A Prison by Any Other Name

Some critics of mass incarceration see the contemporary carceral state as a result of the abolition of state-run mental hospitals. For example, German Lopez of Vox recently wrote that “America’s criminal justice system has, in many ways, become a substitute for the US’s largely gutted mental health system.” Yet when the mental health system was “gutted,” what was happening in practice was the abolition of institutions where people were involuntarily confined. In other words, the gutting of the mental health system represented a reduction in the ability of institutions to lock people up without due process. Should critics of mass incarceration really express nostalgia for a system that locked people up involuntarily?

As prison abolitionists and prison reformers, we should be clear about what we’re critiquing. We’re not just standing up to those institutions openly called prisons. We are asking questions about when, if ever, it is justifiable to involuntarily confine a human being, and how to limit the violence and abuse inherent in that confinement. We cannot restrict our focus to buildings called prisons, and must also consider places where confinement occurs under the paternalistic auspices of care, such as mental institutions and group homes. When reformers simply suggest substituting these therapeutic forms of confinement for overt prisons, they are offering euphemism in place of real change. The authors of the 1971 report The Struggle for Justice explicitly condemned any attempts to reduce incarceration through euphemism alone, writing “Call them ‘community treatment centers’ or what you will, if human beings are involuntarily confined in them, they are prisons.”

Scott Alexander offered a trenchant critique of Lopez’s argument regarding incarceration and mental health, and the broader trope of deinstitutionalization as a cause of mass incarceration. Alexander points out that “Studies show that the majority of people let out of institutions during the deinstitutionalization process were not violent and that the rate of violent crime committed by the mentally ill did not change with deinstitutionalization.” Lopez himself notes that mentally ill people are generally no more violent than the general population, and are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Rather than deinstitutionalization releasing dangerous madmen who cannot live in society, Alexander argues that high rates of mentally ill prisoners result not from correlations between mental illness and poverty and other socioeconomic factors associated with incarceration. Institutionalizing them for their psychiatric conditions does nothing to resolve these issues, and instead locks up innocent people without due process, simply because they’re different.

Prison abolitionists and prison reformers should analyze and critique confinement broadly. This will help us avoid promoting therapeutic confinement as a substitute for openly punitive imprisonment. It will also help us apply our principles to incarceration that hides in plain sight and critique confinement that abuses and dominates in the name of care rather than justice. Prison abolitionists and reformers should oppose the abuse that persists in mental hospitals. We should stand against the involuntary confinement and abuse of people with developmental disabilities in group homes. Our opposition to mass incarceration should reflect a commitment to liberty and to individuals rights to exit relationships and spaces when they are no longer beneficial. Exit rights produce incentives that promote mutual benefit and deter abuse. Coercive confinement, whether punitive or therapeutic, undermines liberty and creates perverse incentives that increase the likelihood of abuse.

A prison by any other name is still coercive. Abolitionists should seek substantive change rather than euphemisms. We don’t want a kinder or gentler justification for confinement. We want liberty, justice, and a society characterized by voluntary cooperation rather than coercion and violence.

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