Prison Abolition – What it is and Why We Need it

According to a Pew Research Center report in 2008, 1 in every 100 Americans is in prison. In the United States, around 2,298,300 people are in the penal system out of a global prison population of around 9 million. Of the American prison population, 59% are either Black or Hispanic. Incarceration and punishment have long been thought to be the only solution to the issues of crime in both the United States and the world. This idea has led to the largest penal system in the world. The idea of prisons is so central to our society that it has become an accepted part of our collective psyche. Prison has become a figure equal to death and taxes in its inevitability and omnipresence. In many non-white communities in the United States, prison is a fact of life that continues to decimate families and the community. The very nature of many laws in the United States have intentions of incarcerating people of colour and keeping their communities down. Prisons have also become economically essential to the function of modern capitalism. From the private prison system to the prison industrial complex that provides cheap, almost slave labour to major corporations, the penal system has provided capitalism essential assets to continue its existence. Many people are aware of these outcomes but, many accept it as a natural conclusion or just a necessary evil. That is due to the normalization of prisons in our society, we are unable to conceive of an alternative. However, that is not the truth. The solution is quite simple: Prison Abolition. The only way that society can ever progress away from the repressive actions of the penal system is to abolish it entirely and replace it with something else. This is because the system itself is far too large for simple reform to do much other than prolong its existence. Prison abolition not only strikes at the injustices of the penal system but, also those of capitalism and causes us to ask more questions about the way our society operates as a whole. These questions do not and never will have easy answers but, it is imperative that we ask them and try to find the answers. Especially when the questions deal with injustices within the very fundamentals of society for, when it comes to injustice, there is no room for complacency.

    Before any discussion of prison abolition can begin, it must first be defined. Put simply, prison abolition is the abolition of prisons and while this definition is true, it lacks the essential context needed to understand it. There is a wealth of history, theory, and politics behind prison abolitionism. What prison abolitionism means is that the modern system of prisons in both the United States and the world at large does almost nothing at all to solve the systemic issues of crime. The system has from the very beginning only served the interests of the ruling classes in keeping certain subsections of the population interred, providing them with a plethora of cheap labour to exploit. Prison abolitionism also holds that the entire philosophy behind the concept of prison does nothing to actively solve issues of crime. The “prison as punishment” and deterrence policies of the US penal system has only fostered a backward and ineffective system that fails to solve the issues at hand while contributing to the racist structure of society. The growth of private interest in the prison system has also spurred discussion of prison abolition as a serious consideration. Private prisons in the United States make large profits from the states they reside in. Prisons also dominate societal and cultural landscapes. The popular conception of prison is one of something that always existed and will continue to exist. Prison abolition challenges that notion. Prison abolition challenges what society has accepted as a way to deal with its problems. It challenges economic structures, social relations, philosophies of justice, and the law. It is a critique of society as a whole.

    The United States is a country founded on colonialism. The American War of Independence may have “freed” the country from the direct political control of colonial power but, the colonial structures continued to exist. Colonialism at its very core is a racist and repressive concept. It thrives on the repression of one group over another. Even after the war, the power structure continued to enforce itself. This is why some historians say that the American Revolution was not all that revolutionary. Those who started it where the white landed class and they maintained their power after, in fact even consolidated it. The ruling classes of the colonies wanted to retain their control of the economic assets that made the colonies successful. In much of the country at the time of the revolution, one of these major institutions was slavery. Another institution to arise around this time was that of the penal system. The new American nation needed to build up its laws and through them protect its institutions. This led to the intertwining of slavery and racism into the laws of the United States. Angela Davis in her book Are Prisons Obsolete? points out the many similarities between slavery and imprisonment. “…both institutions deployed similar forms of punishment, and prison regulations were, in fact, very similar to the slave codes—the laws that deprived enslaved human beings of virtually all rights.” From this intertwining of slave and criminal policy came cultural ramifications as to which groups possess greater criminality than others. From the beginning of the United States, there has always been an association of black people with crime. This assumption has been solidified into law as a reflection of societal views. This started with the slave codes and those evolved into the so-called black codes following the abolition of slavery. The abolition of slavery through the 13th Amendment is a key landmark in the building of the prison system in the United States. The wording of the amendment is especially important. While it did abolish involuntary servitude and slavery, it had the exception of: “…except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party has been duly convicted.” This laid the foundation for the current penal system and the establishment of penal labour camps. After the abolition of slavery, Southern states had begun to construct new ways in which to keep the white hegemony in the South. This was done through the previously mentioned Black Codes and later segregation. These laws provided broad definitions for crimes such as “vagrancy.” These were intentionally vague so that they could be applied to black people. This grossly increased both the black prison population and the general view that black people were criminals. These trends and views are still present today in the societal standards we have today. A modern example of this would be the War on Drugs and how it failed to stop the drug problem but, did manage to disproportionally send non-white people to prison on petty drug charges. The War on Drugs was itself a racist endeavour. All one needs to look at is the 1994 interview with a former advisor to the Nixon administration, John Ehrlichman, where he said:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to either be against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt their communities…”

