When I tell people that I’m a prison abolitionist, they’re often taken aback.
“Wait, you actually don’t think there should be prisons?”
I’ve gotten this response from just about everyone I’ve talked to about the issue, and when I respond that I really don’t think prisons should exist, I’m asked why. It’s usually a difficult question to answer in the moment, so I respond in the most succinct, yet accurate, way I can:
“I don’t think humans should be in cages, and even beyond that moral issue, evidence has shown that incarceration is not an effective way to deal with societal problems. My preferred approach would be to gradually tear down the carceral state while simultaneously building up social programs.”
That’s my script, though I doubt it has ever convinced anyone. But in an attempt to better explain my position, I’ve written this more thorough rebuke of the carceral state, and why I think it must go.
I am by no means an expert on prison abolition. This is my way of explaining to my friends, family members, and others who know me why I believe what I do. But if you’re intrigued by what you see, I’d suggest reading more on the topic from some people who are smarter and more articulate than me:
- Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind, by Rachel Kushner, The New York Times Magazine
- Can Prison Abolition Ever Be Pragmatic, by Nathan Robinson, Current Affairs
- Think Prison Abolition in America Is Impossible? It Once Felt Inevitable, by Joshua Dubler & Vincent Lloyd, The Guardian
- BAN PRISONS, by Emma Roller, Splinter
- Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
- Justice in America Podcast with Mariame Kaba
And on the similar topic of police abolition:
- How I Became a Police Abolitionist, by Derecka Purnell, The Atlantic
- Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police, by Mariame Kaba, The New York Times
- Are Police Obsolete? Breaking Cycles of Violence Through Abolition Democracy, by V. Noah Gimbel and Craig Muhammad, Cardozo Law Review
So here’s my FAQ on prison abolition, and why I don’t think prisons should exist:
Prisons Are Cruel
I truly believe that prison abolition is not a radical idea. It’s empathetic but pragmatic and efficient. That said, I’m probably an outlier in that I’m simply uncomfortable with holding people in cages. Ever since I was young, I thought there was something wrong with me, because even though I often thought someone should end up in prison, I’d immediately feel bad for them. That sounds terrible, I’d think. But I would never say it out loud, because that wasn’t how I was supposed to think. After arriving in law school and learning about prison abolition, I found people who thought the same way I did. But I understand I’m in the minority on this.
However, I think most people would agree that prison is at least cruel enough that it should not be used when it’s not necessary. The urgency to start making changes would grow if people understood just how cruel prisons really are.
I’m a subscriber to the Marshall Hypothesis—the idea that even though polling shows that a slim majority of the country is in favor of the death penalty, a great majority would be opposed if they knew what capital punishment actually entailed. Similarly, I believe far more people would be prison abolitionists—or at least, in favor of actively finding alternatives to incarceration—if they knew what conditions in prison are actually like.
The cruelty in prison cannot be captured in one article, but whatever constitutional protections prisoners are supposed to have, prison officials ensure that they are not actually available. The Cuyahoga County jail has placed people “in overcrowded, unfurnished cells without functioning toilets or running water” and without “basic amenities like toothbrushes and toilet paper.” Alabama’s prisons fall well below the 8th Amendment standards, with 15 suicides in the past 15 months. Arizona is refusing to comply with a federal judge’s orders to improve its prison system, after an investigation found that Arizona does not provide adequate health and mental health care to inmates. Rather, it uses prolonged solitary confinement to deal with people who are seriously mentally ill, putting them at risk of great psychological harm. Guards at New York City jails illegally strip-searched women for no reason. California’s prisons were so over-crowded that they held people—particularly the mentally ill—in telephone booth-sized cages without toilets for long periods of time. Deputies at the Fulton County Jail in Georgia “tortured, then killed” a man on what they called “Taser Tuesday.” Mentally ill inmates in Illinois get no help for their illnesses and are forced to wear diapers.
