Prisons have become quasi-religious institutions in so far as society imagines they are necessary at the scale and scope to which they’ve developed over the past forty years. This premise harks on questions of state and public sector legitimacy. It’s not possible to unglue the prison industrial complex from racial capitalism (for one because all capitalism is racial capitalism), but also because surpluses of land and labor produced a subclass of Californian’s primed for entry into prisons. Do we accept prisons as a necessary feature of life because we simply cannot comprehend a world in which they don’t exist? If so, what would these alternatives look like in an abolitionist realm?
No one is free in a prison industrial state. One’s own innocence presupposes someone else’s guilt, and thus we are all criminalized to a certain extent. Bob’s behavior that abides by the law implicates Joe’s deviant behavior as going against the accepted norms that requires corrective punishment. We can see crime as a normal part of society as Durkheim suggested in the nineteenth century, but we cannot see crime through a color-blind lens. The social construction of race evolved in concert with notions of criminality. By extension, innocence and ideas of just desserts are also socially constructed in a racialized nature.
Let’s apply André Gorz’s idea of non-reformist reform to conversations about the prison industrial complex. Non-reformist reform is any reform that doesn’t extend the life or scope of the prison industrial complex. This framework allows us to see the prison archipelago for what it ought to be, not what it is now. It shouldn’t put human beings in cages unfit for pets. In shouldn’t target racially oppressed communities that have been historically dismantled and devastated by the State. It shouldn’t treat civil rights as dependent on one’s zip code. It shouldn’t rely on prisons as the institutions of last resort when all others fail. What should it do? It should appreciate the underlying causes of crime by addressing the lack of autonomy and upward mobility in certain communities. It should create space for nuanced responses to public safety that don’t only involve incarceration. It should rely on restorative justice and other practices that aren’t zero sum games. Human imagination is not easily contained; we could literally build anything in this non-reformist reform arena.
There is a difference between practice and theory. But it seems unlikely that any future abolitionist society would spend more than CDCR’s annual budget of $11.4 billion on public safety. Prisons are widely legitimized precisely because we widely legitimize them. By this logic we could just as easily turn our back on such a sinister force and widely reject them. The decision is our own. Should one continue to ignore a system that destroys communities that have always been destroyed in this country because they are gifted the privilege of social distance? There will never be prison reform or abolition in a world where the privileged aren’t more outraged than the oppressed.