   Racial discrimination against black people is not the only form used by the penal system and prisons. Racism against Latinos, Indigenous groups, and Asians permeates the very core of the system. Angela Davis again states that “…racism surreptitiously defines social and economic structures in ways that are difficult to identify and thus are much more damaging.” Racism, by involving itself in multiple facets of society becomes harder and harder to identify as the population is eased by a sense of normality. The prison system is ripe with this racism and it helps to get people into prison and repress them once they are inside. It should also be noted that the racism of the prison system is not limited to black people but, also all people of colour and immigrant populations. One notable example of this is the large amount of the prison population that is Hispanic and the mass arrests and harassment of people of Middle Eastern descent following 9/11 and the humanitarian travesty of the War on Terror. Racism is by no means the only issue within the prison system. Sexism and homophobia are also major forces within it. Women’s prisons are notorious for a severe lack of resources and attention. Also, the system of punishment has tended to view female criminality as different from that of males. This led to an increasingly gendered prison system where the treatment of prisoners became unequal based on sex. In this case, women were often treated worse than men. Angela Davis points out a story from the Panther 21 trial in 1977 where Assata Shakur had been forced to stay in a men’s prison while under constant surveillance. Another story from Shakur was when she was in a female prison in New Jersey. Here she says she was subject to an “internal search”. This involved a nurse and a prison guard searching the vagina and other cavities of the prisoner. This was done with forced consent for, if the prisoner had refused the search, they would be sent to solitary confinement until they consented. Angela Davis, who had been in the same prison as Shakur, corroborates this story. This is but one of the many inhumane actions that can happen to female prisoners while in prison. Sexual abuse from prison guards is an all too common threat looming over the heads of female prisoners. A 1996 report from Human Rights Watch stated that: “…being a woman prisoner in US state prisons can be a terrifying experience.” The patterns of abuse that exist within prisons are often tolerated by the system as the report also states: “Grievance or investigatory procedures, where they exist, are often ineffectual, and corrections employees continue to engage in abuse because they believe they will rarely be held accountable…” This pattern of sexual abuse of women also ties in with the rampant homophobia within the prison system. The patriarchal attitude of prison culture and the mindset of prison guards leaves LGBTQ+ prisoners vulnerable to abuse. Prison encourages the harmful male practice of machismo from guards which can lead to violence. All in all, many non-white and non-male prisoners feel the brunt of the injustices in the prison system, as it is built to repress those communities due to the latent ideology at play in the entire American justice and penal system.