This is just a very small sample of the cruelties of prison. But hopefully it’s a small taste of what prison does. This is not a case of a few bad actors. This is the heart of what the carceral state is meant to do: it dehumanizes people—who guards, wardens and prosecutors often refer to as “bodies”—and forces them to languish in sub-human conditions. There is no accountability, and even with litigation challenging the conditions, the system does not change.
So what’s your plan?
The best, most succinct explanation of my idea of prison abolition comes from journalist Emma Roller:
It’s a simultaneous process of tearing down and building up — building up new institutions that are promoting real safety or real nurturing life and nurturing health and nurturing community, and building a society that actually works for people and doesn’t subsist on persecuting marginalized people.
Poverty is one of the leading causes of crime, so the natural place to start when it comes to combatting crime is with combatting poverty. The idea is not to release everyone from prison today, because public safety truly is a concern. Rather, the idea is that we should gradually divert money from the carceral state to social programs that will help keep people away from crime in the first place. That means eradicating homelessness, guaranteeing free health care—particularly mental health care—and guaranteeing meals to everyone who needs them. It also means ensuring that we aren’t taking away primary caregivers from communities and simply causing an even greater cycle of poverty.
Prison abolition also demands that we deal with crime in smart, restorative ways, not in retributive, vindictive ways that are often counterproductive. The prevailing view in the U.S. is that if someone does something wrong, they need to go to jail. But often, that helps nobody. The person who does wrong is sent to a place where they often come out worse than they went in. The victim receives no support from the state. And the state does nothing on the front end to invest in society and ensure that crime happens less. Contrary to the criticism of its detractors, prison abolition is far more pragmatic than the current system. It believes in solutions and true victim healing, rather than a vengeance that helps nobody.
People struggling with addiction should have access to overdose treatment centers, rather than using the current strategy of simply arresting them or letting them die. Even people struggling with addictions to child pornography and other vices with actual victims should be able to have access to mental health services without fear of being turned in to the police. The victims of these vices should receive the full support of the state, ensuring they receive counseling and restitution to make sure they aren’t held back from pursuing the life they deserve. Our goal should be to decrease the number of victims affected—not punish people at the expense of creating more potential victims.
Prison is viewed as a tool to deal with crime, but it’s a tool that doesn’t work and doesn’t serve society. Abolition, on the other hand, demands that we find solutions that actually make our society safer and more just. It’s pragmatic, but it requires a massive shift in how we view the root causes of, and necessary response to crime.
That sounds super expensive
Even in a vacuum, I don’t think this is a good argument. We should spend money to make sure our communities are safer and that people have the support they need in order to live comfortably in society. To me, that is the point of government. Our taxes on the wealthy are extraordinarily low, which I think unacceptable.
However, even if you’re concerned about your taxes going up, the current set-up makes no sense. We spend ridiculous amounts of money on prisons, when we could spend far less on support systems that keep people out of prison. We spend roughly $31,000 per person, per year on incarceration. In total, we spend $182 billion on incarceration each year. That’s 2.5 times as much as the entire Department of Education budget.
Take the case of this homeless man, who was arrested for taking shelter from the rain in a New York City building.
That’s insane! I really don’t know how else to put it. Rather than spend far less money housing the homeless and providing them with a comfortable life that can help them get on their feet, we’re prepared to jail people who simply seek shelter from the rain, and waste money “punishing” them for this.
This kind of system does not make sense financially. It only makes sense when you view punishment as so necessary that it displaces goals of societal improvement, economic common sense, and human rights.
Fine, we shouldn’t jail that guy. But what about murderers and rapists?
Because poverty and violent crime are so closely linked, we should expect violent crime to fall by investing in society and social programs, rather than in prisons. The U.S. has an intentional homicide rate of 5.35 per 100,000 inhabitants. Countries with greater social programs have far lower rates. Consider Norway (0.51), Switzerland (0.54), Netherlands (0.55), Spain (0.63), Portugal (0.64), Germany (1.18), United Kingdom (1.20), and France (1.35).
