For this week’s Weekly Abolitionist post, I’d like to emphasize the importance of holding a specifically abolitionist stance on prisons. Getting rid of prisons is not just one more reform to tack on after we’ve accomplished everything else. It’s the primary goal, and all other reforms should be judged with that in mind.
The key here is remembering that in order for a reform to actually be a reform, it needs to be a step forward, without any steps backward. Mapping out which way a reform is going, though, requires remembering that prisons are inherently unjust.
For example, measures that meaningfully work against something like prison rape should be supported, all other things being equal. However, all other things are sometimes not equal, as the introduction of women’s prisons has shown us. Since their beginning, the construction of women’s prisons has had the same effect that the construction of any prison does: higher and higher rates of incarceration . In this case, it has led to higher and higher rates of female incarceration specifically. This in turn leads to more and more women in danger of prison rape, especially from guards.
Outside of proposed reforms to prisons themselves, the prison abolitionist outlook also helps to structure our commitments on other social reforms. Hate crime laws provide a good example of this. Obviously, the libertarian prison abolitionist opposition to all punishment to begin with gives good moral reasons for opposing harsher punishments based on the motives of the offender. Beyond just that, though, keeping the structural problems related to prisons and criminal law in mind at all times helps us to see the actual effect of these laws. Namely, they do very little if anything to actually prevent hate crimes, while leading to plenty of real, tangible harms against the minorities they’re designed to protect.
Any expansion of hate crime laws (for example, to include gay or transgender victims) means an expansion of the prison state. Since the prison state is most likely to aim especially its aggression against the oppressed groups hate crime laws are ostensibly designed to protect – by locking up people of color and those who refuse to conform to heteronormative standards of gender or sexuality – this means strengthening the world’s biggest hate criminal. As prison abolitionist law professor Dean Spade tells us, hate crime laws are only about having the law say that oppressed people matter, not about treating them as if they actually do matter. With this in mind, he writes that “we must stop believing that what the law says about itself is true and that what the law says about us is what matters.”
As these and other examples show, insisting on an abolitionist rather than reformist stance is not some useless display of self-righteousness. It is a necessary consideration for making sure that every step taken is a step in the right direction. The incentive structures created by any system of domination and institutionalized aggression are such that it will co-opt any attempt at reform that is not aimed at abolition. We cannot afford to let the prison entrench itself any further. As the abolitionist of slavery William Lloyd Garrison said, “gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice.”