Why We Must Focus on Prison Abolition

Prison

My last college paper was for my Writing for Social Change class and I was allowed to choose an argument focused on a topic about which I’m passionate. Some of the topics the girls in my class chose were rape culture, sex education, sustainable fashion, transgender right, colorism in entertainment, and wild animal welfare. For my essay, I wrote about why prison abolition is important. I used The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis as my two primary sources, but also included Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and a few other peer reviewed articles as evidence. I hope you guys enjoy this essay!

When Abraham Lincoln announced his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, more than 3 million enslaved people in the South were ideally labeled ‘free.’ However, generations of African American citizens were held in physical bondage during the remainder of the Civil War and faced adapted slavery conditions through periods of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and now a modern caste system that focuses on mass incarceration. Author, lawyer, and professor Michelle Alexander examines the history of the prison system in its relationship with race, socioeconomic status, and sex in her book The New Jim Crow, while Are Prisons Obsolete? author and abolitionist Angela Davis focuses on the abolition of prisons altogether. Both books work in conversation with one another in describing a documented system that disproportionately affects people of color and has become a new and harmful way of keeping them in chains. The prison system is inherently racist and unjust because of its historical roots in slavery, so the entire system must be abolished.

The History of Prisons and Slavery

Since the first slave ship arrived in the U.S. in 1601, Black people were treated as less than human beings— separated from their family; sold like livestock; tortured, beaten, and murdered for trying to escape; and denied human rights. Slavery was established as a means of solving the widespread requirement of labor on plantations. White property owners and slave masters convinced themselves and other white citizens that Black people, like Native Americans, were savages who needed colonization and enslavement to stay alive. Reacting to a spread of fear mongering tactics, the majority of white populations accepted chattel slavery as an important system for which even their Christian Bibles argued. Rich settlers used their socioeconomic standings and political power to convince poor whites that the institution of slavery was a crucial part of society, despite the latter’s lack of access to slave labor. A racial hierarchy was quickly established where white people of all classes teamed up against Black and Native people, who faced violent oppression and genocides. As long as upper class members could gain the respect and trust of their poor counterparts, slavery would become an extensive structure operating on power imbalances between white and Black citizens. Slavery saw four centuries of rampant violence and torture directed at Black enslaved people, who were considered nonhuman based on their skin color. Those who were enslaved suffered through hours of hard labor every day without pay, often seeing whips, chains, and ropes for little to no reason. The Union’s victory in the Civil War ultimately ended the organized system of slavery in 1865 with the passing of the 13th amendment, which states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (U.S. Constitution. Amend. XIII, Sec. 1.).

Michelle Alexander discusses the crucial element of the amendment in The New Jim Crow when she writes, “The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had abolished slavery but allowed one major exception: slavery remained appropriate as punishment for a crime. In a landmark decision by the Virginia Supreme Court, Ruffin v. Commonwealth…the court put to rest any notion that convicts were legally distinguishable from slaves” (31). Although the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865, the systematic oppression and disenfranchisement of Black people has continued through a number of legal practices including the prison industrial complex. In the aftermath of the Thirteenth Amendment’s ratification, the southern states grouped together in order to develop processes that would keep Black people enslaved as long as possible through the subtle exception the document provided. Alexander describes the criminal justice system’s founding as it was “strategically employed to force African Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come” (32). If the southern states couldn’t have their widespread establishment of slavery, they created a new way around the Constitution that kept their communities separate from Black groups and forced former slaves into new chains and cages. Jim Crow laws, decades of mass lynchings, voter suppression, mass incarceration of primarily Black men and women, and countless instances of police brutality are splotches of injustice on America’s canvas. The system of mass incarceration was built upon the idea that slavery could continue if Black people were arrested, charged, and sentenced, forcing them to perform hard labor for pennies a day while facing violence from other inmates and guards alike.

