By Ray Acheson
This is part of a series of articles focusing on abolishing structures of violence in the United States and beyond.
From afar, a prison looks like a fortress. Bricks, steel, barbed wire. Towers for surveillance, populated with armed guards. The sounds of the gates and the doors lend further to the fortress-like atmosphere, as do the uniforms and the weapons. Within these gates and walls are sites of extreme violence, built to confine and dehumanise. They are not just places where people are “put” once they have been arrested or convicted. Prisons themselves arrest: they arrest development—of those locked away inside them, of those charged with “guarding” them, of the communities from which the incarcerated are drawn, and the communities within which the facilities are based. Prisons arrest all our minds: they stunt our ability to seriously consider alternative forms of accountability and reparation, even when we know full well the extent to which the current system has failed and harmed all of us.
As French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote in Discipline and Punish, his foundational text on prisons, the carceral system is above all else about power. It is comprised of discourses, architectures, regulations, programmes, and more, all determined to control, coerce, and surveil. It is ostensibly, of course, about “correction” or rehabilitation, but in reality, prisons are about retribution, not restitution. Certainly not restoration.
The framing established in this article is meant to offer a perspective on incarceration that understands its relationship to inherently racist structures and poisonous gender norms, capitalism and the neoliberal agenda, and militarism. It also seeks to interrogate and contest the ways in which the dominant narratives around safety and security are constructed and perpetuated by those commissioned to maintain a social order at home and abroad that ensures the accumulation of wealth by the few is not disrupted or interrupted by the needs of the many.
Deconstructing the dominant narrative requires us asking questions about safety. To this end, we can learn from antinuclear activists, who encourage us to ask: Who is made safe by these weapons and this threat of violence, and who is being harmed by it? Also: Who constructs the narrative around safety? Who tells us that nuclear weapons “keep us safe”? Who tells us that killing hundreds of thousands of people in other countries and arresting their development keeps us safe?
In the context of prisons, then, we could ask: From whom are prisons keeping us safe? Who are they keeping safe? Who are they harming? What even is safety? Do victims of harm feel any safer because of prisons? And: Who tells us that mass incarceration keeps our communities safe? Who is us? What is this approach costing us—all of us? Who is it helping? Who is profiting from it?
This article is also intended as a basic primer on the whys and hows of prison abolition as a political project of both moral and economic urgency. As with the other articles in this series, it focuses on the context of and action within the United States, as a site of extreme mass incarceration and particular historical and modern dynamics of structural racism and capitalist accumulation. However, the analysis is applicable to other contexts and countries and the work for prison abolition is not (and must not be) limited to the United States alone.
The structural racism of incarceration and criminalisation of “the other”
There are currently more than 2.3 million incarcerated people in the United States. This means that while the US is home to about 5 per cent of the world’s population, it has 21 per cent of the world’s incarcerated people. This astonishing figure does not account for the additional 4.6 million people living under the carceral system in the form of parole or probation. And this is just those currently ensnared. 19 million people have been convicted of felonies. 77 million have criminal records. 113 million adults in the US have an immediate family member who has been to jail or prison. That’s nearly a third of the US population whose lives have been corroded by the politics of mass incarceration.
These numbers alone, however, do not tell the whole story. Racism and white supremacy are deeply embedded within the US carceral system, as is anti-queerness and gender normativity.
People of colour make up 37 per cent of the US population but 67 per cent of the prison population. African Americans constitute 34 per cent of those incarcerated, even though they only make up about 12.7 per cent of the US population. They are incarcerated at a rate 5 times greater than whites.
The only group incarcerated at a higher rate are Indigenous people. Native Americans are incarcerated at a rate 38 per cent higher than the national average. Indigenous youth are the most effected: representing one per cent of the US youth population, they constitute 70 per cent of incarcerated youth.
Meanwhile, migration detention centres are a site of incarceration of predominantly Latinx people in the United States. Migrant detention, notes Harsha Walia, comprises “one of the fastest-growing prison populations with over two hundred detention facilities, representing an 85 percent increase in detention spaces.” On any given day in the United States, there are approximately 50,000 migrants and asylum seekers in detention centres.
As explored in an earlier article about US policing, entire communities of colour, in particular Black, Latinx, and Indigenous, are subjected to surveillance and scrutiny, and are targeted with particular strategies that lead to higher rates of arrest and conviction for “crimes” than white populations. As Angela Davis explains, many people “are sent to prison, not so much because of the crimes they may have indeed committed but largely because their communities have been criminalized.”
US prisons, like the police, are rooted in slavery. Building on the work of Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Michelle Alexander demonstrates how incarceration was used as a way to control Black labour and lives after the abolition of slavery. Incarceration was also, as Naomi Murakawa outlines, a response to the advances of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. “The United States did not face a crime problem that was racialized,” she argues. “It faced a race problem that was criminalized.” By which she means, the race “problem” of the 1960s — marked by gains made for Black communities through the advances of the civil rights movement — “was answered with pledges of carceral state development.”
