- Kayla M. MartensenKayla M. MartensenDepartment of Criminology, Law, and Justice, University of Illinois at Chicago
- and Beth E. RichieBeth E. RichieDepartment of Criminology, Law, and Justice, University of Illinois at Chicago
Prison abolition as an American movement, strategy, and theory has existed since the establishment of prison as the primary mode of punishment. In many of its forms, it is an extension of abolition movements dating back to the inception of slavery. The long-term goal of prison abolition is for all people to live in a safe, liberated, and free world. In practice, prison abolition values healing and accountability, suggesting an entirely different way of living and maintaining relationships outside of oppressive regimes, including that of the prison. Prison abolition is concerned with the dismantling of the prison–industrial complex and other oppressive institutions and structures, which restrict true liberation of people who have been marginalized by those in power. These structures include white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and ablest and heteronormative ideologies.
The origins of the prison regime are both global and rooted in history with two fundamental strategies of dominance, the captivity of African-descended peoples, and the conquest of Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples, land and resource. Similarly, the origins of prison abolition begin with the resistance of these systems of dominance. The contemporary prison abolition movement, today, is traced to the Attica Prison Uprising in 1971 when incarcerated people in the New York prison rebelled and demanded change in the living conditions inside prison. The nature of the uprising was different from prior efforts, insofar as the organizers’ demands were about fundamental rights, not merely reforms. Throughout the history of abolition work, there is continuous division between reform and abolition organizers. When the lives, voices, and leadership of the people most impacted by the violence of these oppressive regimes is centered, there is minimal space for discussion of reform. Throughout the abolition movement in America, and other western cultures, the leadership of Black, Indigenous, women, and gender-nonconforming people of color play a pivotal role. By centering the experiences of those most vulnerable, abolitionists understand prison does not need to be reformed and is critical of fashionable reforms and alternatives to prisons which are still rooted in carceral logic.
- Critical Criminology
- International Crime
- Prevention/Public Policy
Definitional and Conceptual Issues
Prison abolition as a movement, strategy, and theory has existed since the establishment of prison as the primary mode of punishment in American society. In many of its forms, it is an extension of abolition movements dating back to the inception of slavery. Prison abolition cannot be understood through a myopic lens, at its core, the long-term goal of prison abolition is for all people to live in a safe and liberated world. In this way, contrary to popular belief, prison abolition is about healing and accountability, suggesting an entirely different way of living and maintaining relationships outside of oppressive regimes, including that of the prison. Prison abolition has a wide array of meaning across time and culture. Within the American context, especially as it relates to Black liberation, there are some basic principles which can be considered basic tenets of prison abolition.
Prison abolition is not limited to the dismantling of the physical buildings called prisons. The movement understands the ways the logic, technologies, and practices of prison are embedded in social institutions, beliefs, and values in ways that are far more comprehensive and complex than the physical buildings themselves. To this point, prison abolition is concerned with the dismantling of the prison–industrial complex and other oppressive institutions and structures, which restrict true liberation of the people who have been marginalized by those in power. The prison–industrial complex, originally coined by Mike Davis (1995) and popularized and nuanced by Angela Davis in several publications, including Are Prisons Obsolete (2003), points to the economic and political investments made into the prison system which, alongside systematic racism, created and support the system of mass incarceration. Through this framework, mass incarceration is understood as a response to racism and pursuit for profit, not crime. The term prison regime, coined by Dylan Rodríguez (2006), emphasizes that prison is not a static institution, but rather, part of a larger system of state power and human dominance. In this way, the prison existed before the physical buildings understood as the prison, and, it is argued, will continue in new forms if the structures that support the prison regime are not dismantled. These structures include white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and ablest and heteronormative ideologies. To this point, another basic tenet of prison abolition is the connection between the current prison regime and other oppressive regimes, such as state-making, settler colonialism, slavery, and warfare. The origins of the prison regime are both global and rooted in history with two fundamental strategies of dominance, the captivity of African-descended peoples and the conquest of Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples, land and resources. Similarly, the origins of prison abolition begin with the resistance to these systems of dominance. This basic tenet of prison abolition, then, values abolition of all oppressive regimes.
