Imagine a world without prisons. It may sound radical, but for millions of Black and brown Americans, this fantasy is urgent and necessary. Prison has been a blight on their lives since birth. Indeed, prison has been a blight on their lives for generations, reaching back to the 13th Amendment, which freed their enslaved ancestors.
At long last, we and the rest of the world are seeing in stark relief the rotten root of over-policing and the unmitigated harm that has flowed for a century and a half.
Even if we were to greatly diminish the current prison population—if we cut it in half but keep the prison-industrial complex intact—we would still consign millions of people to isolation and violence. That’s a form of inhumanity we should not abide by.
What prison abolitionists (and indeed, police abolitionists) are calling for is a fundamental shift in thinking, approach, and design. And while complete elimination of the current justice system can’t be done in one fell swoop, there are steps right now that can put us on that path.
We know that a significant number of people are incarcerated for reasons that are either false, oppressive, or due to deprivation and harm. In those circumstances, survival and care for one’s family can push someone’s actions over the line into illegal territory, against all of their best efforts. Take Cyntoia Brown, a victim of human and sex trafficking, who, because she feared for her life, shot and killed her abuser. Even if we agree that killing is wrong, she deserved far more understanding of the context of her situation than a life sentence in prison (after a huge letter-writing and legal campaign, her sentence was commuted last year, after serving 15 years). Or consider Kalief Browder, misidentified and imprisoned for three years without trial on suspicion of stealing a backpack, who then succumbed to the emotional and psychological injuries he experienced on Rikers Island while awaiting trial and died by suicide. Brown and Browder are only two people, but they represent millions of people incarcerated across the U.S.
The work of abolitionists is to reveal the fundamental problems with the prison system—an abusive and violent structure—and find the courage to radically imagine a deeply different structure, one that is predicated on restoration and healing. This approach takes a unique form—instead of beginning with punishment, we begin with care.
Redesign for rehabilitation
Instead of our current prison system, which is punitive and tries to break you, what if we had a system that was actually designed for rehabilitation? In this case, the restriction of personal liberty is the punishment; no other human rights should be removed. Therefore, life inside prison must resemble the best version of life outside prison, and prisoners should serve their sentence at the lowest possible security level. Any deviation from this principle requires a compelling reason; justification is required to deny a person their rights, not to grant them.
Along with that idea of normality is the aim that an incarcerated person’s path through their sentence builds toward a successful reentry to society, from the first day they enter any kind of detention or mandatory program. This ensures that people get a genuine opportunity to return to society as a healthy citizen, with their humanity respected as an integral part of that process.
The more institutionalized a system, the harder it is to thrive when released. Instead of keeping people in stasis while incarcerated, let’s design a journey of ever-expanding freedoms, so when their sentence ends, they are ready to step back fully into freedom. Incarcerated people should proceed toward release from higher security to lower security units and facilities, through transitional houses whenever possible, and ultimately to community supervision. Both the process and milestones should be accessible and transparent to the individual incarcerated, and the experience a thoughtful collaboration between the community and the individual incarcerated.
The physical security provided by walls, locked doors, cameras, and other “static” measures must be complemented by the dynamic security that only an alert staff, with knowledge of the person under their care, can provide. Dynamic security requires that staff have positive, professional relationships with people in their care based on firmness and fairness. They understand people’s personal situations and are actively invested in their successful return to the community.
No further sentence, written or unwritten, should be imposed on top of the loss of liberty. This includes lack of medical treatment, lack of privacy, lack of food and water, solitary confinement, or any other abuse. In practice, this means providing as many critical nonsecurity services to incarcerated people using local and municipal—noncorrectional—service providers.
Prisons should not have their own staff for medical, education, employment, clerical, or library services; these instead should be imported from the local community and overseen by local municipalities. Incarcerated people should also have normal contact with community members and organizations while in prison. As a result, continuation of care and services after release would be relatively easy, while community perceptions of incarcerated people would improve—enabling their reintegration into society. In this system, once a sentence is served the debt to society is paid: previously incarcerated people are able to move freely and without prejudice.
If this approach sounds impossible, let’s look to Norway, which has followed this path since 1968. Correctional facilities in Norway focus on restorative justice and rehabilitation, making sure the offender can become a functioning member of society again. Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world, currently 20%, with approximately 3,933 offenders in prison, and one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
In the U.S., the nine-year recidivism rate is a whopping 83%—meaning five in six prisoners are arrested at least once in the nine years following their release. Prisons here hold 25% of the global prison population, making the U.S. the most incarcerated country in the world.
How do we reduce the prison population in the U.S.?