Going even further back, incarceration in the United States is also linked to colonialism. “The extension of criminal jurisdiction has long been central to the subjugation and displacement of indigenous polities,” writes Robert Nichols. From the commission of genocide to the dispossession of people from their land to the establishment of reserves and residential schools, state violence has been essential to the formation of the United States (and all other settler colonial states, such as Australia and Canada). In this way, the carceral system can be seen as serving the continuation of settler colonialism: “criminal control” of Indigenous populations is an extension of the “conquest” that came before.
This is not just historical context. This is the reason that prison populations in the United States today are disproportionately Black and Indigenous.
The context and violence of migrant detention and border imperialism is explored in another article in this series. For this article it is important to highlight the intention of power, coercion, and control that migrant detention serves, including through the criminalisation of migration, which is a human right.
In much the same way that migrants and people of colour are criminalised and incarcerated in the United States, so too are many members of the LGBTQ+ community—particularly trans people of colour and other gender non-conforming queer folx. The criminalisation and incarceration of those who do not conform to sexual or gender “norms,” the authors of Queer (In)Justice argue, was instrumental to the colonisation of the United States, the maintenance of slavery, and the violence against people at the country’s borders. “Enforcing gender conformity and heteronormativity” is a central feature of the carceral state, Eric A. Stanley explains. The reinforcement and reproduction of binary gender is part of the deliberate work of prisons, including through violence against and repression of queer identities.
Because of this, as many queer activists have argued, laws ostensibly designed to “protect” LGBTQ+ people are insufficient to actually prevent violence or inequality against queer lives. Much like the idea that police brutality is the product of a few “bad apples” in law enforcement, laws extending protections to LGBTQ+ lives “frame the problem of violence in our communities as one of individual ‘hateful’ people,” argue Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee, and Dean Spade. In reality, queer and trans people “face short life-spans because of the enormous systemic violence in welfare systems, shelters, prisons, jails, foster care, juvenile punishment systems, and immigration, and the inability to access basic survival resources.” Looking to systems of “law and order” and punishment through incarceration as an answer to violence against LGBTQ+ people only expands and enriches the carceral system, which itself is a site of anti-queer violence.
The political economy of mass incarceration
This feat of finding ways to draw more resources into itself to address problems that it itself facilitates or exacerbates is a feature of the prison-industrial complex (PIC) — much like the military-industrial complex (MIC) before it.
In his farewell address in 1961, US President Eisenhower warned against the growing power of the MIC—the system comprised of weapons manufacturers, various branches of the US military, and the country’s political and economic elite. We can see the manifestations of the MIC clearly today: decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan; proxy wars and coups against democratically elected leaders around the world; a current annual military budget of $732 billion, accounting for 38 per cent of the global total; an arsenal of about 3800 nuclear warheads and an ever-growing budget for nuclear weapon maintenance and modernisation; a growing private military and security company sector; and a cartel of powerful arms contractors who make billions in the design, production, and sale of weapons.
The term “prison-industrial complex” builds on this concept of an economic and political system that perpetuates itself. The term PIC seems to have first been used by incarcerated people, when in 1974, the North Carolina Prisoners Labor Union called for an end to “the judicial-prison-parole-industrial complex”. The term later came to prominence in an article written by geographer Mike Davis in The Nation in 1995, in which he deliberately drew upon the concept of the MIC to describe the system of mass incarceration in the United States. “It has become a monster that threatens to overpower and devour its creators, and its uncontrollable growth ought to rattle a national consciousness now complacent at the thought of a permanent prison class,” warned Mike Davis.
The PIC includes, as of 2020, “1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.” It employs hundreds of thousands of guards, parole officers, and administrative and caretaking staff. The PIC has sunk its claws deep into the communities where it sets up shop, providing direct employment as well as jobs in nearby service industries, in particular in rural communities where the industrial or farming base has been decimated by globalisation and neoliberal economic reforms.
The rise of the neoliberal agenda
The timing of the rise of the PIC in the 1980s coincides directly with the rise of the US neoliberal agenda. Free trade agreements and globalisation meant economic downturn for farming and manufacturing in the United States. Growing levels of unemployment were met with cuts in social service provision including education, health care, housing, and more. This meant a surplus of people employable by the PIC, but also a surplus of people living in poverty. As people lost their jobs and the working class social safety net was dismantled, more people became marginally employed and housed and were forced into criminalised economies.
The incarceration in the United States has gone up more than 500 per cent in the last forty years. Angela Davis wrote about the PIC as performing “a feat of magic”—seemingly constructed to “disappear” social problems. In reality, she argued, prisons disappear human beings, mostly from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalised communities. This is deliberate: as Christian Parenti has suggested, the main function of prison is to displace, demoralise, and criminalise the poor, thus working to justify, in the minds of the middle- and upper-classes, state repression, militarisation, and incarceration, while simultaneously making it more difficult for the working class and poor to organise against it. In this sense, incarceration is in large part about management of poverty, of the vast social and economic inequalities that define the United States.
