We need to abolish America’s prison system. Here’s how we can do it.

We need to abolish America’s prison system. Here’s how we can do it.

Inside US prisons

Inside US prisons

Inmates walk around a gymnasium where they are housed due to overcrowding at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, California, June 3, 2011.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


  • For Black and brown Americans, the prison system in the United States is ripe with false incarcerations and oppressive sentences.
  • This system cannot be fair, and should be abolished. While this may seem impossible, it is important to think big in order to reshape society.
  • Instead, we should create a system that focuses on rehabilitation and restorative justice.
  • Ashish Prashar is the Sr. Director of Global Communications for Publicis Sapient.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Imagine a world without prisons. Go on, imagine it. Think beyond reform and towards fundamental change.

Prison abolitionists, like Angela Davis, ask people to enlarge their field of vision in order to advance big changes. So rather than focusing on the problems of the institution and asking what needs to be changed about that institution, people can raise radical questions about the organization of the larger society and the very existence of institutions.

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 work of abolitionists is to reveal the fundamental problems with the prison system and imagine a different society. This means the end of incarceration. This means funding community resources that prevent harm, and empowering systems that allow for equitable accountability. This means invalidating the very premise of the carceral system, and instead building a world where prisons don’t have to exist at all.

The US has just started on the path to abolition and advocates know that prisons won’t be bulldozed tomorrow.  

But in the meantime, people will continue to confront the criminal justice system and face incarceration.So abolitionists are calling for a fundamental shift in thinking, approach, and design of the justice system predicated on restoration and healing. Instead of beginning with punishment, we begin with care.

Redesign for care

In a system designed for care, 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.

How do we reduce the prison population in the US?

About 40% of the incarcerated population doesn’t present a public safety concern, according to a 2016 report from the Brennan Center for Justice.  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, not punitive justice

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.

The paradigm shifts from the three questions posed in the criminal justice system: what law was broken; who broke it; and how do we punish them?…to a different set of questions when using a restorative justice approach: who was harmed; what does she/he need; and whose obligation is it to meet those needs?

This process looks more deeply at the impact of violence on a multiplicity of relationships, including primarily the survivor, but also others in the family and surrounding communities. It can promote a deeper sense of accountability to all those who have been harmed, with the dual goals of healing wounds and preventing future acts of violence.

Youth courts use programs like these, such as the Red Hook Community Justice CenterHarlem 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.

Misdemeanor reforms

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 moving violation or jaywalking isn’t just. Attaching monetary penalties to these sorts of minor misdemeanors have made the US criminal justice system into a profit center rather than a source of justice.

Minor infractions now make up 80% of state criminal dockets putting throngs of people in US jails and prisons and the opaque nature of the courts make it so it’s hard to fully grasp the size of the problem. But it’s clear that local governments have become addicted to the revenue from these fees and fines, which are sticking some of the most vulnerable members of society with heavy financial burdens.

This isn’t to say the system should completely eliminate misdemeanor sanctions, but enforce appropriate consequences for offenses rather than disproportionate punishments.

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, like missing a curfew or failing a drug test. 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 the principle of care.

Do not stop at the prison walls

We need people to recognize you can’t spend $80 billion a year on making things worse, not better, and have a society that functions. 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 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.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).


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Published at Sat, 31 Oct 2020 10:49:00 +0000

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