Impact on Poor Communities and Cash Bail System

One of the largest populations tied up in the criminal justice system is poor people of all races and ethnicities, with people of color seeing the most sentences. In his book Just Mercy, civil rights lawyer, professor, and author Bryan Stevenson writes, “We have a system of justice that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Wealth— not culpability— shapes outcomes” (114). There seemingly exists in the United States, two criminal justice systems: one that sentences the rich, and one that sentences the poor. Despite the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses that explain the government’s requirement to guarantee all citizens equal protection of governing laws while operating legally and providing citizens with fair procedures, respectively, poor people are unjustifiably policed and criminalized over their wealthy counterparts. The disparity of economic inequality among American citizens is especially evident in comparisons between white and Black communities and how those who live in poverty in specific neighborhoods are treated by law enforcement and politicians. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was familiar with the wealth gaps that plagued Black people since the era of slavery through the 1960s into the Civil Rights movement, as Michelle Alexander references that “Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders made it clear that they viewed the eradication of economic inequality as the next front in the ‘human rights movement’ and made great efforts to build multiracial coalitions that sought economic justice for all,” (39). The stigma surrounding rampant poverty is perpetuated from the moment hordes of police patrol poorer communities in search of crime. Poverty is often present in communities that lack resources and funding for opportunities that wealthier areas take for granted. When poorer people have inadequate or no access to jobs, housing, healthcare, quality education, healthy foods, and compassionate political leaders, often the main option for work is through acts of crime. The cycle perpetuates as people filter in and out of prison while their records of incarceration eliminate most chances of finding work.

Much of the inequality affecting communities with higher poverty rates is the influence of the cash bail system. Cash bail is one of six forms of conditional restrictions, including citation release, surety bail, recognizance, property bail, and immigration bail, that force people who are arrested or incarcerated to adhere to the judicial process. Money bail requires people who have been arrested to pay a specific amount of dollars, usually based on their income, in order to secure their release from jail prior to trial. Not everyone who commits crimes has to pay bail upfront, however. Those who are wealthy, of higher status, or who have connections within the justice system don’t often spend time in jail while they await the payment of their bond. The most jarring detail about the bail system is that each type of bond is applied pretrial, meaning poor people are essentially held in local, state, and federal jails for a set amount of money determined by the judge, and 95% of people take a plea deal or plead guilty to their crime, despite possible innocence, or pay an outstanding amount of money unless they want to remain in prison until they can fight their case in court. Author Peter Edelman emphasizes the inequities of the bail system in his article “The Criminalization of Poverty and the People Who Fight Back” where he writes, “Out of the 700,000 people held in jails each day nationally, 450,000 have not been found guilty of any crime. They are simply poor people waiting for a trail. Most have been accused of low-level infractions that should not be crimes at all or should not carry jail time even when people are convicted” (221). People who are incarcerated after arrest can no longer go to work, see their families, or pay their bills, so they often lose their jobs, custody of their children if they are the primary caregiver, and can even lose their housing all while locked up before seeing a courtroom. Cash bail breeds a cycle of irreparable damage to both families and communities and incarcerating people simply because they are poor does nothing to keep society safe. The cycle of poverty continues as people are held in jails due to their socioeconomic status and their financial inability to escape imprisonment.

Kalief Browder was only 16 when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack in the Bronx on May 15, 2010. Booked at the Bronx County Criminal Court, Browder’s previous run ins with the law directly impacted his case, and he was held on a $3,000 bail. Because his mother didn’t have the cash to bail Kalief out, he was sent to New York’s Rikers Island— a collection of jails on an island in the East River, which houses approximately 11,000 people every day. Kalief hadn’t even been to court before he was sent to the Island and the overwhelming crowd of cases before his forced the prosecutor’s office to continuously delay Kalief’s trial. During his time at Rikers, Kalief refused to plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit, so he spent over three years in jail without ever making it to trial. Kalief was brutally beaten countless times by other incarcerated boys and correctional officers alike, suffered through increasingly present mental illnesses, and was held for over 17 consecutive months in solitary confinement. Craig Haney, Joanna Weill, Shirin Bakhshay, and Tiffany Lockett, authors of “Examining Jail Isolation: What We Don’t Know Can Be Profoundly Harmful” present Kalief’s experience in solitary, writing, “As his time in isolation mounted, he became increasingly depressed and despondent. On one occasion, he attempted suicide by fashioning a noose from his torn bedsheets and trying to hang himself from a light fixture. After a short stay in the jail medical clinic, he was returned to his isolation cell, from which all property had been removed except for a plastic bucket, pieces of which he used to attempt suicide again, a few days later, by cutting his wrists” (127). Over three years after he was first sent to Rikers, Kalief had still never been to court, but the prosecutors suddenly announced there was insufficient evidence to convict him of any crimes, and he was instantly released back into the world. Kalief’s mental health had deteriorated after being held in confinement for so many months that he hanged himself with an electrical cord two years after his release. Due to his imprisonment for three years over a backpack he didn’t steal, a $3,000 bond, and never stepping foot in a trial, Kalief’s life was over in an instant.

