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.