Earlier in this series, I argued that punishment, prisons, and criminal law are inherently unjust, and that a purely restitution-focused system of tort law would be a suitable replacement. Even those who end up agreeing may still wonder what practical impact this theoretical framework has on how we actually think about law and politics in the real world. Addressing that question will be the focus of this final installment.
A Shift in Focus
The first answer is that keeping goals like prison abolition in mind structures the way we evaluate other policies and arguments. For instance, libertarian opposition to gun control and the drug war becomes even more important when we remember that these policies shuffle more and more people into a condition of slavery. More substantial shifts in argument come when we remember that every additional person in prison means an additional injustice. For example, this means we should reject claims that one benefit of drug legalization is that overcrowded prisons no longer have to give early release to more serious offenders. Instead, we should celebrate those early releases, and focus the case against prohibition on freedom for those who buy, sell, possess, or use drugs.
Focusing on the fact that each additional person in prison is an additional injustice also gives us new and unexpected angles from which to criticize those laws that we already oppose. Consider the critique of hate crime laws that has emerged from the most radical sections of the queer and transgender liberation movements, due to their ties with prison abolition. While hate crime laws point to very serious and grave problems, it is unclear that they actually do anything to curtail those problems. These laws seem to be valued primarily for their symbolic power in condemning especially egregious acts of violence that target marginalized populations. Yet, in actual effect, these laws significantly harm those same populations. This is because hate crime laws serve as a justification for expanding the criminal justice system, which in turn results in casting a larger net against those same people it already is most likely to target: marginalized populations.
Skepticism Toward Reform
Adopting an abolitionist stance towards prisons also means developing a healthy skepticism towards proposals for prison reform. The important paradigm here is that of immediatism: all reforms that genuinely are pure steps forward must be accepted, and accepted immediately. However, all too often, even the most innocent-looking reform proposals include significant steps backward, and these must be rejected.
One historical example is the development of women’s prisons. Originally constructed in Illinois to combat rapes committed against women sentenced to men’s prisons, their actual effect was to triple female incarceration within a decade. This came as a result of judges becoming less reluctant to send women to prison. Even the worst parts of prison often began as reforms. Additionally, solitary confinement was initially devised by Quakers to facilitate reflection and rehabilitation, and has proven to be nothing short of torture.
Tearing Down Prisons By Building Alternatives
Truly meaningful reform from within the existing system looks extremely unlikely. Punishment, criminal law, and prisons are rotten to the core, not things that just need fixing. Proposals for reforming those institutions often work to re-entrench their power. It might seem like this gives us reason for pessimism. But rather than giving up there, we should instead focus on ways that we can take direct action against the criminal justice system. Divestment campaigns, resisting prison construction, highlighting cases of abuse, spreading the ideas of abolition, and even just writing letters to prisoners all play an important part.
Another crucial step is in abolishing the criminal justice system from our daily lives. Here we should follow the lead of organizations like the SOS Collective, which specifically works to help resist violence without resorting to the police. This is made especially important by the fact that under the pure restitution view of justice, the law should not be used as a means for solving social problems, even crime. This re-enforces our need for a prefigurative politics model devoted to building alternative institutions for dealing with these problems here and now. Considering facts like only 2% of rapists are ever sent to prison, relying on law to prevent crime doesn’t seem like a particularly effective strategy to begin with. Real solutions are better found in creating a culture of bystander intervention and community action.
Nearly everyone who has watched a prison break scene in TV or film has caught themselves siding with the prisoners at least once. When we see the actual human being – torn away from friends and family, trapped under cold, concrete ceilings – we see the inexcusable offense against human dignity that comes with the prison system. We see that punishment is not a practice that coheres with our common-sense views about interpersonal violence. We want the injustice they are suffering to end.
Too often, when we walk away from the screen, we forget this. Consequently, we hear calls to “get tough on crime,” and ordinary citizens start to mimic the criminals they deplore, using brutal violence as just another way to send a message. Instead, we should hold onto that moral perspective of cheering prisoners to freedom. Anyone who stands for justice must stand against the criminal justice system.
 One worry here (and with prison abolition more generally) might be that this ignores cases where people do pose serious, ongoing threats. But as I mentioned in the last post, abolishing prisons doesn’t mean abolishing all instances of forced confinement. I elaborate on this point a bit more here.
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