Prison abolition movement

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The prison abolition movement is a network of groups and activists that seek to reduce or eliminate prisons and the prison system, and replace them with systems of rehabilitation that do not place a focus on punishment and government institutionalization.[1] The prison abolitionist movement is distinct from conventional prison reform, which is the attempt to improve conditions inside prisons.[2]: 3 

Some supporters of decarceration and prison abolition also work to end solitary confinement, the death penalty, and the construction of new prisons through non-reformist reform.[3][4] Others support books-to-prisoner projects and defend the rights of prisoners to have access to information and library services. Some organizations, such as the Anarchist Black Cross, seek total abolishment of the prison system, without any intention to replace it with other government-controlled systems. Many anarchist organizations believe that the best form of justice arises naturally out of social contracts, restorative justice, or transformative justice.


Scholar Dorothy Roberts takes the prison abolition movement in the United States to endorse three basic theses:[5]

  1. "[T]oday’s carceral punishment system can be traced back to slavery and the racial capitalist regime it relied on and sustained."
  2. "[T]he expanding criminal punishment system functions to oppress black people and other politically marginalized groups in order to maintain a racial capitalist regime."
  3. "[W]e can imagine and build a more humane and democratic society that no longer relies on caging people to meet human needs and solve social problems."

Thus, Roberts situates the theory of prison abolition within an intellectual tradition including scholars such as Cedric Robinson, who developed the concept of racial capitalism,[6][7] and characterizes the movement as a response to a long history of oppressive treatment of black people in the United States.

Legal scholar Allegra McLeod notes that prison abolition is not merely a negative project of "opening … prison doors", but rather "may be understood instead as a gradual project of decarceration, in which radically different legal and institutional regulatory forms supplant criminal law enforcement."[8] Prison abolition, in McLeod's view, involves a positive agenda that reimagines how societies might deal with social problems in the absence of prisons, using techniques such as decriminalization and improved welfare provision.[8]

Like Roberts, McLeod sees the contemporary theory of prison abolition as linked to theories regarding the abolition of slavery. McLeod notes that W. E. B. Du Bois—particularly in his Black Reconstruction in America—saw abolitionism not only as a movement to end the legal institution of property in human beings, but also as a means of bringing about a "different future" wherein former slaves could enjoy full participation in society.[9] (Davis explicitly took inspiration from Du Bois's concept of "abolition democracy" in her Abolition Democracy.[10]) Similarly, on McLeod's view, prison abolition implies broad changes to social institutions: "[a]n abolitionist framework", she writes, "requires positive forms of social integration and collective security that are not organized around criminal law enforcement, confinement, criminal surveillance, punitive policing, or punishment."[11]

Historical development[edit]

Joseph Smith, as part of his campaign for President of the United States in 1844, included "Abolish[ing] the cruel custom of prisons (except certain cases) [and] penitentiaries ... and let reason and friendship reign over the ruins of ignorance and barbarity; yea, I would, as the universal friend of man, open the prisons, open the eyes, open the ears, and open the hearts of all people, to behold and enjoy freedom—unadulterated freedom..."[12]

Angela Davis traces the roots of contemporary prison abolition theory at least to Thomas Mathiesen's 1974 book The Politics of Abolition, which had been published in the wake of the Attica Prison uprising and unrest in European prisons around the same time.[13] She also cites activist Fay Honey Knopp's 1976 work Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists as significant in the movement.[13]

Eduardo Bautista Duran and Jonathan Simon point out that George Jackson's 1970 text Soledad Brother drew global attention to the conditions of prisons in the United States and made prison abolition a tenet of the New Left.[14]

Liz Samuels observes that, following the Attica Prison uprising, activists began to coalesce around a vision of abolition, whereas previously they had endorsed a program of reform.[15]

1973 Walpole Prison uprising[edit]

In 1973, two years after the Attica Prison uprising, the inmates of Walpole prison formed a prisoners' union to protect themselves from guards, end behavioral modification programs, advocate for the prisoner's right for education and healthcare, gain more visitation rights, work assignments, and to be able to send money to their families.

