Prison abolition

Today’s topic is prison abolition
Prisons are totally inhumane, full of terror, assault, sexual assault, and even murder. They are torture. We believe in universal human rights, and it is barbaric for us to put anyone in prison.
Our first reading for today argued that our technology is sufficiently advanced that GPS monitored house arrest can replace prison. People convicted of crimes have to wear a GPS monitor that ensures they are at work or at home. If they deviate or tamper with their monitor, they are swiftly located and put into temporary confinement. The technology is at the point where it’s just as effective at keeping people “confined” as prison; it also allows people to remain integrated in society instead of getting antisocial survival skills ingrained into their psyche; it allows them to remain productive members of society, perhaps by working or by caring for a sick family member. Replacing prison with GPS house arrest would make society safer; even violent offenders are half as likely to commit another crime when their sentence ends. In other words, we have the technology to eliminate the use of prisons, or at least for all convictions short of rape and murder.
Another reading looked at Norway’s humane prisons, some of which don’t even have walls, and prisoners get flatscreen TVs, internet access, tend to their organic garden, and study a trade or earn a college degree. Very dangerous people are given the opportunity to rehabilitate, and recidivism is extremely low. By making prison torture as in the US, those convicted of crimes learn antisocial prison survival skills, which makes them more likely to harm society when their sentence ends. By treating people like people, society is safer.
Criminal justice does not need to be cruel to prevent people from committing crimes.
Another reading looked at the fact that the US incarcerates several times more people per capita than any other country on earth. Our rate of incarceration is simply mindboggling; North Korea is the only country that might incarcerate at a comparable rate.
Another reading questioned the progressive approach to mass incarceration. The progressive idea is that we can greatly reduce the prison population by freeing people who have committed nonviolent drug offenses. The author states:

In fact, if we released everyone now serving time in state prisons whose primary charge is a drug offense, we would reduce the state prison population by only 20 percent.

The overwhelming majority of people in prison are not there because of a drug offense…That’s not to minimize the cost of the War on Drugs, especially for African Americans, and the need to end this unjust war….One of the most shocking stats [] is that simply rolling back punishments for violent offenses to their 1984 levels in 2004 would have done more to lower the incarceration rate — a cut in state prison rates of 30 percent — than simply ending the drug war.

Progressives also focus on racial disparities, which are very real. But that dodges the issue that we incarcerate too many people:

The African-American incarceration rate of about 2,300 per 100,000 people is clearly off the charts and a shocking figure. The black-white incarceration rate in the United States is about 6 to 1. Focusing so intently on these racial disparities often obscures the fact that the incarceration rates for other groups in the United States, including whites and Latinos, is also comparatively very high, just not astronomically high as in the case of blacks.

The white incarceration rate in the United States is about 400 per 100,000. This is about 2 to 2.5 times the total incarceration rates of the most punitive countries in Western Europe and about 5 to 6 times the rate of the least punitive ones.

Even if you released every African American from US prisons and jails today, we’d still have a mass incarceration crisis in this country. I do not mean to minimize the enormity of the problem of the carceral state for African Americans but rather to make a larger point about how we need to think about racial disparities and criminal justice in a more nuanced way and in a wider context.

The progressive case on mass incarceration centers on two issues. First, let’s stop incarcerating people who have not committed violent offenses. And second, the criminal justice system should be colorblind. These are both laudable goals. But this doesn’t go far enough. We need to change how we think about people who have committed crimes. First, all people need to be treated with dignity, and that means abolishing prisons. Second, we need to stop thinking about the criminal justice system as punishment. Rather than focus on “giving people what they deserve”, we need to focus on preventing people from committing more crimes when they finish their sentence. That means a humane, compassionate approach to prison, even people who have committed unspeakable acts.
  • Open discussion on ideas here: GPS house arrest, humane approaches to incarceration, and the fact that ending mass incarceration means releasing people who have committed violent crimes.
  • If we abolished prisons, there would certainly be violence committed by people under house arrest. Ending mass incarceration means that violent people will have the opportunity to commit violence against society that they would not have if they were incarcerated. This is the most common objection to prison abolition. What would you say to someone with this perspective?
    • Paradoxically, having less harsh incarceration actually makes society safer, but we might feel less safe as some people would commit crimes while on GPS house arrest.
    • Prisons are barbaric and have no place in our world. If we must accept some extra danger to eliminate that barbarism, so be it.
  • Do you agree with this statement: society thanks that people who have committed crimes are monsters we need to be protected from, rather than people deserving of basic human rights who are capable of growth. As long as society views people convicted of crimes as monsters, meaningful criminal justice reform is impossible.




Future ideas for returning to this topic:

NY prison guards’ life expectancy is 55
Research shows that corrections officers experience above-average rates of job-related stress and burnout. Thirty-four percent of prison guards suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a study by a nonprofit that researches “corrections fatigue.” That’s a higher rate than reported by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. COs commit suicide two and a half times more often than the population at large. They also have shorter life spans. A recent study of Florida prison guards and law enforcement officers found that they die 12 years earlier than the general population; one suggested cause was job-related stress.