FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Abolish the Prison System

America is the authoritarian carceral state par excellence, ignominious the world over for the zeal with which she imprisons her citizens, for the absurdity of her criminal charges and sentences, for the stark racial disparities that characterize her cynical applications of “justice.” It is ironic that the United States should bear the honorific title “land of the free” even as it has the world’s highest per capita incarceration rate . America is a place where one’s life can be utterly ruined, cast into the black hole of arrests, prisons, and parole, for the most trifling offences, particularly if one happens to have the wrong color skin. America’s shameful history of racism —legally enforced and systematic—endures today in the humanitarian crisis that is its criminal justice and prison system. The stakes could hardly be higher: 2.3 million of our fellow human beings are currently caged in U.S. correctional facilities, many for crimes without victims, that is, crimes that should not be crimes at all.

While reform at the margins is welcome and necessary, it is not sufficient, our present crisis crying out for a wholesale reimagining of criminal justice, all the way down to the most basic fundamentals. Though it is not taken seriously in American political discourse, there are serious arguments in favor of the abolition of the prison system as we know it, as well as for leaving behind the failed and fundamentally flawed punitive model of criminal justice. Legal philosopher Vincent Luizzi explains the theory underpinning punishment of criminals: “Usually we think about offsetting the wrong, harm, or evil of the offender with penalties that, in effect, deliver something bad or unpleasant to the offender.” Punishment does not—indeed, cannot —help a victim, whose best hope to be made whole almost always requires that the perpetrator is able to obtain gainful employment. What, then, is this addition of a new wrong, this delivery of unpleasantness, accomplishing if it is not the redress of a wrong? The hope of deterring would-be criminals is offered as one reason for this baffling compounding of wrongs, the idea being that harsh punishments will trumpet a warning to others. Proponents of punishment further argue that it gives the criminal what he deserves, taking an eye for an eye, accomplishing a restoration of balance and, therefore, justice. To take an eye for an eye is no more than thoughtless animal revenge, a reflexive stooping to the criminal’s low instead of a reflective and human pursuit of true balance, which demands compensation, a good. Luizzi’s work suggests that we pursue a “New Balance” to replace the old, that we rethink the scales of justice by offsetting a harm with good, rather than abortively attempting to offset harm with still further harm.

It is well known that punishment does not deter criminal activity. Prisons are training grounds for criminals, and one who spends time in a prison is likely to return to criminal activity. A report last May from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that “[f]ive out of six state prisoners were arrested at least once during the nine years after their release.” And this is to say nothing about the reasons prisoners in the United States are locked up, that is, about the crimes of which they’ve been convicted. The war on drugs has aggravated the crisis of mass incarceration and its baleful inequalities. The unfair, unequal treatment of black people under failed war on drugs policies is well-documented, black people accounting for almost 40 percent of those incarcerated in the U.S. for drug law violations, despite the fact that black people make up a mere 13 percent of the country’s population. The war on drugs is also increasingly a war on women, with the number of women in state and federal prisons increasing by almost 800 percent in the years between 1978 and 2014 . Further, most Americans trapped in this broken prison system are battling a substance abuse problem or a mental health issue—or both—in need not of punishment, which won’t work in any case, but of treatment.

Rather than fighting or deterring crime, the prison system and the outmoded ideas upon which it stands perpetrate a vast criminal conspiracy against civil society and the rule of law, properly understood. When we punish, torture, and humiliate other people, we cannot reasonably be surprised when these indignities turn them to violent, antisocial behavior. And when such behavior manifests, we bear part of the responsibility. A society’s humaneness can be judged in large part by the way it treats its prisoners, those it casts out of society and out of freedom, ostracized and disowned. America’s prison system is an indefensible holdover from the unthinking cruelty and sadism of a more barbarous time, when vengeance substituted for justice.

It can and should be upended.

