Does mass incarceration actually ensure “public safety” at all? Theresa Runstedtler and the prison abolition movement think not.
Before Occupy Wall Street, there were prison hunger strikes in Georgia and California. The 40th anniversary of the Attica prison uprisings came and went with some fanfare and much hand-wringing. The execution of Troy Davis stirred up a groundswell of U.S. liberal and left, and even international activism against the death penalty.
Although prisons have been on our radar, much of the public debate about them has centered on questions of harm reduction and cost reduction, as well as concerns about the status of “innocent until proven guilty” in our criminal justice system. However, as Critical Resistance co-founder Ruth Wilson Gilmore has pointed out, we need to move beyond a discussion of prison reform to talk seriously about the possibilities of prison abolition. (Critical Resistance is a grassroots organization that seeks to “build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe.”)
For most people, the very phrase “prison abolition” sounds like a scary prospect – a recipe for anarchy, instability, and violence. But the prison abolition movement is much more focused on trying to envision new ways, other than mass incarceration, to make our communities safer, more sustainable, healthier, and more successful for all.
Let me demystify a few points. Prison abolitionists argue that the U.S. prison system is actually a “prison industrial complex” based on faulty premises about public safety and driven by profit motives. Much like what President Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex” or the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry,” the prison industrial complex (PIC) is made up of a set of mutually beneficial relationships between public and private entities that have a shared interest in expanding the surveillance, policing, and imprisonment of certain kinds of people.
The PIC came together as an imagined solution to a complex set of social, economic, and political “problems” in the late twentieth century – in other words, what to do with the masses of poor and underemployed people (especially people of color). Indeed, it is no accident that the expansion of policing and prisons began at the very same moment that the United States began to deindustrialize, the enactment of civil rights laws made various forms of racial discrimination illegal, the government began to cut back social programs, and the mainstream media became saturated with fearsome tales of (black male) criminals run amok.
The prison abolition movement is not some dangerous group of vigilantes seeking to immediately throw open the doors of all prisons nor is it a naïve liberal commune isolated from reality. Many of the movement’s activists are from communities negatively affected by heavy policing and high rates of incarceration. They recognize that the abolition of the PIC is a long term goal, but also insist that practical steps (i.e. stopping prison expansion, supporting policies that reduce the prison population, promoting alternatives to mass incarceration) can be taken towards that goal. They ask why we insist on reactively caging people, rather than proactively supporting communities by ensuring their access to necessities such as food, shelter, education, healthcare, and freedom.
They deliberately use the word “abolition” to tie their activism to the earlier social movements against slavery. Nineteenth-century abolitionists called for the eradication of slavery, not its reform. Likewise, prison abolition is based on the idea that the PIC needs to be overturned, not just tweaked. The word “abolition” also gestures to the disproportionate and deliberate impact of the PIC on poor people of color, their families, and their communities.
So, in a nutshell, prison reform (i.e. fixing overcrowding by building more facilities, adding GED programs in prisons, etc.) ultimately will not “fix” the United States’ addiction to mass incarceration nor will it make the nation safer for all. Reforms, while perhaps an interim step, are really like putting lipstick on a pig – it’s still a pig.
Here are a few reasons why good men should consider supporting the prison abolition movement:
The PIC is an economically unsustainable and parasitical system that really only benefits the top 1%.
- The bankers who peddle the bonds to build the prisons, the private companies that construct the prisons, and the private industries that make money off of servicing the growing numbers of prisoners, are the ones who are benefitting most from our influx of tax dollars into the PIC. And, this is even before we take into account the expansion of private prisons or private corporations’ use of prisoners as cheap labor.
- Those benefiting economically from public investment in the PIC have left nothing to chance. They have lobbied for laws that keep people in prison longer (three strikes law, truth in sentencing act), thereby ensuring a steady supply of bodies for beds. They have also welcomed more punitive immigration laws and juvenile sentencing since this has opened up new markets.
- Although often pitched to rural areas (especially those hard hit by deindustrialization and the corporatization of farming) as engines of economic development, prisons have proven to be quite the opposite in many cases. Prisons have tended to lower the local tax base, depress local wage markets, and reduce the local quality of life.
Removing people from their neighborhoods and putting them in cages does not make their communities (or society at large) any safer. Yet supporters of prison expansion have sold it as a matter of “public safety,” capitalizing on longstanding stereotypes about the inherent criminality and violence of people of color.
- Crime rates were already decreasing when the PIC began expanding, and crime rates have continued to fall even as the PIC continues to grow exponentially.
- The War on Drugs created a whole new set of “crimes,” thereby filling the prison system with drug addicts and non-violent offenders. According to Critical Resistance, only about 1% of the approximately 2.5 million people locked up in U.S. prisons are there for violent offenses like murder, rape, and pedophilia. Ample research has also shown that imprisonment does nothing to solve problems of chemical dependency.
- Instead, communities with high incarceration rates tend to be less stable and less safe. With the decimation of families and the general collapse of trust among people, communities hit hard by the PIC tend to become more reliant on the state to intervene in disputes that normally would have been resolved by the people themselves.
- Prison is a violent place that often makes non-violent inmates become more violent. This violent institution only begets more forms of violence – domestic violence, child abuse, assault – beyond the walls of the prison.
- Michelle Alexander has called the U.S. prison system the New Jim Crow. As she explains:
“Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination–employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service–are suddenly legal.”
- This ensures not only the economic disenfranchisement of people of color, but also their political disfranchisement – in effect creating a whole “new” category of second-class citizens.
The PIC – from policing to the penitentiary – is rife with human rights abuses.
- The abuses at Abu Ghraib were by no means an aberration; instead, they bore a strong resemblance to the dehumanizing tactics practiced at all levels of the PIC.
- Human rights violations are particularly acute in private prisons (as noted by Amnesty International), which are protected by legal grey areas that prevent prisoners from bringing charges against their abusers for cruel and unusual punishment.
- Across the U.S. prison system, solitary confinement continues to be used even though research has shown that it makes people even more unstable and volatile.
What makes prison abolition an even more pressing issue is that other nations are now looking to the United States’ PIC as a model for dealing with their own issues of “public safety.” Do you want this to be your nation’s legacy to the world, and your legacy to your children?
photo: (main) stevesnodgrass / Flickr