Incarceration as class warfare
Even in the 1970s, before the PIC began to reproduce itself with gusto, Marxists like George Jackson—who was killed by prison guards—saw how incarceration is a deliberate response to unemployment and poverty. Law itself, he argued, is a political construction designed to manage the poor and the unemployed. “Crime is simply the result of grossly disproportionate distribution of wealth and privilege, a reflection of the present state of property relations,” he wrote. Class determines the way the law is applied and implemented, and what kinds of activities are counted as “criminal”.
Today, people living in poverty are still vastly overrepresented among the incarcerated population. The median annual income of incarcerated people is less than $20,000. About 57 per cent of those incarcerated made less than $22,500, meaning that more than half of those incarcerated lived in poverty or in very low-income situations prior to their arrest. Incarceration also contributes to poverty by “creating employment barriers; reducing earnings and decreasing economic security through criminal debt, fees and fines; making access to public benefits difficult or impossible; and disrupting communities where formerly incarcerated people reside.” Once released, people are thrown into or kept in poverty. The 4.5 million people in the United States on parole or probation live under conditions that make it difficult for them to secure employment and end up channelling them back into prisons and jails.
Incarceration is a choice
This cycle of political and economic choices creating poverty and inequality, the criminalisation of certain communities and segments of the population, and the violence and harms generated by the PIC, mean that it has become a self-reproducing system. Much like the MIC, the PIC is a force unto itself within the economic and political fabric of the United States. It is, as Julia Sudbury characterises, “a symbiotic and profitable relationship between politicians, corporations, the media, and state correctional institutions that generates the racialized use of incarceration as a response to social problems rooted in the globalization of capital.” Or, as Eric Schlosser describes it, the PIC is “a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need.”
This, if nothing else, should be a key takeaway from all of the investigations and writings about the PIC: incarceration is a political and economic choice, not an inevitability.
Eisenhower cautioned that with the military-industrial complex, “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” which had implications for “the very structure of our society.” The rise of both the MIC and PIC has served to reinforce and reconfigure in the most violent of ways the “order” upon which the United States was built: white supremacy, dispossession and repression of those deemed “other,” and the pursuit of private profit above human well-being.
The profits of incarceration
Indeed, as the number of prisons grew, so did the budget for incarceration. The official budget for mass incarceration in the United States today is $81 billion. But that figure only includes “the cost of operating prisons, jails, parole, and probation.” There are other hidden costs of incarceration, including those related to phone calls, commissaries, court fees, and more. Overall, in a 2017 report the Prison Policy Initiative found that the annual total cost of incarceration is about $182 billion.
Part of this money goes to private companies. “As the U.S. prison system expanded, so did corporate involvement in construction, provision of goods and services, and use of prison labor,” explains Angela Davis. Core Civic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corporation) are the two largest companies running private prisons and detention centres in the United States. Like military corporations, they also operate abroad, running prisons in Australia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.
Other elements of private industry are also profiting from the PIC. As Eric Schlosser found in 1998, the complex had already become a multibillion-dollar industry with trade shows and conventions, mail-order catalogues, and marketing campaigns. “The prison-industrial complex now includes some of the nation’s largest architecture and construction firms, Wall Street investment banks that handle prison bond issues and invest in private prisons, plumbing-supply companies, food-service companies, health-care companies, companies that sell everything from bullet-resistant security cameras to padded cells available in a ‘vast color selection’.”
However, unlike the MIC, private industry is only a relatively small part of the overall PIC. Most prisons and jails are publicly operated state, federal, and local facilities. The Prison Policy Initiative finds that the government payroll for prison employees is more than 100 times higher than the private prison industry’s profits. Still, as prisons and detention centres turn into a commodity on the stock market, those with capital have yet another way to make money of those without, in a very literal manifestation of the domination of rich over poor. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, mass incarceration is class warfare.
Of course, there could be alternative investments and thus alternative employment in industries and sectors that would not be reliant on caging people for generating income and would, in fact, diminish all forms of harms rather than exacerbating them. Investments in, for example, education instead of incarceration would create jobs for teachers, support faculty, and staff, and would simultaneously create new opportunities and engagements for young people. This would be an investment in the prevention of “crime” or harms.
Yet, as a 2016 report from the US Department of Education notes, “Over the past three decades state and local government expenditures on prisons and jails have increased about three times as fast as spending on elementary and secondary education.” At the level of university and college, the contrast is even starker: from 1989 to 2013, the report notes, “state and local spending on corrections rose by 89 percent while state and local appropriations for higher education remained flat.”
As Jackie Wang says, “The United States chose the path of divestment in social entitlements and investment in prisons and police. There was nothing inevitable about this policy path.”
Militarisation of incarceration
But while there was nothing inevitable about choosing the path of mass incarceration to deal with the racialised “socioeconomic challenges” produced by capitalism, once that path was chosen, militarisation of it may have been inevitable. When the choice is made to lock up as many people as possible in order to control and confine the “surplus populations” created by neoliberal economic policies that eliminate jobs whilst simultaneously destroying the social safety net, the state has already decided to weaponise itself. The physical manifestations of that weaponisation include figurative weapons of prosecutors and prisons, and the literal weaponisation of guards.
