Broadly, prison abolition concerns a critical movement to rethink penology and the reliance on incarceration as the primary tool of punishment. Advocates of prison abolition encourage greater criminal justice imagination and call for the use of more productive alternatives to the incarceration of mostly poor, minority, youthful men. Though these advocates recognize the contributions of prison reform, they also lament it as inherently legitimatizing the prison industrial complex. Lacking clear unity and focus, some abolitionists suggest a considerable reduction in the reliance on prisons while others outright question the utility of such institutions, arguing that prison incarceration is an oppressive tool aimed at the continued subjugation of minorities. Relating incarceration to social evils such as slavery, critics suggest alternatives to prison such as restorative justice that can pave the way for an institutionally free society.
The abolition movement has been motivated primarily by disparities present within the rising prison population. The mass incarceration movement of the last three decades has been well documented. As reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are in excess of 2 million adults behind bars in the United States, a figure that far exceeds other industrialized nations. That said, the prison and jail population has, despite an upward trend for decades, begun to decline slightly since 2010 at a rate of about 1 percent each year. Nonetheless, there are about 2.2 million adults incarcerated in state or federal prisons and local jails. That equates to about 1 in every 100 adults, a slogan popularized by the 2008 Pew Center on the States’ report. Incarceration is characterized by a heavy disparity against young adult minority men, especially African Americans. One in 15 black adult men are incarcerated compared to 1 in 36 for Hispanic men and 1 in 106 for white men. Figures are somewhat less dramatic for females as they are for males, but racial disparities do exist with black adult women incarcerated at a rate of 1 in 100 compared to white women at 1 in 355.
Such disparities in the incarcerated population have led many to question the legal system and prison industrial complex. Many prominent have criticized the mass incarceration movement for disproportionately targeting minority populations. Additionally, the incarcerated are provided little opportunity for social improvement, often further alienating these individuals. To further illustrate the disparity, African Americans represent about 14 percent of drug users nationally, about equal to their representation in the general population. However, they represent 35 percent of all drug arrests, 55 percent of drug convictions, and 75 percent of prison admissions for drug offenses. African Americans are not only more likely to be processed by the justice system, but also more likely to serve lengthier sentences. As Bruce Western has poignantly illustrated, African American men are as likely to go to prison as they are to get married. Such a prevalence of incarceration for a population stands to disrupt and perpetuate disadvantages for generations of families. Furthermore, prison does little to turn criminals into productive citizens or capable parents, often offering little in terms of vocation or educational services. An estimated 1.5 million children are growing up with an incarcerated parent.
To further elaborate on the issue of human warehousing, both academics and public advocates contend the prison industrial complex is designed to punish the poor and deal with persistent social problems through a criminogenic enterprise. Simply put, they assert the prison is an instrument of oppression. Advocates have emphasized the bias of the justice institutions and made calls for a reversal of the reliance on prisons. However, there has been little practical effort to heed such calls for action and most recent changes in reducing or ceasing further expansion of institutions has been the result of economic woes, not the moral pleadings of the abolition movement. Clearly, critical criminologists contend that the institution represents a new form of slavery, or perpetuation of slavery that had previously been abolished. However, others have contended the comparison to slavery is not entirely accurate given forced labor within institutions is considered a privilege and in reality inmates are mostly warehoused with little to do. Instead, it is argued the institution represents an attempt at mass containment and the elimination of many poor African American people from mainstream society.
There is some uncertainty in terms of what the abolition movement intends or hopes to achieve. In many cases advocates stop short of suggesting the full abolition of prisons, but rather a pronounced reduction in their use. Such advocates seek alternatives that may be more productive than incarceration and cite approaches such as restorative justice and peacemaking, some of which have been derived from experiences working with Native American tribes. Others, however, cite the need for greater criminal justice imagination and the absolute abolition of prisons. They argue that U.S. society has become indoctrinated by the presence of prisons. Some even cite the reliance some communities have formed on the prison industry as a means of work and social prosperity. Though admittedly utopian, these voices urge more creativity and the realization that a world can exist without prisons.
Abolitionists typically argue against prison reform. Their explanation is simple, but straightforward. Prison reforms, while often necessary and beneficial for protecting individuals while incarcerated, mostly serve to perpetuate the institutions’ existence. In other words, reform further legitimizes the existence of the prison. Though guidance is limited, there has been some discussion that the means to achieving abolition may come best through the shifting of resources from corrections to other macroinstructions such as education, housing, health care, and other community-based services. In reality, the trend has been in the opposite direction with corrections costs rivaling that of education and health care in many states. Only with the economic depression of the recent decade has the construction of additional penal institutions been halted. Further, some advocates argue that a new vision of the world, a world devoid of prisons, must be communicated to the masses, and the link between the penal system and poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other oppressive biases must be exposed. To do this some call for an interdisciplinary field of prison studies at universities, and some even recommend high school courses that discuss penology. Given the permanency of male institutions, some authors, particularly feminist criminologists, have supported the abolition of female prisons as a social experiment with less risk to public safety. The success of such an experiment could serve as the basis, some have argued, for the eventual abolition of male prisons as well.
Finally, abolitionists comprise a wide variety of individuals including academics, former prisoners, teachers, researchers, policy scholars, and criminologists. One issue faced by abolitionists has been that the movement represents a population that historically has little political power. In other words, former prisoners represent a marginalized population as a result of their criminal background, severely limiting the impact of their voice in the larger political sphere. Though the roots of the movement can be traced back to the mid-1970s, its message has not changed dramatically since, and the fears it placed in the overreliance of the penal institution continue to be realized.
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