The union also created a general truce within the prison and race-related violence sharply declined. During the Kwanzaa celebration, black prisoners were placed under lockdown, angering the whole facility and leading to a general strike. Prisoners refused to work or leave their cells for three months, to which the guards responded by beating prisoners, putting prisoners in solitary confinement, and denying prisoners of medical care and food.[16]

The strike ended in the prisoners' favour as the superintendent of the prison resigned. The prisoners were granted more visitation rights and work programs. Angered by this, the prison guards went on strike and abandoned the prison, hoping that this would create chaos and violence throughout the prison. But the prisoners were able to create an anarchist community where recidivism dropped dramatically and murders and rapes fell to zero. Prisoners volunteered to cook meals. Vietnam veterans who had been trained as medics took charge of the pharmacy and distribution of medication. Decisions were made in community assemblies.

Guards retook the prison after two months, leading to many prison administrators and bureaucrats quitting their jobs and embracing the prison abolition movement.[17]

Advocates of prison abolition[edit]

Anarchist banner in Melbourne Australia, on 16 June 2017

Angela Davis writes: "Mass incarceration is not a solution to unemployment, nor is it a solution to the vast array of social problems that are hidden away in a rapidly growing network of prisons and jails. However, the great majority of people have been tricked into believing in the efficacy of imprisonment, even though the historical record clearly demonstrates that prisons do not work."[18]

Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore co-founded Critical Resistance, which is an organization working to "build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe."[19][20] Other similarly motivated groups such as the Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC), a group "committed to exposing and challenging all forms of institutionalized racism, sexism, able-ism, heterosexism, and classism, specifically within the Prison Industrial Complex,"[21] and Black & Pink, an abolitionist organization that focuses around LGBTQ rights, all broadly advocate for prison abolition.[22] Furthermore, the Human Rights Coalition, a 2001 group that aims to abolish prisons,[23][24] and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, a grassroots organization dedicated to dismantling the PIC,[25] can all be added to the long list of organizations that desire a different form of justice system.[26]

Since 1983,[27] the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) gathers activists, academics, journalists, and "others from across the world who are working towards the abolition of imprisonment, the penal system, carceral controls and the prison industrial complex (PIC),"[28] to discuss three important questions surrounding the reality of prison abolition ICOPA was one of the first penal abolitionist conference movements, similar to Critical Resistance in America, but "with an explicitly international scope and agenda-setting ambition."[29]

Anarchists wish to eliminate all forms of state control, of which imprisonment is seen as one of the more obvious examples. Anarchists also oppose prisons given that statistics show incarceration rates affect mainly poor people and ethnic minorities, and do not generally rehabilitate criminals, in many cases making them worse.[30] As a result, the prison abolition movement often is associated with humanistic socialism, anarchism and anti-authoritarianism.

In October 2015, members at a plenary session of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) released and adopted a resolution in favor of prison abolition.[31][32]

Mental illness and prison[edit]

Prison abolitionists such as Amanda Pustilnik take issue with the fact that prisons are used as a "default asylum" for many individuals with mental illness:[33]

Why do governmental units choose to spend billions of dollars a year to concentrate people with serious illnesses in a system designed to punish intentional lawbreaking, when doing so matches neither the putative purposes of that system nor most effectively addresses the issues posed by that population?

To rephrase, if the whole point of the penal system is to rehabilitate and reform individuals who have willingly transgressed, then those who transgress the law for reasons outside their cognitive control don't belong in prison since prisons were never designed nor intended to rehabilitate this population.

In the United States, there are more people with mental illness in prisons than in psychiatric hospitals.[33] This statistic is one of the major pieces of evidence that prison abolitionists claim highlights the depravity of the penal system.

