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What a World Without Prison Looks Like

Two authors seek to challenge our most entrenched ideas of captivity and control

Recent and widespread calls to defund and abolish the police point to what prison abolitionists have been saying all along: Getting rid of the police is merely one step in the larger process of creating a world without prisons.

“When it comes to thinking about abolition, we need to remember that we have to uproot the whole system,” says Maya Schenwar, co-author, along with fellow journalist Victoria Law, of Prison By Any Other Name. Schenwar, a Chicago-based editor-in-chief of the news website Truthout, and Law, a freelance writer and editor from New York, have both personally interacted with the prison system. Schenwar witnessed her sister struggle with being caught up in state surveillance and confinement; Law experienced the system firsthand after being arrested for armed robbery and gun possession at the age of 16. 

In Prison By Any Other Name, they write that an abolitionist framework requires challenging “the most formidable institutions in our society — and the most entrenched assumptions in our consciousnesses.” They encourage an expansive thinking of mass incarceration that isn’t limited to the traditional brick-and-mortar prison. Immigrant detention centers, mental-health facilities and the vast systems of probation and parole are considered to be part of the “prison nation,” a term they use to refer to the “overlapping forces that carry out the removal of people from and the destruction of their communities.” 

Schenwar and Law stress the importance of resisting incarceration in all of its interconnected forms. If prison populations are reduced only to put more people under house arrest with ankle monitors, the carceral state persists. Mandated drug treatment and forced psychiatric medication, major components of the “treatment-industrial complex,” represent forms of confinement and control, too.

“What does it mean to reform — to improve — a system that, at its core, relies on captivity and control?” the co-authors ask. Their argument for abolition over reform is informed by the understanding that you can’t fix what is inherently broken, that a system founded on oppression and responsible for so much death, pain and suffering — especially for marginalized people — needs to be entirely done away with. 

And why not? Arguments related to how police and prisons don’t work are plentiful, but the assertion that police and prisons are working as intended is more accurate considering their origins. The roots of modern policing can be traced back to slave patrols, colonialism and the suppression of worker dissent. As long as we’ve had police, they’ve perpetuated violence — specifically racialized violence — and the present-day police murders of Black people are a continuation of this precedent. The authors also argue that we need to let go of equating police with safety. They point to how criminality has evolved to maintain power structures and persecute marginalized communities. New York’s “walking while trans ban” — an anti-loitering statute used to harass and arrest trans individuals — serves as one example of this state-sanctioned discrimination.

Mass incarceration, too, can be traced back to this same type of violence. After the abolition of slavery and the creation of Jim Crow laws, prisons developed into institutions of racial control. A century-and-a-half after the end of slavery, Black people serving life sentences at Louisiana State Penitentiary — a former slave plantation and the country’s largest maximum-security prison, commonly referred to as Angola — can be found laboring in the fields while overseen by armed white guards on horseback. 

“We need to be looking for non-reformist reforms,” says Law, citing the work of the prison abolitionist activist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore. The basic premise here is that rather than implementing reforms that prop up a broken system — “trading one form of coercive control for another,” in the words of Law — the entire structure should be dismantled. 

The question of what comes after the end of police and prisons is crucial in discussions of abolition, but there’s also a recognition that, as Schenwar and Law note, “problems happen within the context of specific communities.” Accordingly, the co-authors advocate for solving these problems within their contexts, noting that “there is not a readymade solution available for every problem” and “the responsibly [is] on each of us to co-create, co-build and co-dedicate ourselves to growing new ways of addressing our problems.” 

With the understanding that police and prisons aren’t meant to solve real social problems, abolition embraces non-carceral strategies to address underlying causes of poverty, trauma, racism and oppression. A movement largely inspired, informed and built by people of color — “particularly abolitionist feminists of color,” says Law — the co-authors draw from the work of Angela Davis, Dorothy Roberts and Mariame Kaba, among others. Their book also cites Rachel Herzing, co-founder of the anti-prison organization Critical Resistance, who states, “In terms of alternatives, the lack of creativity in imagining what else we could have around is the primary stumbling block.”

“We’re not talking about there being a sudden vacuum where prisons or policing are automatically and unilaterally disbanded, defunded and siphoned away and we suddenly have this huge, gaping hole,” Law explains. Instead of wondering what would happen if prisons suddenly disappeared, she emphasizes the value of determining “the ways that we can build toward this world where we don’t need police or prisons.”

“We need to build a society where we’re preventing harm from happening,” Schenwar adds. “We have to think of what we’re doing in our communities that’s working. How can we do more of that? How do we sow networks that address the root causes of violence?” 

The movement to defund the police operates in tandem with the push to redistribute resources to address the actual needs of communities. Calls to abolish prisons come along with similar demands, including the implementation of non-carceral approaches to addressing harm and violence. This practical, piece-by-piece approach to abolition can manifest in different ways. For many, a relatively minor decision like not relying on calling the police can be a first step. Building relationships with neighbors and others in your community can be another — daily interactions can become part of the larger project of creating a society where reparation and reconciliation take the place of punishment, confinement and control. Akin to Angela Davis’ idea of “a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions, with the ultimate aim of removing the prison from the social and ideological landscapes of our society,” Schenwar and Law call for bolstering public safety and wellbeing by taking resources typically reserved for police and prisons and redirecting them to essential social services like jobs, welfare, education, health care and housing. 

“We’re seeing people realize these are actually reasonable demands,” says Schenwar optimistically. As scrutiny of police and prisons has intensified throughout the country, abolitionist principles have gained traction. Protests have resulted in cops being removed from school campuses and police department budgets being slashed. Calls to decarcerate during the pandemic have triggered the release of people who would otherwise have been sitting in jail or prison.

The ongoing pandemic and social unrest have had a magnifying effect, forcing examinations of political priorities at the federal, state and local levels and raising questions about why people’s basic needs aren’t being met. COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and rampant police brutality in the streets have illustrated a need for drastic change. At the same time, mutual aid networks formed in response to the unfolding public health crisis and the extraordinary acts of solidarity and defiance emerging from protests against police brutality point to a way forward — where people support and protect one another, especially the most vulnerable members of their communities. 

Nobody was born a cop; likewise, prisons didn’t just build themselves. They’re the byproducts of shitty belief systems disguised as natural order. And so, the question “How will we live without police or prisons?” can be answered with another, more difficult question: “How do we live with them?”