The past several weeks have seen horrific images of immigrant children ripped away from their parents at the border and housed in abandoned Walmarts as collateral for Donald Trump’s racist border wall. While this is certainly shocking and repulsive, the American penal system has been building an infrastructure for this kind of detainment for decades. The privatization of the American prison system since the 1980s has led to mass incarceration at levels higher than any other country in the world. The same companies that house prisoners are also paid by the government to house immigrants, creating a problem that sits at the intersection of race and capitalism. The logic behind this is simple. Private companies exist to make money. When you operate a prison, the best way to make money is to make sure that the prison is full. The companies running private prisons have faith that the administration of Donald Trump will keep the prisons full for them. With stock prices dropping in the war industries as the United States and North Korea work towards peace, and segments of the manufacturing industry leaving the United States because of Trump’s various trade wars, prison contractors may very well end up being the one segment of the economy that truly benefits from Trump’s policies.
Prison abolitionists themselves understand that ending America’s carceral crisis will not be something that occurs overnight. While working towards the end goal of eliminating imprisonment, abolitionists also work to alleviate the suffering of those currently in prison, and work with people behind bars to improve their quality of life. Prison abolition is not just about ending prison, but also about making prisoners’ experiences more bearable. Most prison abolitionists support a gradualist approach to ending the prison system by advocating for more lenient sentences, as well as redirecting funds away from prisons and towards spending on education and welfare. Ultimately, the goal of prison abolitionists is to make society more equitable. The demographics of America’s prison system show that punishment in the United States is based much more on race, income level, and their intersections than the idea of equality under the law.
The rise of the American prison population has its roots in Reagan-era neoliberal free market policies, as well as racist drug laws. The American prison population surged after 1980, with non-violent drug offenders facing decades behind bars. Democrats, who have also worked towards the creation of the prison-industrial complex, have offered their own versions of prison reform that do not get to the root of the problem. The plans offered by Democrats are corrections and tweaks to the existing system, and not the change on a massive scale that is necessary for true racial justice. The 1994 Crime Bill enacted under Bill Clinton added to the prison population boom and proved that liberals, including Bernie Sanders, were just as capable of supporting racialized police oppression as Republicans.
The American police state took an even more extreme turn after 9/11. The Bush administration responded to 9/11 not only with multiple military ventures causing millions of deaths, but also put in place the tools of a deportation machine that would be utilized by three administrations and lead us to the crisis that we have today. Despite little evidence that these systems actually worked or could even be clearly defined, they continued to be used and even expanded under the Obama administration. Ironically, at the same time that he was expanding parts of the security state, Obama was stating his belief that people imprisoned for drug offenses should have their sentences reduced. It is not a coincidence that many of the same people who are calling for police abolition are also on the frontlines of the battle against ICE, as the two are deeply interconnected in the continually expanding American police state.
The idea of police reform is bandied about in debates within the Democratic Party, with Democrats running further to the left embracing the idea, and other more centrist politicians shying away from a substantive dialogue. A much more radical solution than liberal ideas about police reform and training and more minorities on the police force, the prison abolition movement aims to upend the entire American criminal justice system. While advocacy for prison abolition has existed for decades, beginning with the Attica prison uprising of 1974, it has gained more traction in recent years. Prison abolition has become a more widely accepted stance, as leftist groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America as well as grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter have thrown their support behind the movement. Advocates for prison abolition argue that the racism and over-policing of poor communities and communities of color are clear indications that the American criminal justice system does not function properly.
Ultimately, the goal of prison abolitionists is to make society more equitable.
For historians, what makes the prison abolition movement so compelling is that the arguments for abolition are based on America’s history of racialized incarceration. Scholars, most prominently Angela Davis, have long been involved in the prison abolition movement. How the United States created such a massive prison-industrial complex and what it means in the broader context of American history are questions that historians can and should answer. These systems of incarceration did not emerge out of nowhere, and they are deeply rooted in American history.
The legitimacy of the prison system seems so axiomatic that in many ways it takes scholars to help us to understand how the prison system is not something that is naturally occurring but is instead the product of historical processes and deliberate choices made by those in power. In the words of Angela Davis: “Since the invention of the prison as punishment in Western society during the late 1700s, criminal justice systems have so thoroughly depended on imprisonment that we have lost the ability to imagine other ways to solve the problem of ‘crime.’” Famously, Michel Foucault’s 1975 book Discipline and Punish caused many to re-think their understanding of the prison and its place in post-enlightenment society. Foucault understood prisons as a uniquely modern institution designed, along with other institutions such as schools and hospitals, for control. Part of the shift to a world without prisons is a re-thinking of our view of why prisons exist and the vocabulary around them. Scholars such Davis and Foucault have made great strides towards helping supporters understand prison abolition and why it is necessary. Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go if we are to enact a more humane system of punishment. There is still room for more scholarly voices in the conversation.
For historians, joining with the prison abolition movement offers an opportunity to use their scholarly abilities to advocate for positive change. While there is something to be said for spending most of your time in the classroom and archives, historians can, and should, have a say in the public discourse. Organizations such as the Prison Activist Resource Center and Critical Resistance offer resources to help get involved in the prison abolition movement. There are also a multitude of local organizations involved both in direct prison abolition and also advocacy for prisoners. As is true with all activism, it is important to respect the work of those who are already involved. While historians have many skills that are extremely useful to the prison abolition movement, organizing is something that only comes from experience. Action is key—but so is listening and understanding.
Scholars have already made major contributions to the prison abolition movement, with a syllabus available online for those hoping to ground themselves in the background and theory of prison abolition. While every movement requires the work of grassroots activists first and foremost, the cause of prison abolition offers historians a unique place at the center of the table. Scholars have already made great contributions to the cause of prison abolition and continue to have a major role to play in a much-needed massive change to America’s racist prison system. If major and necessary change is going to be made, it has to happen with the help of those who best understand history and who understand and can explain that the American prison system is built on historic racism and oppression.
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 See Heather Ann Thompson Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising and its Legacy (New York: Pantheon Press), 2016.