To help illuminate the political and economic dynamics of the militarisation of incarceration, it may be useful to consider again how this plays out in terms of weapons and war. There are similarities, for example, in the certainty of authority exhibited by prison guards and nuclear war planners, police officers and military commanders. This certainty is bound up in the systems of power, privilege, and profit that they are charged with protecting. They are certain in their perspectives, in their theories, in their actions. They impose power over others, dismissing alternative experiences — especially those rooted more deeply in lived reality than their own. They yield weapons and violence as the tools to assert the “rightness” of their approach to the world and their vision of “peace” and “justice” and “security”. They make the rules and the laws, and then they break them at will, whilst forcing the rest of the world to abide, regardless of circumstance. Whether a treaty against nuclear weapon proliferation or laws against unlawful search and seizure or against cruel and unusual punishment — it is those with the biggest weapons and an outsized perception of being the rightful master of one’s domain that dictate the terms to the rest of us. And we are all made less safe because of this.
We are less safe with the existence of nuclear weapons, designed to incinerate entire cities and melt the skin from people’s bodies. We are all less safe from the wars waged around the world, costing billions of dollars in bullets and bombs and costing the lives and the futures of generations of people. We are all less safe from the violence imposed by police and prisons.
Then there are the similarities in terms of weaponisation. Both the MIC and the PIC design the policies and make the machinery of industrialised killing abroad or incarceration at home. Often, technology developed for the military is then marketed for use by police and in prisons. Tear gas is case in point. Outlawed as a chemical weapon in warfare, it is used liberally in the United States and many other countries by police forces as a “crowd control weapon”. Tear gas has been used against incarcerated people in prisons, as have pepper spray, tasers, beanbag rounds, and Sting-Ball grenades.
Most of these weapons are designed by the military for use in the military, but that is a limited market, notes Dr. Rohini Haar, a medical expert with Physicians for Human Rights. “So the next step for companies that are trying to make a profit off these weapons that they design is to sell them to one, law enforcement and police, and two, to prisons.” As more attention is paid to police militarisation and brutality, prisons are becoming a bigger market for these weapons. Meanwhile, though guards are not supposed to carry guns inside of prisons, shotguns loaded with birdshot, as well as lethal semi-automatic rifles, have been used inside of Nevada facilities.
Militarisation as a culture
More than the weapons themselves, in prison the militarisation is about culture. The “warrior mentality” infused in police forces is also taught to so-called corrections officers. On paper guards are not supposed to suppress fights or respond to perceived threats with lethal force. But violence by guards against those incarcerated is endemic, including beatings, sexual assaults, humiliation, cruel and unusual punishment, and even torture, including through solitary confinement. Qualified immunity protects guards against prosecution, as it does for police officers.
The violence of those incarcerated against each other is also part of the militarised, toxic masculinity infused in the life-breath of prisons. Violence is a primary form of communication, socialisation, and order of life behind bars, reinforced and reproduced by the entire carceral system.
One does not need to be part of the military or have access to military-grade weapons to be militarised. One just needs to see violence as the solution to perceived threats and to see this violence as the source of one’s power.
State of surveillance
Surveillance is also a crucial part of the militarised carceral state. The prison as a “panopticon,” as designed by Jeremy Bentham, is about asserting and maintaining physical and psychological control over those incarcerated at all times. And while projecting the perception that one is monitored at all times is a hallmark of the prison as a physical facility, the technologies of this kind of control are already bleeding into society, as Jackie Wang and Ian G. R. Shaw warn.
Even though Bentham’s panopticon was never built, notes Shaw, it generated a blueprint that could be endlessly replicated. Over time, the technologies developed by the US military for surveillance of “enemy combatants” abroad, or by the carceral system for the monitoring and control over incarcerated populations at home, are used increasingly by police forces, border patrols, and federal investigators. Technologies developed by Israel to confine and control Palestinians and enforce settler developments on Palestinian territory have also been exported around the world for use at other borders and in other police states. As this continues, “the distinction between the inside and the outside of prison will become blurrier,” cautions Wang. “It is even possible to imagine a future where the prison as a physical structure is superseded by total surveillance without physical confinement.”
Thinking beyond bars
This future is not inevitable. Just like mass incarceration is a political choice — made by successive US governments to avoid having to provide for all citizens of the country and instead protect the wealth of the privileged — the dystopian nightmare of a digital surveillance state armed with autonomous weapons is not set in stone. We can choose a different path.
This starts with abolishing the prisons we already have. The demand for prison abolition has been ongoing for as long as prison’s have existed. As Rachel Herzing points out, the Quakers have always resisted incarceration. Those working for jail and prison closures have contributed to an abolitionist discourse and practice. The political work of incarcerated people, including through uprisings, writings, and teaching groups, have been instrumental in advancing the goals of abolition. BIPOC feminists, LGBTQ+ activists, survivors of sexual violence and other harms, sex workers, the housing insecure, and many others have over decades built the case for abolition, pathways to achieve it, and alternative systems of harm prevention and community care.