This points to a deep history of enslavement in America, institutionalized over centuries, from the American slavery system up until the Civil War to the development of Jim Crow laws—which flowed from the 13th Amendment itself, which freed the slaves but inserted a loophole, making slavery still legal as punishment for a crime. These kinds of laws and policies continue to proliferate today.
This oppressive yet “legal” subjugation of Black people and poor people spawned an entire system of institutions to perpetuate it—criminal courts and their employees, jails and prisons and their employees, and of course, police departments. This expansion necessitated building prisons, bidding for government contracts, requiring bail payments, appointing a lot of judges, and running marketing campaigns to ensure this system would continue.
Because of this American history (and present) entrenchment in enslavement, dismantling the entire carceral system in one fell swoop poses many challenges.
But, as Americans observe and experience the violence and oppression present in the system from policing to prosecution to prison, there is a readiness and desire to push for change. So how do we get on the road to a Norway-like rehabilitation program based on restoration? We need to commit to decarceration and begin implementing reform measures rooted in care, rather than harm and punishment.
About 40% of the incarcerated population doesn’t present a public safety concern, according to a 2016 Brennan Center for Justice report. If we commit to a restorative justice system instead of a punitive one, there is a huge opportunity for fundamental change and community-based alternatives to incarceration and detention.
Let’s begin with three policies already in play in parts of the U.S., which, if more fully embraced, could fundamentally redefine the criminal justice system: restorative justice, misdemeanor reform, and legislation that would eliminate punishment for parole violations.
Restorative justice, not punitive justice
Restorative justice focuses on the relationship between the offender and the victim and tries to serve the needs of survivors in ways that the traditional court system does not.
Programs based on this approach are used now in youth courts, such as the Red Hook Community Justice Center and Harlem Community Justice Center, and by Impact Justice’s Restorative Justice Project. The work interrupts the cycle of offending, repairs harm caused to the victim and the community, and incorporates restorative healing circles. Restorative justice programs have higher survivor satisfaction rates than punitive systems.
Programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion in Seattle are also important, by joining civilians with local police to redirect offenders to needed resources—like for homelessness, substance use, and mental health issues—without making an arrest. These participants were 58% less likely to be arrested after enrolling in the program than those who went through the usual criminal justice process.
Misdemeanors vary in severity from jaywalking to unpaid parking tickets to third-degree assault. While the latter may need stronger consequences, facing jail time for not being able to pay a speeding ticket or jaywalking isn’t just. What few Americans know is that misdemeanors make the U.S. criminal justice system a profit center, consisting of 80% of state criminal dockets, putting throngs of people in U.S. jails and prisons.
Misdemeanor sanctions shouldn’t be done away with, but our justice system must enforce appropriate consequences for offenses rather than disproportionate punishments.
No arrests for parole violations
Passing legislation that would eliminate parole violations would go a long way toward keeping people out of prisons and jails who don’t belong there.
New York City’s Less is More Act is a great example of how to get that done. The act, if passed, would eliminate technical parole violations. The state’s taxpayers spent millions of dollars last year incarcerating folks for technical parole violations. New York wouldn’t be the first to take steps that eliminate parole violations. After South Carolina adopted sanctions—which included disciplinary actions outside of incarceration—violations decreased and recidivism dropped.
Committing to restorative justice, implementing these reforms and making other structural changes will significantly reform the justice system and ground it in the principle of care. It will set us on a path for that world without prisons.
Do not stop at the prison walls
But if we’re going to get there we can’t stop at the prison walls. The aim should be to reshape our society as a whole. We are not doing nearly enough to address the root causes of poverty, addiction, homelessness, and mental-health crises. Instead, we criminalize poverty through harsh fines and debt regulation; criminalize addiction through drug laws; criminalize homelessness by conducting sweeps of people sleeping in parks; and criminalize mental illness by turning prisons into de facto psychiatric hospitals. Why do we focus on these symptoms instead of the true diseases? This is one of the key differences between reform and abolitionism: The former deals with pain management and the latter with the actual source of the pain.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic has taught us that we’re all in this together, opening up the opportunity to explore building a new, care-based reality. People are flexing their visionary skills and imagination, something we’re often kept from in our society.
We need a vision of a future in which vital needs like housing, education, and healthcare are met, allowing people to live big, beautiful, fulfilled lives—with not a prison in sight.
Mary Rinaldi is a social justice advocate, a creative technologist and writer who is a Mentor-in-Residence at NEW INC.
Ashish Prashar is a justice reform campaigner, who sits on the Board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Leap Confronting Conflict, and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice and is a fellow at the Royal Society of Arts.