Prison abolition acknowledges the relationships between the prison–industrial complex and other social institutions which are essential to sustaining life, such as healthcare, schools, and housing.
Prison abolitionists, and other scholars and activists, have recorded the ways the logic and practice of prison is rooted in everyday logics and encounters, as well as highlighting the pathways into prisons through daily institutions and social services. Through this lens, a reallocation of resources and investment will not correct mass incarceration because it is understood that the prison is part of a larger network of surveillance, control, and punishment, which is fundamental to the survival of the carceral state. The concept of the carceral state adds to the ideas of the prison–industrial complex and prison regime. Carceral state, as a concept, highlights the intersection of multiple state agencies outside and within the criminal legal system, such as the systems of immigration, child welfare, and other workfare and welfare agencies, which together have embedded a logic and practice of carcerality in American society and beyond (Meiners, 2016). Prison abolition, therefore, is proposing an entirely different system which is both disassociated from oppressive regimes, and, outside current ideas of rehabilitation or healing offered through the carceral state. Here, a deep division between prison reform and prison abolition is observed. In contrast to the former, sometimes referred to as carceral humanism (Kilgore, 2014), abolition rejects the notion that care can come from an oppressive regime, arguing that the system functions as intended, and thus does not need to be reformed at all.
There are several ways prison abolition works in practice today. On an individual level, people make daily choices not to funnel people into the prison system by resolving conflict in other ways. Some of the commonly used frameworks to address conflict and harm include restorative justice, transformative justice, and community accountability. These frameworks also cannot be understood through a myopic lens as relationships are complicated and communities and networks are diverse in their needs. Despite this, these frameworks have in common a larger goal of envisioning a world without harm, where people are accountable to each other and where needs are met and lives are sustained. Prison abolitionists understand the state itself, and prisons in particular, as harmful and oppressive and, therefore, cannot provide justice nor healing (Dixon & Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2020). Beyond the dismantling of these oppressive regimes is therefore the creation of other ways of existing, building relationships, and creating consequences for harms which are productive, nonviolent, and transforming of the conditions which breed harm in the first place.
History of Prison Abolition in America
The concept of prison abolition has a long genealogy tracing back to the organized resistance of slavery in the United States, which emerged in the 19th century alongside radical challenges to forced labor of Black people in Britain (Davis, 2003). Fueled by fierce opposition to forced bondage, the movement to abolish slavery was ideologically and politically aligned with religious doctrine, and steeped in virtuous arguments around freedom, human rights, and the immorality of the ownership of human beings. These righteous claims were embedded in two related factors. First, southern slave owners were concerned about consolidating political power over their northern counterparts as a way to maintain legislative control over regions of the country that were attempting to exercise their right to govern themselves. The need for legislative control was a result of the divergent economic interests and the desire to consolidate capitalist interests and wealth in the United States. It is important to rehearse the history of the 19th-century movement to abolish slavery because in some ways, it forecasted some of the political challenges that characterize the contemporary movement for prison abolition today, specifically the tension that arises between the abolitionist commitment to broad principles of liberation, equity and justice, and more utilitarian concerns, such as how to divert funding from policing and prisons into community services.
The origin of the contemporary prison abolition movement, today, is traced to the Attica Prison Uprising in 1971 when incarcerated people in the New York prison rebelled and demanded change in the living conditions inside prison, which took place after the killing of the eminent political prisoner George Jackson at San Quentin Prison in California. The nature of the uprising was different from prior efforts, insofar as the organizers’ demands were about fundamental rights, not merely reforms. In other words, the significance of the Attica uprising to the contemporary prison abolition movement is its focused attention beyond improving institutional policies and practices, which called attention to the root injustices and violence associated with incarceration, more generally. These ideas were expressed by Thomas Mathiesen (1974) in the article The Politics of Abolition and made popular by Mark Morris (1976) in the text Instead of Prison. As these texts and other writings emerged after the Attica Uprising attest to, the modern-day abolition movement was born from inside the walls and over the 43 dead bodies, including 33 people who were incarcerated, and the 85 comrades injured as they engaged in a struggle for their lives.