All of this organising, thinking, and building means that in this moment of public reckoning with the failures of policing and the impacts of a global pandemic on incarcerated people, these ideas are ready go.
For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the virus has spread like wildfire throughout jails, prisons, and detention centres, abolitionists have called for steps such as:
- Release all pre-trial detainees;
- Abolish bail;
- Release anyone over the age of 60;
- Release all pregnant people;
- Release any immunocompromised person;
- Commute the sentences of those serving life without parole;
- Release anyone who has less than 18 months remaining on their sentence; and
- Ensure that all people released from prisons and jails have the resources to socially distance and be fed and housed.
Decarceration for all
Of crucial importance to the process of immediate decarceration is that we don’t legitimise incarceration for some people while advocating for the release of others. For example, it may seem strategic or practical to call for the release of all “nonviolent criminals” or those who have committed “nonviolent” “crime”. But each of these words needs to be contested, as does the approach that suggests some incarcerated people need to remain behind bars or are more inherently “risky” to release than others. As Micah Herskin explains, structural racism is at play across these “crime categories”; the idea that risk resides within people is problematic and damaging; the context of “violent” and “nonviolent” are neither static nor necessarily accurate; and differentiating between these categories means that we are accepting incarceration is necessary for some people.
If we accept, as the political project of abolition requires, that incarceration is a source of violence and generates more harm than it prevents or resolves, then we cannot perpetuate these distinctions — as well-intentioned as they may be.
Beyond the immediate actions necessary in the context of the pandemic, the process of abolishing prison will also require further steps, such as those set out by the activists behind 8toabolition.com:
- Free all people from involuntary confinement, including but not limited to jails, prisons, immigrant detention centres, psychiatric wards, and nursing homes, starting with those who are aging, disabled, immunocompromised, held on bail, held for parole violations, and survivors;
- Permanently close local jails;
- Grant clemency to criminalised survivors;
- Pressure state legislatures to end mandatory arrest and failure to protect laws that lead to the criminalization of survivors of gendered violence;
- Reject “alternatives to incarceration” that are carceral in nature, including problem-solving courts and electronic monitoring and coercive restorative justice programs;
- Reduce jail churn by reducing arrests;
- Cut funding to prosecutor offices;
- End pre-trial detention;
- End civil commitment;
- Release all people held pre-trial and on parole violations;
- Make all communication to and from prisoners free; and
- End immigration detention, end family separation, and let undocumented community members come home.
Decarceration will also require the decriminalisation of many things that currently result in imprisonment — sex work, drug use, migration, and survival of gender-based violence among them. It will require decriminalisation of communities of colour, LGBTQ+ communities, and of poor communities, which are over-policed and targeted by various forms of surveillance.
But decarceration isn’t just about minimising the number of people being sent to prison; it’s also about preventing “crime” by building more equitable societies, as described above, and about building alternatives to dealing with people who do commit acts of violence against others.
Decarcerating our minds
Embarking on this path, then, obligates us first and foremost to decarerate our own minds. We need to think beyond police and prison and imagine a different system for community and social safety, security, and care, a different way to prevent harm and to ensure accountability and justice.
As with the abolition of police, the abolition of prisons requires the realisation that the most dangerous and violent people in our society are not in prison, as Eric Stanley notes, but are running our government, militaries, prisons, police forces, and financial institutions. Once we recognise “that prisons promote order and security for a few at the cost of generating violence, inequality, and social disruption for the many,” writes Julia Sudbury, we can “go beyond arguing for the release of those incarcerated for nonviolent or drug offenses, or the reform of penal regimes, and demand a radical restructuring of the way in which we deal with the social conditions that generate ‘crime’.”
Again, this is a similar process required of those opposed to war. Can we credibly oppose only certain military actions? Can we differentiate between armed conflicts by this or that state, or that are conducted within the “laws of war,” or that only use certain types of weapons? Can we distinguish between “wars of aggression” or “just wars,” especially when we know full well that those determining these categories are also creating the narrative of justification or excuse, are also the producing the weapons and profiting off the violence, are also claiming total immunity from the consequences of these actions?
We are either for the system of war, or we oppose it: on the grounds that the entire system is a flawed approach to mediating human conflict, that it creates more harm than it prevents or resolves. That violence, punishment, retribution, is not the answer to answer harms committed or threatened.
When we oppose war as a system, we do not say, but in the case of X, Y, or Z, war is acceptable. When we advocate for the abolition of nuclear weapons, we do not say, but it is fine and necessary for X government to possess, just not anyone else. Instead, we offer alternative systems to govern international relations. We promote accountability, justice, and peace through processes such as disarmament, demilitarisation, dialogue, nonviolent conflict resolution and peaceful settlement of disputes through arbitration and mediation, and more.