    Prisons are economic factors in society. As mentioned before, the 13th Amendment had abolished involuntary servitude in all cases except when it is punishment for a crime. The consequence of this is that corporations have been able to use the prison population as a pool of cheap labour in order to keep the cogs of capitalism moving. The classic image of the prisoners making license plates is how society has normalized the use of slave labour in the prison system but, this only scratches the surface. The entire system of prison labour is collectively called the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). The PIC extends farther than just the use of inmate labour. It extends out into the construction of prisons, contractors that provide services to the prisons, and private prisons (which are possibly the worst idea anyone ever had). Private corporations rely heavily on the PIC in order for them to function properly. Jobs that were formerly given to union workers were switched over to prisoners. In the short essay “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”, Angela Davis discusses why private business relies on prison labour. “For private business, prison labour is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay.” Major corporations use prison labour to do things such as data entry, call centres, and manufacturing. Within the Commonwealth of Virginia, much of the furniture used by the state government is made using prison labour. For all the work these prisoners put in, they get a pittance in return. In many states, prisoners are not even paid. This almost unlimited pool of slave labour has become one of the main cogs in the machine of modern capitalism. Davis again says: “Many corporations whose products we consume on a daily basis have learned that prison labour power can be as profitable as third world labour…” Davis continues to list some of the companies that use prison labour. Corporations such as IBM, Motorola, Microsoft, and Boeing are known to use prison labour. Clothing companies also use prison labour. The retailer Nordstrom had entire lines of clothes made in Oregon prisons. What the use of prison labour means is that companies begin to rely on it for a sizable portion of their workforce. This leads to a vested interest in keeping prison populations at a high level. This contradicts the supposed goal of the prison system and society itself of keeping the criminal population low. Direct labour is not the only way private interests profit from the PIC.

    Private prisons are the natural consequence of the profit-motivated system of capitalism fusing with the corrections system. The private prison industry grew out of the government contracting services such as food and supplies out to contractors. This eventually evolved into private facilities. The primary issue with private prisons as a concept is that they are antithetical to the supposed goals of prison. A private prison company is in search of profit and needs to make one in order to continue to function. This means that in order for a private prison to exist, there must be a constant prison population. Private prisons are also notorious for the abuse of prisoners. The lack of oversight from state governments allows private prison guards and staff to get away with actions that government guards might not be able to get away with. The facilities themselves are also not kept up as well as other prisons. This leads to terrible conditions for prisoners interned there. One of the key problems with the private prison system is also the lack of facilities private prisons have. Medical treatment and mental health facilities are either underfunded or non-existent. This leads to cases of suicide becoming prevalent within the private prison system. Private prisons are the inevitable consequence of the role society has placed on prisons and the influence capitalism has on that system. As prisons become where society pushes its problematic members, the strain on the government grows. From there capitalism swoops in to try and fix all the problems but, ends up exacerbating them. Throw in also the fact that there are companies that do not want to see these problems fixed due to the pool of prison labour. These relationships form the basis of the prison industrial complex.

    While the historical and economic reasons for prison abolition constitute enough to argue the point effectively, there is an entire another facet that is just as important: the philosophy. Prison functions on a philosophical basis of punishment and deterrence. This focus on punishment and deterrence overtakes rehabilitation, which should be the focus of correctional systems. What the punishment focus does is allow for recidivism and the inhumane practice of solitary confinement. The focus on deterrence allows for the usage of the death penalty and harsh punishment, such as the mandatory minimum laws that some states have. There also is the basic fact that: The denial of freedom does not foster free men. This notion comes from the belief that human beings have innate freedom and the want to be free. Denying said freedom is denying one of their humanity.

The focus of the prison system of locking up people and breaking their spirits in order to deter them from crime does very little to actually deter people. What it does is make them spiteful. The form of retributive justice that guides the prison system is not suited for a “rehabilitative” system. That is because punishment and rehabilitation cannot go together. It is either one or the other. This is because punishment does not help the criminal to reform themselves, it only gives them something to avoid. Take this as an example, say a child steals a cookie from the kitchen. The parents find out and punish the child by spanking him. After this, the child may refrain from stealing cookies for a while but, eventually may figure out ways to avoid the punishment. Another example is, imagine if, in lieu of spanking, the parents decided to ground the child and confine them to a room for a period of time. The child will become spiteful and will act out and steal again because it is constrained. Prison, as we know, has similar consequences. As the system develops new methods of punishment, criminals find new ways to avoid those punishments. If the criminal is caught, the harsh conditions of prison and the denial of freedom that goes with it will make them spiteful, more willing to strike out against the law once more. Mandatory minimums and harsh punishments do not stop crime, they make criminals more clever and less likely to reform.

