Small Doses Podcast: Lawyer and People’s Advocate Olayemi Olurin on Fighting the Racist Prison System

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Lawyer and people’s advocate Olayemi Olurin discusses the ills of the American prison industrial complex. Olurin sat down with host Amanda Seales for this episode of “Small Doses: Side Effects of the Pipeline to Prison” to break down what the mainstream narrative gets wrong about the criminal system.

As a movement lawyer and public defender, Olurin’s work focuses on challenging the prison industrial complex and systemic racism.

“I am very much against the system,” Olurin says. “I am not a person who loves the law. The law impacts Black people disproportionately and intentionally. So let me go and work towards that in service of Black people, but not because I respect this institution.”

The Case For Prison Abolition

Part of Olurin’s work is educating people about prison abolition. She was introduced to the idea by a thesis advisor in college who gave her the book Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis. The people’s advocate is well aware of how radical it may seem, but part of systemic reform is providing “access to information” and differing perspectives, she says.

Olurin explains why the current system’s approach to crime is ineffective and, in fact, harmful to society. “We want repercussions for behaviors that the society in and of itself are the breeding grounds for. That’s what becomes unfair,” she says. “We want repercussions for manifesting the attitudes that we are teaching people.”

Instead of feeding billions of dollars into prisons and policing, funding could go toward “communities to be able to afford education, housing and healthcare,” she says. “That way, we get ourselves to a position in the future where we do not have to have this massive criminal system.”

You don’t have to love your neighbor for it to make sense. Olurin calls this “the politics of selfishness.”

“When are you your best self? If my bills are paid, if I have community, if people are being nice to me, I am so much more likely to consider my neighbor,” she explains. “The politics of selfishness is recognizing that wanting good for others or wanting to put other people in the best position to succeed is so that when that person can succeed, they have no interest to bring you down.”

The Fight to Shut Down Rikers Island

As a public defender working in New York City, Olurin witnessed firsthand the disproportionate impact that the American criminal system perpetuates against Black and Brown communities.

Olurin is a prominent voice in the movement to close Rikers Island, New York City’s infamous jail complex, where the vast majority of inmates are Black and Brown individuals from low-income neighborhoods.

Olurin calls Rikers a “human rights crisis.” What most people don’t realize, she says, is that Rikers is actually a pre-trial detention center where the majority of inmates have not been convicted of a crime.

“Eighty-five percent of everybody at Rikers has not been convicted of a crime, they are there pre-trial,” she says. “People think it’s this infamous, terrible place for terrible people. No, Rikers is the fate of anybody that gets arrested in New York City and does not have the money for bail.”

Rikers is just a snapshot of the wider failures of the prison industrial complex, Olurin says.

“There is never this acknowledgment that the same people in our communities that you are labeling the criminals and criminal defendants are also the same people on the receiving end,” she says. “They are in that same community receiving all of this suffering and trauma and these failures of the system.”

Listen to the full episode “Small Doses: Side Effects of the Pipeline to Prison” here.


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