Can Prison Abolition Ever Be Pragmatic?

Will incarceration always be a necessary evil?

“While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

There are a couple of reasons why I love Eugene Debs’s “I am not free” quote, spoken upon his conviction for violating the Sedition Act in 1918. To begin with, it’s a good first principle for leftism: so long as there is injustice and suffering in the world, you should feel deeply troubled by it. It also does something extremely difficult: it empathizes with the despised, encouraging us to care about all of humanity, even those who have done horrendous and cruel things. It’s an exhortation to universal compassion: you have to care about everybody, without exceptions.

But Debs’s statement also contains a radical, even extreme, view of prisons: so long as there is a single person left in prison, Debs feels that freedom is impossible. It’s clear the kind of world Debs wants: a world without social classes, without a division between criminals and non-criminals, and without prisons. And Debs doesn’t seem to believe this is some impossible dream: he wants it to actually happen, because it’s the precondition of his own freedom.

Prison abolitionism,” the belief that prisons should not just be reformed but abolished entirely, has a long tradition within the left. Early socialists believed strongly that because the causes of crime were social, a fair society could eliminate the existence of crime, and therefore the need for prisons. As Peter Kropotkin wrote in a pamphlet:

The prison does not prevent anti-social acts from taking place. It increases their numbers. It does not improve those who enter its walls. However it is reformed it will always remain a place of restraint, an artificial environment, like a monastery, which will make the prisoner less and less fit for life in the community. It does not achieve its end. It degrades society. It must disappear…. The first duty of the revolution will be to abolish prisons–those monuments of human hypocrisy and cowardice.

Clarence Darrow actually gave an address to a group of inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago in which he called for the total abolition of imprisonment:

There should be no jails. They do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish. If you would wipe them out, there would be no more criminals than now….They are a blot upon civilization, and a jail is an evidence of the lack of charity of the people on the outside who make the jails and fill them with the victims of their greed.

(Afterwards, it was reported that prisoners who were asked what they thought of Darrow’s speech had said they found it a bit too radical.) The prison abolitionist strain in left-wing thinking has continued: Angela Davis’s 2003 Are Prisons Obsolete?, which laid out an uncompromising case against confinement, has attracted a following on the left, and even CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill has pushed prison abolition, concluding that “if the system was fair, there would be no prison.”

The arguments made by prison abolitionists are straightforward: prisons make the world worse rather than better. They are inhuman places, and in many cases do not operate very differently from conditions of enslavement. They do not address the root causes of crime, and they encourage recidivism by hardening criminals. Or, as Emma Goldman colorfully put it in “Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure”:

Year after year the gates of prison hells return to the world an emaciated, deformed, will-less, ship-wrecked crew of humanity, with the Cain mark on their foreheads, their hopes crushed, all their natural inclinations thwarted. With nothing but hunger and inhumanity to greet them, these victims soon sink back into crime as the only possibility of existence.

The case made by prison abolitionists has rhetorical force, and I think a certain persuasive power. It makes both emotional and logical appeals: emotionally, it invokes the human love of liberty and hatred of coercion, while logically, it proposes that the costs of prisons outweigh their benefits.

It also, to a large majority of the population, almost certainly sounds completely insane.

As Gene Demby notes, while people agree that liberty is great and all, they quickly remember the “What About My Cousin?” question: they remember a person they knew who was genuinely violent and dangerous, and realize that they feel far safer knowing that person is locked up. Then, they remember all of the crimes that were worse than those committed by their cousin, and the abolitionist position begins to seem even loopier. Nevermind my cousin, what about Ted Bundy? What about serial rapists and armed robbers and hedge fund managers? Are you saying that they should be left free to roam about society perpetrating their evil deeds on the unsuspecting and upstanding? How naïve can you possibly be?

And, indeed, I think the historical prison abolitionists have often been naïve, or at least misleading. In response to questions about the worst kinds of offenders, they point to the factors that drove such people to their crimes. Very few people on death row, for example, had ordinary, prosperous, and stable early lives. And those crimes that do not occur for obvious social reasons can be treated as manifestations of mental illness, with treatment rather than punishment being the goal. Prison abolitionists frequently point to restorative justice approaches that try to bring both victims and offenders together to figure out a way that the wrong done by the crime can be undone.