Prison abolitionists contend that prisons violate the Constitutional rights (5th and 6th Amendment rights) of mentally ill prisoners on the grounds that these individuals will not be receiving the same potential for rehabilitation as the non-mentally ill prison population. This injustice is sufficient grounds to argue for the abolishment of prisons.[33][34][35] Prisons were not designed to be used to house the mentally ill, and prison practices like solitary confinement are damaging to mental health. Additionally, individuals with mental illnesses have a much higher chance of committing suicide while in prison.[36]

Arguments made for prison abolition[edit]

  • Lack of proper legal representation
"Eighty percent of people accused of crimes [in the United States] are unable to afford a lawyer to defend them."[37] The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1963 that a poor person facing felony charges "cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him."
"Long Term Neglect and underfunding of indigent defense have created a crisis of extra ordinary proportions in many states throughout the country."[37]
  • War on drugs conceals racial tension
(2005) "The United States leads the world in the number of people incarcerated in federal and state correctional facilities. There are currently more than 2 million people in American prisons or jails. Approximately one-quarter of those people held in U.S. prisons or jails have been convicted of a drug offense. The United States incarcerates more people for drug offenses than any other country. With an estimated 6.8 million Americans struggling with dependence, the growth of the prison population continues to be driven largely by incarceration for drug offenses."[38]
"The so-called drug war was started in the 1980s and it was aimed directly at the black population. None of this has anything to do with drugs. It has to do with controlling and criminalizing populations."[39]
"Blacks are 12.3 percent of the U.S. population (2001) but they comprise fully half of the roughly 2 million Americans currently behind Bars. On any given day, 30 percent of African-American males aged 20–29 are "under correctional supervision".[40]
Blacks constitute 13 percent of all drug users, but 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession, 55 percent of persons convicted, and 74 percent of people sent to prison.[citation needed]
  • Incarceration is socially and economically crippling to the convicted and the community.[citation needed]
"Each Prisoner represents an economic asset that has been removed from that community and placed elsewhere. As an economic being, the person would spend money at or near his or her area of residence—typically, an inner city. Imprisonment displaces that economic activity: Instead of buying snacks in a local deli, the prisoner makes those purchases in a prison commissary. The removal may represent a loss of economic value to the home community, but it is a boon to the prison [host] community. Each prisoner represents as much as $25,000 in income for the community in which the prison is located, not to mention the value of constructing the prison facility in the first place. This can be a massive transfer of value: a young male worth a few thousand dollars of support to children and local purchases is transformed into a $25,000 financial asset to a rural prison community. The economy of the rural community is artificially amplified, the local city economy is artificially deflated."[41]
Unfortunately, there are no definitive national statistics on the employment status of felons. But both anecdotal evidence and fragmentary data confirm what common sense would predict: individuals who have been incarcerated have great difficulty securing employment when they return to society. Except for a short period in the late 1990s, when the labor market was so tight that the Wall Street Journal reported on employer efforts to reach out to felons, those leaving prison have faced formidable obstacles to employment. Some of these difficulties are related to company policies or procedures and others are the result of employer perceptions of felons' job skills or trustworthiness. Felons are also barred from public employment in a number of states, including three with a high proportion of African American residents (Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina). Occupations that are licensed by states also have restrictions on allowing felons to work in them.[42]
  • It is argued by the Massachusetts Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition that the prison system is in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, and which is prescribing life, liberty, equality and justice to all people without discrimination of any sort as an inalienable right.[43] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has also abolished all forms of slavery and genocide, including torture, repression and oppression that prisons thrive upon.[citation needed]
  • Imprisonment is seen by some as a form of violent behavior which legitimizes violence and cruelty, producing a "boomerang effect of dehumanization"[44] on the society which dehumanizes itself and limits its potential for a peaceful future by resorting to the use of such repressive and cruel institutions.
  • Prisons may be less effective at discouraging crimes and/or compensating victims than other forms of punishment.[citation needed]
  • Degree and quality of access to justice depends on the financial resources of the accused.[45][46]
  • Prisons alienate people from their communities.
  • In the U.S., people of color and from the lower class are much more likely to be imprisoned than people of European descent or people who are wealthy.[47]
  • People who are put in prison for what are arguably crimes motivated by need, such as some minor theft (food, etc.) or prostitution, find it much harder to obtain legal employment once convicted of a crime. Arguably, this difficulty makes it more likely they will find themselves back in the prison system, having had few other options or resources available to support themselves and/or their families.[citation needed] Many prison abolitionists argue that we should "legalize survival" and provide help to those who need it instead of making it even harder to find work and perpetuating the non-violent crimes.
  • Prisons are not proven to make people less violent. In fact, there is evidence that they may instead promote violence in individuals by surrounding them with other violent criminals, which can lead to predictable negative/violent results.[48]

Arguments made against prison abolition and their responses[edit]

There are many different arguments for prisons. All of them are based on different understandings of justice.

