commodification and stealing of people’s agency has to stop.
And yes, it may be our dream, but we get to dream. We get to dream about a future that doesn’t kill our children, and we get to dream about a future that’s equitable, where we don’t have to watch and witness police brutality on a routine basis. And the democracy that I want to live in doesn’t exist yet, but it will be better if we fix these things—not so much fix them, but reimagine them, become them. And we have to have the vision. Thank god for Ruthie Gilmore and Angela Davis and the Law for Black Lives.
So as a lawyer, lawyers need to show up. And the only reason I became a lawyer was because we didn’t have people showing up in court for the people I was representing: a juvenile lifer, doing a mitigation packet to get him home, who was arrested when he was 16. And also for people who had Hep C in prison. People were dying with Hep C, which is a curable disease, because they didn’t have someone advocating for them. So that’s why I went to law school. I also went to law school because at Prison Radio we privileged people’s voices [who are] inside.
And it wasn’t enough to just be a journalist to broadcast their voices. I also had to bring our correspondents home, to do everything I could to get their release, not just work with them as a colleague.
Kolhatkar: Earlier we were discussing how the court system really does not validate and foster justice. What could a reimagined legal system look like? Because it is important when we live in a democracy to have legal accountability, right? I’m thinking of corporate criminals or war criminals or corruption at the highest levels. Is it important to have a court system in a functioning democracy? What could a functioning democracy’s legal system that actually fosters justice look like?
Hanrahan: I think having radical and revolutionary DAs who prosecute police and who prosecute people for the crimes they commit against people, I think that’s super important.
I think we need to elect our own judges. I think we need to—
Kolhatkar: And that happens in some places like in Los Angeles, where I am, local judges are elected.
Hanrahan: Many judges are [also] elected in Pennsylvania. Mumia Abu-Jamal said that things would’ve been different [for his case] if we had started electing judges back in the day. Because it doesn’t take much, but we need to do it. And they need to be people who we vet and trust and who are not going to participate in the assembly line that has become the criminal justice system.
I think that the system is like a cancer, and it is very capable of adapting. And “reform” is always a nice-sounding word, but it is not what we need. We need radical systemic change. And it has to happen. Because reform is only going to tinker with it.
And also, they won’t do the reforms in a way that is going to challenge the system.
Kolhatkar: So electing judges, and electing radical DAs, those are reforms toward reimagining courts, aren’t they?
Hanrahan: I think we need to vet those people, and we need to make sure that they’re really going to do the job that we want them to do. I think that it’s difficult to reform this system. What I think of in the morning when I get up is, we need to find that little mechanism, that lever that’s going to change everything.
I was reading a book this morning, and it was talking about how the Obama administration recognized that the Ferguson issue, the legal issue of making almost all the residents have criminal records—they weren’t going to fix it wholesale.
We need wholesale amnesty. I don’t need an Innocence Project or a district attorney letting 20 people out of prison. I need all of the arrests that were unjustly done, all of the arrest warrants, all of the [people who police] incarcerated … through incorrect means, the whole class of people, I need all of them to get relief at once. No piecemeal, one person gets released, we feel better. Because that’s just not how the system worked. The system worked to incarcerate whole classes of people. And so the rollback needs to be an equal response.
There was a truth, justice, and reconciliation announcement from our district attorney’s office, Larry Krasner’s office, in Philadelphia. Those need to have teeth. They need to acknowledge what happened, hold the people accountable, and free the people that were unjustly convicted. And that needs to be en masse, not piecemeal.
Kolhatkar: It seems as though our criminal justice system specifically is designed to let wealthy folks off the hook, because they can hire the fanciest lawyers. Should we be looking at reimagining our court system in a way that poverty is never criminalized, that any crime that arises from someone’s financial inability or from their financial distress is automatically not seen as a crime, and is seen as something that needs to have a systemic change, either figuring out the right kind of restitution, proper rehabilitation, long-term economic-justice approaches? And then if you are wealthy, you are the one who gets stuck with a public defender who might have a huge caseload because your wealth shouldn’t privilege you. Is there a way to turn it upside down so that the rich aren’t the ones who are taking advantage of the system that’s been sort of rigged for them?
Hanrahan: You know, the rich are never arrested. And if we see them, it’s just an illusion. It’s a mirage. I wish that, when crime is analyzed—about what’s deeply impacting and hurting the most people—that the DA’s budget and the police budget, whatever’s left of it, is organized to go after the people that are hurting the community the most. Right? And that is very much not going to be all of the people they’re currently arresting.
You know, it’s going to be people who have a much more systemic [impact on] pollution, guns, and crime. You know, there’s a lot going on that is not looked at. It’s privilege, because it’s supporting the system. So it needs a radical revamping of how we look at crime.
And it’s like a chicken and an egg. Like, we have to take all the money that we spend on these “slave-catching” police patrols, and we have to take all of it and invest in the people, and in the community, and in the culture, and in providing jobs and housing and a minimum income. And why not? We’re a rich country. We don’t need to be just taking all this money out of the community and giving it to people who live in other zip codes and who are wealthy. We need to keep the money in the community, and it needs to be of service to the community. That is fundamentally going to change how much crime there is.
When people have access to their humanity, you know, when it’s not such an amazingly hostile environment to breathe in and live in—and when we don’t have police who will criminalize protesters, who will criminalize people who are disabled, who will criminalize the mentally ill, and who will make them so vulnerable—you know, that’s what we need. We need to eliminate police, and we need to invest all of that money directly in the community.
Kolhatkar: How has your work with incarcerated individuals for so many decades influenced you and helped you articulate this vision of abolition? What has made you an abolitionist?
Hanrahan: I think we grow, and I think our experiences teach us. My father was arrested when I was 9 years old, and my family was dramatically affected by that. And he couldn’t work in his chosen field. And I learned from that.
You know, my father had five kids, and it was very hard for my family. It was a benefit in one way because I got to spend a lot of time with my father, and he dragged me to every basketball game he [refereed] and every baseball game he umpired. And so that was the first real impact it had on me.
And then I always was looking for a way to hear people. As I was doing radio at Pacifica [Radio], at other places, and writing, I wanted to hear people’s stories. And when we were covering criminal justice, we couldn’t cover it without hearing from the people who were dramatically affected—their families and the people inside. And so, when my editors started pushing back and not wanting to hear from the people on death row, for instance, when we were covering the reimposition of the death penalty in California, I knew that was the story. I knew it.
And that has driven me to put a microphone in front of people. And I’ve learned an enormous amount and continue to learn. It’s a different language, it’s a different culture, it’s different. You have to really privilege listening. But I’ve learned an enormous amount from those experiences, and I continue to learn every day from the experiences.
And I understand that the abolitionist movement, the work that we’re seeing now, the changes in our culture, are often coming from the inside out. That these ideas have been studied and realized on the inside [of prison walls] prior to being motivated in the outside.
So, I’m doing a book right now, helping Mumia Abu-Jamal and Jennifer Black edit a book. It’s an anti-prison reader, it’s called Beneath the Mountain, and it’s Angela [Davis]’s in-prison writings and Nat Turner’s writings, and, throughout the centuries, writings from inside that have really illuminated both what’s happening and the path forward. And that’s what I see. I see that the work has come from below. Basically we’ve gotta get people out, and we’ve gotta be the abolitionist reality. We’ve gotta envision that, and demand it, and make it happen.
Kolhatkar: Thank you so much for all your do, Noelle, and for joining me today. I really appreciate your time.
Hanrahan: Thank you.