The same must hold true for the abolition of the carceral system. “But what do you do with all the criminals?!” is the first thing one hears when advocating from an abolitionist position, just as those advocating for the abolition of war or nuclear weapons are told, “What do you do with all the ‘bad actors’ or ‘irrational governments’?!” The answer must be the same: the current system is not working. The current system is not preventing harm or conflict or violence; in fact, the current system is generating more harm. It is investing resources on social destruction rather than human well-being and real, equitable safety for all. “Harm is a basic fact of human reality”, argues Amanda Aguilar Shank. “We can’t avoid being harmed and harming others. It’s just that current systems we have in place perpetuate harm and increase suffering, while claiming to do the opposite.”
Undoing criminality as a concept
But our answer does not stop there. The question of what to do about the “criminals” needs unpacking, too. Criminality is not a state of being. It is not inherent to a person. First of all, who determines what constitutes a crime is important—sex work and drug use are “crimes” while devastating the global economy by some bad moves on the trading room floor is just a bad day at the office, or while manufacturing weapons and profiting from war is celebrated and encouraged. Crime, to a large degree, is relative, determined by the most privileged in our societies.
But addressing the concerns of how we respond to harms committed is vital. This is what makes the articulation of alternatives to the carceral system so important.
As Arthur Waskow at the Institute for Policy Studies has noted, “First, having no alternative at all would create less crime than the present criminal training centers”—meaning prisons with their high rates of violence, oppression, and recidivism. But beyond that, he argues, “the only full alternative is building the kind of society that does not need prisons: A decent redistribution of power and income” and “a decent sense of community that can help support, reintegrate, and truly rehabilitate those who suddenly become filled with fury or despair, and that can face them not as objects—‘criminals’—but as people who have committed illegal acts, as have almost all of us.”
This is a crucial aspect of prison abolition: being able to see those who have committed harm as human beings. Not as monsters who need to be locked away, not as disposable objects that can imprisoned, put out of sight and mind of the rest of society. And, being able to locate the reasons that most “crimes” or harms are committed stems from unequal access to resources, jobs, housing, safety, care, love, recreation, health care. “Crime” and harm also come from the toxic structures and cultures embedded in all aspects of our societies: white supremacy and racism, patriarchy and toxic masculinities, militarisation and violence, capitalism and neoliberal exclusionary agendas. “People who harm are not individuals,” says Eli Dru. “They are created in a context.”
Building communities of care, not cops and incarceration
Changing that context, then, is key to preventing harms being committed. This means investing in education, jobs, housing, health care, food security, youth services, recreation programmes. It means providing more opportunities for people to live well, to live equitably to one another, to build safe communities for all.
Investing in care instead of cops and incarceration means allocating city funding towards healthcare infrastructure, including wellness resources, neighbourhood-based trauma centres, non-coercive drug and alcohol treatment programming, peer support networks, and training for healthcare professionals. It means making these services available for free to low-income residents. Residents and organisations in some cities have started building a “care not cops” model that will be useful for others to adapt to their local contexts.
The process of building new forms of care also means investing in teachers and counsellors, universal childcare, and support for all family structures; free and accessible public transit, especially servicing marginalised and lower-income communities; ensuring investments in community-based food banks, grocery cooperatives, gardens, and farms; and invest in youth programs that promote learning, safety, and community care. Research shows that urban greening and improved built environments dramatically improve community safety, including creating liveable communities where the local landscape affirms people’s dignity and humanity.
The provision of safe housing for all is another important aspect of building communities of care. This will require steps such as:
- Cancelling rent without burden of repayment during COVID-19;
- Repurposing empty buildings, houses, apartments, and hotels to house people experiencing homelessness;
- Prohibiting evictions;
- Removing cops from all re-entry and shelter institutions;
- Providing unequivocal support and resources to refugee and asylum-seeking communities;
- Allowing Community Benefits Agreements to be a community governed means of urban planning;
- Making public housing accessible to everyone, repealing discriminatory laws barring people from accessing resources based on income, race, gender, sexuality, immigration status, or history of incarceration;
- Supporting and promoting the existence of community land trusts for Black and historically displaced communities;
- Ensuring that survivors of gendered violence have access to alternative housing options in the event that their primary housing becomes unsafe; and
- Providing non-coercive housing options for young people experiencing abuse or family rejection of their queer or trans identities.
All of these steps will require cities, towns, neighbourhoods to build or expand mechanisms and cultures of community self-governance, for example by:
- Promoting neighborhood councils as representative bodies within municipal decision making;
- Investing in multilingual resources for immigrant and asylum-seeking communities.
- Assessing community needs and investing in community-based resources, including groups from tenant unions to local shop-owners and street vendors, prioritising those from marginalized groups;
- Investing in land stewardship councils to oversee return of land to Indigenous communities; and
- Investing in community-based public safety approaches, including non-carceral violence prevention and intervention programs and skills-based education on bystander intervention, consent and boundaries, and healthy relationships.
These will be some of the investments and changes necessary to build the infrastructure, policies, and cultures of equity, peace, safety, and nonviolence that can begin to offer alternatives to the carceral state. All will require further elaboration, brainstorming, and those engaged in these processes and will be broadly context-dependent, changing based on the needs of the communities engaged.
