We need to talk about the contours of prison abolition in the twenty-first century. As a social movement, abolition has taken on different forms in the universal arc of justice. Prison abolition is often misunderstood as burning down prisons and other revolutionary imagery, but it more so revolves around eliminating the need for prisons in society. That is a significant distinction, folks. To flesh out this idea, let’s turn to Angela Davis for a working definition:
When we call for prison abolition, we are not imagining the isolated dismantling of the facilities we call prisons and jails. That is not the project of abolition. The notion of a prison-industrial complex reflects the extent to which the prison is deeply structured by economic, social, and political conditions that themselves will also have to be dismantled. Capitalism continues to produce problems that neither it nor its prisons are prepared to solve. So prison abolition requires us to recognize the extent that our present social order – in which are embedded a complex array of social problems – will have to be radically transformed.
The rise of the prison industrial complex and its continuing grip on the lifelines of society is not a necessary development. Not only is it an indictment of an unfettered & racially motivated punitive impulse, but it also speaks to larger issues emanating from contemporary global capitalism. If this moment of hyper incarceration happened in the past, we would look to it in horror and disgust as a dark chapter in our history.
Folks who have nothing will do anything to get something. An abolitionist framework accepts this premise, points out the reasons why certain communities have no autonomy, and seeks to correct past injustices. It seeks to understand the connections between institutions that we usually think are disconnected. It realizes that education is a major linchpin of institutionalized racism. And, perhaps most importantly, an abolitionist framework grasps that persistent poverty in the heart of global capitalism leads to larger prison populations, which in turn reinforce conditions that reproduce intergenerational poverty.
Prison abolition is a project that reimagines institutions, ideas, and strategies, and seeks to create new institutions, ideas, and strategies that will render prisons obsolete. A world without prisons is conceivable.