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Abolish Prisons

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"Imagine..a world without prisons"...

Abolish Prisons

The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs – it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism, and, increasingly, global capitalism.” - Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003)

The Roots

Angela Davis developed her critical thinking of the United States prison system through her personal experience of time spent in jail. Arrested in 1970 for her ties to the campaign to free George Jackson and the Soledad brothers, her involvement in prison issues only deepened as a result of her incarceration, as her understanding and activism only grew.

While in prison, Davis collaborated with Bettina Aptheker to learn from other contemporary movements to free political prisoners. From this initial work, the inextricable link between the racial, class, and gender character of the prison system was glaringly painful, as the numbers of poor people of color imprisoned continued to increase disproportionately.

Davis was just beginning to blossom into the influential and reknown activist, teacher, and writer she will later become, but despite her young age at the time, she later remarked in an interview:

“Of course we had not yet thought through all of the implications of such a position [of combining a call for the freedom of political prisoners with one for the abolition of prisons], but today it seems that what was viewed at that time as political naivete, the untheorized and utopian impulses of young people trying to be revolutionary, foreshadowed what was to become, at the turn of the century, the important project of critically examining the political economy of a prison system, whose unrestrained growth urgently needs to be reversed.”

The Development of Prisons

The penitentiary as an institution for simultaneous punishment and rehabilitation was a new conception, first appearing around the years of the American Revolution and seen as a progressive reform at the time as a replacement of the capital and corporal punishment of Europe. The historical links between slavery and the early penitentiary system are strong – employing similar forms of punishment, subordination, and dependence and instituting prison regulations very similar to the Slave Codes, which deprived human beings of virtually all rights. Following the abolition of slavery, in order to continue to regulate the behavior of free blacks, the Slave Codes were legally revised by governments into new Black Codes, and in this way, crime was racialized and black people became targets of a developing convict lease system

Inmates at Attica State Prison (1971 Schutz, AP)
Inmates at Attica State Prison (1971 Schutz, AP)

With a growing emphasis on a notion of self-reflection and self-reform, the prison model evolved into one heavily incorporating solitary confinement. Over time and with new technology, super-maximum security prisons saw rapid expansion and construction. Today African-Americans and Latinos are vastly over-represented in these supermax prisons. During lock-down, prisoners are confined to their cells for twenty-three hours a day.

In addition to solitary confinement, education opportunities are being eliminated through repressive strategies and disestablishment of writing and other prison educational programs – one of the many sources of frustration that incited the 1970 prisoner rebellion at Attica. Over time what has disappeared in any prison discourse are all references to individual rehabilitation; there is no pretense that rights are respected and there is no concern for the individual.

The Prison-Industrial Complex

Angela Davis further developed the concept of a “prison-industrial complex,” originally articulated by social historian Mike Davisand others. The prison-industrial complex refers to the complex and intertwined relationships between governments and politicians, for-profit corporations and investors, correctional facilities, guards’ unions, and the media. The prison system is essentially a business thriving on the marginalization of individuals, their labor, and the removal of their rights. Not only is the prison-industrial complex increasingly tied with economic globalization and international prison models, the system has become pervasive and self-perpetuating.

In the 1980s, the increasing globalization of capitalism staged a massive surge of capital into the prison economy. This corporate involvement led to increasing privatization in the same pattern as we have already seen in health care, education, and other areas. The establishment of private prisons and their arrangements with federal and state governments is reminiscent of the convict lease system already legally abolished, as these private companies are invested in retaining prisoners as long as possible to maximize profit. While private prisons are the most visible dimension of the prison-industrial complex and corporatization, they are perhaps not the most comprehensive element. Today, many companies that are “house-hold names” to consumers also sell their products to correctional facilities.

The prison system’s privatization also maintains a strong, symbiotic relationship with the military-industrial complex in producing labor, sharing technologies, and strengthening development interests. Both also share critical structural features where profits are generated from social destruction, particularly of communities of color. Imprisoned bodies are transformed into sources of profit who consume and produce all kinds of commodities.