Gradual expansion of the commitment to abolition grew over the next decade, into the late 1980s, through progressive groups concerned with the impact of incarceration on the fabric of U.S. society. The nature of the expansion reflected a similar dialect between social reforms and abolishing carcerality completely. As some activists engaged in policy reform to address racial bias, reduce draconian sentencing, bring rehabilitation services into incarcerating institutions, and create alternative to prison programs, there was a shift away from a commitment to freedom. This resulted in frustrations by others in the movement, which led to demands for more revolutionary work, led by people who were incarcerated. An international conversation was ongoing and smaller gatherings around the world, in South Africa, Palestine, Brazil, Canada, and other places became formidable forces for change, populating the terrain of resistance to incarceration with abolitionist politics. The International Conference on Prison Abolition (ICOPA) began hosting annual meetings in 1983 which became an international meeting point for abolitionists around the globe. The abolition work at that time went beyond the country-specific manifestations of the carceral state and pointed to globalization, racial capitalism, and the subsequent exporting of the U.S. punishment regime. Momentum grew steadily and, by 1998, there was a zealous political longing for prison abolition. The call for abolition was passionate and persistent and was cemented at the first Critical Resistance conference in Berkeley, California, in 1998. The conference was initially planned as a small gathering of 50–100 people. In the end, close to 2,000 former prisoners, family members, allies, academics, organizations, and others came together, and the largest U.S. abolitionist organization—Critical Resistance— was founded.
It is important to note that in almost every organization, and in each era of the abolition movements, women of color and gender-nonconforming (GNC) people were and are at the forefront of the rapidly emerging movement. Over history Black and Indigenous women and GNC people of color played pivotal roles across the prison abolition movement. This influence continues today when the groundswell of support for abolition has permeated the recent uprisings against police violence, demands to defund the police, to remove law enforcement officers from schools and college campuses and to reinvest in communities. Recognizably, the new populism of the term abolition is significantly influencing dialogues about racial equity and community empowerment in ways that far exceed the focus on prisons. However, some critics raise concerns about the superficial analyses and the ulterior motives of some who claim the identity of abolitionists (Berger et al., 2017). Importantly for this article is to understand both the growing support for abolition and the critique and concern of cooptation, as part of the long genealogy, where prison abolition resonates as politically important and viable with a rapidly changing landscape.
Prison Abolition in a Western Context
The origins and strategies of prison abolition in America have occurred alongside abolition in western culture more broadly, and in recent decades has led towards an international abolition movement among western nations. This section delves into abolition in the Canadian and South African contexts to explore the nuances of the movement across western culture.
Canada has played a major role in efforts at building a unified global abolition movement. Efforts towards prison abolition in North America and Europe in the early 1980s sparked the Quaker Committee on Jails and Justice in Canada to declare the need for an international forum and global discussion around abolition politic and practice, which led to the establishment of the ICOPA. The conference founder Canadian Ruth Morris, alongside the labor and efforts of many others, planned the first prison abolition conference which was held in 1983 in Toronto, Canada. At the 1987 ICOPA meeting in Montreal, Canada, the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons grew out of the presentations held at the meeting that year. At this meeting there grew a concern around prisoner representation in the movement, which led to the first publication in 1988 featuring writing by people who are or were in prison around the globe. For example, the most publication in 2020 features the writing of people formerly or currently incarcerated in Canadian prisons and highlights some of the current issues in the Canadian penal system.
Similar to the United States, abolition work in Canada stems from a history of resistance toward oppressive regimes, with a focus on settler colonialism. Often times, Canadian abolitionists link their ties closely to those in America given a shared history of conquest and slavery. Abolition work in Canada offers deep insight into the relationship between colonialism and incarceration (Cunneen & Rowe, 2014) and is deeply rooted in dismantling logics of settler colonialism and Canada’s claim to the land (Carrier & Piché, 2018). At every level of the criminal justice system in Canada, Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted. This concern has been at the forefront of political and public discourse for decades and has resulted in a long history of reforms and alternatives to prison, including the establishment of a restorative aboriginal court within the existing Canadian criminal legal system (Chartrand, 2019). But these reforms have only resulted in more prisons being built and have proven to only increase the Indigenous population in Canadian prisons (Chartrand, 2019). Namely, the Indigenous federal prison population increased by more than 50% in a 10-year period in 2015, despite these claimed reforms (OCI, 2015). Similar to the United States, there is a division among activists and organizers: on the one hand, there is an effort at reforming the prison, and on the other, an effort to dismantle all oppressive regimes including and beyond the prison. Although tough on crime rhetoric and policy from the United States crossed the border, Canada has had more success in resisting these punitive measures, which has kept the amount of people in prison fewer than its neighbor. This is largely a result of the activism of women of color, particularly Indigenous and Black women, who have led the abolition movement in Canada in an effort to resist carceral violence (Sudbury, 2009).