But none of this actually addresses the question. All of it sounds good in theory, but it describes an ideal society rather than the society in which we actually live. In the real world, there are people who have committed serious violent crimes, like serial domestic abusers. If those people were all suddenly freed one day, they would likely resume the pattern of abuse, because it’s very hard to transform a person overnight. If you are concerned not just with the injustice inflicted on defendants by a brutal prison system, but on victims by violent aggression, then prison abolition just amounts to blindly focusing on stopping one injustice while ignoring the potential consequences for increasing the amount of another injustice. That’s what’s meant by naïveté: instead of asking the question “In which cases can restorative justice approaches work, and are there others in which they would not?” prison abolition adopts an extreme position, and says “Punitive justice is wrong and restorative justice is right, therefore we must end punitive justice.” Prison abolitionists advocate all kinds of sensible measures, like decriminalizing marijuana use and sex work, increasing community services that help people find jobs, and having courts rely more heavily on creative forms of restitution and community service than prison sentences. That still doesn’t get us a straight answer to the question, though, which is: when is prison justified and acceptable? If abolitionists really see prison as being akin to slavery, that question is absurd: it’s like asking when slavery is justified. Holding the abolitionist position must mean that murderers would be set free, regardless of the possible consequences. We can see this kind of difficulty in the rousing tracts of people like Goldman and Darrow: both of them said jails were in and of themselves a crime, but neither was willing to confront the problems that flow from such a view.

Because prison abolition seems an untenable position, then, most progressive people are advocates of prison “reform” instead. They subscribe to a position like the ACLU’s: decriminalize certain offenses, emphasize rehabilitation, improve prison conditions, and stop using the prison system as a way of warehousing the mentally ill. They believe that while there will always be some need for punishment, the goal should be to make the U.S. prison system a lot more like those of the Scandinavian countries: humane and reform-oriented, and with a focus on keeping the perpetrator from harming society again rather than exacting revenge on them by depriving them of comfort. (Florida’s Department of Corrections, for example, proudly states that most of its state-run facilities are not air-conditioned, even in the blistering summer heat. Louisiana has its mostly-black inmates picking cotton.) Recently, a socialist acquaintance who opposes prison abolitionism told me that he thought the left’s aim should be for all prisoners to have conditions like those afforded to Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. Showing me a photo of Breivik’s cell, he said that if we could make prisons look like this, it’s hard to think there would be any serious injustice left:

I think many people would be tempted to agree. Anders Breivik murdered dozens of children. He did it with deliberation and planning, and he is totally unapologetic. Giving him conditions essentially no different from (probably better than) the average college dorm room instinctively seems totally unobjectionable, possibly even too lenient. And Norwegian prisons are, in general, intentionally not much different from living on the outside. As one prison governor said, they follow the “normality principle,” meaning that “daily prison life should not be any different than ordinary life, as far as this is possible.” As a result, the lives of Norwegian prisoners sound almost idyllic:

Inmates on the prison island of Bastoey, south of Oslo, are free to walk around in a village-style setting, tending to farm animals. They ski, cook, play tennis, play cards. They have their own beach, and even run the ferry taking people to and from the island. And in the afternoon when most prison staff go home, only a handful of guards are left to watch the 115 prisoners.

If this is what prison life could be like, then why adopt an abolition framework at all? Surely, even if we are romantic utopians, the Norwegian system ought to satisfy us.

And yet: I cannot help but feel that the abolitionist principle is actually the right one. As I looked at the photo of Breivik’s cell, at first I thought to myself “Well, there doesn’t seem anything wrong with this. Surely this is the ideal.” But then I realized that using the word “ideal” to describe what I was seeing seemed perverse. After all, the photo I was looking at existed because 77 people were dead. I was not just looking at a comfortable room. I was looking at the place where a racist mass murderer was kept, and being asked to evaluate whether it was a sensible and fair place to keep such a person. This is the question around which prison reform asks us to frame our discussions: what is the humane way to treat a person who commits an atrocity? And the answer, for seriously committed reformers, is that photograph.

What I like about abolition, though, is that it rejects the premise of the question. It says that, if we are assuming that in our ideal society, the Anders Breiviks would be given IKEA furniture and ping pong tables, we are still assuming the existence of Anders Breiviks. But the kind of society we are aiming for should not be the one in which “criminals are well-treated.” It should be a society in which we do not have white supremacists murdering dozens of children. 

Now, once again this sounds profoundly naïve. I can feel the eyes rolling. “Well, of course we’d all love a world without crime, but that’s not going to happen, which is why the important question is about what we do here and now.” However, this misses the point: what the abolitionist is actually saying is that, while it’s good to improve prison conditions, it’s vital to remember that “prison conditions” are not the real issue, just as if we mainly targeted “improving conditions for prisoners of war” rather than “stopping war” or “improving support given to the families of people who die in mining accidents” rather than “stopping mining accidents,” our focus would be too narrow in a way that led us to fail to appreciate the true problem.

Prison abolitionists, ironically enough, sometimes seem more committed to stopping crime than those who criticize them for being naïveabout crime. Some approaches to criminal justice focus on things like improving public defender services, improving prison health care, ensuring freedom from police harassment. But what the abolitionists socialists have always said is that, while these are valuable and should be done, it’s equally important to try to understand why crime happens in the first place. In Clarence Darrow’s speech to the Chicago prisoners, he said:

The only way in the world to abolish crime and criminals is to abolish the big ones and the little ones together. Make fair conditions of life. Give men a chance to live. Abolish the right of private ownership of land, abolish monopoly, make the world partners in production, partners in the good things of life. Nobody would steal if he could get something of his own some easier way. Nobody will commit burglary when he has a house full. No girl will go out on the streets when she has a comfortable place at home. The man who owns a sweatshop or a department store may not be to blame himself for the condition of his girls, but when he pays them five dollars, three dollars, and two dollars a week, I wonder where he thinks they will get the rest of their money to live. The only way to cure these conditions is by equality.