Prison Violence and Cruel Living Conditions

Violence, sexual assault, and barbaric standards of living are rampant in the prison system. Incarcerated people enact bloody attacks upon each other and correctional officers do the same to those who are caged. Brutality is weaponized within the halls of prisons as caged people not only fear each other, but also the guards who have complete authority over their lives. Riots, sit ins, and hunger strikes have become more common over the years as a means of protest, with many taking place to revolt against a lack of constitutional rights, poor healthcare, unhealthy or poisoned food, speech censorship, forced fight clubs, correctional officer violence, unpaid physical labor, and dangerous living conditions. A recent report about Alabama prisons conducted by the Department of Justice revealed the reprehensible and unconscionable ways in which incarcerated people were treated in prisons all across the state. An extremely damning part of the report read, “One prisoner had been dead for so long that when he was discovered lying face down, his face was flattened. Another was tied up and tortured for two days while no one noticed. Bloody inmates screamed for help from cells whose doors did not lock” (Benner and Dewan). The violence in Alabama penitentiaries isn’t tied to that state only, but is instead an illness spread throughout the country. Gladiator fights are a common practice in many American prisons where correctional officers force imprisoned people to physically beat each other, often until one of them dies, while placing bets on the winners. Inmates aren’t allowed to refuse fighting, and they face retribution from guards if they try to opt out of the fight club. In fact, incarcerated people who report any type of violence they’ve experienced to family members, lawyers, or the media run at a high risk of suffering through retaliation in the form of more beatings, sexual assaults, or time in solitary confinement. Angela Davis shares the differences in violence people in prisons experience based on their sex and mentions the particularly cruel ways women must survive when she mentions the 1996 Human Rights Watch report that read, “Being a woman prisoner in U.S. state prisons can be a terrifying experience. If you are sexually abused, you cannot escape from your abuser. Grievance or investigatory procedures, where they exist, are often ineffectual, and correctional employees continue to engage in abuse because they believe they will rarely be held accountable, administratively or criminally (78).

Unsurprisingly, the majority of incarcerated people who have committed crimes endured physical or mental trauma and abuse in their lives. 56% of incarcerated men in a study conducted by Nancy Wolff and Jing Shi reported experiencing childhood physical trauma, including sexual assaults. Emotional abuse such as neglect and abandonment were also heavily experienced by those studied in prisons. The cycle of trauma that began in their childhoods repeated itself as they either perpetuated similar types of violence upon other people or found alcohol and drug use as effective coping mechanisms. The psychological and physical damage often transforms into mental illnesses that, when undiagnosed and untreated, lead to even more harm in a prison setting where cages and brutality are familiar settings. Although politicians and societal leaders would have citizens believe that locking offenders in prisons is the solution to crime, throwing people into warehouses of violence only breeds more violence. Imprisoned people all across the country have organized revolts targeting the elected officials who oversee their punishments in the hope that those leaders would witness the insufferable conditions in which the former is housed. In many locations, those who are incarcerated are fed moldy and old food, they don’t have access to proper dental or health care, they’re tortured with harsh weather during extreme seasons, and are sometimes forced to sleep and eat in the same cells as their excrements.

The use of solitary confinement as a tool of punishment is an extreme form of torture that has been proven to only create and exacerbate mental illnesses. People who are placed in solitary are held in severely small cells without windows for at least 23 hours a day, spending one hour in another cage outside for ‘recreation time’. The practice is so cruel that the United Nations has even called for the abolition of solitary after one is isolated for 15 days. People in solitary housing units have shown the establishment and/or worsening of mental illness symptoms such as paranoia, anxiety, PTSD, hallucinations, depression, and their suffering often causes them to attempt suicide as the only way out of the cell. Few experiences are more damaging and detrimental to the mind than being housed in an 80 square foot cell with no human contact, access to the outside world, or light.

Innocent Incarcerated People

There are an estimated 2-10% of people in prisons who are innocent of all crimes. Weighing the numbers, that means around 46,000-230,000 completely blameless citizens are incarcerated at any point in time. Innocent people land in prison for a handful of reasons: bad policing, false accusations, false eyewitness testimonies, prosecutorial misconduct, lack of representation, biased judges, and junk science. The amount of cases involving innocent incarcerated people has become so vast that entire networks of nonprofit legal organizations like the Innocence Project and the Exoneration Project were created in order to free people who had run out of options. The Innocence Project itself has exonerated over 349 innocent people with at least 20 of them sentenced to death row over the past 25 years. While recent publicized cases of police brutality and misconduct have revealed the extreme power and agency law enforcement has to enact any type of punishment they see fit without consequence, prosecutors and judges have even more protection from the law.

