As a new abolitionist, I often imagine the reasons people might oppose abolition. I hear all the why nots they silently levy. I compose responses to these imaginary rebukes, and in so doing, I look to established abolitionists for guidance.
In Instead of Prisons, the authors note several questions abolitionists confront. Two stand out:
- What do we do about those who pose “a danger” to society? Don’t we have to solve that problem before we can advocate the abolition of prisons?
- How can we work for needed prison reforms which require structural change within the society, before a new social order comes about?
Two assumptions seem to underlie these questions. Firstly, we can only work on one thing at a time, and after the attainment of a perfect solution, can we attempt something else. Secondly, abolitionists advocate a thoughtless and rash process by which prisons are torn down and people run, pell-mell, to freedom.
Both of these ideas are false. As explained in the attrition model, abolition is a long-term goal with several allied processes:
- gradually reduce the current inmate population beginning with extreme sentences,
- reconsider criminality and decriminalize certain behaviors, and
- develop alternatives to imprisonment (mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, etc.).
There is little in this explanation about the human rights issues prisoners face. This is purposeful. The abolitionist’s goal is not simply to make prison more humane, but to stop caging except when there is absolutely no viable alternative. I want to state clearly, 2.3 million people behind bars should not suffer cruel and unusual punishment. And I do not see a conflict between supporting human rights and working to abolish prisons. However:
But one does not dismantle a prison system without a corresponding change in the societal status quo. Society is as sick as the individuals who often wind up exiled from it. That brings us to a topic of personal import: creating a caring community. Drawing from my Buddhist leanings, I believe this to be the most difficult and simultaneously most important part of a successful abolition strategy.
From the handbook:
Abolitionists advocate maximum amounts of caring for all people (including the victims of crime) and minimum intervention in the lives of all people, including lawbreakers. In the minds of some, this may pose a paradox, but not for us, because we examine the underlying causes of crime and seek new responses to build a safer community. The abolitionist ideology is based on economic and social justice for all, concern for all victims, and reconciliation within a caring community.
How do we begin to create a caring community? Is such a utopia possible?