Could We Really Just Close Down Prisons?

The US prison system is ineffective to say the least. Two-thirds of those incarcerated re-offend within five years of their release. Incarceration has increased by 500% in the last 40 years, many of whom were jailed for non-violent drug offenses. Moreover, people in the criminal justice system experience much higher rates of chronic health conditions, abuse, and mental illnesses than the general population. Upon release, former inmates are often discriminated against on housing and job applications. And so the system keeps itself alive. But rather than reform it, abolitionists want to ban it altogether.

The actual dictionary definition of abolutionism is “the principles or measures promoting the abolition, especially of slavery,” however, its modern day context specifically refers to the banning of prisons. For some, like abolitionist Mariame Kaba, the founder and director of Project NIA (a grassroots organization with a vision to end youth incarceration), this also means abolishing the police as well. At first glance, the idea appears radical — and it is — but the leaders of this movement would argue that drastic change needs to happen in order to dismantle the prison industrial complex.

Joshua Allen, an urban youth organizer and abolitionist eloquently explains their understanding of the philosophy as “the creation of safety and security strategies originated by or going toward the community rather than the police.”

In response to the question, “But what about the murderers?” Joshua says abolitionists want to find new ways to address them without using prisons.

That includes investing in education, housing and after school programs, properly treating mental illness, and aggressively trying to end poverty and a myriad of other social issues, essentially replacing harsh punitive measures with transformative, restorative justice.

What that can look like in practice is what Restorative Justice Centers designer Deanna Van Buren creates. Her peacekeeping centers are places where victims and offenders come together to jointly solve their issues so that they can heal. Van Buren and her associates treat crime as a breach of relationships and aim to repair, as well as find, the root of the problem. Indeed, her Restore Oakland project, based in Oakland, California, is underway to become a place of peacekeeping, employment for anyone regardless of criminal record, and a hub for activism. Additionally, her Near Westside Peacekeeping Project has already made quite a difference in New York where staff members use Native American practices for conflict resolution. It’s an alternative solution to issues that can be handled by the community rather than the government.

Critics of this movement have varying opinions. Most of the concerns stem from the fear of the violent such as rapists and others in the community who have historically gotten away with their crimes. They already are able to get their prison sentences curtailed by sympathetic judges, so what is to stop them if there are no prisons or police force? A comic strip featuring Kaba’s abolitionist explanation on Medium was met with harsh critiques. One user called the entire idea “batshit crazy and desperately naive,” while another asked what the consequences would be under a prison-free system for a money launderer or murderer? When asked about the topic of remorseless killers on the podcast Why Is This Happening? with Chris Hayes, Kaba said she envisioned a society where the needs of people would be met, which would therefore reduce the number of said killers.  

Other countries have already taken similar approaches. Brazil, for example, has a form of prison called APAC that is as effective as it is revolutionary. In this prison, there are no guards, staff, or locks. Inmates prepare meals themselves, make and enforce their own rules, can do whatever they want at any time of day, and have a stringent conflict resolution system. Within the walls of APAC men are transformed. Every inmate has been to a mainstream prison and knows how horrible it is. Although it holds criminals of all kinds (including murderers and rapists) the recidivism rate is only 5%. While APAC is still controversial throughout the world and even to some citizens of Brazil, it has proven to be a resounding success.

Norway also has an unconventional — but effective — prison system. Halden Prison, their most notable, is akin to a retreat when compared to what we have in America. Halden has no bars on the windows, fully-stocked kitchens, friendly rapport between staff and inmates, and even a music studio. The extent of the punishment these people suffer is their lack of freedom. Everything else about the prison serves as a place for true rehabilitation. 

Inmates are taught valuable skills, treated with respect, and are set up to be productive members of society when they leave — and when they do, they don’t come back. Norway’s recidivism rate is 20%. (For comparison, America’s is 76.6%.)

However, the abolitionist movement, though revolutionary, won’t take root in America in the near future. The “tough on crime” mantra remains in our current political climate as exacerbated by President Trump and past presidents like Ronald Reagan. But if activists and organizers like Kaba and Allen keep furthering the cause, abolitionism might become the next Medicare for all — and we could someday see a world without prisons.

Artwork by: Juliet Romano Design.

Johanie Martinez-Cools is a blogger, writer, book editor, and aspiring author.

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