Bryan Stevenson discusses the appalling freedom of malpractice in courts, writing, “The immunity from civil liability given to prosecutors and judges is even greater than the protections provided to law enforcement officers” (246). He illustrates how, even when prosecutors have purposely covered or hid evidence from juries, they “cannot be held liable for misconduct in a criminal case” (247). Prosecutors have an almost unlimited power that allows them to imprison people for crimes the latter may not have committed, just because they are a suspect or have a criminal record. Some judges work in the same way, handing down severe sentences to people who aren’t a threat to society or who haven’t had the proper legal representation that would allow their innocence to preside over assumed guilt. False accusations and false eyewitness testimonies work hand in hand as both are the most unreliable ways to determine a person’s guilt in a crime. Eyewitness accounts can be easily warped to fit the narrative that law enforcement wants, leading to deliberate accusations against innocent people. Inadequate or a lack of proper legal representation often lands people in jail for longer sentences, or even sees innocent people locked away for crimes they didn’t commit. Often times, the public defenders assigned to cases where the defendant is potentially innocent don’t have the time or resources to thoroughly examine the incident and truly defend the client. Overworked public defenders can only focus so much time on the hundreds of cases they see each week, so people who may be innocent are forced to take a plea deal that sends them to prison for a shortened time, despite not having committed any crime in the first place.

When innocent citizens are locked up, they usually have no other alternatives than applying for representation from one of the free legal clinics. Many of those who have been exonerated were on death row, awaiting the day they would be sent to their executions. The atrocity of the death penalty is still evident with people who have committed heinous crimes, but is even more reprehensible when innocent people have been exonerated from death row. Stevenson focuses on writing about the horrors of the death penalty and asks not if people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed, but if we deserve to kill. Many victims of brutal crimes and their families don’t, in fact, want the incarcerated person to be put to death for their offense, because taking one life doesn’t bring back the other one. The argument against the death penalty is expanded when the statistics show that over a third of people who have been executed in the U.S. were Black, despite being a minority in the general population, and the overwhelming majority of victims were white. Race is a key factor in the injustices perpetuated by the criminal justice system as each aspect of prison is meant to keep Black people in chains or have them killed.

Alternatives to Prison

The United States is more reliant on incarceration than any other Westernized nation in the world. Despite only representing 5% of the world’s population, America houses 25% of the world’s incarcerated people. Law and order has been a backbone of the United States, proving beneficial in election years and keeping citizens afraid of the crime that exists around them. Abolition is a scary word when it comes to discussing the prison system, but based on its roots and the purely detrimental effects of incarceration, reforming the criminal justice system and prisons is not enough to ensure true justice is served. Abolishing all prisons is a process that will take time in America, but will ultimately right the wrongs of crime and create a society that prioritizes rehabilitation, repair, and restoration. Baylor University Criminology professor Carson Mencken addresses the current prison system’s process, saying, “We set up a criminal justice system with prisons and the promise was rehabilitation but in reality, it’s become more about retribution.” The abolition of the prison system would undue the wrongs committed in justice’s name, while focusing on a society that works to prevent offenses and heal both the perpetrators and victims after crimes have occurred. In order to arrive at a place where abolition has widespread support, we as a society have to recognize the course that offenders go through from childhood to the moment they inflict harm upon others. Most times, they suffer through abuse, sexual violence, and neglect, which leads to escalating violence and crimes before prison.

Angela Davis discusses the alternatives to prison in Are Prisons Obsolete? writing, “Positing decarceration as our overachieving strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment—demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and violence” (107). Without the deescalation of violence across all parts of communities such as over policed neighborhoods and the school to prison pipeline with armed security guards in majority minority schools, abolition isn’t possible. Davis expands on her breakdown of the prison system when she says, “Alternatives that fail to address racism, male dominance, homophobia, class bias, and other structures of dominance will not, in the final analysis, lead to decarceration and will not advance the goal of abolition” (108). Abolishing prisons then, would revolve around so much more than just tearing down all cages and setting incarcerated people free. True abolition requires a fundamental restructure of American society where the focus should be on restorative practices and rehabilitative processes that repair harm rather than simply caging people for their actions. Creating a more just, equitable, antiracist, and anti-misogynistic society is the means to a world without prisons where punishment isn’t the only option for solving problems. The process would also require healthy and safe living conditions for all without relying on heavy policing and employ conflict resolution strategies based on African and Indigenous problem-solving techniques based on respect, love, and peace.

Conclusion

The American prison system is reliant on racist laws that punish primarily Black and Brown citizens for crimes committed at an equal rate to that of white people. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? wrestle with the current system that focuses on cruel and unusual punishment as a tool for justice, which instead aims for retribution rather than rehabilitation. Because the prison system is rooted in slavery and employs inequality and racism at all levels, abolition is the only way to ensure society is just, fair, and peaceful for all people.

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