People are not born murderers. Rather, people react to the hand they were dealt. If we reduce poverty, provide free mental health services, and end the mental health stigma, there will simply be fewer murders.
There are also ways to fight rape without prisons. Currently, only three percent of rapists go to prison in the first place. Even if simply sentencing rapists to prison were an effective way of combatting rape, we aren’t actually doing that effectively, and there’s a good chance we never will.
Rather than using prison as a tool, there are far more effective ways to address sexual violence. We should be starting classes and programming on sexual assault and misogyny in schools. We should be providing victims with free mental health services and state-paid restitution—recognizing the state’s failures in creating rape culture. We should be building up restorative programming that actually puts victims first. These approaches can make substantive differences in people’s lives, whereas the vague threat of prison has done little to actually combat rape culture or put victims first.
Okay but what about serial killers?
This is the common response to abolitionists, and it’s important to point out that serial killers are a tiny fraction of the US prison population. But it is true that there will probably always be a select few people who need to be kept away from the rest of the population.
Such a structure can exist in in an abolitionist framework. But we don’t need prisons as currently set up to keep people safe. Incarceration should be a last resort—and in most cases, something that should never be resorted to at all. But if someone must be incapacitated because they are too dangerous to be in society, they shouldn’t be in a punitive prison environment. Rather, they should have unfettered access to counseling and rehabilitation services that make them less dangerous, not more dangerous.
These are admirable goals, but what’s your plan right now?
Prison abolition is often chided for being too aspirational, relying on policies that are non-starters in our current political system. However, there are many things we can do, even absent passing major social programs, that will reduce our reliance on prisons and get us started in an abolitionist direction.
The most obvious change we can make is to not build new jails, and to instead invest that money into society. People often worry that cutting jail populations will lead to more crime, but the evidence shows the opposite. For instance, Cincinnati cut its jail population and instead invested in social services, and its crime rate went down. California’s prisons were so overcrowded that the Supreme Court forced the state to release a number of its prisoners. Justice Alito dissented, ending with this ominous paragraph:
I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong. In a few years, we will see.
Moreover, we can make immediate improvements to policing. That means emphasizing mental health responses, rather than police responses, to 911 calls. From Splinter:
There are already organizations doing the hard work. One such organization is Critical Resistance, a grassroots organization based in Oakland that works on resisting jail construction and expansion, while chipping away at communities’ reliance on policing. Mohamed Shehk, an activist with Critical Resistance, told the story of Kayla Moore, a transgender woman who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and who died in police custody in 2013 while experiencing a “psychiatric emergency.”
“What if, instead of police showing up, in Kayla Moore’s case, you had mental health professionals, or people who knew how to handle that situation?” Shehk says. “This is what we talk about when we talk about alternatives to these systems, and it’s not that far-fetched.”
Prison is not necessary to maintain a safe society. Rather, it is a cruel outgrowth from America’s obsession with incapacitating less-favored groups, increasing and concentrating violence away from rich, white society.
As a former Richard Nixon advisor said, the explosion of prisons in our society—right at a time when prison abolition seemed like a legitimate possibility—had nothing to do with public safety. Rather, it had everything to do with racism and imperialism.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s writer Dan Baum for the April cover story published Tuesday.
“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Moreover, the attack on the social programs that deter crime came directly from the racist ideology of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nixon campaign consultant Lee Atwater explains:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N***er, n***er, n***er.” By 1968 you can’t say “n***er” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N***er, n***er.”
Prison abolition means reckoning with this history. It means understanding where the mass incarceration movement comes from, and recognizing that our current system was not built on practical responses to crime. It means recognizing that what we’re doing isn’t working, and that we need a new approach to crime—one that substitutes pragmatism and empathy for retribution and vengeance