Decarceral and abolitionist feminism
In addition to preventing the commission of harm by building a culture of care, shifting away from the carceral state also requires that we change expectations and understandings of concepts like accountability, justice, and safety.
In the pursuit of decarcerating our minds from the assumption that locking people up is the best, or only, way to deal with “crime,” Angela Davis asks us to imagine, among other things, a society “in which punishment itself is no longer the central concern in the making of justice.” To this end, in addition to the investments in education, health, and community-based structures described above, we also need what Davis describes as “a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.”
Restorative and transformative justice programmes and mechanisms are critical for dealing with harms that are committed. Decarceral and abolitionist feminists have done the most thinking about this, including in the context of sexual and domestic violence. Reports such as Because She’s Powerful document the overwhelmingly negative effect mass incarceration has on women, including the financial and emotional costs, especially chronic loneliness and depression. The Crime Survivors Speak Report, one of very few reports conducted with survivors to find out what response they wanted to address violent crimes committed against them, found that most generally do not want punitive criminal law responses and instead want restorative justice approaches.
The carceral system, as we well know, is stacked against survivors of gender-based violence, including sexual and domestic violence. This system does not create accountability or lasting change; it does not deal with patriarchy, misogyny, and structural sexism. It focuses on individual behaviour rather than the cultures of toxic masculinity that lead to the systemic and structural nature of gender-based violence.
“While there is something satisfying about knowing Hollywood mogul Harry Weinstein’s ankle is finally chafing under an ankle monitor the same way the ankles of immigrants and POC parolees have been for years, we also know how this story ends,” notes Amanda Aguilar Shank. “Any time the state steps in to deliver safety, it is always a white supremacist model of safety that sees our communities at the threats to be protected against. We never win when we expand the powers and resources of the state to control and punish.”
For every Weinstein behind bars, there are thousands of other abusers walking free, living with impunity in our patriarchal world order. The vast majority of perpetrators of sexual assault are not arrested, convicted, or incarcerated. The failures of the current system are so widespread and well known that many survivors of sexual violence don’t even bother reporting cases at all, understanding that it is more likely that their reputation and lives will be damaged, that they will be further traumatised, than it is that those who caused them harm will ever be held accountable. Yet framing the carceral state as the best or only form of “protection” against sexual- and gender-based violence sets us to invest more in a failed system and teaches us to celebrate the few convictions that are handed down while true justice, accountability, and prevention remain elusive.
Further, the carceral system itself is a site of sexual- and gender-based violence. Police themselves rape women in custody and commit acts of domestic violence within their families.
Violence is rife within prisons, committed by guards and by those incarcerated. There is no safety or protection from sexual and gendered harm within the existing system. It is itself a source of this violence.
“Thinking about imprisonment as gender violence helps us get out of the false idea that we can have a government that promotes ‘gender equality’ while we still have imprisonment, and helps clear up the fantasy that we could have some kind of prison system that is safe for queer or trans people or women,” explains Dean Spade. This is why, as Eric Stanley says, the work of prison abolition “is forged in the work of daring to ask what true accountability, justice, and safety might look like and feel like so violence in all forms is decreased.”
Towards transformative justice
In the quest to establish alternative forms of accountability and justice that do not rely on punishment, confinement, surveillance, and violence, decarceral and abolitionist feminists advocate for transformative justice (TJ) processes and mechanisms.
This type of process is survivor-led, designed to support and facilitate the healing of the survivor through holding the perpetrator of harm responsible and accountable, but without “punishment” at the centre of that accountability. TJ recognises that “many survivors do not necessarily want harm to be done in response to the harm caused,” explain the authors of Beyond Survival. “Instead, they want the person to take responsibility for their behaviour and its impact, to feel remorse, to offer a genuine apology, to address the survivor’s needs and to commit to individual change and transformation.”
As generationFIVE writes in the Transformative Justice Handbook, many of those who have experienced harm report that they need to tell their own stories about their own experiences, within a context of trust and safety; experience validation that the harm they experienced was and is real; observe that the person who abused or harmed them feels remorse and is accountable for their actions; receive support that counteracts isolation and self-blame; have choice and input into the resolution of the harm they experienced; and be accepted and encouraged, not shamed and blamed, for coming forward by their families, peers, and communities.
While survivors’ experiences, needs, and goals must be at the centre of any TJ process; this “does not mean that people who may have been deeply wounded are suddenly handed full responsibility for a community dialogue and rehabilitation process,” Kai Cheng Thom makes clear. “Survivor-led does not mean that the community gets to abdicate its responsibility for providing support, safety, expertise, and leadership in making healing happen.” It is also not meant to place a burden on the person harmed to lead a process or reach out their perpetrators. On the contrary, it means organised support for survivors is made available throughout a process that is designed with the survivor’s needs and goals leading the process.
