It’s no secret that the criminal justice system in America needs fixing—everyone from Jared Kushner to Cory Booker agrees. And while the Koch brothers might not go so far as Elizabeth Warren to outright label it “racist … front to back,” politically speaking, this is one rare issue that seems increasingly bipartisan. Just last week, President Trump held a roundtable with governors, state attorneys general and other officials on the topic of prison reform, and the administration is reportedly working behind the scenes with congressional leaders to pass sweeping legislation that could touch everything from sentencing reform to helping former inmates get jobs.
It’s an admirable effort to bring together a traditionally tough-on-crime Republican Party with a Democratic Party whose criminal justice platform has in recent years, according to the Marshall Project, grown to more and more reflect the “fingerprints of the Black Lives Matter movement and Bernie Sanders.”
But for some leftist activists, prison reform is not enough and, in some cases, may even be counterproductive. For these activists, the word “abolish” that has been trending lately with reference to immigration enforcement and the death penalty is a nod to a more ambitious movement that has been building for decades and for which getting rid of ICE would only be the beginning of a far more radical set of changes.
That is the movement to abolish prisons—and more broadly, the entire penal and policing system—in America. Proponents envision a future society in which, rather than having better carceral conditions than we have today, there exist literally no prisons at all.
At first blush, the idea might seem fringe and unreasonable; where, for instance, would all the criminals go? What happens to rapists and murderers? But the movement’s backers counter that it is the only truly humane direction we can head in as a society—that is, if we really aspire to live in a world rid of interpersonal harm and racial inequality. And they might actually be making headway.
I spoke with several advocates for prison abolition—or “abolitionists,” as most simply refer to themselves—and they’re not just old Marxist philosophers or Norwegian criminologists but rather a group of young, mostly black lawyers, academics, artists, authors and community organizers. Some have had, or still have, close family members incarcerated; others were incarcerated themselves. They certainly don’t all have the same backgrounds or life experiences, but they’re each resolute about one thing: The criminal justice system as we know it is inherently cruel, perpetuates systemic racism, and must be overhauled completely.
“It’s not necessarily about tearing down the prison walls tomorrow,” says Maya Schenwar, who wrote Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. “Maybe we’d be better off than we are right now if we did that,” she adds, “but it’s not going to happen.”
Rather, Schenwar argues, “abolition is the acceptance of an understanding that prison does not work to any good ends.” “It works to uphold white supremacy; it works to uphold capitalism; it works to uphold oppression; but it doesn’t actually work to keep us safe or to protect society in any way that is productive.”
Many involved in this modern-day abolition movement, Georgetown law professor Allegra McLeod tells me, understand their work as a continuation of the earlier movement to abolish slavery.
“There is overwhelming evidence that mass incarceration evolved as an outgrowth of Jim Crow laws, which itself was a system rooted in the subjugation of former slaves,” Democratic phenom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote in an online essay embracing the abolish-prisons cause. “According to legal scholar Michelle Alexander, there are more African-Americans under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850—that is, before the Civil War.”
In fact, McLeod notes, the connection is a surprisingly direct one: Although slavery was abolished in 1865, the 13th amendment notably includes an exception to allow it as a punishment for convicted criminals. Think prison labor—from chain gangs toiling along the highway to inmates doing simple manufacturing jobs for private companies. As the Economist reported last year, “Most convicted inmates either work for nothing or for pennies at menial tasks that seem unlikely to boost their job prospects.” Last week, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation even boasted on Twitter about using inmates, including “youth offenders,” to fight the wildfires.
But if that’s not enough, the racial disparities in policing and imprisonment are well-documented, especially in recent popular media such as Michelle Alexander’s bestselling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness or Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary “13th.” This concept of a racialized mass incarceration has become so ubiquitous that when Republican Senator Rand Paul acknowledged it in a 2016 presidential primary debate, his comments made hardly a stir on the right.
“The idea with those earlier movements for abolition was both that slavery would be eliminated and that a new, democratic and more egalitarian order would take shape in its wake,” says McLeod. “Although there have been many complicated twists and turns,” she says, “there’s been an incomplete reckoning.”