  • A utilitarian argument against prison abolition might argue that prisons are necessary in the protection of non-criminal population from the effects of crime, and from particularly violent criminals.[49][50]

Most abolitionists would not disagree that there exists a need to maintain some system to protect society from the most dangerous of criminals. However, abolitionists wish to eliminate the carceral system as the default form of punishment for those who break the law and only reserve imprisonment as a last resort.[51]

  • Retribution theory argues that individuals who have committed crimes, especially crimes violent in nature, must repay society. What is being repaid is up to debate.[52]

The abolitionist perspective does not identify carceral punishment as an adequate form of repayment. Instead, abolitionists suggest a system of reconciliatory or restorative justice, through which the offenders and victims (sometimes together with their respective families) meet with one another and reach an agreement for the offender to repair the damage to the victim caused by the crime.[53]

  • Deterrence theory is a sort of Utilitarianism which makes the case that prison discourages citizens from committing a crime, because they would not want to end up in prison.[54] Additionally, there is evidence that current community work and rehabilitation programs are not effective for a significant number of participants.[50]

Abolitionists and many social scientists would argue that prisons have failed as a form of deterrence and rehabilitation. In her 2003 book Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis recounts that the tough-on-crime stance of the 1980s had little to no effect on the crime rate.[55]

Proposed reforms and alternatives[edit]

Proposals for prison reform and alternatives to prisons differ significantly depending on the political beliefs behind them. Often they fall in one of three categories from the "Attrition Model", a model proposed by the Prison Research Education Action Project in 1976: moratorium, decarceration, and excarceration.[56][57] Proposals and tactics often include:[57]

  • Penal system reforms:
  • Prison condition reforms
  • Crime prevention rather than punishment
  • Abolition of specific programs which increase prison population, such as the prohibition of drugs (e.g., the American War on Drugs) and prohibition of sex work.
  • Education programs to inform people who have never been in prison about the problems
  • Fighting individual cases of wrongful conviction

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime published a series of handbooks on criminal justice. Among them is Alternatives to Imprisonment which identifies how the overuse of imprisonment impacts fundamental human rights, especially those convicted for lesser crimes.

Social justice and advocacy organizations such as Students Against Mass Incarceration (SAMI) at the University of California, San Diego often look to Scandinavian countries Sweden and Norway for guidance in regard to successful prison reform because both countries have an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment.[58] According to Sweden's Prison and Probation Service Director-General, Nils Öberg, this emphasis is popular among the Swedish because the act of imprisonment is considered punishment enough.[59] This focus on rehabilitation includes an emphasis on promoting normalcy for inmates, a charge lead by experienced criminologists and psychologists.[60] In Norway a focus on preparation for societal re-entry has yielded "one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%, [while] the US has one of the highest: 76.6% of [American] prisoners are re-arrested within five years".[61] The Scandinavian method of incarceration seems to be successful: the Swedish incarceration rate decreased by 6% between 2011 and 2012.[62]

Abolitionist views[edit]

Many prison reform organizations and abolitionists in the United States advocate community accountability practices, such as community-controlled courts, councils, or assemblies as an alternative to the criminal justice system.[63]

Instead of prisons: a handbook for abolitionists, republished by Critical Resistance in 2005, outlines what they identify as the nine main perspectives for prison abolitionists:[64]

Perspective 1: The imprisonment of a human being is inherently immoral, and while total abolition of the current prison system is not an easy task, it is possible. The first step towards abolition is admitting that prisons cannot be reformed, as a carceral system is founded on brutality and contempt for those imprisoned. Additionally, the current system works to disproportionally imprison poor and working-class people, so its abolition would ensure progress towards equality. Abolitionists see many similarities between today's carceral system and the slavery establishment of the past, and would in fact say that the current system is simply reformed enslavement which perpetuates the same oppressive and discriminatory patterns. But just as superficial reforms could not alter the brutality of the slave system, reforms cannot change a system rooted in racism.