    Prison is a soul-crushing experience for a human being under any circumstance. That is the problem. People are crushed underneath authoritarian structures in prison and reminded constantly of what they did wrong but, never why they are wrong. Society sets out rules of which it governs itself by and those who break those rules must be told of that in some way. The problem every society confronts is as to how it should go about dealing with the criminal element. The most common way is through punishment, going all the way back to the Code of Hammurabi. It is from those early codes that we today form our conception of justice. This conception of justice as retributive is what makes many people opposed to true prison abolition and the introduction of rehabilitative methods. They feel that those who break the rules must always be punished to the most severe extent. It must be remembered that criminals are human beings as well. Rehabilitation works because it is philosophically sound with how corrections systems should work. It tells people why they are wrong and helps them to become better human beings and does not violate basic human rights. Rehabilitation seeks to reform the prisoner, not punish them. This being said, what of the victim? To many retributive justice works because the victims are satisfied that the criminal is getting their just consequences. That is where the concept of restorative justice fills the gap. Restorative justice is where the response to a crime is a dialogue. The prisoner is shown why what they did was wrong, the consequences that action had on other people and the community as a whole, and the criminal is then allowed to attempt reconciliation. That reconciliation is not an easy thing either. It could involve community service, compensation, or other methods. Another system of justice is that of popular justice. In popular justice, communities decide punishments for their criminals on a democratic basis. This concept is, however, not mutually exclusive with retributive or restorative justice but, is more of a method.

    In essence, the main issue with the philosophy behind the mainstream conception of prison is that it lacks the humanity it needs. People upon entering prison are stripped of basic things that make them human. They are stripped of freedom, of rights, and basic needs. We have made solitary confinement, one of the worst things that can be done to a human being, a basic function of correction. The idea of corrections as having to be this stone cold and inhuman thing has led us to develop a form of totalitarianism within our prisons that makes it impossible for prisoners to even begin to reform themselves. We lock people up for years and then, without giving them a semblance of the proper resources to even begin to try and return to society, spit them out with full expectations that they will return. That is not humane.

    Prisons also have very real material effects on people. Individual prisoners and the communities those prisoners come from all have to deal with the problems caused by the massive scale of the prison system and its byproducts. These issues have to do with the previously mentioned ideas of racism within the prison system and the disproportionate imprisonment of people of colour in the United States. The issue also has to do with the societal view of prison as something that can solve the problems of crime. Individuals that come out of prison are less likely to be able to reenter the workforce. This has tremendous effects on the person’s family and community. The stigma society places on prisoners is what causes this. Due to the racist nature of the penal system, these adverse effects mainly affect communities of colour and poorer people.

    According to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, among black children in 2012, 1 in 9 have a parent in jail. Among Hispanic children, it is 1 in 28. The long-term effects of having a parent in prison are extremely harmful. Economically, it can lead to less money in the household which can lead to homelessness. Psychologically, it leaves children without strong parental figures. This leaves them in a place where they are susceptible to crime, drugs, and gangs. The economic instability will also drive them to crime and away from school. This is one of the many cycles that the entire system uses to perpetuate itself. Even after prisoners are let out and return to their homes and communities, the damage is already done. The mental and physical health of prisoners is one of the largest concerns after release. The APA states that approximately 10 to 20 per cent of inmates suffers from some sort of serious mental illness. On the matter of physical health, inmates often leave prison in worse shape than when they entered. This is due to the lack of proper facilities, quality of food, and generally poor quality of life in prison. When people are locked up, it takes away from their families a much needed economic assistance and when they return, they are not able to provide. The main obstacle many who are released face is the issue of societal stigma against prisoners. Employers will simply not hire released prisoners (but will exploit prison labour, funnily enough). What this leads to is recidivism. They will reenter prison. A report from the Congressional Research Service in 2015 put the percentage of prisoners who return to prison over a period of 5 years at 76.6 per cent.

    These effects bleed over into the wider community as they are rocked by this happening to nearly every family. Communities find their young people gone, either in prison or somewhere else. Children become susceptible to criminal activity as their economic situation worsens and community leaders are left with very little power to stop it. This cycle keeps the systemic racism in place. It deprives people of colour the opportunity to function properly with the rest of society. This protects the interests of capitalists and government who know that if these communities that they exploit were to become conscious enough, would overthrow the existing system. This is also one of the main reasons why prison reform is almost a meaningless term when trying to look at real solutions to the problems caused by the penal system.

