Prison abolitionists get a lot of blank looks. Get rid of prisons? But – the bad guys! Didn’t you watch True Detective? To which I have three responses:
1) Remember that most people in prison are more like this guy:
Than this guy:
2) Incarceration rates have almost no relationship to crime rates. I know that’s difficult to accept if you believe that prisons are about preventing crime (and if you think that, read The New Jim Crow), but trust me on this: our prison population is the result of a series of choices, not a result of bad behavior.
- Politicians make choices about what to criminalize.
- Police make choices about where to hang out and who to search, arrest, etc.
- Prosecutors make choices about what (and whether) to charge and how many years to demand.
- Parole commissioners make choices about who to release.
All of these choices in the U.S. have been increasingly punitive (not to mention racist) for decades regardless of the crime rate at the time. And countries with rates of crime similar to our own have made different choices. For instance, with very similar crime rates during the time the U.S. prison population grew 500%, Germany’s prison population stayed the same and Finland’s decreased by 60% (per The New Jim Crow). State to state incarceration rates and crime rates do not line up (in fact, it looks like lower incarceration rates reduce crime – more on that later).
3) For the fringe cases (see guy in underwear, above), confinement may be necessary. When I say “abolition” I do not, actually, mean abolition of consequences for wrongdoing, nor do I mean abolition of confinement when someone is truly, clearly a threat to society. But confinement doesn’t have to look a thing like prisons in the U.S., either. The violent, oppressive, demeaning, and miserable conditions of our jails and maximum security facilities in particular are totally gratuitous. They are evidence that we don’t view the people in prison as humans. If we actually limited confinement to people who were dangerous, and then viewed the top priority of confinement as changing that fact so that those people could safely return to their communities as soon as possible, we might take a leaf out of Scandanavia’s book, and create economically efficient but comfortable, relatively autonomous spaces where people would suffer the loss of liberty and be separated from society without also being systematically degraded and institutionalized.
So – here’s my take on prison abolition:
- A small percentage of the people in prison are actually there because they’re a threat to public safety and must be removed from society.
- That small percentage should be confined, but should also be treated as humans, which means being reasonably comfortable and as autonomous as possible, and returning to society if possible.
- Prisons as we know them – and use them – must be abolished.