Opinion guest column

The necessity of prison abolition

The problems inherent in the system require its abolition.

“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, the esteemed former writer for The Atlantic who frequently broaches blackness and vulnerability in America, tells his son in Between The World and Me that the violation of the black body was fundamental to the construction of the United States, destruction particularly exhibited through the atrocities that composed slavery. Starting with slavery as instituted in the first 236 years of this country, a line can be drawn connecting crop liens and sharecropping, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and a police force with roots in the slave-catching crews of the 19th century to the continual reduction of the black body to a whipping post which dominates the racial history of this country. Moreover, we continue to reinvent this subjugation rather than categorically address it; the adage of revolutionary circles goes, “the system isn’t broken, it’s working exactly how it’s supposed to.” How have we let this dehumanization persist after slave revolts, the abolition of slavery, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement, in our prisons as well? And how, if possible, can we reverse course? The injustice perpetuated in prisons, both through inherent racism throughout the penal system and dehumanization beaten into our incarcerated populations, warrants abolition as a movement and a cause to fight this state oppression.

Just under one percent of people in the United States are currently incarcerated. This is the highest incarceration rate in the world, and it is strongly attributable to a series of baffling policy changes, considering the prison abolition movement in the 1970s and the general opposition to imprisonment as a solution, which entailed the “war on drugs,” mandatory minima, and “super predator” legislation pushed with bipartisan support throughout the 80s and 90s. The “tough on crime” mantra that ran these two decades became a subtle dog-whistle, as enforcement fell particularly heavily on black communities through racist policy implementation (see “stop and frisk,” enforcement of loitering laws and drug laws), which can be readily seen in our incongruous incarceration rates.

Beyond the primary impact on the imprisoned, it is useful to think about the scope of the problem in a different way — after all, one in 100 seems like a fairly low proportion. But that number is not necessarily representative of the effect felt by the population outside of the convicted offenders themselves. A reported 44 percent of black women and 32 percent of black men (compared to only 12 percent of white women and six percent of white men) have an imprisoned family member, which speaks to how communities feel the weight of so many members being lost to unjust imprisonment.

But it’s not just the inherently racist nature of the criminal justice system leading up to the jailing of black people that embroils prisons in the controversy they perennially inhabit — the re-institutionalization of slavery through imprisonment has categorically wronged hundreds of thousands of prisoners who make pennies per hour while performing sometimes dangerous jobs and often have to pay back this money they’ve earned at commissaries anyway. This exploitation of the 13th amendment, which ended slavery as constructed in the South but allowed for forced/low wage labor under the conditions of state punishment, is one of the ugliest consequences of Reconstruction, as jailers and police officers would routinely lock up black people, unable to pay bail, and keep them for use as free labor until they were released. While not as explicitly corrupt, debtors’ prisons and forced labor in prisons exist to this day. Douglas Blackmon, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, has documented the ways in which prison labor is a form of “neoslavery,” as he puts it. This rejuvenated form of slavery comes replete with the same mistreatment and degradation, which is still an appallingly apparent problem in prisons to this day, and it is emblematic of yet another immense failing, or immense misconstruction, of the prison system we currently have.   

At the very least, inmates have sparked resistance to this oppression, most recently involving a nationwide prison strike involving 17 states. The strike was initiated on Aug. 21, the 47th anniversary of the murder of Black Panther and activist George Jackson, and ended on Sept. 9, the anniversary of the Attica prison revolt. Prisoners rebelled against their oppression through labor strikes, hunger strikes, refusal to pay for items in the commissary, and any other measure available to them. The brave organizers and participants put their money, sentences, and lives on the line to protest this injustice done to them by our very own justice system — and yet, we’re not listening. They released demands for, among other things, the recognition of their humanity, an end to slave labor, an end to racial disparities in sentencing and parole approvals, as well as to the unencumbered right to the franchise. The fact that their strike was necessary for people to simply acknowledge the plight of the imprisoned, especially the black imprisoned, is frightening.

It’s likely you’ve heard of some form of the “rehabilitative vs. retributive” arguments in prison reform argument — the debate revolves around the question of whether prisons should ready prisoners for release and reduce recidivism rates or punish the act of crime. The popular discussion on the topic generally centers around trying to find some happy medium through which we can accomplish both goals and on maintaining prisons to prevent crime from happening in the first place, but evidence from the National Institute of Justice and the Sentencing Project shows that any deterrence effect is strongly drawn from the probability of getting caught, and not from length of sentence or severity of punishment. Bottom line, irrespective of what crime reduction measures we replace and what philosophy or methodology we use, the notions of safety (white safety, to a large extent) and being “tough on crime” are not worth the caging and abusing human beings. Furthermore, the terrible racial past and present of our prison systems means some form of abolition has to be instituted for real change to occur.

The current penal system presents several large-scale problems: it strips prisoners of the right to the franchise, public assistance, and gainful employment; it systematically imprisons and enslaves black and brown people; and it destroys both communities and the imprisoned. Solutions go beyond the scope of small-scale reforms like decriminalizing drug possession and releasing small-time offenders. We need to consider much larger-scale actions in the form of outright abolition, outright or large-scale releases, reforms that drastically change policing in black communities, court procedures (such as truly representative juries, which involve getting rid of things like peremptory challenges), and otherwise, complete compliance with the very reasonable demands put forth by the prisoners who took part in the strike. Clearly, we can’t just filter out and discard what are fundamental and terrible aspects of the penal system — we’ve got to start anew. And for those who are worried/confused about abolition, it’s not just one movement with one implementation; some have suggested drastically reducing our prison population and relying mostly on a GPS monitoring system for convicted offenders, while others recommend complete disassembly of the prison-industrial complex.

Many political candidates have come out endorsing reforms in the milieu of decriminalizing marijuana, releasing drug offenders, and getting rid of mandatory minimums, but these changes may not be enough. These measures may be nothing more than layering bandages over a festering wound, while the infection itself still lingers. The prison system as currently constructed is an aberration, and abolition seems to many to be the most total way to right the wrongs we’re doing to our own citizens. Direct and immediate action is necessary, and everything from divestment to protests to organized non-compliance to strikes all advance awareness and solutions to this dire human rights issue.

Alula Hunsen is a member of the MIT Class of 2021.

Update 11/7: Some sentence structure was slightly modified for clarity.