    One of the main questions that will come up when one looks at prison abolition is something like: “These criticisms are great and all but, what is the alternative?” This question is a valid one but, also a very hard one to answer. Throughout the essay, there have been proposals of alternative methods such as alternative forms of justice or a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. These “alternatives” are rather unsatisfying for many as they are vague and that is intentional. Norwegian prison abolitionist Thomas Mathiesen wrote a book in 1974 called The Politics of Abolition. This book puts forward the key concept in prison abolitionism of “the unfinished alternative” or simply “the unfinished”. What this means is that the alternative solution for the problems caused by prisons is not something that we can truly come up with before having abolished prisons. This is due to the weight the prison system has in society. We trust prison to deal with crime, mental illness, and it is tied to economic factors. No one person nor a small group of people could even begin to think of a working alternative. Mathiesen even states that is futile to try and think of a finished alternative. “…any attempt to change the existing order into something completely finished, a fully formed entity, is destined to fail…” Essentially, prison abolitionists cannot have a fully formed alternative in theory because it is not up to a small group to decide but, society as a whole. Rethinking prison means rethinking our culture, our economic system, and how we deal with our problematic elements of society. We have to rethink justice and all of our laws. It is not an easy road but, it is one that we must all take together.

    Many will not be convinced by this essay. Many think that reform is the answer and that abolishing the prison system poses too many problems for society. Many will also object to the concept of the unfinished alternative. While the latter claim is a legitimate grievance that many can object to, it is hard to believe that such a system can be reformed. Reforming such a system that is so paramount to the functioning of societal repression is near impossible. The prison system as a functionary wing of capitalism helps to maintain itself. The only way to fix any of the major systemic issues described in this essay is to abolish prisons. Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish put it best:

“One should recall that the movement for reforming the prisons, for controlling their functioning is not a recent phenomenon. It does not even seem to have originated in a recognition of failure. Prison ‘reform’ is virtually contemporary with the prison itself: it constitutes, as it were, its programme.”


Picture Credit: Kevin Rashid Johnson

One thought on “Prison Abolition – What it is and Why We Need it

  1. Deave Cuvox

    While I wholeheartedly agree that imprisonment under the capitalist system, a system motivated by profit and greed, is completely ineffective, calling for an abolition of all prisons in a society as large as the United States poses more issues than it solves.

    For one, let’s take a look at your suggestion of rehabilitation-oriented punishments, like community service and dialogue. I would first argue that some crimes do not demand rehabilitation, neither is it necessary to rehabilitate society’s worst criminals. What purpose would there be in rehabilitating a first degree killer? Its not as if they don’t know what they did was wrong. And no amount of rehabilitation will bring back the dead. To imagine a world where murder was not criminalized and punished, where one would be able to kill with “rehabilitation” as the punishment, is a frightening thought.

    On top of that, I would also argue that some form of imprisonment is necessary to rehabilitation. Look at, for example, the reformation of the last Qing emperor Puyi, the single most imperialist, most reactionary person in all of China who was converted to a dedicated communist. The transformation was not easy, and required lengthy confinement and re-education. The Soviet gulag system and the Chinese Laogai system used reform through backbreaking labor, providing resources for the people while also laboring off their crimes. This is, of course, different from capitalist motivations driven by profit, but it shows that coerced labor can coexist with prison reform.

    Second, I disagree with the notion that community led democratic punishments can ever be an effective penal code because of the sheer subjectivity in the way laws are enforced. I could hardly imagine the horror that we’d be subject to if Alabama, Mississippi, and other southern states would be able to enforced “community punishment” on their minority populations, the same way they did during and after the abolition of slavery. Even in communist countries where reactionaryism is condemned, putting the power of punishment in the hands of a community are dangerous. Mao ultimately lost control of his red guards during the closing stages of the cultural revolution, leading to the bloody persecution of thousands of innocents in essentially lynch mob attacks.

    To change the justice system, change needs to first come from on top. The racism, sexism, and profit-driven modes of punishment you mentioned are symptoms of a larger problem – the problem of capital. Instead of abolishing prisons, change the people who are using them to put power in the interests of the people.


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