A Brief Case for Prison Abolition

prison abolitionWe know prisons are racist, classist and abusive. Are they also obsolete?

pris•on ab•o•li•tion


1. The dismantling of the prison system; the end of coerced confinement as punishment
2. The construction of alternatives to prison and of a world that disincentivizes violence

“While there is a lower class I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” —Socialist Eugene V. Debs, in a statement to the court after being convicted of sedition in 1918.

Don’t Prisons Keep People Safe?

Whatever politicians might say, abolitionists argue that the current prison-industrial complex isn’t designed to solve crime—after all, three-quarters of people released from prison are rearrested within five years—but rather to warehouse the poor, drug addicted and mentally ill. And there’s a racial element as well: Black Americans are around five times more likely than whites to find themselves behind bars, often for minor offenses, while many who pose a bigger threat to society get Oscars, golden parachutes and seats in Congress.

Why Not Just Make Prisons Better?

It’s true that not all prisons are as sadistic as Uncle Sam’s: In Norway, for example, the incarcerated wear street clothes, pick berries, cook meals and have relative freedom to move about the grounds. But many prison abolitionists believe that depriving humans of liberty is fundamentally cruel. Social scientists such as Gresham M. Sykes—not to mention many incarcerated people themselves—have long documented how the loss of one’s place in society, physical safety and autonomy can cause severe long-term psychological problems.

Still, Isn’t Prison Abolition Utopic?

Utopic need not be a slur, but the idea is less out there than it may seem. As Angela Davis explains in Are Prisons Obsolete?, imprisonment only became a catch-all punishment in what’s now the United States around the American Revolution. Other means of conflict resolution aren’t just possible, but the historical norm.

Okay, So … What Do We Do With All The Criminals?

The abolitionist first might challenge the word “criminal,” observing that it’s often racialized, and call to decriminalize “crimes” like drug use, for example. They might also advocate full employment, well-funded public education, drug treatment programs and adequate mental healthcare, all of which help address causes of illegal activity; digging out the social and economic roots of gendered violence would be crucial as well. Prison abolitionist organizations such as Critical Resistance support initiatives like community gardens to build social cohesion.

And while instances of rape and murder won’t vanish entirely, societies worldwide are experimenting with restorative justice: non-carceral efforts at repairing harm done to individuals and communities.

Dayton Martindale
In These Times

Dayton Martindale is an assistant editor at In These Times, and a founding member of Symbiosis. His writing has appeared in In These TimesEarth Island Journal and The Next System Project. He tweets at @DaytonRMartind.


  1. The reforms Dayton Martindale lists are likely to reduce sufficiently the risk all but a very few pose to others, especially if accompanied by major investment in the currently disinvested communities and access of all to health, housing, nutrition, education.

    Long ago a fellow prisoner, complaining about something I no longer recall, said “We are supposed to be sent here AS punishment, not sent here FOR punishment.” I thought he was mistaken to accept the punishment component in any form.

    If punishment is accepted as any part of the picture, the system devolves towards the mess we have seen in recent decades, with legislators vying with each other in promoting sentence-boosting bills they claim are the way we can show empathy for victims by harshness and punishment for those who have done the harm.

    It is a tendency of many who have experienced harm directly or witnessed or heard of harm reflexively to want to be active and vigorous in response, and that often takes the form of wanting to retaliate, punish, or make the person who did the harm suffer in some way. Usually this is dressed up as a way to deter or prevent, but that’s just humanity exercising one of our great skills — the ability to kid ourselves.

    Is it possible to accept and respect those retributive feelings and yet keep them out of policy? I believe so, though it may appear doubtful considering what exists now.
    It’s a hard road to get there in this punitive and violent culture.
    Even among reform/change advocates many express a desire to impose confinement as punishment — though they usually want to confine and punish a different set of people from those on whom those are currently imposed.

    The “Brief Case for Prison Abolition” concludes with “And while instances of rape and murder won’t vanish entirely, societies worldwide are experimenting with restorative justice: non-carceral efforts at repairing harm done to individuals and communities.”

    Yes, instances of serious harm won’t vanish entirely, agreed.
    And yes, there are experiments and active programs using restorative justice and non-carceral programs to repair harm — and those are working with great success.

    Those two points don’t seem to me to add up to a solution for the very few whom we are likely to be obliged to restrain through physical custody (perhaps for very little time, perhaps not – and NOT for any punitive purpose).

    For any that are held there should be excellent facilities and opportunities to help the person meet very specific standards for release to non-custodial situations. And not a bit of punishment.
    That makes me unable to call for total “abolition” of enforced confinement, though I support Martindale’s the systemic critique and reform prescriptions.

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