TJ processes can take many forms. In Beyond Survival, Ejeris Dixon explains, “Some groups support survivors by helping them identify their needs and boundaries while ensuring their attackers agree to these boundaries and atone for the harm they caused. Other groups create safe spaces and sanctuaries to support people escaping from violence. There are also community campaigns that educate community members on the specific dynamics of violence, how to prevent it, and what community-based programs are available.”
A key goal of any TJ process is also preventing future harm. To this end, TJ processes are meant to facilitate transformation in the behaviour of those who have committed harm and, where possible, restoration in communities and relationships where harms have been committed. This means providing space for the transformation of “the individual perpetrator, the abusive relationship, and the culture and power dynamics of the community,” explains Janaé E. Bonsu of Black Youth Project 100, “rather than a process in which revenge, retribution, or punishment is enacted.”
Because “as much as we try to “throw away” people—through the prison industrial complex, through deportation, through violence—people do not simply ‘go away’ when it is convenient or desired,” says Amanda Aguilar Shank. When we exile people for their “crimes,” she argues, “there is very little possibility of reconciliation, transformation, or healing.” Offering people an opportunity to understand and name their behaviour and the impact of their actions, to issue an apology, and to take specific steps towards reconciliation or restitution, can provide a way to prevent future harm, create a culture against harm, and offer justice to survivors.
For perpetrators, as the Philly Stands Up! Collective outlines, key steps in the TJ process might include:
- Recognising the harm they have done, even if it wasn’t intentional.
- Acknowledging that harm’s impact on individuals and the community.
- Making appropriate restitution to the individual and community.
- Developing solid skills for transforming attitudes and behavior to prevent further harm.
Accountability can take different forms. It can include “stopping harmful behavior, naming harmful behavior, giving sincere apologies, stepping down from leadership roles, developing daily healing and reflection practices to address root causes of harmful behavior,” as well building systems for support, providing material repair, and contributing to community efforts to the types of harms in which the perpetrator engaged.
There are many models for TJ processes, developed largely by BIPOC, feminist, queer, disabled, and other marginalised communities who have never been able to rely on the carceral system to provide for justice, accountability, or safety. As any TJ practitioner will report, these processes are not perfect. They can be messy, they can retraumatise or cause new trauma, they do not always satisfy the survivor or result in transformation of the perpetrator. But, just as with the alternatives to policing and other aspects of the carceral system, TJ offers a different approach that by and large produces much less violence and harm in responding to violence and harm. And, just like the alternatives to policing, the long-term transformative effects cannot be felt until real investments are made into these alternatives. Right now, people engaged in TJ work usually operate on shoestring budgets without wider community, city, or state support. If we were to transition the billions spent every year on policing and incarceration and invest instead in building up TJ systems on a larger, more resilient scale, we could see meaningful change.
Breaking the cage
While many people may see “criminal activity” and “criminal behaviour” as the main obstacles to pursing the abolition of police and prisons, it is really the carceral state itself that is the impediment. It is the profits made by the prison industry, the benefits gained by the capitalist class, the privileges accrued by the white supremacist, neoliberal state that continues to choose to make more investments in locking people up than in providing a liveable world. And are our states make these choices and investments, our minds become trapped in the same buildings and systems designed to confine the “surplus population” of which the state seeks to control, confine, and dispose.
Imagining another way
Due to its very nature as an institution that confines and hides away those the state rejects, prisons are easily taken for granted. “It is difficult to imagine life without them,” Angela Davis acknowledges. “At the same time, there is reluctance to face the realities hidden within them, a fear of thinking about what happens inside them. Thus, the prison is present in our lives and at the same time, it is absent from our lives.”
For those who have worked for the abolition of nuclear weapons, this may sound familiar. Objects designed to inflict massive violence against entire cities, the lived reality of which is horrific, intergenerational pain, trauma, and suffering, seemingly exist in most people’s minds as abstract objects that “keep us safe”. Many people can acknowledge nuclear weapons are horrible, yet claim their necessity as tools of security. In order to reconcile this ghastly incongruity and live with the cognitive dissonance it inevitably buries in our minds, most people put the atomic bomb out of sight, out of mind. They exist, but they are meant to never be used.
Except, they are used. Every day, nuclear weapons shape the way our world operates, waste precious human and economic resources, put our entire planet in danger.
It is the same with prisons. For those that have never had to interact with the carceral system, it can seem to be a necessary evil. To those that have had that displeasure, in any shape are form, it is simply evil. They are not abstractions that “keep us safe,” they are physical manifestations of brutality, cruelty, and the reproduction of harm, over and over and over.
The insistence on continuing to invest in the broken systems that operate “to exile, cage, and torture immigrants, poor people, people of color, and people with disabilities always seem to rely on an idea that we need these systems, we just need to clean them up or fix them up somehow,” says Dean Spade. “Abolitionists are asking, in a variety of ways, if we can imagine letting go of the idea that some people need to be caged, exiled, or kept out.” This requires us, first and foremost, to “unlearn what is possible,” as Derecka Purnell suggests. This is essential for the abolition not just of the prisons, but of the whole carceral system, and of other systems of violence that keep us all caged in the global hell of inequality and violence of our own making.