Every abolitionist I spoke with agrees that the movement was pioneered predominantly by black feminists of the late 20th century, particularly by Angela Davis, the academic, activist and author who published a book in 2003 titled Are Prisons Obsolete? A bible of sorts for the abolitionist movement, the book outlines with surprising depth in a short 128 pages the historical and sociological arguments for eliminating rather than reforming prisons.
Thirty-three years earlier, Davis herself was incarcerated, prompting James Baldwin to write in an open letter to her in the New York Review of Books: “One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses.”
At that time, the U.S. prison population was just over 200,000. By 1998, when Davis and a few others would organize an abolitionist conference called Critical Resistance, that number had grown to over 1,200,000. The intervening years had seen the “War on Crime” and a “War on Drugs,” both of which disproportionately targeted African-Americans, take hold. In 2018, the U.S. prison population is over 2,200,000, far and away the most people behind bars of any country in the world.
As for abolitionism, however, Mohamed Shehk, the communications director of Critical Resistance, the organization that grew out of the conference 20 years ago, tells me that he is absolutely sure the movement has become more popular in academic spheres, activist arenas and elsewhere and is continuing to resonate with more and more people. In 2015, the National Lawyers Guild adopted a resolution in support of prison abolition, and today, the abolition of police and prisons is one of the platform tenets of the Democratic Socialists of America – the growing leftist group that fiercely backed Ocasio-Cortez.
There’s also money behind the movement. Like most criminal justice advocacy organizations, Shehk says, the explicitly abolitionist Critical Resistance gets most of its funding from small grassroots donations, but it also receives significant financial backing—he wouldn’t say how much—from several bigger philanthropic institutions such as the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, Craigslist Charitable Fund and the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation.
But Baldwin was right about the politics, according to Schenwar: “A really big obstacle to people even being open to the idea of abolition is this persistent idea that we need prisons to keep us safe.” Schenwar believes that a safe society can be achieved without locking anybody up.
Well-meaning conservatives and liberals, several abolitionists lamented to me, are often much more comfortable with advocating for “prison reform.” The House passed such a bill — supported and opposed on both sides of the aisle—earlier this year. But many reforms, abolitionists say, are often counterproductive to their movement.
“There are certain reforms that seek to fix or improve or tweak the way that the prison industrial complex functions,” Shehk says, “and then there are reforms that actually seek to chip away at its power.” It’s the latter that abolitionists seek, he says.
Regarding the prison industrial complex — a term many abolitionists use to refer to the collective of prisons, jails, detention centers and the structures that support them like bail, police and more — Schenwar says, “Once we understand that basically its roots are rotten, then we understand that we can’t just replace certain aspects of it or improve it or make prison kinder and gentler; we actually have to uproot it.”
Rev. Jason Lydon, the formerly incarcerated founder of the LGBT-oriented abolitionist organization Black and Pink, tells me that so much of prison reform is about making distinctions between “good prisoners” and “bad prisoners.” “We are not looking to free some while demonizing others,” he declares. Rather, he explains, “Abolitionists say: ‘Actually, let’s not use punishment as a method of addressing harm.’”
Challenging the entire concept of punishment is, according to some abolitionists, the biggest hurdle they must overcome when trying to gain new supporters.
“It’s really, really hard for people to imagine a world without prisons, but we had that world before,” Kim Wilson — an artist with a Ph.D. in public policy and co-host of Beyond Prisons, a podcast on incarceration and prison abolition—tells me. “‘Reform’ is what got us to what we have today.”
There’s some truth to this: Historian Harry Elmer Barnes estimated in 1921 that the advent of prisons as the conventional response to crime in the United States happened sometime during the 18th century as a result of reformists advocating against corporal punishment.
“The system that we currently have is supposed to be more humane than if we just tortured someone,” Wilson says, “but we’re just torturing people in a different way.”
The most fundamental issue with retributive justice, pretty much every abolitionist I spoke with tells me, is that it dehumanizes people who have committed crimes. Rather, they believe, as DSA’s Bianca Cunningham puts it, “that we should be implementing policies that are treating people like human beings that make mistakes and not like animals.”
