Why do we take prison for granted? Esteemed American author, activist, and professor Angela Davis posed the question in her 2003 treatise Are Prisons Obsolete?, a work that encouraged readers to interrogate their understanding of the U.S. prison system. Davis, an abolitionist, rejected the idea of stopping at reform, arguing that focusing on making small improvements inside the walls decenters the larger goal of decarceration, the process of freeing people from institutions like prisons and detention centers.
“Prison abolitionists are dismissed as utopians and idealists whose ideas are at best unrealistic and impracticable, and, at worst, mystifying and foolish,” Davis wrote. “This is a measure of how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and families. The prison is considered so ‘natural’ that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it.”
Sixteen years later, society at large is still struggling to provide an answer to her query, or to meaningfully address the plague of mass incarceration, even as conversations around criminal justice reform and abolishing the death penalty have picked up steam in the political arena. However, prison abolitionists — those fellow “utopians” and “idealists” Davis mentioned — have not only been able to imagine a world without cages, but have spent decades working to bring that vision closer to reality, in places as far-flung as Washington’s Walla Walla State Penitentiary and New York City’s notorious Rikers Island. So what does it actually mean to envision that kind of world?
Prison abolition is at its core an ideological and political organizing project that seeks to not only tear down existing prisons and jails, but to create an equitable society which addresses the core problems that lead to incarceration, thereby rendering imprisonment — itself a form of punitive torture — obsolete. Its proponents view restorative justice and community investment as more humane, equitable means of addressing social ills and reducing violence. They seek to end the criminalization and persecution of marginalized communities, particularly those living in poverty. As Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary on prison slavery, 13th, laid out with wrenching precision, the U.S. criminal justice system was crafted from the beginning as an instrument of racist terror (it’s no surprise that DuVernay identifies as a prison abolitionist herself), whereas the abolition movement operates from an explicitly intersectional, racial-justice-focused perspective.