Women and Prisons

Women prisoners, such as Assata Shakur, have illuminated through their writing the gendered practices of the prison system that would have otherwise remained obscured. The political and economic shifts of the 1980s – including economic globalization, the deindustrialization of the U.S. economy, the elimination of social services such as Aid to Families of Dependent Children (AFDC), and the expansion of prison construction – significantly accelerated the rate of imprisonment of women everywhere. Today, women are the fastest-growing population of U.S. prisons.

Historically, ever since imprisonment began to form the dominant course of punishment at the end of the eighteenth century, women have always been represented as different from men. While men who transgress the law have been seen as social deviants who are punishable and capable of reform, there has long been a tendency to see women in similar situations as greater threats to society. While men have been constructed as "criminal," women have been seen as "insane" - and thus, more likely to be sent to mental institutions or be recipients of psychiatric drugs.

Furthermore, sexual abuse has become an institutionalized aspect of prison punishment. This violent sexualization within women’s prisons also brings to light additional intersections of race and sexuality. The criminalization of women of color including notions of hypersexuality, serve to justify sexual assaults against them both in and outside of prison walls.

Vision Behind a Movement for Abolition

Given that over two million people are currently imprisoned in US facilities and 20% of the world’s incarcerated population lives in the United States, it is incredulous that the situation remains invisible and only continues to worsen. However, this only highlights the entrenched character of the system and the public dialogue framed – both in its language and proposed solutions – within the narrow confines of this system that many seemingly accept. Today, prison is considered an inevitable and permanent structure of our social lives. However, as we know from the historical origins of prisons, we understand that they were not a superior form of punishment fit for all time, but rather, without taking its complexity lightly, what made sense at a particular point in history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Slavery, lynching, and segregation are all examples of social institutions once considered to be just as much an eternal fixture in life. We need to create a new imagination that calls for a world that is completely different.

Angela Davis emphasizes that with the prison system so entrenched in U.S. economic, political, and ideological life, the reality behind the prison-industrial complex is not a simple conglomeration of bodies and interests, but instead the relationships between all of those groups. Abolishing the prison system is truly about abolishing those relationships and proposing alternatives that pull them apart.

The approach to decarceration needs to envision a popular discourse on a spectrum of alternatives to prisons, not just one answer. Davis cites education, demilitarization of schools, adequate housing, physical and mental health care for all, additional public resources and services, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance, as critical components to structuring alternatives.

Fundamentally, our thinking and actions need to radically transform the underlying racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and other structures of dominance and oppression, in order to make the abolition of prisons feasible. Our focus must not be only on the prison system as an isolated institution but also towards all social relations that support its permanence. Our language and our aims need to shift away from simple adjustments of the current prison system, and instead link the prison reform initiative to a larger movement - one with a clear goal of prison abolition.

Activist Organizations Today

Critical Resistance is an Oakland, CA-based organization with regional offices across the nation, whose mission is to build an international movement to abolish the prison-industrial complex. Like Angela Davis, they do not believe "punishment" is the cure to complex social problems. Critical Resistance strives to challenge the current beliefs on prisons and control, and to instead emphasize the basic necessities of food, shelter, and freedom to uphold the safety of our communities. (Learn more about Critical Resistance.)

Similarly, Justice Now (Network on Women) believes in the necessity of alternatives to prisons and policing. Justice Now challenges the prison-industrial complex, and focuses on women in particular, by providing legal services, supporting prisoner organizing efforts, and working with prisoners and their families on political education and mobilization campaigns. Their hope is to bridge the gap between social services and political organizing through popular education, training, art, community organizing, and coalition building.

See other Prison-related pages on Social Justice Movements.

Other Anti-Prison Organizations and Resources:

Incite! Women of Color Against Violence

Prison Activist Resource Center

The Sentencing Project

• Critical Resistance maintains an excellent and organized compilation of online resources and links, which you can find here.

References for this page:

• Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press, New York: 2003.

Davis, Angela Y. & Dylan Rodriguez, "The Challenge of Prison Abolition: A Conversation," 27 SOCIAL JUSTICE 212 (2000).

Davis, Angela Y. "Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex," COLORLINES (Fall 1998).

Transcipt of Davis speech at the First Congressional Church of Oakland (26 July 2003).

Transcript of Davis speech at Harvard University (7 March 2003).

Davis, Mike. “Hell Factories in the Field: A Prison-Industrial Complex,” The Nation 260, no. 7 (20 February 1995).