A Brief Case for Prison Abolition

We know prisons are racist, classist and abusive. Are they also obsolete?

Dayton Martindale December 27, 2017

(Terry La Ban)

pris•on ab•o•li•tion

noun

1. The dis­man­tling of the prison sys­tem; the end of coerced con­fine­ment as punishment
2. The con­struc­tion of alter­na­tives to prison and of a world that dis­in­cen­tivizes violence

While there is a low­er class I am in it, and while there is a crim­i­nal ele­ment, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” —Social­ist Eugene V. Debs, in a state­ment to the court after being con­vict­ed of sedi­tion in 1918.

Don’t Pris­ons Keep Peo­ple Safe? 

What­ev­er politi­cians might say, abo­li­tion­ists argue that the cur­rent prison-indus­tri­al com­plex isn’t designed to solve crime — after all, three-quar­ters of peo­ple released from prison are rear­rest­ed with­in five years — but rather to ware­house the poor, drug addict­ed and men­tal­ly ill. And there’s a racial ele­ment as well: Black Amer­i­cans are around five times more like­ly than whites to find them­selves behind bars, often for minor offens­es, while many who pose a big­ger threat to soci­ety get Oscars, gold­en para­chutes and seats in Congress.

Why Not Just Make Pris­ons Better?

It’s true that not all pris­ons are as sadis­tic as Uncle Sam’s: In Nor­way, for exam­ple, the incar­cer­at­ed wear street clothes, pick berries, cook meals and have rel­a­tive free­dom to move about the grounds. But many prison abo­li­tion­ists believe that depriv­ing humans of lib­er­ty is fun­da­men­tal­ly cru­el. Social sci­en­tists such as Gre­sham M. Sykes—not to men­tion many incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple them­selves — have long doc­u­ment­ed how the loss of one’s place in soci­ety, phys­i­cal safe­ty and auton­o­my can cause severe long-term psy­cho­log­i­cal problems.

Still, Isn’t Prison Abo­li­tion Utopic?

Utopic need not be a slur, but the idea is less out there than it may seem. As Angela Davis explains in Are Pris­ons Obso­lete?, impris­on­ment only became a catch-all pun­ish­ment in what’s now the Unit­ed States around the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. Oth­er means of con­flict res­o­lu­tion aren’t just pos­si­ble, but the his­tor­i­cal norm. 

Okay, So … What Do We Do With All The Criminals?

The abo­li­tion­ist first might chal­lenge the word crim­i­nal,” observ­ing that it’s often racial­ized, and call to decrim­i­nal­ize crimes” like drug use, for exam­ple. They might also advo­cate full employ­ment, well-fund­ed pub­lic edu­ca­tion, drug treat­ment pro­grams and ade­quate men­tal health­care, all of which help address caus­es of ille­gal activ­i­ty; dig­ging out the social and eco­nom­ic roots of gen­dered vio­lence would be cru­cial as well. Prison abo­li­tion­ist orga­ni­za­tions such as Crit­i­cal Resis­tance sup­port ini­tia­tives like com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens to build social cohe­sion. And while instances of rape and mur­der won’t van­ish entire­ly, soci­eties world­wide are exper­i­ment­ing with restora­tive jus­tice: non-carcer­al efforts at repair­ing harm done to indi­vid­u­als and communities.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a month­ly series offer­ing brief intro­duc­tions to pro­gres­sive the­o­ries, poli­cies, tools and strate­gies that can help us envi­sion a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. For recent In These Times cov­er­age of prison abo­li­tion, see, Tri­al by Peace Cir­cle: How a Chica­go Com­mu­ni­ty Is Pur­su­ing Jail-Free Jus­tice,” To End Mass Incar­cer­a­tion, We Must Rethink How We Respond to Vio­lence” and Meet the LGBTQ Prison Abo­li­tion­ists Lead­ing the Way to a Bet­ter World.”

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is a free­lance writer and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Jour­nal, Har­bin­ger and The Next Sys­tem Project. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @DaytonRMartind.

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