Only consider how earnestly and assuredly slavery’s apologists declared that stain on humanity to be a permanent, indelible aspect of our heritage. Such defenders of the status quo were the intellectual leading lights of their time, their radical detractors, abolitionists, the naive idealists impertinently daring to challenge the established order. Today, the notion that we could do away with prisons is dismissed as unrealistic utopianism, hopelessly far-flung, disconnected from supposedly eternal facts about human nature. But just as slavery was never truly an inescapable aspect of human nature, neither are the brutal injustices of America’s prison system permanent features of human life. To change it is within our power; to change it is our responsibility to one another as free and equal individuals.

More articles by:

David D’Amato is an attorney, writer, and law professor.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
September 13, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
The Age of Constitutional Coups
Rob Urie
Bernie Sanders and the Realignment of the American Left
Anthony DiMaggio
Teaching the “War on Terror”: Lessons for Contemporary Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: They Are the Walrus
T.J. Coles
Jeremy Corbyn: Electoral “Chicken” or Political Mastermind?
Joseph Natoli
The Vox Populi
Sasan Fayazmanesh
The Pirates of Gibraltar
John Feffer
Hong Kong and the Future of China
David Rosen
The Likely End to Roe v. Wade?
Ishmael Reed
When You Mess With Creation Myths, the Knives Come Out
Michael Hudson
Break Up the Democratic Party?
Paul Tritschler
What If This is as Good as It Gets?
Jonah Raskin
Uncensored Tony Serra: Consummate Criminal Defense Lawyer
Ryan Gunderson
Here’s to the Last Philosophes, the Frankfurt School
Michael T. Klare
The Pompeo Doctrine: How to Seize the Arctic’s Resources, Now Accessible Due to Climate Change (Just Don’t Mention Those Words!)
Luke O'Neil
I Would Want To Drink Their Blood: God Will Punish Them
Louis Proyect
The Intellectual Development of Karl Marx
Tom Clifford
How China Sees the World
Kelsey Hawkins-Johnson – Negin Owliaei
Who’s Burning the Amazon?
Yasin Khan
Rideshare Drivers are Employees, Not Contractors
Ralph Nader
Big Business Lies Taught a Watchful Donald Trump
Binoy Kampmark
The Sacking of John Bolton
Andrea Maki
Wild Love Preserve Founder: Our Path Forward
Jeremy Kuzmarov
The War in Eastern Ukraine May be Coming to an End But Do Any Americans Care?
Tim Davis – Stan Grier
Protect the Sacred Grizzly Bear, Follow Those Who Know Grandmother Earth
Clark T. Scott
Super-Delegated and Relegated
Jim Britell
Lessons From America’s Greatest Grassroots Campaigns 
Howie Hawkins
Workers Need More Rights and Economic Democracy
Ramzy Baroud
‘Justice is Indivisible’: Screams of Israa Ghrayeb Should Be Our Wake-up Call
Jill Richardson
It’s Not About Your Straws and Your Light Bulbs
George Wuerthner
Montana’s Wilderness Deficit
Colin Todhunter
Officials Ignore Pesticides and Blame Alcohol and Biscuits for Rising Rates of Disease
Volker Franke
Me First and the Loss of Compassion
Adolf Alzuphar
Why is the Left Without a Single Elected Official in LA?
Kim C. Domenico
All We Are Saying, Is Give Peace A Chance (Bring It Home!)
Jennifer Matsui
The End of Aquarius and The Dawn of a Death Star: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Missy Comley Beattie
Never Forget
James Haught
Prodding ‘Nones’ to Vote
David Swanson
For the First Time in My Life I’m Against Impeaching the President
Nicky Reid
Yemen as Arabian Vietnam
Kenn Orphan – Phil Rockstroh
Bearing Witness at Aeon’s End: the Wound Becomes the Womb
Fred Gardner
Homage to the Tabloids
Yves Engler
RCMP Attempt to Silence Critics of Trudeau Foreign Policy
Stephen Cooper
Hempress Sativa: “Rastafari Should be Protected”
David Yearsley
Joie-de-Job: Staying High, at Work
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail