‘My Goal Is to Dismantle the System I Once Defended’

Lola Rainey is a former Arizona county prosecutor who left her work to become an abolitionist

Justine van der Leun
Published in
6 min readAug 11, 2020


Photo illustration. Source: Martin Schroeder/EyeEm/Getty Images

Voices From Inside the System is a new GEN series where we interview people who have had firsthand experience in industries with especially fraught histories of systemic racism and inequity. We asked our subjects to think deeply about the role they played and the work they did. We asked them why they stayed or why they left, how they might be complicit, or if they thought they — or anyone — could fundamentally change the system.

Lola Rainey is a former Pima County prosecutor in her 60s from Tucson, Arizona. She now works as an abolitionist with a focus on bail reform. According to the ACLU, Arizona has the highest Latino incarceration rate in the country. Since 2000, the prison population in the state has increased by 60%; it is twelve times larger than it was in 1978. Rainey spoke with journalist Justine van der Leun about her experience.

Before I became a prosecutor, I wanted to write. I started working as a copy girl at a local paper in Arizona. I was entering my junior year in college; it was the summer of 1977. There were few female journalists — and no Black female journalists — but I felt it was a stepping-stone to a job as a reporter. After six weeks, an editor invited me to lunch and told me that it was my last day. “If you were in a New York or Chicago newsroom, you’d fit in. But you don’t fit in here,” he said. I understood this white man was saying there was no future for me in media.

I stuffed it down. Over the next two years, I got married, had a baby, finished my undergraduate degree in journalism, made the Dean’s List, did all the right things to prove myself. But I watched as doors opened for my white peers while I looked for work as a salesperson at a department store. A friend, also a Black woman, suggested I apply to the law school where she was studying. I was accepted, one of a handful of Black students, and came out with a law degree.