Situation Room: Should We Abolish Prisons?

MTV staffers discuss: Is the way to fix a broken system getting rid of it altogether?

When events warrant, the MTV News team gathers together in our virtual secure bunker to discuss the political news of the day. Tuesday’s topic: prison abolition. Following an inmate strike on the 45th anniversary of the infamous Attica uprising, we ask the question: Is the way to fix our broken prison system getting rid of it altogether? Here with us today: Marcus Ellsworth, Ezekiel Kweku, and Doreen St. Félix.

Ellsworth: To start, we need to look at what prison abolition is and why people say we need to do away with our incarceration system. Most folks think that prisons are necessary for order in society, that we need to lock away people who break the law. But prisons are overcrowded, inmates get used for cheap labor, violence and abuse often go unreported and unprosecuted, and incarcerated people get treated worse than animals at times. I mean, our justice system is geared toward packing people into prisons without much thought for the conditions that creates. And we don’t do much, if anything, for people who have served their time and need to return to their communities.

Our prison system creates these pressure cookers for dehumanization, and society acts like this is our only option. We see people enter into cycles of crime, incarceration, release, poverty, crime (often as an act of survival, because employment options are so scarce after incarceration), return to prison, repeat. It’s just a snake eating its own tail, and because of that we aren’t making anyone safer. We wind up abusing and traumatizing human beings whom, allegedly, we’re supposed to be helping to return to a law-abiding life — a concept that is itself problematic when the laws are biased against certain populations.

With all of that going on, we shouldn’t be surprised that there is a prison abolition movement. We should also expect prison strikes and riots. We can’t pile people into awful conditions, use them for profit, and then expect them to just sit there quietly. Looking back over the history of this country, we condemn slavery for being inhumane and horrific, yet here society has reinvented the practice by using incarcerated people to a similar effect. Prisons stack as many people per square foot as possible and make them work for extremely low pay so someone, somewhere can make a profit.


Kweku: The prison abolition movement does not accept the idea that this state of affairs is a necessary evil, and it also does not accept the idea that piecemeal reform can solve the problem. The entire system has to be rethought. Prison abolitionists are working toward a world without prisons, and that means thinking of new ways of approaching punishment, rehabilitation, and public safety. How do we get there from here?

St. Félix: One technique of prison abolition begins from the inside. On July 1, 2015, over 1,000 incarcerated people at a private prison near Kingman, Arizona, started a riot that lasted days and damaged the facility so massively that the people had to be moved. The riot sucked up resources from both the private company that owned the prison and the state. Imprisonment can restrict the incarcerated when it comes to advocacy, but it gives them a potential opportunity to disable daily operations, that, as Marcus says, are worth so much to outside economies.

Ellsworth: That’s the thing we need to remember: Incarcerated people know better than anyone what conditions are inside prisons, and why the whole system needs to change. Riots and hunger strikes make the rest of us finally pay attention to what goes on inside prisons. People are putting their bodies on the line because they have already been subject to injustices and no one has listened. There are some elected officials calling for prison reform, but almost none are considering a path to abolish the system itself. Their concerns are mostly wrapped up in money — how much it costs to house a prisoner, the expense of legal proceedings, payroll for guards and prison staff. They don’t talk about the price of a person’s humanity, and the impact mass incarceration has on communities where people are removed for years at a time and then expected to just come back and resume their lives.

Kweku: This is an important point about prison reform — it often takes as its starting point the idea that prisons are inefficient and expensive. The goal of wringing out inefficiencies in the system and cutting the per-person cost of prisons is working the wrong direction, and is a mentality that can exacerbate problems inside prisons rather than solve them. Cost-cutting leads to corner-cutting. Of course, the money that goes toward prisons could be better spent elsewhere, but prison abolitionists view a restructuring of the prison system not in economic terms, but as a moral imperative.

St. Félix: We should probably talk about what’s going on right now. Last Friday, September 9, which was the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising, saw the beginning of a national prison strike. It’s a bit difficult to follow channels of information for obvious reasons, but prisons in California, South Carolina, Alabama, and others have reported that incarcerated people are refusing to show up for work. This prison strike is synonymous with our civilian idea of a labor strike. The strikers have demands specific to each prison: South Carolina’s ask that the free-labor standard end, and that state pay and private industry wages be reinstituted. So even though this is a national strike networked by organizations like the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and the Free Alabama Movement, each particular site seems to be tailoring both their method of protest and their demands to the injustices endemic to their immediate realities.


Kweku: Outside prison, in the political sphere, most attempts to address the problems in the criminal justice system approach the issue from a piecemeal reformist perspective. Hillary Clinton’s platform, for instance, wants to reduce the number of nonviolent drug offenders who wind up in jail, and her primary method of doing this is cutting down on mandatory minimums. The House Judiciary Committee’s criminal justice reform agenda includes a group of bills about mental health, reducing recidivism, and promoting reentry into society.

Ellsworth: Reducing the number of people going into prison is definitely heading in the right direction, but does it help alleviate the living and working conditions in prison? The Department of Justice’s call for an end to privatized prisons is possibly a step toward improved conditions. But if incarcerated people are still being exploited for cheap and free labor, the problem persists, and actions like these organized strikes are going to continue because the mistreatment continues. As you pointed out, Doreen, this round of strikes started on the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising. This is a reminder that this movement has been going on for some time, and yet conditions are still inhumane.

What if we really took the idea of restorative justice seriously? If we offered more than just punishment for crimes, maybe we wouldn’t need a prison system in the first place. We certainly wouldn’t have a prison-based economy taking advantage of the problems caused by mass incarceration. When the people inside those walls are willing to starve themselves and face down armed guards for even a sliver of justice, maybe it’s past time we start figuring out how to take down those walls.

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