Imagine a world without prisons. For millions of black and brown Americans, this radical imagination is urgent and necessary. Prison has been a blight on their lives for generations, reaching back to the 13th Amendment, which freed their enslaved ancestors in the 19th century but provided a loophole, making room for authorities to work around the abolition of slavery and giving birth to mass incarceration
The world is now seeing in stark relief the result of 150 years of a poisonous criminal justice system. We know that if we were to cut the current prison population in half but keep the prison-industrial complex intact, we would still be consigning millions of people to isolation and violence. We can’t abide this inhumanity.
Prison and police abolitionists are calling for a fundamental shift in thinking, approach and design. While complete elimination of the current justice system can’t be done in one fell swoop, there are steps that can put us on that path.
The majority of the reasons for incarceration are false, oppressive or due to societal deprivation. Survival and care for one’s family and identity can push us over the line. Take Cyntoia Brown, a victim of human and sex trafficking, who shot and killed her abuser. She deserved far more understanding of the context of her situation than a life sentence in prison. After a letter-writing and legal campaign, her sentence was commuted last year, after she served 15 years.
The work of abolitionists is to reveal the fundamental problems with the prison system and imagine a different structure: one that is predicated on restoration and healing. Instead of beginning with punishment, we begin with care.
In a system designed for rehabilitation, the restriction of personal liberty is the punishment. Remove no other rights. Therefore, life inside prison must resemble the best version of life outside, and prisoners should serve their sentence at the lowest possible security level. Any deviation from this requires a compelling reason; justification is required to deny a person their rights, not to grant them.
The more institutionalized a system, the harder it is for incarcerated people to thrive when released. Therefore, instead of keeping people in stasis, let’s design a journey of ever-expanding freedoms, so when the sentence ends, inmates can step back fully into freedom.
No further sentence, written or unwritten, should be imposed exceeding the loss of liberty. This includes the withholding of medical treatment, privacy, food and water, solitary confinement, or any other abuse. In practice, this means providing critical non-security services to incarcerated people using local and municipal – non-correctional – service providers. Prisons do not have staff for medical, education, employment, clerical, or library services; these are imported from the local community and overseen by local governments. Incarcerated people also have normal contact with community members and organizations while in prison. As a result, continuation of care and services after release can be easy, while community perceptions of incarcerated people will improve – enabling their reintegration. In this system, once a sentence is served, the debt to society is paid: previously incarcerated people can move freely, without prejudice.
About 40 per cent 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 system instead of a punitive one, there is opportunity for fundamental change and community-based alternatives to incarceration and detention.
Let’s begin with three policies already in play, which fully embraced could redefine criminal justice: restorative justice, misdemeanor reform and legislation that would eliminate punishment for parole violations.
Restorative justice focuses on the relationship between the offender and the victim and centers the survivors’ needs in ways the traditional court system does not.
Youth courts use programs like these, such as the Red Hook Community Justice Center, Harlem Community Justice Center and the 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 programs have higher survivor satisfaction rates than punitive systems. Programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion in Seattle are also important. The program joins civilians with police to divert offenders to needed resources without making an arrest.
When it comes to misdemeanor reform, misdemeanors vary in severity from jaywalking to unpaid parking tickets and third-degree assault. While the latter may need stronger consequences, facing jail time for not being able to pay a moving violation or jaywalking isn’t just. Misdemeanors make the US criminal justice system a profit center, consisting of 80 per cent of state criminal dockets, putting throngs of people in US jails and prisons and providing millions of dollars for city and state governments.
Don’t eliminate misdemeanor sanctions, but enforce appropriate consequences for offenses rather than disproportionate punishments.
And don't arrest for parole violations. Passing legislation that would eliminate parole violations would go a long way toward keeping people out of prisons and jails.
New York City's Less is More Act is an example. The act, if passed, would eliminate technical parole violations. The state's taxpayers spent millions of dollars last year incarcerating people for technical parole violations. New York wouldn't be alone in this. 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 other changes will focus the justice system on in the principle of care.
We can’t stop at the prison walls. Abolitionist strategies teach us that our visions of the future can radically depart from what exists in the here and now. We need to create space for budgets to be divested from police and prisons and invested directly into communities to address mental health needs, homelessness, access to critical education, and rewarding jobs as well as community-based methods of accountability.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic have taught us that we're all in this together, allowing us 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 better society: a future grounded in love, justice, accountability, a future grounded in safety and good health, a future grounded in meeting the needs of the people - with not a prison in sight.
Ashish Prashar is a US-based 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