Protests against police brutality continue across the nation, sparking conversations on the future of law enforcement. A controversial platform is that of police and prison abolition, but where does this re-imagining of justice depart from reform?
The following books and essays address misconceptions about a world without police and prisons, and whether such a future is within our grasp.
"Are Prisons Obsolete?" by Angela Davis
Dr. Angela Davis is an activist and former professor at the University of California-Los Angeles and the University of California-Santa Cruz. Her ties to the Black Panther party and various Black and/or Communist organizations embroiled her in conflict with the FBI, but Davis was acquitted of all charges. She has since written various books on Black feminism and police and prison abolition, and in this excerpt from “Are Prisons Obsolete?” Davis argues that prisons fail to address the true causes of crime.
“We thus think about imprisonment as a fate reserved for others, a fate reserved for the ‘evildoers,’ to use a term recently popularized by George W. Bush. Because of the persistent power of racism, ‘criminals’ and ‘evildoers’ are, in the collective imagination, fantasized as people of color. The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs — it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.
How can we take seriously strategies of restorative rather than exclusively punitive justice? Effective alternatives involve both transformation of the techniques for addressing ‘crime’ and of the social and economic conditions that track so many children from poor communities, and especially communities of color, into the juvenile system and then on to prison. The most difficult and urgent challenge today is that of creatively exploring new terrains of justice, where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.”
“The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander is a civil rights lawyer, legal scholar and author. Alexander is a recipient of the Soros Justice Fellowship and served as director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California before transitioning to academia. In her best-selling book “The New Jim Crow,” Alexander argues that prisons catalyzed the creation of a new racial caste system.
“Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it as recently as the mid-1970s, the most well-respected criminologists were predicting that the prison system would soon fade away.
Prison did not deter crime significantly, many experts concluded. Those who had meaningful economic and social opportunities were unlikely to commit crimes regardless of the penalty, while those who went to prison were far more likely to commit crimes again in the future.
The growing consensus among experts was perhaps best reflected by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, which issued a recommendation in 1973 that ‘no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed...there is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.’ These days, activists who advocate ‘a world without prisons’ are often dismissed as quacks, but only a few decades ago, the notion that our society would be much better off without prisons — and that the end of prisons was more or less inevitable ... [prisons and prison reform] dominated mainstream academic discourse.”
Critical Resistance’s “Reformist reforms vs. abolitionist steps in policing” Infographic
This infographic is among the various resources put out by Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization that combines the efforts of conferences and local projects to work toward the abolition of the prison industrial complex.
The writings on prison abolition are as broad as the reach of the prison industrial complex, and the selected works in this week’s recommendations are a mere starting point. Educating ourselves on this topic is only the first step toward propagating justice for all, so keep reading!
- “Summer Heat” by Mariame Kaba
- “Against Carceral Feminism” by Victoria Law
- “The Case for Abolition” by Ruth Wilson Gilmore and James Kilgore
- “Six Ideas for a Cop-Free World” by José Martín
Aroog Khaliq is a senior from Overland Park studying English and psychology.