Now, Darrow might have been thinking simplistically in believing that nobody would steal if they were rich already (see, e.g., Wall Street). But note that he is thinking about how to get rid of crime itself. The reason he would be uncomfortable saying that “the goal is to make American prisons more like Norwegian ones” is that for Darrow, the elimination of violent crime is inextricably tied in with the entire point of socialism, which is to create a society in which people are prosperous and happy and don’t hurt each other. Abolition is a useful way of thinking about things, because it says “The task is to make a world in which prisons are unnecessary” rather than “The task is to make a world in which prisons are comfortable.”

Of course, people think such a world is impossible. Prisons will always be necessary, they believe, because some people will always be warped and cruel. But I object to this way of looking at things: it accepts an erroneous chain of reasoning often held by conservatives, namely that human nature is prone to violence and viciousness and this is an ineradicable part of us. The reason I call this view “erroneous” is that I don’t think it’s a correct inference: the argument is that because humans have always been a certain way, they must always be a certain way. This is no more logical than if, in 1900, I had said “there has never been a successful man-made aircraft, thus there will never be a successful man-made aircraft.” Or, if I had said (as I did) in 2016, “America has never elected a president who has openly bragged about committing sexual assault, thus America will never elect a president who has openly bragged about committing sexual assault.” When we assume we can judge the full range of possibilities for the future from the evidence we have about the past, we can end up cramping our ambition through self-fulfilling prophecies, or underestimating certain risks.

The truth is that we don’t know the degree to which crime can be controlled by addressing social causes. We don’t know it, because we’ve never seriously tried it. But we do know that there are cities in the United States that have incredibly low crime rates, where violent crime hardly ever occurs and property crime is incredibly infrequent. We are far from understanding why that’s the case. Since we know that it is the case, though, we know that it’s possible to create places in which crime is almost nonexistent. Violent crime has consistently been dropping in the United States despite the public perception otherwise (not helped by Donald Trump’s demagogic attempts to terrify people). It is impossible to know how much further it could be made to drop. (Nor is that because we’ve been locking up all of the criminals. States with low crime rates can also have very low incarceration rates, whereas states like, for example, Louisiana have both incredibly high crime rates and incredibly high incarceration rates.) Since very low-crime societies are possible already, even when they consist entirely of perfectly ordinary human beings, it does not actually seem especially naïve to believe that both crime and prisons can essentially be eliminated from the world. I refuse to see Anders Breiviks as an inevitability; I believe he is the product of a perverse racist ideology, one that can be countered and eradicated.

Prison abolition and prison reform can actually be reconciled fairly easily. The ultimate goal is prison abolition, because in a world without hatred and violence there would be no need for prisons, and the goal is a world without hatred and violence. In the interim, prisons must be made better and more humane. It’s not that you should, in the world we live in now, open the prison gates and give murderers probation. It’s that you should always remember that even if you think prison is a necessary evil, that still makes it evil, and evil things should ultimately be gotten rid of, whatever their short-term necessity. You can be both pragmatic and utopian at the same time. One should always adopt the “utopian” position, because it helps affirm what our ideal is and serves as a guiding star. But you can simultaneously operate with the real-world political constraints you have. As Angela Davis says, “the call for prison abolition urges us to imagine and strive for a very different social landscape.” It’s useful because it gets us thinking about big questions, picturing what very different worlds might be like and then beginning to plot how we might get from here to there. 

To me, one of the most moving pieces of writing on prison is Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol.” I find it a far more persuasive indictment of the concept of prison than any number of abolitionist tracts or policy papers about restorative justice. Wilde, destroyed by an unjust and bigoted Victorian criminal court system, wrote that no matter how we felt about the justice of particular laws, the very existence of prisons was a stain on humanity:

I know not whether Laws be right,
 Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in jail
 Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
 A year whose days are long.

But this I know, that every Law
 That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother’s life,
 And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
 With a most evil fan.

This too I know—and wise it were
 If each could know the same—
That every prison that men build
 Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
 How men their brothers maim.

Eugene Debs’s principle is an essential one, then. You can’t rest until the prisons are gone, because only then will injustice have been banished from the world: While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

More In: Criminal Punishment

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


A wonderful spring issue touching on important issues such as child liberation, whether humans really love animals, why Puerto Rico's political status remains a problem, what Islamic finance can teach us, and how 'terrorism' has become a shape-shifting word. Welcome to the Manos-Fair, and enjoy Luxury British Pants, among other delightful amusements!

The Latest From Current Affairs