In the six years since Ferguson, calls for accountability for the state-sanctioned murder of Black people have evolved to encompass demands to defund and abolish the prison-industrial complex (PIC). To understand how we came to this moment, we must examine the history of prisons and policing and their central role in perpetuating the oppression of Black people. This piece borrows from Dean Spade’s analysis of the calls for prison abolition and transformative justice in today’s social movements.
Reform as Expansion
The current system of mass incarceration is the product of centuries of reform. In “Are Prisons Obsolete?” Angela Davis discusses how prisons were considered an improvement on corporal punishment, public hangings, and other forms of state violence that were normalized before the abolition of chattel slavery. Isolating people in a carceral facility is thus a direct result of reformist projects and compromises. Prisons have morphed over time to become more inclusive in response to reform efforts. Early prisons, for example, mostly housed white men, given that enslaved people were punished within the context of their enslavement, while women were mostly disciplined at home. In fact, the main method of reform for the prison-industrial complex has been its expansion to extend to different sectors of the population, including children and disabled folks. Reform brought us here, so it cannot take us out of this problem.
Modern prisons were presented as an improvement to earlier systems of punishment and enslavement. The “convict leasing system,” for instance, allowed Black people in custody to be rented out to plantations. Policing, too, has its early origins in slave patrols, in which white men would voluntarily patrol the streets looking for enslaved people to harass and intimidate. After slave patrols were absorbed by the state, the Black Codes emerged as the next reformist iteration of white supremacy. These laws made it a crime to do certain things only if the subject was Black: being unemployed, being loud and unruly, being drunk in public, being irresponsible with money, and adultery became punishable by imprisonment only if Black people engaged in this behavior. Angela Davis notes that the Thirteenth Amendment’s language purports to abolish slavery, except “as punishment for a crime.” Built into emancipation itself was the replacement of an enslavement system with a prison expansion system.
Major prison reforms have tended to legitimize the prison industrial complex and provide it with positive public relations material. In “Beyond Prisons,” Dylan Rodriguez places this analysis in the context of the activism in the 60s and 70s challenging the rampant racism in the Los Angeles Police Department. In response to these uprisings, LAPD hired more people from the very communities it policed but changed none of its underlying violent tactics. Having more queer, Black, and brown cops did not in any way change the nature of policing. These kinds of changes do not actually reduce police violence, but they do increase the credibility, reach, and power of the police.
In “Policing the Planet,” Ruth Wilson Gilmore explores other ways that the prison industrial complex capitalizes on moments of crisis to expand its reach. Today, police presence has extended to schools, offices, and homeless and domestic violence shelters, among other places. We have witnessed an increase in police roles, budgets, and surveillance programs. We have seen the creation of special prisons within prisons to supposedly help incarcerated people with marginalized identities. But an abolitionist politic seeks an end to all carceral institutions, not the creation of a special trans prison, or a prison where women can have their children with them, or an environmentally-friendly prison. More sensitive imprisonment helps expand and legitimize the current punishment system.
Prisons and Policing Don’t Make Communities Safer
One of the most common arguments against prison abolition is the idea that prisons are effective at addressing sexual violence in our communities. How can this be the case when gender and sexual violence are endemic to imprisonment? Every institution where people are caged produces and multiplies sexual harm. In “Invisible No More,” Andrea Ritchie challenges the idea that cops have ever protected Black, brown, queer, and impoverished people . Ritchie documents the long history of police gender and sexual violence against these same communities. Most sexual harm happens between people who know each other, like romantic partners, fellow students, coworkers, and family members. None of these instances of gender and sexual violence are within the zone of police influence, so prisons and police do not reduce the amount of this kind of harm happening outside of prisons. But they do turn carceral facilities into centralized sources of sexual violence mostly perpetrated by law enforcement officers.
The state surrounds communities with deep propaganda that rationalizes the role of prisons by exposing people to cop dramas and reality programs on television that highlight police as heroes -- saving communities from serial murderers and rapists. Myths about psychiatric disabilities that create dangerous sociopaths pepper the common imagination and rationalize the need for carceral facilities. These medical labels are used to justify the idea that some people are monsters and therefore disposable. But historically, the definition of insanity has shifted to criminalize vulnerable populations, from women to Black people. And people with mental conditions are far more likely to be victims of violence than to commit it. Assuming that some of these mental conditions exist, an abolitionist framework calls us to examine why these disorders manifest in our societies in the first place and to track down their root cause in order to provide the kind of care that communities need.
The prison system is not designed to punish especially heinous or dangerous behavior-- under an abolitionist framing, a true focus on the most dangerous people in society would turn our attention to the military, the police, the oil and gas industry, bankers, tech giants, complicit elected officials, and others with concentrated wealth and power. By identifying where the most harm in our societies comes from, a different set of people emerges: the Trump, Epstein, and Bezos figures of the world. These truly dangerous institutions and individuals, however, are insulated from any kind of accountability and live outside the sphere of the prison’s reach, because most of their harm is normalized and legalized. The criminal legal system is not designed to neutralize their danger, and prisons are not meant to account for their harm. Expanding prisons will not make us safer from the harms caused by the most harmful institutions and people.
Daring to Dream
Carceral systems are facing a legitimacy crisis that presents a momentous opportunity to demand long-term, radical change. It can be a moment of dismantling or a moment for the prison industrial complex to repackage itself into a more palatable version of state violence. It can lead to mass mobilization against state harm or be co-opted to demobilize communities into accepting the few compromises offered to meet demands for change. For as long as we’ve all been alive, prisons have been around us as if they’ve always existed. But mass incarceration is a fairly new phenomenon. The prison industrial complex had its latest boom in the 80s and 90s, while the immigration detention system exploded in the early 2000s. These systems were created without popular consent, behind closed doors, and hurriedly. They can be dismantled just as quickly. Prison reform helps validate the idea of prisons as a permanent human institution that can only ever be made a little safer, a little fairer, and a little more humane through small fixes.
One of the main arguments of resistance to abolishing prisons is that it is an unachievable goal and that unless there is an alternative to the current carceral system, we might as well make prisons more comfortable. But our movements have been built on radical demands that seemed impossible at the time. What else are we fighting for that seems impossible? Fossil fuel transition, racial justice, sexual liberation, indigenous self-determination, and a free Palestine might look like unattainable goals in a far horizon. Radical change calls for radical imagination. In recent decades, there have been no similar moments of actual opportunity for abolition, until now.
Skepticism is part of the legacy of neoliberal operators like Thatcher and Reagan who pushed the message that there was no alternative to trickle-down economics. The current era of extractive capitalism came as a direct response to the disruptive, anticolonial, feminist, and anti-racist movements of the 1960s and 70s. It is a disempowering message that lives in us emotionally and pulls us toward complacency. We need to remember that every other human society has been an alternative to today’s carceral system—the U.S. is the most imprisoned society to ever have existed in the history of humanity.
We must choose to believe that change is possible. We don’t need to know what a world without prisons and policing looks like. Each person’s imaginary vision of a safe community will be different, so abolition calls us to dream together of collective solutions and create—together— new norms for how we treat each other when we are harmed. The idea of prison abolition is still deeply unpopular and will remain unpopular for years to come. It falls on us to pave the ground for a new generation that will grow up understanding that our systems of accountability can be different. Abolition as a framework provides the starting point for a vision of a revolutionary future, a vision that is liberatory. In the words of Audre Lorde, “when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak, remembering we were never meant to survive.”