To understand how abolition is framed in the South African context requires study of the system of Apartheid that dominated life in South Africa for decades, and importantly, how the residue of legally enforced racism continues through militarized policing today. That is, most scholars and activists agree that the project of liberating Black people in South Africa from the tyranny of apartheid by transitioning to democratic rule is an incomplete one, at best. Policing strategies that have euphemistically been called “human rights policing” or the creation of groups such as the South African National Defense Force have done little to decrease violent oppression of Black and colored people, and so-called crime control strategies continues to be weapons of racialized social control (Klaaren & Ramji, 2001). Data reveal that Black South Africans continue to be tortured and killed by police, jails and prisons continue to be overcrowded and dangerous, and the justice system overall reinforces racial hierarchy of White supremacy (McMichael, 2016).
It is important to put abolitionist efforts in the context of democratic political change in South Africa. The radical left in South Africa, the African National Congress, and other groups fought hard for a political vision of freedom for Black South Africans. Their vision encompassed political, economic, legal, cultural, and educational freedom. As the country transitioned to democratic rule, the issue of safety emerged as particularly important, and instead of thinking broadly about what safety would mean, leaders relied on the same limited notions as the United States and other countries that safety would come from stronger crime control policies. Or, as Paul T. Clark (2019) argued, “decades of failed crime policy and a pervasive sense that ‘crime is out of control’ have encouraged much of the population to take up the idea that only more punitive measures will lead to greater safety” (p. 1). This global misperception fueled the increasing numbers and authority of police around the globe, and in this case in South Africa, which have only further thwarted the effort for liberation, this time with the confusing face of non-White people with the weapons in their hands.
In reaction to this failure at reform, the abolition movement in South Africa has been growing. In many ways, it resembles the work of prison abolitionists in the United States and other countries. Black and other feminists of color are in leadership positions, arguing against investment in the carceral state and, instead, advocating for alternative ways to bring safety and security to communities (Xaba, 2017). A considerable amount of this work emerges from feminist anti-violence activists who know that aggressive, patriarchal, and paternalistic state agents do not reduce vicious physical and sexual abuse, and instead amplify the need to build the power of women and others who are harmed by these forms of interpersonal violence (Richie et al., 2021). Efforts to develop systems of community accountability in rural townships, demands for resources to provide safe housing for people in sex trades, mutual aid projects, and protective strategies designed for and by trans people are examples of abolition projects that have been created in local communities (Greedy & Robbins, 2014). There are important lessons to be learned from South Africa, not the least of which is that only true democratic revolution that position those with the least power in leadership will bring freedom. And prison abolition—broadly defined—is arguably the key element of that freedom.
Critical Carceral Studies and Abolition in Criminology
Criminologists who are critical of the prison system have remained at the fringes of the field since the establishment of the discipline. Despite this, there is an ongoing critical conversation that radically opposes mass incarceration and instead points towards prison abolition, or at the very least solidarity with abolition, in interesting ways. This has evolved into an interdisciplinary subfield that has been identified by some as critical carceral studies (Brown & Schept, 2017; Meiners, 2016). Critical carceral studies embodies and affirms some of the basic tenets of prison abolition and, increasingly, is intersecting with the work of some prison abolitionists. It is critical carceral studies that many criminologists rely on to connect their own work to prison abolition. Some of the themes in critical carceral studies include: a critique of get-tough policies, an exploration of neoliberal politics, divestment and organized abandonment of communities; a linkage between mass incarceration and other punitive systems, historically and currently; and an exploration of the ways prison (carceral) logic is replicated outside prisons, including pathways into prisons, and lastly, a critique of reform and the ways reforms deny safety and liberation to the people impacted by the prison system.
Get-tough politics embody a set of punitive laws and policies, strict enforcement, and increased control, surveillance, and incarceration of people of color. This politic was riddled with law-and-order rhetoric that prioritized control and punishment and promoted narratives encouraging the arrest, incarceration, and punishment of people of color on a mass scale. Critical carceral studies argues that get-tough politics are an intentional response to the successes of the civil rights movement in order to ease white anxiety and maintain a system of racial oppression, while simultaneously profiting off mass incarceration and divesting from the communities targeted by the system (Alexander, 2020). Neoliberal politics are essential to the reallocation of resources that resulted in mass divestment and organized abandonment of the communities targeted for prison. While scapegoating communities of color as criminal, state dependent, and morally poor, the state minimized the role of economic policies made that resulted in mass destitution for poor people of color and those outside hegemonic norms. Critical carceral studies often embodies intersectionality as studies highlight the ways women of color, youth of color, queer and LGBTQ+ people, trans and non-binary folks, people with physical and/or mental disabilities, immigrants and undocumented people have all been impacted by this system in similar yet distinct ways (Crenshaw, 1990; Meiners, 2016; Spade, 2020). All of which points to the need to dismantle white supremacy, settler colonialism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and other oppressive structures that function through the prison state.
Another connection between critical carceral studies and abolition work is a critique of carceral expansion into daily life and nonpunitive social institutions. Criminalizing politics in schools and within the immigration system, for example, are amply recorded. State agencies that are responsible for the surveillance and oversight of poor people of color, especially women, are directed to comply with the demands of carcerality, which both criminalizes their behaviors and creates direct pathways into prison. Agencies such as public aid, child welfare, immigration agencies, and state medical care are all responsible for the oversight of people who can be funneled into prison. Beckett and Murakawa (2012) identified this as the “shadow of the carceral state,” where civil and administrative state agencies “mimic traditional punishment” (p. 222).
The area of critical carceral studies which most stands in solidarity with abolition work are ideas of carceral humanism, which is critical of efforts at reform or care that are delivered by the carceral state, versus through a different system, entirely. Carceral humanism points to the ways punitive institutions work under the guise of care, which can involve building relationships with social services in the community. When social services become co-opted by the carceral state, however, it results in carceral humanism “a discursive strategy of rebranding or repackaging carceral control as the caring provision of social services” (Heiner & Tyson, 2017, p. 4). There is a history of prison reforms, known as reformers reform, which on its surface appears to be addressing a social issue within the prison system, but which, Richie (2012) reveals, is only strengthening and expanding carcerality.
Although it is debatable whether criminology can make space for prison abolition (Brown & Schept, 2017), there has been a growing presence of prison abolition work in the field. The American Society of Criminology, the largest criminology annual meeting, has maintained prison abolition panels for the last three years, which has cultivated the possibility of a prison abolition subfield within the discipline of criminology.
Women of Color and Abolition
As noted, Black and Indigenous women and GNC people of color have been at the forefront of the abolition movement. There is a lineage of mutual aid and safety networks which exists beyond the carceral state that are completely necessary for the safety of people who have not been protected by the state. Women and GNC people of color have strategized harm reduction within their networks to protect themselves and each other from gender and sexual violence, including state-sanctioned violence. In the 21st century, this activist work has been identified as abolition feminism, which is a dynamic and emerging practice of abolition work rooted in a history of anti-violence work lead by women and GNC people of color, especially Black women (Davis et al., 2021).
Reviewing a history of anti-violence work illustrates the important role of women of color in leading the abolition movement as well as the tensions and divergence that occur in each iteration of the movement. Angela Davis (1981) described over a century of anti-violence white feminist activists perpetrating racist and classist ideologies through their work, while Black feminist activists worked to eradicate violence against Black people and all women. Frustrated with the division between the movements in the era of the 1970s and 1980s, Kimberlie Crenshaw (1990) coined the term intersectionality to refer to the ways race, class, and gender identity impact the lives of women of color, which translate to the intersection of oppressive structures like racism, classism, and sexism; this is especially true when sexuality, disability, and immigration status are considered. By centering the lives of people who are most vulnerable to carceral violence, the abolition movement values an intersectional logic where women and GNC people of color are leaders in organizing efforts.
