America must abolish prisons

Shavez Rosenthal

Criminal justice reform has been a significant talking point in the context of the 2016 political season. The increased focus on reform stems from the proliferation of extrajudicial killings caught on film, mass movements in reaction to the killings and politicians’ attempts to capture the respective electorate through policy which resonates with those affected. Mass movements organized through groups such as Black Lives Matter (BLM), Black Youth Project 100 and The Dream Defenders have created an environment where black death by the state is no longer viewed as an unfortunate, inevitable fact of life. As a result, politicians are being held to a more scrutinized standard of accountability to address the issues at hand. Unfortunately, the attempts to address the issue have been fundamentally misguided.

The most public politicians, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have both spoken out on criminal justice reform in some way. As it pertains to actual substantive policy, Clinton is the only major candidate who has released any explicit plan detailing what needs to be improved and changed within the country’s criminal justice system.

Be that as it may, there has yet to be a truly progressive vision of what direction our penal system should be headed in, particularly as it pertains to the institution of the prison. While prison reform should be lauded as an attempt to refine all of the inhumane and unjust treatment of everyday Americans in the hopes of creating a more just system, at the end of the day, America should be committed to the longer and more effective project of prison abolition, as prison reform still commits to the very idea that human beings should be kept in cages.

Prison abolition is the notion that individuals should be able to live in a world where prison is not the primary agency of punishment. Individuals usually imagine the idea of prison as a necessary institution that deters bad people from doing bad things. However, that is not often the case. What is often more common is that certain acts get socially construed to become criminal in a way which often negates the rights and privileges of segments of populations. As a result, the prisons get filled with individuals who garner less power and are viewed as less desirable as opposed to those who are most dangerous to the general welfare of society.

If someone were to look at our prisons today, they would see that prison populations are comprised disproportionately of people with mental health diagnoses, people of color and non-violent drug offenders. Unless an individual is fundamentally invested in the idea that those three populations, as well as others, are inherently criminal, that reality should raise some eyebrows.

What is even more fascinating is that this reality is not an aberration in the history of the prison. From its genesis, prisons have always been used as an institution of confinement for its most vulnerable citizens in the world. This idea is rooted in a much larger and much broader conversation as it relates to state mechanisms of control over susceptible bodies. In this much more complex analysis, it is possible to see how the state has managed to use these systems to control theological leaders, such as Jesus, to philosophical leaders, such as Socrates, to revolutionary freedom fighters, such as Angela Davis. This is all to say that the fundamental condition of the prison system today is not inconsistent with its past.

Prison abolition is the most progressive solution that exists to not only tackling the ever-growing crisis that is mass incarceration, but also solving the unjust conundrum of the prison itself. Prison reform seeks to conserve the idea of the prison while making it appear less of an evil. However, a system which was birthed from the idea of subjugation and exploitation must not be reformed, it must be abolished.

Opponents of prison abolition will often misconstrue the idea as an initiative to release violent criminals to terrorize innocent neighborhoods. Apart from this inaccurate and extreme description of the incarcerated population, this description of the project is fallacious. Ultimately, prison abolitionists aspire to create a world that seriously addresses the fundamental causes of crime and invests in a system wrapped in rehabilitation. In such a world, the institution of the prison would no longer be a necessity.

The much longer and more courageous conversation of prison abolition is what is missing in much of our public political dialogue. The intellectual lenses in which America sees the work around prison must be shifted and readjusted to a perspective that takes into account its history. As a country, we should replace the conventional saying that “the system is broken, let’s fix it” to a more apropos axiom which sees that “the system is working, let’s break it.”