Imagining a world without prisons is not an easy thing to do, especially when you live in the global epicenter of mass incarceration. In the U.S. right now, there are over 2.3 million people doing time in state and federal prisons, local jails, juvenile halls, immigration detention centers, and various other correctional facilities. That’s a ratio of 716 incarcerated people for every 100,000 residents—higher than any other country. 40% of the incarcerated population is black, and 60% are people of color, according to the Prison Policy Institute. The vast majority of prisoners are poor.
It wasn’t always this way. Most of the growth in U.S. prisons occurred over the last four decades, during which time the prison population more than quadrupled—a growth rate that far outpaced general population gains over the same span. Today, the U.S. prison population is holding steady, but there are indications that the 40-year trend may be on the cusp of a reversal. Tough-on-crime political stances and harsh sentencing laws that fuel prison growth have, over the last several years, ceded ground to an emerging and bipartisan consensus that prison overpopulation probably isn’t a good thing for the country.
Whether because of the price tag—the U.S. spends $80 billion on incarceration every year, according to one study—or more humanitarian concerns, reducing the number of people we lock up is an idea that’s gaining steam.
It’s also producing strange bedfellows. Just last year, a prison-reform coalition calling for lighter sentencing laws and a reduced prison population made news, not because of its positions, but because of who is involved: next to liberal groups like the ACLU, the coalition includes Koch Industries, the multinational company owned by the arch conservative billionaire Koch brothers, and at least one group that ideologically has more in common with Tea Party conservatives than traditionally liberal justice reform advocates.
Few if any prison reformers would argue, however, that prisons should (or could) be done away with completely. But that doesn’t mean the argument isn’t being made.
For prison abolitionists, a world without prisons isn’t only possible—it’s indispensable and inseparable from a broader struggle for social justice, freedom, and equality. The U.S. prison system, say abolitionists, is part of the legacy of slavery and cannot be reformed, because it is doing exactly what it was intended to do: maintain the power status quo, by keeping historically oppressed people down.
Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard fellowship interviewed several abolitionists based in Oakland, CA, to learn more about the history and intellectual underpinnings of their movement.
Mohamed Shehk is a communication director at Critical Resistance, a national organization that opposes the expansion of the prison industrial complex. He spoke to us about the history of the prison abolition movement and where, in his opinion, it needs to go next.
The prison abolition movement is tiny compared to more mainstream prison and criminal justice reform efforts, but the idea has a global following. Last year, abolitionists from around the globe convened in Ecuador for the
And it isn’t only activists working outside of the system that are embracing abolition. Last year, the National Lawyer’s Guild, a progressive association of attorneys, law students, and legal workers, drafted and passed a resolution in support of abolishing prisons and calling for a “redirection” of prison and policing budgets into social service and re-entry programs for ex-prisoners.
KellyLou Densmore, a regional vice president with the National Lawyers Guild, told us why she thinks it’s important that legal professionals play a role in the abolition movement.
This all begs an important question: Is a world without prisons realistic? What would we do with people who commit extreme acts of violence? Those who pose an immediate threat to others? It was hard to get a direct answer from the abolitionists we spoke to. Mohamed Shehk, responding via email to Fusion, wrote, “There is not a single one size fits all solution.” But there are, he added, “more effective ways of addressing harm that uplift people, not punish them.”
Kamau Walton, also a representative of Critical Resistance Oakland, spoke to us about some of the models and practices that abolitionists believe could replace the punitive criminal justice system that we have in place today.