What should socialists think about prisons? The national Praxis committee of the Democratic Socialists of America, the most prominent socialist organization in North America today, has committed to a platform of prison and police abolition. What does this mean? Should the materialist left be committed to the total dismantling of prisons and police as we know them? If so, by what alternative methods might we satisfy the needs of public safety?
Prison abolition is a framework that’s been theorized most extensively in the United States*, where hyper-criminalization places about 1 in 32 Americans in the hands of the criminal legal system. Its leading theorists are disproportionately women and queers from marginalized communities, especially communities of colour, where, as Audre Lorde once put it, “the cops are killing the men and the men are killing the women”—where contact with the state’s policing apparatus has tended to enflame violence, not to end it. A big-tent movement that draws on anarchist traditions of communal self-determination and self-defence, prison abolition can be and often is conceived without explicit connection to a mass socialist politics. But insofar as it identifies the prison system as an instrument of state repression, and the state as an instrument of capital and the ruling class (hetero-masculinist; in North America, predominantly Protestant and white), it contains principles indispensable to any program of socialism from below.
The abolition framework doesn’t propose that we throw open the prison doors tomorrow. Instead it asks: what concrete improvements to social provision—housing, wages, education, conflict mediation—could begin to make prisons redundant? Are there ways dramatically to reduce interpersonal harm without recourse to a punishment system that is itself abusive, traumatizing, even murderous? The most common objection to this framework, But what will we do with all the bad people?, tends to underestimate how much of the criminalized badness in our societies flows not from incorrigible sociopathy but from material deprivation, toxic ideology, and cycles of traumatic harm: hurt people tend to hurt people. Such open taps of damage can be coaxed shut, in principle, without the help of retaliatory or incapacitating punishment.
Other objections to abolition are more troubling. In a society that doesn’t delegate the policing function, does everyone become a cop? Does everyone in such a society feel obliged to police their neighbours in ways that come to look like totalitarian state surveillance? If state punishment is abolished, what is there to stop communal punishment from exacting just as sadistically its pounds of flesh? The legal systems of so-called liberal democracies, dysfunctional as they are, at least make a pretence of safeguarding the individual against the arbitrary predation of those who claim to speak for the majority; outside those systems, what equivalent safeguards do or can exist against capricious majoritarian judgment and the violence that may follow from it?
This last critique finds support among some social democrats. Bourgeois law, the argument goes, is, for all its limitations, a crucial check against more primitive, vigilantist ideas of justice, Athena pacifying the Furies; it needs to be reformed to protect the vulnerable and not just the propertied, must be made consistent and not arbitrary, but it’s not in essence bad. To be sure, this stance seems pretty compelling when read in light of certain irresponsible positions that have appeared under the abolitionist banner. The abolitionist group INCITE!, for instance, has questioned whether physical violence against presumptively violent people can be called violence at all. Along these lines, it has endorsed, as “community accountability strategies,” the stalking, intimidation, and even communal physical confrontation of perceived offenders (“collective self-defence”), tactics mentioned without connection to any careful process for establishing who is in fact an offender, and without any clear standards by which to measure proportionality.
Against these tactics, bourgeois law does seem the lesser evil in principle. And it’s true that even the restorative justice movement, which seeks non-violent alternatives to traumatic state punishment, stops short of dismissing the need for prisons altogether: criminologist John Braithwaite, a leading voice in that movement, says most restorative justice practitioners agree on the necessity of a criminal legal system of last resort, albeit one closer to Finland’s (57 per 100,000 national population incarcerated, or 3174 persons) than to the United States’ (at least 666 per 100,000 national population incarcerated, or at least 2,145,100 persons).
Yet there can also be a tendency to discount the abolitionist movement by stressing its rhetorical excesses. If we take seriously abolitionist Mariame Kaba’s core objection to state punishment, that it’s a self-defeating attempt to “end violence with more violence,” then extra-judicial tactics that reproduce the prison system’s cruelty are clearly unacceptable, even when proposed by abolitionist voices. Such missteps don’t cancel the movement’s argumentative strengths: its insistence on the inherently brutal nature of incarceration (very conservative estimates of sexual assault in US prisons top 200,000 victims—not incidents—each year, with almost half of reported cases involving prison guards or staff as perpetrators); its refusal of the moral panic that has ballooned US sex-offender registries to roughly the population size of San Francisco; its radical queer opposition to hate-crimes legislation, criminal laws meant to protect queers but with the perverse effect of swelling and legitimating a deeply queer-phobic system of state violence.
It’s to block the expansion of that system that many abolitionists avoid the language of penal “reform.” Reformist attempts to improve horrendous prison conditions, for instance, sometimes amount just to building new prisons, increased body-warehousing capacity that sentencing judges don’t hesitate to exploit. Yet of course the abolitionist movement is committed to reforms: what the theorist André Gorz called “non-reformist reforms,” which ameliorate without simultaneously entrenching the thing reformed. The abolitionist/reformist opposition, hotly litigated though it is, strikes me as largely unhelpful, an analytical bifurcation that stops doing useful work the moment people come together to organize in concrete, offline ways. To the extent that it forecloses possibilities for coalition, it should be refused.
The question remains: in a socialist politics today, how exactly should we think about opposition to prisons, so prominent among what Althusser called repressive state apparatuses? If prisons are the baseball bats concealed behind the bourgeois state’s beneficent PR, it seems to me that we should address them as we confront that state’s other sites of anti-democracy and illiberalism: by demanding it fulfill the democratic, liberal promises it never meant to keep. If the state trumpets high-flown condemnations of cruel and inhumane punishment, let us declaim all the ways the state punishment system is inhumane and cruel: how it is tantamount to literal and figurative judicial rape; how it debilitates released prisoners for life through employment and housing discrimination and intense stigma; how it breeds mental illness through UN-banned practices of solitary confinement. If the state declares itself to be committed to liberal norms of due process and the presumption of innocence, we must ask why these basic protections are offered mainly, if not only, to those rich enough to pay for private legal counsel, and why 97% of US federal criminal defendants never get a trial at all, but are coerced into guilty pleas by elected prosecutors intent on keeping their conviction numbers up. The bourgeois state has no interest in guaranteeing civil liberties for the many, but it also has no desire to admit this; its anti-democracy requires a democratic front. Socialists must shunt this front aside.
To be sure, we should acknowledge the irreducible remainder of human perversity that no politics can erase and any politics must restrain, the quantum of coercion required by any peace. But we should also ask, with consistent prison abolitionists: what is the minimum coercion necessary to arrive at an acceptable level of public safety (recognizing that crime always and everywhere exists at a level that is not zero), and how can we avoid reproducing the physical and psychological violence of the state system in our efforts to provide an alternative to it?
The neoliberal phase of capitalism has furnished the conditions of possibility for today’s prisons. Those conditions are both material and subjective: the economic precarity intensified by the dismantling of post-war welfare states, but also our tacitly eugenicist culture that marks some bodies as disposable. There is thus no conceivable abolition of prisons as we know them that does not involve the abolition of that modality of capitalism, and perhaps of capitalism altogether—a revolutionary transformation in both material production and, inseparable from it, the production of subjectivities. In this broadest sense too, the non-reformist reform of prisons will be a socialist project.**
*In the interest of providing a synoptic view of prisons as a socialist concern, this article flattens out important differences between national criminal punishment contexts. Elsewhere I’ve sketched how Canada’s prison system differs in some respects from that of the United States. I suggest the difference is one of degree more than of kind—though degrees, which translate to definite quantities of terrible human suffering, do matter here.
**Cross-posted to the New Socialist website.