Beth Richie (2012), among many others, amplify the ways that reformist movements can coopt not just the abolition movement, but the momentum, energy, resources, and funding away from the communities who need it most. This work has influenced an abolitionist understanding that those who are directly impacted by the prison regime, and most vulnerable to gender and sexual violence, must lead the movement (Carruthers, 2018). As prison abolition is popularized, it is important for those who are organizing and protecting their communities to remain at the center of the movement.
By centering the experiences of those most vulnerable, abolitionists understand that prison does not need to be reformed and is critical of fashionable reforms and alternatives to prisons which are still rooted in carceral logic. Carceral Logic tells the narrative that certain people need to be under the control and surveillance of the state, and those acting outside the norms created by the state should be punished to the harshest degree. Schenwar and Law (2020) highlighted modern popular reforms, such as electronic monitoring and mandatory lockdown treatment, and caution readers that these reformist measures embody the prison and are in fact similarly oppressive, albeit in a vessel, outside the physical prison. Their work explores the experiences of those who are gifted these alternatives to prisons, and by centering the lived experiences of those who are imprisoned in alternative prisons, the ways these reforms truly leave the people who experience them in situations which they are no better off are clearly visible. The unforgiving rules placed on people who are on intensive probation or house arrest nearly ensures rearrest. Similarly, people who are addicted on drugs and unsuccessful at mandatory drug treatment can receive harsher sentences than they would have had they not been presented an opportunity at treatment. All of these alternatives ignore the structural issues that put only certain people at risk of becoming system-involved, while others are free to commit harm and abuse drugs in the privacy of their own lives. In fact, Schenwar and Law (2020) argued that these efforts at reform only strengthen the carceral state. When reform colludes with the state, it absorbs the resources, energy, and momentum of the movement (Richie et al., 2021). Abolition feminism is uninterested in state-based reforms or “alternatives” to incarceration in traditional prisons, but rather, demands self-determined alternatives to address issues of conflict and harm happening in communities, without state intervention, while, simultaneously curating frameworks that promise to dismantle carceral violence in all its forms. There is a history of prison reform that has never sought to dismantle the structures upholding prison, including white supremacy, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. Such dismantling is the long-term goal of abolition. In the short term, abolition feminist practice abolition by curating practices of healing, networks of safety, and mutual aid often times through a queer Black feminist lens (Carruthers, 2018).
There have been great strides in the areas of healing justice, transformative justice, and community accountability led by women of color, queer women of color and trans, GNC and nonbinary people (Kaba & Nopper, 2021). These frameworks of justice and practices of harm reduction and safety have been curated and practiced out of necessity. Communities targeted by carceral violence cannot rely on the police or prison system to keep them safe; in fact, community members must navigate state violence while addressing the interpersonal violence they may encounter in their homes or communities. In the now, in the short term, abolition feminists grapple with what to do with people who perpetrate violence in communities and homes, without funneling them into the prison system. As imperfect as these processes may be, they are necessary in a carceral state and are at the core of abolition work today.
To recap, prison abolition is often falsely assumed to be the dismantling of the physical buildings and the releasing of “dangerous” people into the community, with no recognition of the lineage of liberation struggles for Black and other marginalized people. Prison abolition is connected to abolition movements starting with slavery, it is an ongoing movement with the long-term goal of liberation (Rodríguez, 2006). The main struggle within the movement, both the current iteration and past, is a division between reform and abolition. Often the movement gets coopted toward efforts at reform which truly do not dismantle oppressive conditions (Schenwar & Law, 2020). Therefore, similar oppressive logics continue to thrive in new forms, the current form is the prison system. Because law and order rhetoric is engrained in the western mind, today’s prison system cannot often be considered as being connected to a larger system of oppression which stands on a foundation of structural oppression. This is where prison abolition departs from critical criminology and is a historical and radical understanding of the role of mass incarceration. Criminology has long established mass incarceration has no correlation with crime rates but has yet to take the necessary leap of supporting the abolition of the oppressive prison regime. The movement does not look toward academia for liberation, much of key literature on prison abolition, in fact, happens outside academia.
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