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More Than Reform: Prison Abolition

During his confinement in a mid-19th-century Russian prison, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a tale of a priest and the Devil on his cell wall. The Devil confronts the priest, enraged that he would depict tortuous scenes of Hell in the afterlife when people “are already suffering the tortures of Hell in their earthly lives.” The pair then visits various hellish scenes on Earth—a sweltering iron foundry, a dusty grain mill, a decrepit peasant hut—before the Devil instructs the priest to experience the ultimate, final Hell: a prison.

“Take off your silken clothes,” the Devil instructs. “Put on your ankles heavy chains such as these unfortunates wear; lie down on the cold and filthy floor—and then talk to them about a Hell that still awaits them!”

The priest cannot think of a worse Hell.

Leftist thinkers and activists have been advocating for the abolition of prisons for at least a century, such as anarchist Emma Goldman reproducing The Priest and the Devil to open Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure, her 1911 abolitionist essay, and the prison abolition movement is currently gaining steam within the American Left.

Activist groups like Critical Resistance and Incite! Women of Color Against Violence have been organizing for prison abolition since the late 1990s and early 2000s, and their message seems to be gaining institutional approval. Recently, the Movement for Black Lives, the National Lawyers Guild, and parties in the Democratic Socialists of America have all endorsed prison abolition.  

The abolition movement is accelerating at a time when the prison stands as one of the central structures in American society. The statistics of mass incarceration are staggering: one in every 108 adults was in prison or jail in 2012, one in 28 American children has an imprisoned parent, and 65 million Americans have a criminal record. The United States imprisons a larger proportion of its black population than Apartheid South Africa did, and the American government put more of its citizens in prisons than the Soviet Union put in its gulags.

As with most systems in the United States, the American prison system disproportionately oppresses marginalized racial groups. Ten percent of black men in their thirties are in prison or jail on any given day; Native Americans are admitted to prison at four times the rate of whites. And a report from the Sentencing Project lays out an “avalanche” of racial disparity in the criminal justice system.

Despite the prison system’s well-documented ills, there is far from a consensus on the Left about the embrace of prison abolition. A recent article published in Current Affairs lays out the common arguments that support and oppose prison abolition. Among the anti-abolition arguments are the “What About My Cousin?” questions: What about the serial killers? What about the rapists? The robbers? The predatory lenders? Where would they go if we abolish prisons, what can be done with them, and how can we be safe?

If the prison abolition movement were advocating for the immediate and unconditional opening of all prison doors, I would share this fear. But for many prominent abolitionists like Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba, and Rose Braz, prison abolition is a goal that defines the societal change needed to be adopted today.

Basically, prison abolition asks less “How can we get everyone out of prison as soon as possible?” and more “What needs to be done to create a society that has no need for prisons, and what must be done today to better the lives of those in the system?”

Prison abolitionists engage in much of the reform work common among most criminal justice activists, like fighting to end solitary confinement, the death penalty, and cash bail. But, as Kaba writes in Jacobin, abolitionists distinguish themselves by engaging in non-reformist reforms, or “those measures that reduce the power of an oppressive system while illuminating the system’s inability to solve the crises it creates.”

In reality, that means supporting standard prison reforms while also advocating for measures that decrease the size and power of the prison system, such as halting new prison construction and developing alternative means of conflict resolution that can take place beyond the criminal justice system.

So far, abolitionists have succeeded in these areas. In California, groups like Critical Resistance and the California Prison Moratorium Project have been organizing against the growth of the state’s massive prison system. Partially in response to activist resistance, the state has only built two carceral institutions, one of which is a prison hospital, since 1999, compared to the twenty-three prisons built between 1983 and 1999.

Furthermore, restorative justice, a process that emphasizes interpersonal resolution between the involved parties of a crime, is being promoted by organizations like Project NIA and the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation as a community-based alternative to criminal justice.

All these efforts are just small cracks in the behemoth structure of American prisons. At this point in time, with bipartisan criminal justice reform, a nonstarter in Congress and an attorney general with brutal views on criminal justice, the call to abolish prisons can seem unproductive and naive. But abolition projects have never been for those with a short view of history. Though restructuring society to make prison abolition possible will likely take decades to accomplish, the process begins with the belief that a system in which the state surveils and confines millions of people is not the best way to deliver justice.

After all, as the late prison abolitionist Rose Braz once said, “a prerequisite to seeking any social change is the naming of it.”