In the US, many of us are brought up laughing at people who are stuck in prison. I don’t think parents usually raise their kids to laugh about prison life, but society certainly does. I don’t ever remember finding prison jokes funny. I knew there were real people in prison, and no matter what these people had done, nobody deserves to be treated violently day in and day out. I don’t ever remember feeling that prisoners should be punished; instead I remember wanting people to be in prison for as little time as possible, and for as few people to be in prison as possible.
I’m a white man who had a stable, sheltered childhood in a middle-class New England home. In middle school or high school our class was taken to visit a prison. It felt like some kind of “scared straight” program, and I couldn’t figure out why we were being shown prison life in this way. There was no critical discussion of how we as a society choose to use and operate prisons as part of a criminal justice system; it was just presented as a part of society that we needed to be aware of and stay away from.
As I grew up and strayed farther from my sheltered New England upbringing, I began to meet people who had been to prison. I also met people who were surrounded by so many others who had been to prison that they assumed they’d end up there some day as well. A few of these people in prison had made mistakes that could have hurt others, but most of them had been “caught” doing nonviolent things that caused no one any meaningful harm. None of them deserved to experience violence. Almost none of them deserved to have years of their lives taken away. And they didn’t deserve to have more obstacles put in the way of building a stable, meaningful life.
I’ve always wanted to know more about our prison system, and find a way to become involved in the reform movement. I say “reform” here because that’s the only term I’d ever heard used to describe anything other than accepting the system as it is. I hadn’t heard the term “abolition” in relation to the prison system until I looked for a critical book to read about the system. When I came across Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?, the title itself immediately shifted my thinking on the issue. This is the question I wish we had been asked after that school visit in the 1980s.
This is a short book; it’s a small book physically, and it’s barely over 100 pages. But it gives a clear and concise history of prisons, first around the world and then focused on the present-day US system. The true story of prisons is so much worse than I had ever imagined.
Prisons haven’t always existed. Before there were prisons, punishments focused on shame, pain, retribution, and death. People were put in the stocks, another thing we were shown in a very lighthearted, non-critical way in my New England childhood. “Imagine seeing criminals in the town square! Isn’t it so much better now that we don’t have to see them at all?!” People were beaten, whipped, and had fingers and hands chopped off. People were killed, and often in slow and painful ways. Prisons were developed in part to move away from these approaches to “justice”.
When they were first developed, prisons were almost exclusively for men. This is tied in with misogyny - women were not free, and if you’re not free to move about society independently then prison isn’t much of a deterrence or punishment. Prisons for women didn’t appear in significant numbers until much later, when women gained more freedom in society. An ugly aspect of the equality movement involved the push to build an equal punishment system for women alongside what we already had for men, instead of rethinking our approach to justice altogether.
The growth of the prison system in the US was closely tied to the abolition of slavery. After abolition, former slaveowners in the South were looking for a continued source of cheap labor. They were also looking for a way to continue to exert control over black people:
The new Black Codes proscribed a range of actions - such as vagrrancy, absence from work, breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts - that were criminalized only when the person charged was black.
These laws were literally written so that only black people could be charged. Also, slavery had been abolished by the 13th Amendment “except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. Once a person was convicted, individuals and companies could “lease” a group of convicts to perform work. These people were treated even worse than slaves. If a slaveowner treated a slave so poorly that they ended up killing a person, they had to buy another slave. If a person who leased convicts killed someone, they were simply sent a new convict. This is something I had never heard of; it’s a part of the US race story that I was never taught. In school we went from slavery to the Civil War, to a touch of Jim Crow, and ended with the Civil Rights movement when black people were finally equal in society and we didn’t have to think about race anymore.
The system of Black Codes that set up black people to be leased out as slaves seems like something from the distant past, but it’s still happening. There are numerous examples around the country of prisoners performing a wide range of labor. They aren’t being trained for work that will keep them out of prison once they’re released; many of them are barred from finding work in the same field when they are released. And many of them are serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes, and don’t need “retraining” or “rehabilitation” in the first place.
Should prisons be abolished? The clear answer is yes, as far as what prison looks like in today’s society. Black people, other minorities, and poor people are convicted at much higher rates than middle and upper class white people. When they are convicted, their prison sentences and fines are far disproportionate to any “crime” they may have committed. People’s lives are derailed and destroyed by what we have built.
So why don’t we abolish the current system? A number of people make a lot of money off of this system, and they make more when we expand the system. They make money from building prisons, from selling the labor of people in the system, from contracts to operate the facilities, from providing monopolistic and predatory “services” to people in the system, and more. These are powerful people who are not always easy to name, creating a system that is difficult to challenge.
So where do we go from here? First, I highly recommend this book if you haven’t already read it. It’s a quick read, and it gives a solid background for understanding the origins of the system we’re dealing with today. It’s not a light read at all, but it lays things out as they are, which feels better than not knowing what’s really happening.
It isn’t enough to simply understand how this system came to be. We all need to act to stop building an even larger system, and to start dismantling the one that we currently have. Don’t support building new prisons in your state. Don’t laugh off backhanded comments about sexual violence in prisons. Find people working in your state who are addressing laws and policies at the state level and support their work. Support projects that protect and help people in prison, and oppose initiatives to restrict and cut services to people in prisons. Don’t assume that someone who went to prison is a bad or dangerous person who is prone to violence. Look for people and organizations working at the local, state, national, and even international levels.
When I was teaching high school, we used a restorative justice approach to discipline. A better phrase is “restorative practices”, because a good system builds positive culture proactively, rather than reacting to issues as they come up. We intentionally built community, and taught conflict resolution and an understanding of restorative justice before issues arose. We were always ready to fall back on a traditional approach to discipline for people who refused to participate in a restorative process, but these situations were few and far between. Most people will take responsibility for what they’ve done if they’re treated with respect and listened to. The core questions of restorative justice involve asking what can be done to make a situation as right as possible, rather than what must be done to punish an offender. We made several attempts to bring this system to the larger community outside the schools, and had some successes. It’s a lot of work to carry out these changes though, and the work in our larger community has paused as far as I know. Reading this book pushes me back toward that work.
I acknowledge the need to keep some people away from society. I have met and spoken with a number of people who have killed someone. These people, however, are not arguments against abolishing the prison system. The acts these people committed were situational. While they accept responsibility for what they’ve done and that their acts can’t be undone, we as a society must also accept that we’ve placed a lot of people in extremely difficult situations where many of us would make similar decisions. These people, despite having committed violent crime, can be supported in ways that allow them to reintegrate into society. Rather than continue to build an ever expanding prison system, we need to build a society where everyone has their basic needs met instead. In the time it takes to do this, we can handle current levels of violent crime without the need for a mass incarceration system.
There are some people who have commited violent crimes that were not situational, but instead are related to mental health issues. People whose violent acts stem from delusions and being disconnected from reality do need to be kept away from society. But these people are few and far between, and again we do not need a mass incarceration system to handle them. They deserve to be treated with understanding, and no amount of retribution will prevent similar acts of violence from being carried out by others who are suffering in similar ways.
I hope that light continues to be shined on the brutal, profit- and control-driven system that we’ve built. I hope that we, as individuals and as a society, take responibility for what we’ve built and take decisive steps to dismantle it. I appreciate Angela Davis for all of her work, and for writing such a concise and motivating overview of how we got to this point in our society, and what we can do to move away from this system to a more humane and equitable system of justice in the US and in the world.