The U.S. prison system today is not about detaining a small group of dangerous individuals. Over the past 30 years, we have grown addicted to incarceration, relying on it as the solution to all of our social problems.
Our jails and prisons have largely become warehouses for the poor, sick, mentally ill, and otherwise marginalized in our society. When we don’t want to have to think about a person, or think about why they may have committed a crime in the first place, we simply lock them up.
“We’ve come to see it as a tool of first resort for an ever-growing list of social ills,” Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College, told me. “There may be situations where those tools are needed, but they should be understood to have collateral consequences.”
You probably know all the statistics already: America incarcerates more people, as a share of our population, than any other developed country in the world. Black and brown men make up a disproportionate share of America’s jail and prison population. Many people who are serving time are doing so for nonviolent drug offenses.
There are roughly 2.3 million people in the U.S. prison industrial complex, factoring in local jails, state and federal prisons, youth detention facilities, immigration detention centers, territorial prisons, and other state-enforced facilities. One in five incarcerated people—almost half a million in total—are serving time for nonviolent drug offenses. Another large share of American prisoners have not actually been convicted of a crime, but remain locked up in pretrial detention because they can’t afford bail. We literally lock people up for being poor.
At least 219,000 women are incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons, making America one of the top jailers of women in the world. Many women are sent to prisons that are hours away from their families, making visits from their children near impossible. More than 34,000 young people across the country are incarcerated—most of them for nonviolent offenses. On top of that, 4,500 young people are locked up in adult prisons and jails, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Who does this system help? Does locking more and more people up help drug addicts recover? Does it help poor people find meaningful work? Does it restore balance to families? Does it help stem the flow of drugs into the country? Does it offer the victims of crimes real peace of mind? Does it make our country safer?
It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the idea of a world without prisons. Thinking about abolishing the prison system requires imagining a world that ensures accountability without having to resort to punitive violence. Prison abolitionists ask us to take a more expansive view of words like “violence,” “harm,” “safety,” and “justice.”
And prison abolitionists are not suggesting we open all the doors of all the supermax prisons and reenact The Purge. Rather, they are envisioning a world that does not need to lock people up in cages. We can be safe without dehumanizing each other. Abolition, says Maya Schenwar, the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, is just as much about building up new institutions as it is about tearing down old ones.
“We do want all the prisons gone, but it’s not like anyone thinks that’s going to happen tomorrow,” Schenwar says. “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.”
One thing the prison system is exceptionally good at is isolating human beings, from each other and from themselves. Between 2013 and 2014, the rate of people committing suicide in state prisons increased 30 percent. 2014 saw the highest number of inmate suicides—nearly 4,000—since the U.S. Department of Justice started tracking the data in 2001.
When we think of “prison violence,” we might think of a prison riot in a movie scene. But the public rarely considers all the other myriad forms that violence takes. A male inmate tells jail guards that he is thirsty, and they refuse to give him water. He dies of dehydration. A pregnant woman tells guards she is going into labor. The guards don’t believe her, and keep her in her cell. She loses her baby. Once you start to understand that violence is not just something that happens inside of prisons, but is endemic to the prison system as a whole, the idea of maintaining this system becomes unconscionable.
Your answer to “what does safety look like?” might be something like, “a lack of harm or threat of harm.” But what counts as “harm”? If your husband beats you, we all agree that counts as harm. But if, without your husband, you can no longer afford to pay rent, does getting evicted count as harm? If your son lashes out at school because he is hungry, is he the cause of harm, or a symptom of a larger problem?
The way we have been taught to perceive “violence” is a straight line connecting Party A to Party B. But violence is not a line connecting two finite points in space—“Tommy hit Billy”—it’s a circle.
Yes, some of the people who are incarcerated today have done terrible things. Abolition requires radical empathy, and radical forgiveness. It requires a reversal of our most ingrained ideas about what justice looks like, from the Code of Hammurabi to Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice.
And it requires acknowledging that the American prison system does not make us safer, though it may make certain people feel safer. The prison system does not prevent the cycle of violence from continuing—it perpetuates it. We as a society continue to abide prisons because they do a good job of hiding larger, thornier problems. Prisons help keep societal problems out of sight, out of mind.
We have to get away from thinking of justice as purely retaliatory, and toward a conception of justice that is communal, where responsibility is not solely owned by the individual who committed a crime, but shared with everyone. We have to take a critical accounting of our actions. Abolition means having the gall to envision a world where everyone is truly free.
What about serial killers? This is the common response to abolition arguments. “Do you want ax murderers running rampant in the streets?” The simple answer is, no. No one wants that. This is a strawman argument that people like to insert into the debate around prison reform and abolition, because the alternative seems uncomfortable and scary. Yes, there will inevitably be some people who are a threat to others, or to themselves, who will need supervision. But our current prison system is a tool of mass punishment, not a program carefully designed to protect society from a small population of genuinely dangerous individuals, let alone a system that even tries to rehabilitate those individuals.
The good news is, there aren’t aren’t that many manaical ax murderers. Even those deeply enmeshed in the prison-industrial complex will admit that the serial rapists and repeat murderers are a minuscule fraction of our massive incarcerated population. Those who administer our prisons know well enough that the vast majority of their prisoners could indeed be released tomorrow without further incident, so long as society was prepared to welcome and support their reentry.
That alone is a powerful argument for closing them down. But there are plenty of reasons that powerful actors in our society want to see the prison system continue unchecked. In many jurisdictions, getting rid of prisons would also mean getting rid of free labor. A Louisiana sheriff recently said keeping state prisoners was a “necessary evil” because “that’s the ones that you can work” for free. “They’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change the oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchens, to do all that where we save money,” complained Steve Prator, the Caddo Parish sheriff.
Even in the coldest, econometric analysis, that slave labor can’t be worth the astounding sums of money we spend keeping people locked up. If economic conservatives were serious about saving public money, a good start would be to significantly lower the prison population. A big reason that prisons are costly is that housing, feeding and caring for 2.3 million human beings is costly. But keeping the gears of the carceral state churning—from attorneys and prison guards to bail bondsmen and private security contractors—incurs a hefty cost as well. A 2017 Prison Policy Initiative report found that mass incarceration in the U.S. costs at least $182 billion every year.
Making people disappear from society doesn’t solve any of our problems. Putting more people in jail won’t eliminate the reasons they were put there in the first place. We continue to treat the symptoms (and treat them badly) instead of asking the harder questions of how we build a better neighborhood, a better city, a better state, a better country, a better world.
The answer to violence is not more violence. The answer to violence—as the abolitionist author and activist Mariame Kaba has written extensively—is achieved through collective organizing.
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.”
“Two centuries ago, you had people talking about abolishing slavery” Victoria Law, the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women says. “And the mainstream response was, ‘What the hell are you talking about? We’re never going to abolish slavery. Maybe we’ll make slavery nicer for people, but abolishing slavery, that’s never, ever going to happen.’”
Prisons are a non-answer to the question of what to do with people who exemplify our societal problems. We have to shift our thinking away from an isolated, individualistic, retaliatory conception of justice, and toward a communal one. Abolition requires not only a fundamental shift in thinking about how society can better provide goods to its citizens, but the political will to remake society in that image. It is “a call to throw ourselves full force into the struggle,” as prison scholar Dan Berger wrote in 2015.
“Abolition reminds us that political horizons shift, presenting obstacles previously unimaginable,” Berger wrote. “But within that realization is another one: we are powerful and we can win.”