Prison Abolition Requires Us to Reenvision Our Society

The concept of prison abolition sounds fantastical to most. How, as a society riddled with gun violence, murder, rape, and excessive crime, are we supposed to close all the prisons in our nation and not fall into abject chaos? It will be a long process, but it’s doable, say the leaders of the prison abolition movement. 

There are three tenets to the prison abolition movement. First, a moratorium on all prisons would mean no new prisons or jails be built. Second, decarceration attempts to release those currently languishing in prisons. Third, excarceration intends to divert people from going into prisons in the first place. 

Moratoriums on prisons sounds wonderful, but it’s a double-edged sword for those currently in prisons and jails. The idea behind it is if we don’t build new prisons, we can’t fill the beds in them, thus limiting the number of people incarcerated.

It also removes significant funding from the prison industrial complex, which can be diverted to community programs like mental health care, addiction support, housing the unhoused, and supporting other communities that end up in prisons due to their financial and social circumstances. 

The foundation of this argument is that prisons treat the symptom and not the cause. If we supported people more thoroughly with social programs, we would have less crime, people would feel less desperate, and, therefore, less likely to make bad decisions. Treating the underlying root cause of violence and crime starts in our communities through programming for which our capitalist system charges a premium. It’s no surprise that folks without health insurance and financial resources are more likely to end up in prison.

It also argues that prisons don’t “correct” people committed to incarceration. Most prisons don’t have restorative options, access to education, or social programming to help folks with addiction or aid in processing personal traumas. I know several women who have said it’s easier to get drugs on the inside than it is on the street. That should tell us something about how poorly prisons aid our society. 

With a 44% recidivism rate in the United States, the data shows we are not preparing folks on the inside to succeed and thrive on the outside. Prisons actually perpetuate crime.

While we, as a nation, should stop funding broken systems, those who remain locked up will suffer if we don’t build new facilities. This type of complete social transformation will take decades, and our restorative systems will also need to be transitional which will take years. If we force people to stay in horrific prisons and jails, we’re only creating more problems. 

Decarceration, the second step of abolishing prisons, happens when legislative bodies, DAs, and others in positions of power relax sentencing guidelines. People who commit nonviolent crimes, including substance abuse and selling marijuana (which is now legal in several states), should receive restorative counseling and substance abuse assistance instead of going to prison, which often perpetuates addiction, but with higher consequences. 

While many municipalities have relaxed their arrests and convictions regarding marijuana, black and brown folks are still 15% more likely to be arrested for possession.

Organizations like Fair and Just Prosecution, a group of DAs that are committed to reforming our justice systems to be built on equity, fairness, and compassion, are leading the cause of excarceration. Keeping people out of prison through diversion, restorative, and transformative justice programs are already happening and offering people second chances. Organizations like Young New Yorkers, a diversion program for 16 and 17-year-olds in New York City, aims to keep children out of prison with adults (as they are still charged as adults in New York state). 

These organizations are still in the early stages, and while they’re successful, there is much work to do when considering restorative justice for violent offenders like murderers and rapists. How do we develop programming and support for those who have perpetrated such significant violations? How do we make sure we help them heal enough so they don’t re-offend? Undoing trauma takes countless hours of self-reflection and discussion. It’s likely going to take years for folks in these circumstances to be healthy enough to rejoin society.

To abolish prisons correctly, it’s going to take time and resources. There are a significant number of folks currently locked up that don’t need to be. We should help them transition back into society. Those that need support to heal trauma, atone for their crimes, help victims recover, and move past addiction will need our help. If we stop locking up people that don’t need to be, we can shift that funding to really help those that need it. Concurrently, we also need to be significantly investing in our communities where education and social support is lacking due to poverty and racial injustice. 

It is entirely possible to abolish prisons; we just need to be patient, thoughtful in our approach, and adamant in our resolve. 

Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues. 

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