The New York Times magazine has this week’s must read under the headline “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind.” The piece is a profile of a noted prison abolitionist along with a broader discussion of prison history and prison abolitionism. I heartily recommend the terrific lengthy piece in full, and here is an extended excerpt:
Prison abolition, as a movement, sounds provocative and absolute, but what it is as a practice requires subtler understanding. For Gilmore, who has been active in the movement for more than 30 years, it’s both a long-term goal and a practical policy program, calling for government investment in jobs, education, housing, health care — all the elements that are required for a productive and violence-free life. Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack. Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they “mess up.”…
In the wake of the Enlightenment, European reformers gradually moved away from corporal punishment tout court; people would go to prison for a set period of time, rather than to wait for the punishment to come. The penitentiary movement in both England and the United States in the early 19th century was motivated in part by the demand for more humanitarian punishment. Prison was the reform.
If prison, in its philosophical origin, was meant as a humane alternative to beatings or torture or death, it has transformed into a fixed feature of modern life, one that is not known, even by its supporters and administrators, for its humanity. In the United States, we now have more than two million incarcerated people, a majority of them black or brown, virtually all of them from poor communities. Prisons not only have violated human rights and failed at rehabilitation; it’s not even clear that prisons deter crime or increase public safety.
Following an incarceration boom that began all over the United States around 1980 and only recently started to level off, reform has become politically popular. But abolitionists argue that many reforms have done little more than reinforce the system. In every state where the death penalty has been abolished, for example, it has been replaced by the sentence of life without parole — to many people a death sentence by other, more protracted means. Another product of good intentions: campaigns to reform indeterminate sentencing, resulting in three-strike programs and mandatory-minimum sentencing, which traded one cruelty for another. Over all, reforms have not significantly reduced incarceration numbers, and no recent reform legislation has even aspired to do so.
For instance, the first federal prison reform in almost 10 years, the bipartisan First Step Act, which President Trump signed into law late last year, will result in the release of only some 7,000 of the 2.3 million people currently locked up when it goes into effect. Federal legislation pertains only to federal prisons, which hold less than 10 percent of the nation’s prison population, and of those, First Step applies to only a slim subset. As Gilmore said to me, noting an outsize public enthusiasm after the act passed the Senate, “There are people who behave as though the origin and cure are federal. So many are unaware of how the country is juridically organized, and that there are at least 52 criminal-legal jurisdictions in the U.S.”
Which isn’t to say that Gilmore and other abolitionists are opposed to all reforms. “It’s obvious that the system won’t disappear overnight,” Gilmore told me. “No abolitionist thinks that will be the case.” But she finds First Step, like many state reforms it mimics, not just minor but exclusionary, on account of wording in the bill that will make it even harder for some to get relief. (Those convicted of most higher-level offenses, for example, are ineligible for earned-time credits, a new category created under First Step.) “So many of these proposed remedies don’t end up diminishing the system. They regard the system as something that can be fixed by removing and replacing a few elements.” For Gilmore, debates over which individuals to let out of prison accept prison as a given. To her, this is not just a moral error but a practical one, if the goal is to actually end mass incarceration. Instead of trying to fix the carceral system, she is focused on policy work to reduce its scope and footprint by stopping new prison construction and closing prisons and jails one facility at a time, with painstaking grass-roots organizing and demands that state funding benefit, rather than punish, vulnerable communities.
“What I love about abolition,” the legal scholar and author James Forman Jr. told me, “and now use in my own thinking — and when I identify myself as an abolitionist, this is what I have in mind — is the idea that you imagine a world without prisons, and then you work to try to build that world.” Forman came late, he said, to abolitionist thinking. He was on tour for his 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Locking Up Our Own,” which documents the history of mass incarceration and the inadvertent roles that black political leaders played, when a woman asked him why he didn’t use the word “abolition” in his arguments, which, to her, sounded so abolitionist. The question led Forman to engage seriously with the concept. “I feel like a movement to end mass incarceration and replace it with a system that actually restores and protects communities will never succeed without abolitionists. Because people will make compromises and sacrifices, and they’ll lose the vision. They’ll start to think things are huge victories, when they’re tiny. And so, to me, abolition is essential.”
The A.C.L.U.’s Smart Justice campaign, the largest in the organization’s history, has been started with a goal of reducing the prison population by 50 percent through local, state and federal initiatives to reform bail, prosecution, sentencing, parole and re-entry. “Incarceration does not work,” said the A.C.L.U. campaign director Udi Ofer. The A.C.L.U., he told me, wants to “defund the prison system and reinvest in communities.” In our conversation, I found myself wondering if Ofer, and the A.C.L.U., had been influenced by abolitionist thinking and Gilmore. Ofer even seemed to quote Gilmore’s mantra that “prisons are catchall solutions to social problems.” When I asked him, Ofer said, “There’s no question. She’s made tremendous contributions, even just in helping to bring about a conversation on what this work really is, and the constant struggle not to replace one oppressive system with another.”