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The Politic Blog

Prison Abolition in the Age of Trump

In a time when partisan fevers are running high and political divisiveness has become a facet of life, there are few issues that inspire collaboration across party lines. However, politicians and voters across the political spectrum have recently been able to find common ground on at least one thing: the campaign for criminal justice reform. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and many elected officials, from Tea Party agitator Rand Paul to democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, have advocated for reforms to reduce the number of people behind bars. Even President Donald Trump, who campaigned as a tough-on-crime candidate, signed into law a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill in December of last year.

As Washington congratulates itself on this spark of bipartisanship, some believe that this legislation does not go far enough. While many politicians and activists have thrown their support behind efforts to reform the criminal justice system, a small but growing group is advocating for a different approach to addressing the injustices caused by mass incarceration: abolishing prisons altogether.

Criminal justice reform and prison abolition activists often point to the same data to show that the United States’ system of imprisonment is deeply flawed. Despite being home to only five percent of the world’s population, according to the NAACP, the United States contains 21 percent of the global prison population — with a total of 2.2 million incarcerated individuals. This number has grown by over 500 percent in the past forty years due to the “tough-on-crime” efforts of the War on Drugs —an attempt by the government to crackdown on illicit drug use through stricter sentencing laws and more aggressive policing tactics such as the  . The effects of the decades-long snowballing of mass incarceration have also had striking racial disparities: black people are five times as likely to be incarcerated as white people, and people of color receive sentences that are an average of ten percent longer when they commit the same crimes as white people. One in three black men can expect to go to prison within his life.

While the staggering human and financial toll of mass incarceration and the racially unjust consequences of the criminal justice system are widely acknowledged, those in the prison abolition movement have adopted the uncompromising stance that there is no way to address these issues through legislative reform. Rather, advocates insist, the entire prison system must be dismantled in order to achieve true justice.

“I think reform is just building on an already broken system and putting money into an already broken system,”said Pooja Gehi, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, told The Politic. Although this idea strikes many as radical, the idea of prison abolition has been floated in activist circles for decades, tracing its roots to late twentieth century black feminists. Civil rights activist Angela Davis is among one of the best known advocates for prison abolition. In her 2003 book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Davis argues that abolition of prisons is a natural continuation of previous anti-slavery and civil rights progress.

“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,” Davis wrote. “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.”

Since Davis and others first proposed the dismantling of prisons, a small but growing group of progressive activists have taken up the abolition cause, many of whom view their efforts as a broad strategy to address the injustices of mass incarceration and institutional racism. Journalist Maya Schenwar explained in an interview with POLITICO Magazine, “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.”

According to Gehi, prison abolitionists often receive the same initial reaction from people who learn about the movement: What about the rapists and murderers and all the criminals who endanger our communities? For many, it is impossible to imagine a safe world without jails, but those fighting for prison abolition believe that investment in alternative forms of rehabilitation for both the offender and the community would be more effective. “We need to have accountability that isn’t punitive and isn’t built upon a multibillion dollar industry,” said Gehi. “I think part of that is putting money into social services and support, mental health service in particular along with access of healthcare and housing.” Advocates claim that increased support for the most vulnerable populations would do more to decrease crime than the threat of imprisonment.

This belief has some empirical support. Research by the National Institute of Justice has shown that strict sentencing laws do nothing to deter crime, and nationwide three out of four released prisoners will be arrested again within five years.

Gehi witnesses this cycle of recidivism in her own work with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which represents transgender people of color. Working with this vulnerable population, Gehi observed that once someone is punished through the criminal justice system, it can become impossible to find steady work or housing upon release, often leading to further arrests. Gehi explained simply, “When people come out of prison, it’s a set-up.”

Prison abolition activists have suggested other forms of accountability that focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. One promising solution includes restorative justice, a process in which offenders, victims, and other community stakeholders work to repair the harm done by the offender and re-establish trust. A system of restorative justice has been adopted in many schools, including those in New Haven, and is also the basis of an experimental criminal court outside of Chicago. Advocates also promote stronger social services and safety nets for those at risk in order to address the root causes of crime, rather than simply punish those who are caught in cycles of poverty or mental illness and end up in trouble with the law.

Although its proposals are viewed by many as too extreme, the prison abolition movement is gaining wider recognition. In 2015, Gehi lead a successful campaign for a pro-prison abolition resolution within the National Lawyers Guild, the nation’s oldest progressive bar association. Prison abolition is also included in the platform of the Democratic Socialists of America, which counts progressive wunderkind Alexandria Ocasio Cortez among it members. However, prison abolition remains a fringe cause even in liberal circles, and advocates recognize the work that must be done in order to achieve an end to prisons. For now, abolitionist like Gehi will continue to spread the word of their cause because, as movement founder Angela Davis once said, there must be a push to “liberate minds as well as society.”