The Argument for Prison Abolition

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Chicago protest June 13, 2020. Photo by risingthermals via Flickr

The calls for abolishing prisons are a way of focusing demands for racial, economic and social justice on the “structures we need to tear down and the structures we need to build up,” Amna Akbar, a law professor at Ohio State University, told a webinar Wednesday.

The webinar, a part of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s year-long Achieving Racial Justice colloquium, sponsored by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, featured four law professors.

The panelists began the webinar by discussing the many problems facing the current criminal justice system.

Monica C. Bell, a law professor at Yale University, said that as things stand, “we lose sight of humanity in the law. I want to force people…to attach a human being” to criminal justice practices and policies.

Dorothy Roberts, law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, added that there are many ways “in which policing intersects with lots of other institutions, systems and racism in America.”

‘Family Destruction System’

For example, Roberts cited the relationship between prisons and the foster care system, noting that for youthful offenders in impoverished, disinvested and black neighborhoods, foster care is sometimes the step in a pipeline leading to involvement in the justice system.

For this reason, Roberts called the foster care system the “family destruction system.”

Referring to the fact that police officers are called upon to solve far too many issues, Bell called police “conduits” for crime. For example, she continued, if someone wishes to relocate to public housing, he/she must issue a police report citing a conflict with nearby residents.

Police intervention in this scenario, Bell implied, is unnecessary and unproductive.

Jocelyn Simonson of Brooklyn Law School commented that America has placed decision-making power in regard to policing in the hands of elites instead of the communities they serve.

Akbar responded, “Police and prisons increase exponentially the amount of violence in the world.”

Akbar later explained that throughout her career in legal scholarship, she has been called upon to propose solutions to some of the above problems.

She said that prison “abolition offers a broader, deeper vision” than the incremental reforms that have been suggested.

Akbar and Simonson added that small reforms – like increasing the number of cops of color, banning chokeholds, and mandating implicit bias training for police officers – do not go far enough.

Bell claimed, “We have to recognize that if we are going to be involved in system reform, then what you’re building toward is not justice.”

Police, Prisons are ‘Embodiment of Violence’

Roberts agreed: “The problem is not a few bad apples, but the very function of police in our society. We need structural, not individual, approaches.”

When asked why it is hard for people to move beyond reform and toward abolition, Akbar responded, “The account of the problem is shifting right now. The prevailing view of the problem is that there are bad apples and not enough cops of color.

“My account of the problem is different…Police and prisons are the embodiment and threat of violence to keep the [broken] system in place.”

Akbar added, “We want to see police use violence less frequently, but beyond that we don’t know” what public safety would look like in an abolitionist America.

Nevertheless, Akbar envisions “a world in which we don’t resort to state violence to resolve interpersonal violence” and a world in which we prioritize “what…people need to thrive.”

Roberts, Simonson and Bell all pointed out some abolitionist reforms that are already underway.

Roberts noted the growing calls to end solitary confinement and abolish bail, while Simonson cited moves toward more community-based oversight and structuring of police in Washington D.C. and Chicago, Il.

Bell explained Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which seeks to shift police from the primary to a secondary emergency response.

For further ideas for reform, Roberts suggested that abolitionists consider those proposed by incarcerated individuals. She cited Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (1994) as one of many such sources.

To conclude, Akbar said, “We must continue to organize, build alternatives, and ask questions…Make demands that throw the system into crisis.”

Bell added, “The horizon is long. This [fight] is not for our generation.”

Michael Gelb is a TCR News Intern.

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