A PRISON ABOLITION EXPLAINER
What is mass incarceration?
Prison Policy Initiative's
Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020 and
States of Incarceration lay out the numbers. Today, more than 2.3 people are incarcerated in a prison or jail; a 600% increase since 1970. This does not include people the
52,000 people held in ICE-run or for-profit immigration detention centers or the
60,000 youth incarcerated on any given day in the US. When it comes to incarceration rates, the US is the highest in the world - 700 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The US incarcerates so many people that even a so-called “progressive” state like Washington cages more of its people than 98% of all countries on Earth!
Mass incarceration in the US has a deep history rooted in settler colonial violence against Indigenous peoples, slavery, structural anti-Black racism, white supremacy, sexism, transphobia, racist immigration policies, US imperialism and warmongering, Japanese internment during WWII, and the mundane violence of capitalism. To name just a few. For deeper reading on this history,
see this reading list.
What is the prison-industrial complex?
You may have heard (or will hear in future) the term prison-industrial complex or PIC. This term was coined to help abolitionists think better about prisons, the economy, and punishment. Today, the term can refer to a couple things. In broad terms, the prison-industrial complex refers to “
the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” In a more narrow sense, the prison-industrial complex refers to the complex interconnections between prisons and profit-driven corporations. This does not mean just private prisons!
Less than 9% of prisoners are held in a private prison (though the number is
closer to 70% for immigration detention centers). This means all the companies that profit when incarceration goes up - companies that sell prisoner clothing or guard uniforms, architecture firms, technology firms, food vendors, healthcare contractors, and many more. To learn more about other ways the term “prison-industrial complex” gets used, watch this video by Angela Davis.
Finally, what does this mean for abolitionists? It means that we have to think about abolition as a movement that is not just about politics but also about economy. Abolition is not just about how we respond to harm. It is also more broadly about how we provide for one another’s needs. This also means that prison abolition is an explicitly anti-capitalist project. Capitalism requires poverty and prisons punish poverty. We don’t need either.
But don't prisons work...?
There are two approaches to evaluating prisons. The first focuses on how prisons affect crime rates. This approach takes a few assumptions for granted. It assumes that all criminalized activities (“crimes”) should be criminalized. It also assumes that prisons are intended to solve the problem of crime. Abolitionists do not share these assumptions...but more on that later. Even if you do agree with these assumptions, prisons fail on every measure. As
this study by the Vera Institute explains: increased incarceration may have a small effect on property crime rates, but there is absolutely zero association between increased incarceration and lower violent crime rates. The failure of prisons to reduce crime is also intuitive, as
Danielle Sered puts it:
“I’m in the business of ending violence. And we know the four core drivers of violence are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one’s economic needs. The four core features of prison are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one’s economic needs.”
This points to the second approach to prisons: focusing on how prisons respond to harm and how they affect people’s actual life chances. This approach, rather than looking at what prisons are intended to do, looks at their actual impacts. As Sered points out, prisons are terrible at responding to harm. They are terrible at providing real justice or healing.
But! If you look at the long history of prisons, you realize that prisons are very good at one thing: social control. “Social control” means enforcing the status quo. Keeping the powerful in power and keeping the oppressed down. As early as the 1600s, European settlers in North America
used prisons as a tool to dispossess Indigenous people of their land and force them to work as wage laborers under capitalism. Before 1865, most prisoners in the South were White. After the end of slavery, however, Southern states instituted so-called Black Codes, which they then used to target and incarcerate newly freed Black people. Prisons and jails would then rent out prisoner labor, effectively making incarcerated Black people
slaves of the state. These are just a few examples; you can check out
this reading list for more of this history.
But the takeaway is simple. Prisons are not about justice or even crime. Prisons are about punishing, warehousing, and controlling those groups of people that cis-hetero-patriarchy, White supremacy, US imperialism, and capitalism deem worthless and disposable. When you look at it this way, prisons do work...just not the way we want. This is why we must abolish them.
What is prison abolition?
A lot of people think “abolition” is only about destroying things, but that’s just half the story. Prison abolition is not just about ending the use of prisons (as well as jails, juvies, and detention centers). It is also about building a society that wouldn’t rely on prisons in the first place. This does not mean replacing one broken institution with another institution. It is about growing many institutions and ways of relating to one another. It’s about replacing a monoculture of violence with a garden of care, accountability, and justice. For more, watch this video Prison Abolition + Prefiguring the World You Want to Live In by Dean Spade and Reina Gossett.
What do prison abolitionists actually do?
Prison abolition is both an ideal and a series of concrete demands and actions. As the late organizer Rose Braz said, “even though the goal we seek may be far away, unless we name it and fight for it today, it will never come.” Prison abolitionists pursue this goal in many ways, including working to end solitary confinement and the death penalty, stopping the construction of new prisons, eradicating cash bail, organizing to free people from prison, opposing the expansion of punishment through hate crime laws and surveillance, pushing for universal health care, and developing alternative modes of conflict resolution that do not rely on the criminal punishment system. To learn more, read this article What Abolitionists Do by Dan Berger, Mariame Kaba, and David Stein.
What's the difference between abolition and reform?
Reforming something means making changes to it in order to improve it. When you realize that prisons have for centuries been really bad at keeping people safe but really good at oppressing our marginalized neighbors (see above), then why would you want to improve them? Why throw more money and resources at an institution proven to be counterproductive and violent? Yet, that is what many people want to do. Prison wardens and policymakers are always talking about prison reform. In fact, many of the worst things about prisons began as efforts to reform them. For example, when reformers in the 1960s sought to end racist sentencing practices by prejudiced judges, they
focused on “improving” the system in a way that ultimately meant longer sentences for everyone. The modern-day penitentiary was itself proposed as a reform to the punishments that came before it, and look where that reform got us! Continuing to tinker with a broken system distracts us from imagining alternatives. This is why abolionists demand an end to prisons altogether!
Now, this leads to a dilemma that abolitionists often face: how do we fight for an end to prisons without abandoning incarcerated people in the meantime? The answer is that we stay organized. We put incarcerated people and the communities most directly impacted by policing, militarized immigration, and prisons at the center of this work. We talk and listen to one another. We strategize about how to fight for life-saving changes needed right now and we do so in a way that doesn’t expand or invigorate prisons. To learn more about what this looks like in concrete examples, read the next question below and watch this video “Practicing Prison Abolition Everyday” by Dean Spade and Reina Gossett.
Are there any good prison reforms?
It is unlikely that prisons are going to end overnight. If that is the case, then how do we get to a world without prisons? The answer is piece by piece, struggle by struggle. But wait! Didn’t we just say that reforms are bad?! Didn’t we just say that any effort to change prisons is ultimately doomed to empower them?!
Not all reforms are bad. Some can be helpful in moving us towards an abolitionist future. But how do we know which reforms are good and which are bad? The answer to this question ultimately depends on the situation. But abolitionists do have a litmus test to help.
Abolition distinguishes between reforms that are truly abolitionist - meaning they actually limit the life and scope of prisons - and reforms that are merely reformist - meaning they ultimately reinforce the legitimacy and power of prisons over people’s lives. One good way to spot a reformist reform is to ask yourself if it excludes any groups. For example, does it distinguish between “deserving” and “undeserving” prisoners? Does it demonize people convicted of “violent” crimes to win sympathy or respectability for “nonviolent” prisoners?
For example, decriminalizing marijuana while increasing sentences for higher-level drug crimes would be a reformist reform. It gets some people out of prison while making it worse for everyone else. A truly abolitionist reform would be decriminalizing marijuana. Full stop. No exceptions. No throwing anyone under the bus. If we actually want to win an abolitionist world, then we can’t buy into such distinctions. No one is disposable. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us, “where life is precious, life is precious.”
To learn more about spotting reformist reforms, watch
this video (7:08-10:30) with Ruth Wilson Gilmore. For a more theoretical discussion, read "
The Tension Between Abolition and Reform" by Liat Ben-Moshe (attached).
PS - While it is unlikely that prisons will end overnight, that doesn’t mean that no one is fighting to make that happen. Abolitionist reforms are one way to fight for change. Insurrectionary revolt is another. When prisoners
took over the New York State Attica Prison in 1971, they put an end to prisons - even if it was on a small scale and for a short time. Freedom is something we practice, as well as something we strive for. Abolitionists may differ about which strategies we promote when and where; but what these strategies share is their abolitionist vision.
But what about the violent people?
This is probably the most common question abolitionists get. Violence is real. But prisons are a terrible (and extremely violent) way of responding to it. So what to do?
First, we need to understand how false narratives have shaped the way we think about “the bad people.” Watch this video “
What About The Dangerous People?” with Dean Spade and Reina Gossett. You might also enjoy this video “
People Who Do Harm Are Not Monsters” by Shannon Perez-Darby and Kiyomi Fujikawa.
Second, we need to be careful in how we think about violence. Media paints people in prison as murderous psychopaths and that is not only false but also morally wrong. At the same time, we should not use the divide between “violent” people and “non-violent” people as some new rubric to decide who is disposable. Just like we shouldn’t organize only with political prisoners or only with prisoners who were wrongfully convicted. Read this article “
The Violent/Non-Violent Dichotomy” by Victoria Law.
Third, we need to develop alternatives to prison for responding to harm. More on transformative justice below. But when it comes to responding to violence, watch this interview (
part one and
part two) with Danielle Sered with Common Justice, a Brooklyn-based organization that offers alternatives to incarceration for people charged with violent felonies.
Fourth, we need to keep in mind that a lot of violence is totally legal, mainly when it is carried out by police, the military, and other arms of the state. Watch this video on “
Gun Control and Producing Dangerousness” by Dean Spade and Reina Gossett.
What about people who commit gender-based or sexualized violence?
These conversations can be difficult and should be done in a way that always validates people’s experiences of harm, as well as their emotional responses. So how do we end gender-based and sexualized violence? And how do we support those who have experienced harm, as well as those who have caused harm and their surrounding communities? It turns out that police, criminalization, and prison are terrible solutions. Prisons themselves are sites of extreme gender-based and sexualized violence. Somewhere
between half and 90% of people in women’s prisons have experienced sexual assault. People in prison are made even more vulnerable to sexual violence while incarcerated,
whether from fellow prisoners or guards. Trans and gender-variant people also suffer constant violence in binary sex-segregated prisons and
one in six trans people has been incarcerated.
All in all, nothing about the prison system challenges systemic cis-hetero-patriarchy, gender hierarchies, or rape culture writ large. To learn more about why abolitionists oppose relying on police and prisons to solve problems of sexualized and gender-based violence, watch this video “More Laws = More Violence: Criminalization as a Failed Strategy for Anti-Violence Movements.”
What about cops? Are abolitionists against police too? What would we do without police?
Police do not keep us safe. Especially not poor folks, folks experiencing homelessness, folks of color, gender-variant folks, and many others. To learn why abolitionists want to replace state police with community-based alternatives and what some of those alternatives might be, check out
this article on police abolition and this rundown “
Six Ideas for a Cop-Free World”.
For a deeper history of policing in North America, check out this Timeline (
What about immigration police and ICE?
Prisons sometimes get called different things - like “administrative detention” - and different arms of the state target different groups of vulnerable people for different reasons. But make no mistake, there are deep ties between prisons, jail, immigration detention centers, and juvies - not to mention military bases, the Indian reservation system, and Japanese internment camps. Until we are all free, none of us are free. To learn more about the history of the #AbolishICE movement, read this history by folks based in Washington and this article “Abolish ICE: Beyond A Slogan”.
So what do abolitionists want instead?
Well, prison abolition is not just about replacing one institution with another, so this list can be pretty long. And it should be. People’s needs are not being met in sooooo many ways right now, so we’re going to need many different solutions. One way to start figuring out those solutions might be asking yourself and your community: what would we buy instead of prisons? In 2015, states spent
more than $42 billion dollars on state prisons, and that doesn’t even include what we’re spending on police, jails, federal prisons, or immigration detention centers. What would you do with that money? Invest in public education? Free housing for all? Free college for all? Universal healthcare? More local solutions?
Quick note: Talking about the cost of prisons is important, but we also have to be careful how we think and talk about it. A lot of people who support prisons like to talk about prisons only in dollars and cents. They see people in prison as nothing more than a drain on state budgets. They use that worldview to justify running prisons like businesses, focusing on the bottom-line over prisoner rights or well-being. So dollars and cents matter, but they matter in service of our collective well-being and liberation.
But how should we respond to harm differently? Police and prisons claim to offer us justice. But they fail miserably! So how might we do justice differently? A lot of people are trying out different models. All of them are about centering community-based practices of accountability instead of the criminal-legal system of courts, police, and prisons. To learn some of the basics and see a few examples, watch the video “What is Transformative Justice?” below and check out some of
these resources from Critical Resistance.
What can I do next?
Abolition isn’t something you just learn from videos and articles, though that can be a good place to start. But you really learn what abolition looks like through practice. So, find your people. Share these ideas with others. Start a reading group.
Become a penpal with a person in prison or
an immigration detention center.
Find organizations and collectives in your area that are fighting for abolition. Learn what is going on in terms of prisons, police, jails, detention centers, etc in your own area. How is this affecting you and your community? How are your own and your community’s needs not being met? What are others in your community already fighting for? Who has power and how might you transform it? How might you share that struggle?
Some people think that a world without prisons is impossible. Abolitionists disagree. Consider all the ways we care for, harm, and repair one another already without police, prisons, or jails. No doubt, this does not mean the struggle is easy. It simply means that we already have everything we need. We just have to begin.