Perspective 2: The abolitionist message requires changing our language and definitions of punishment “treatment” and “inmates”. In order to break away from the prison system, we must use honest language and take back the power of our vocabulary.

Perspective 3: Imprisonment is not a proper response to deviance. Abolitionists promote reconciliation rather than punishment, a perspective seeking to restore both the criminal and the victim while limiting the disruption of their lives in the process.

Perspective 4: Abolitionists advocate for changes beneficial to the prisoner but do so while remaining a non-member of the system. In a similar fashion, abolitionists respect the personhood of system managers but oppose their role in the perpetuation of an oppressive system.

Perspective 5: The abolitionist message extends farther than the traditional helping relationship; Abolitionists identify themselves as allies of the imprisoned, respecting their perspectives as well as the requirements for abolition.

Perspective 6:The empowerment of prisoners and ex-prisoners is crucial to the abolitionist movement. Programs and resources dedicated to reinstating that which has been stripped from them by the prison system are fundamental in putting power back in their own hands.

Perspective 7: Abolitionists believe that citizens are the true source of institutional power which can lead to the abolition of the prison system. Giving or limiting support from certain policies and practices will enable the progression of the abolitionist movement.

Perspective 8: Abolitionists believe that crime is a consequence of a broken society, and recourses must be used towards social programs instead of the funding of prisons. They advocate for public solutions to public problems, producing effects which will benefit everyone in society.

Perspective 9: An emphasis is placed on the correction of society rather than the correction of an individual. It is only in a corrected or caring community that individual redemption and rehabilitation can be achieved. Thus, abolitionists see that the only adequate alternative to the prison system is building a kind of society which has no need for prisons.

Organizations such as INCITE! and Sista II Sista that support women of color who are survivors of interpersonal violence argue that the criminal justice system does not protect marginalized people who are victims in violent relationships. Instead, victims, especially those who are poor, minorities, transgender or gender non-conforming can experience additional violence at the hands of the state.[65] Instead of relying on the criminal justice system, these organizations work to implement community accountability practices, which often involve collectively-run processes of intervention initiated by a survivor of violence to try to hold the person who committed violence accountable by working to meet a set of demands.[66] For organizations outside the United States see, e.g. Justice Action, Australia.

Some anarchists and socialists contend that a large part of the problem is the way the judicial system deals with prisoners, people, and capital. According to Marxists, in capitalist economies incentives are in place to expand the prison system and increase the prison population. This is evidenced by the creation of private prisons in America and corporations like CoreCivic, formerly known as Correction Corporation of America (CCA).[67] Its shareholders benefit from the expansion of prisons and tougher laws on crime. More prisoners is seen as beneficial for business. Some anarchists contend that with the destruction of capitalism, and the development of social structures that would allow for the self-management of communities, property crimes would largely vanish. There would be fewer prisoners, they assert, if society treated people more fairly, regardless of gender, color, ethnic background, sexual orientation, education, etc.

The demand for prison abolition is a feature of anarchist criminology, which argues that prisons encourage recidivism and should be replaced by efforts to rehabilitate offenders and reintegrate them into communities.[68]

See also[edit]



  • Davis, Angela Y.; Rodríguez, Dylan (2000). "The Challenge of Prison Abolition: A Conversation". Social Justice. 27 (3): 212–218. JSTOR 29767244. ProQuest 231912167.
  • Ferrari, Livio; Pavarini, Massimo, eds. (2018). No Prison. Capel Dewi, Aberystwyth, Wales: European Group Press. ISBN 978-1-911439-13-4.
  • Herivel, Tara; Wright, Paul, eds. (2003). Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-415-93538-8.
  • McLeod, Allegra (2015). "Prison Abolition and Grounded Justice". UCLA Law Review. 62 (5): 1156–1239. SSRN 2625217.
  • Roberts, Dorothy (November 2019). "The Supreme Court 2018 Term — Foreword: Abolition Constitutionalism" (PDF). Harvard Law Review. 133 (1): 1–122.


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