“We have come to think of murderers, rapists, child molesters,” Shehk says, “as deviants that are just kind of running wild, as though these people are not our brothers, our sisters, our uncles, our neighbors, etc. And this kind of demonization and flattening of people works to reproduce the narrative that there are people that are deserving to be locked in a cage even for life.”
“I think we can live in a society that is based on mutual support and love instead of punishment and prison. That is not a radical thing,” Carlton Williams, an abolitionist lawyer in Boston, tells me, adding, “but that’s the most radical thing you can ever say in the world.”
It’s not surprising, Williams says, that people instinctively feel an inclination to punish—the “we’re going to hurt you because you hurt someone else” mentality is understandable, he offers.
One of the most difficult conversations to have, Williams admits, is a critique of retributive justice with victims. “It’s hard to tell someone who experienced sexual violence that their rapist shouldn’t be punished.”
Similarly, Page May, a community organizer in Chicago, says, “I’ve worked with families who have lost loved ones by police violence, and they want the cops to go to jail.”
Lydon tells me that as a preacher and an abolitionist, he has dedicated his life to challenging the idea “that people who have been wronged in some way should feel transformed by the punishment of the person who has wronged them.”
“People want a simple solution for sure, and right now all we offer is prison or nothing,” May says. “And for a long, long time, if you experienced domestic violence or sexual violence, you couldn’t even get that. That was what people had to fight for.”
But May also says she stands firm in the belief that “there’s more to justice than putting someone in a cage.”
“Abolition,” she says, “is not just the absence of prisons. It’s the presence of alternatives. Right now, we have a justice system that, when something goes wrong, asks two questions: Who did it? And how do we punish them? That’s not working.”
“Instead we need a justice system that, when harm happens, asks new questions,” she adds. “Who was harmed? How do we help them? And how do we make sure this never happens again?”
Many who balk at the idea of abolition believe that prisons are, in fact, the answer for crime prevention and deterrence, Williams says. Those people, he and many others are convinced, are wrong.
“The logic behind deterrence,” writes criminologist David Scott in Why Prison?, “is firmly rooted in the utilitarian calculus that to deter the rational offender requires the pain of imprisonment to outweigh the pleasure derived from ‘crime.’”
Yet a 2013 report by the National Institute of Justice found that it doesn’t actually work that way. “Sending an individual convicted of a crime to prison isn’t a very effective way to deter crime,” the report concludes. And with 3 out of 4 released prisoners re-arrested within 5 years, incarceration doesn’t even seem able to prevent recidivism.
Williams tells me that his go-to tactic for discussing abolition with those who think prisons are meant for deterrence is to get them to realize that they share a common goal: making prisons obsolete. “If you were fully successful in this prison idea and the prison idea actually worked, you would start to move toward a place where you no longer need [prisons], wouldn’t you? Unless you just think some people are evil at the core.”
It is indisputable, however, that there are some people —“the dangerous few,” McLeod calls them—who pose a risk to society.
When people predictably ask Wilson, “What about the murderers and rapists?”, she says she understands why they might feel a concern about letting certain people free, but she responds in two ways. First, she says, “It’s an oversimplification of humanity to dichotomize good people and bad people.” And second, she asks back, rhetorically, “You realize that not all murderers and rapists are locked up?”
“We’re not going to incarcerate our way out of social problems. We’re not going to incarcerate our way out of domestic violence or any other kind of physical harm,” Wilson says, “so we need other ways to address it.”
If we truly cared about preventing crime, Wilson says, our quest would not be to cage as many murderers and rapists as we can, but rather to figure out “what conditions exists in people’s interpersonal relationships, in their homes, in their communities that lead someone to commit harm.”
Furthermore, Williams adds, “If people look at the numbers and say, ‘I want to stop rapes from happening in this country,’ they would pretty much only work on the conditions in prisons, because that’s where rapes happen.”
