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


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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