Incarceration, It's Complicated: Tam Phan ’21 Investigates #PrisonAbolition

By Rebecca Goldfine
Mining Twitter for insights, Tam Phan ’21 explored changing US attitudes toward incarceration for her senior year honors project in anthropology.
Tam Phan ’21
Tam Phan is an anthropology and government and legal studies double major.

Through high school and college, Phan had been an active Twitter user, mostly “for entertainment purposes,” she said. But last year, following the high-profile murder of George Floyd by a police officer, she noticed a shift in the tone of her feed. 

“Over the summer, everyone I followed and lots of other people in the Twitter-verse began to get involved in conversations about the country's treatment of historically oppressed people,” she said.

As she witnessed more people engaging in activism, particularly with the Black Lives Matter movement, she decided she'd like to explore a related issue: incarceration and the effort to dismantle the “industrial prison complex.”

The loose coalition of groups currently seeking to abolish prisons in the US argue that our current system of policing, imprisonment, and surveillance both feeds off of and maintains oppression and inequality, particularly against people of color. Instead of prisons, they make the case for alternatives to jails, such as rehabilitation programs.

Already comfortable with Twitter, Phan honed in on the hashtag term #prisonabolition to follow people's public observations about abolishing prisons. But first she had to teach herself computer science techniques to collect or "scrape" #prisonabolition tweets.

Phan's advisor, Professor of Anthropology Krista Van Vleet, said that one of the compelling aspects of Phan's honors project was that she integrated quantitative and qualitative analysis so well. “Tam understood early on that she would need to create an analytical framework to make sense of the very large number of #PrisonAbolition tweets generated during her chosen time frame. She developed a methodology to collect and analyze tweets and then used the outcome of that quantitative analysis to determine which tweets to examine more closely through a qualitative focus on the meanings of abolition for Twitter users.”

Tam's honor project still
A screenshot from Tam Phan's online presentation of her thesis.

Phan decided to pull data from Twitter between the years of 2015 to 2020 to see how the online conversation evolved, with 2020 being “an anomalous year for the hashtag.” Between 2015 and 2019, she found about 1,000 tweets with the prison abolition hashtag. That shot up to more than 6,000 tweets in 2020. “It was not a popular hashtag until 2020,” Phan said.

Qualitatively, the use of the hashtag was different as well. Prior to 2020, it was often used in connection with discussions about the death penalty. In 2020, the tweets were more “emotional than academic,” Phan said. “I saw a lot more average Americans say, 'dismantle the prison industrial complex.'”

Yet, at the same time, the arguments people made for abolishing the prison system were often inconsistent. “More Americans are using tweets to express frustration against the US government, but they're not believing in the true value of abolition and of dismantling polices forces,” Phan said. “Because they'll use the hashtag, but then say, 'This person still needs to go to jail.' There are a lot of cases like that.”

In the end, she titled her honors project, “It's #PrisonAbolition Until the Bad Guys Show Up: Conflicting Discourses on Twitter about Carceral Networks in 2020.”

While this ambiguity at first dismayed Phan, who said she had been hoping to see more dramatic changes, she came to a more nuanced interpretation of her findings. “After looking at my data again, I can see that people are engaging in abolition for the first time, and this is a gateway to furthering abolitionist values.”

“If people are engaging in small little moments of abolition talk, it's a good indication that more people are seeing the injustices,” she said.

Van Vleet said that Phan's intellectual and personal passion shone through her project from start to finish, despite the challenges of a difficult year. “Not only does she have incredible initiative, she has phenomenal interdisciplinary skills and knows how to bring these to bear on current issues,” Van Vleet said.

“Tam integrated computer science and programming skills—some of which she learned specifically for this project—with theories of governance and critical race theory in anthropology and political science to better understand how #PrisonAbolition might be part of social transformations in the United States.”