Other abolitionists argue that prisons keep Americans from addressing our real challenges. As Schenwar wrote in her book: “Incarceration serves as the default answer to many of the worst social problems plaguing this country — not because it solves them, but because it buries them. By isolating and disappearing millions of Americans (more than 2.3 million, making us the most incarcerated nation on the planet), prison conveniently disappears deeply rooted issues that society—or rather, those with power in society—would rather not attend to.”
So, if not prisons, then what? What would an abolitionist world actually look like? And how do we get there?
“People always ask me: What can we do to replace prisons? And they’re hoping for a kind of monolithic institution that comes in to replace the institution of prison,” says Schenwar, “and that’s actually antithetical to abolition.”
Abolitionists tell me that their approach instead, while ambitious in its overarching goal, is measured and multi-pronged. “Stop/Shrink/Build” is how feminist scholar Julia C. Oparah describes the work of abolitionists in a chapter of Why Prison?
“Abolition is both an effort to gradually decarcerate and gradually reduce reliance on policing and imprisonment to manage social, economic, and political problems,” McLeod says, “and at one and the same time, it is an effort to build the sort of world we want to live in, one where the problems that the prison and policing now address—problems like mental illness, addiction, poverty, interpersonal violence — are addressed, rather than through one size-fits-all solutions like the prison, through constellations of alternatives that communities devise in order to address those sorts of problems.”
Decarceration efforts—the stopping and shrinking—I’m told, include efforts to reduce the expansion or increased funding of jails, detention centers, prisons and police forces as well as campaigns for reduced sentences and the release of inmates. They also include the decriminalization of certain things like drug use and homelessness as well as the end of the cash bail system and more. On some — but not all — of these fronts, progress is being made.
“A lot of the work is not super sexy. It’s not going to make the news,” May says.
The oft-held assumption that abolitionists are naïve at best, anarchical at worst, seems a misconception. The third — and probably most crucial — component of the abolitionist vision is the positive, not negative, changes they advocate for, like investment in education and healthcare. And with new and old members of the Democratic Party starting to embrace more leftist policy ideas, they’ve got a not-unrealistic shot at making political gains in this realm.
“Abolition is just as much about building up what we want to see as it is about tearing down the institutions and structures that we want to get rid of,” Shehk says.
“We’re saying we need money for schools, not police. We need money for housing, not prisons,” May says.
“We need to build up actual generative institutions, supportive institutions, like health care, mental health care, education, the arts. All of these things are important for a good society. Those things are our abolitionist goals,” says Schenwar.
As for what to do with criminals, Shehk pointed me to efforts at what is known as “restorative justice”—an alternative to punishment that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders and restitution to victims—such as those being tried out in some schools in Denver and courts in Chicago. He also mentioned efforts at another anti-retribution approach known as “transformative justice,” which focuses on creating conditions for healing for victims and safety through preventative measures for communities. This latter model is being tested by a number of non-profits across the country for addressing things even as serious as child sexual abuse.
There are still a number of political obstacles to achieving meaningful, abolition-oriented prison reform: powerful interests such as private corporations and police and prison guard unions stand to profit from the maintenance and expansion of the prison industrial complex, not to mention politicians who fear being tagged as soft on crime.
But public opinion might be swaying toward the side of the abolitionists, at least in part. According to a recent poll, 60 percent of Americans believe rehabilitation is more appropriate than punishment for non-violent offenses, which seems to be part of a broader trend away from punitive approaches to dealing with crime. Abolitionists simply want to take that kind of empathy a step further to eventually include violent offenders as well.
“We actually have power as people to change the system and change it to be more equitable, change it to be more just, change it to be more compassionate, change it to be more humane. I think that’s the hill that we have to climb,” says Cunningham.
Although they frequently find themselves dismissed as dreamers, several of the abolitionists I spoke with pointed to something Angela Davis wrote 15 years ago: “Slavery, lynching, and segregation are certainly compelling examples of social institutions that, like the prison, were once considered to be as everlasting as the sun. Yet, in the case of all three examples, we can point to movements that assumed the radical stance of announcing the obsolescence of these institutions.”
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