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    a painting of prisoners exercising in a prison yard

    A World without Prisons?

    Is the utopian language of abolition helpful, or would it be wiser to focus on incremental criminal justice reform?

    By Vincent Lloyd

    March 13, 2023
    • Margaret Kerry fsp

      Definetly prisons need reform: those who make money off of incarcerating individuals need reform, guards need reform, prisoners need reform. Even people who use prison to seperate people by calling in the police to solve community problems to deal with mental illness much of the time. However each person involved is immersed in a prison culture. Cultural reform can happen when what makes up the culture is identified: symbols, language, norms, values, and artifacts.

    • DeVonna Allison

      I think we do a disservice to this complex issue when we break it into an “either/or” discussion. I think there is a need for prison reform, of course, and I really like the idea of bringing prisoners and their victims to a communication, but I think the idea of eliminating prisons is an over-simplified suggestion that ignores the larger questions. Thank you for this thought-provoking article.

    • Patty

      Sometimes I wonder if idealists/philosophers would benefit from working full time in the settings that they recommend abolishing. I have worked full time in healthcare for six years in prisons in past. I’ve also worked in hospitals. This concept of abolishing prisons makes me think of “Would you recommend abolishing hospitals?”. As a society we have switched to shorter lengths of stay for each. And yet for each, I think, there are inmates or patients who truly belong there. I’ve dealt with some inmates who you would not want as your neighbor and yet deserve care within prison. It’s a very complicated problem. Personally I think we need more rehab and vocational programs. Enough from me!

    • Joe

      While I do not agree with this theory, I will read it again. Something needs to be done and I do not think government is capable. Churches should lead the way. That said, too many have nothing but harm on their minds and there is no easy solution to stop nor prevent it.

    The FBI added the Black activist Angela Davis to its Ten Most Wanted list in August of 1970. She spent two months on the run, depicted as a terrorist by politicians and celebrated as a freedom fighter by activists. After her capture, she spent sixteen months in jails and prisons before being released on bail.

    The documentary 13th includes clips from an interview she conducted while incarcerated: she makes arguments about abolishing prisons but it is hard to pay attention to them when confronted with her sickly pale face and articulate but halting voice.

    In that interview, Davis describes growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, at the time Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed. Her sister was a friend of the four schoolgirls who died, and her mother assisted on the scene, finding “limbs and heads strewn all over the place.” Davis relates how, after the bombing, members of her community organized themselves into an armed patrol to prevent further violence.

    Angela Davis was ultimately acquitted of kidnapping and murder charges by an all-white jury. Ever since, she has embraced her role as a living symbol of the injustice of the US prison system. Today she is a renowned philosopher, whose reflections on politics have grown out of her sustained engagement with a broad tradition of Black thought.

    a painting of prisoners exercising in a prison yard

    Vincent van Gogh, Prisoners Exercising (Prisoners Round), 1890

    But the force with which she persuades does not come primarily from showing how premises lead to conclusions – to the conclusion that prisons ought to be abolished, for example. She feels the force of incarceration as only one who has been incarcerated can, and she has lived a life colored by violence. Community safety for her is an existential concern. She makes the case that the prison is part of a violent system that deprives Black Americans of safety.

    For decades during which their voices were dismissed, Davis and other activists labored to make the case for prison abolition by drawing on history, theory, and the testimony of those incarcerated and their loved ones. They were well positioned to take advantage of the ripened conditions in the 2010s, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street, as Black Lives Matter protests were gaining traction, to inject into the public conversation a previously impossible vision: a world without prisons.

    Now, with amazing speed, public discourse in the United States has shifted from treating the prison as a solution to social ills to treating it as a problem itself urgently in need of a solution. Today, the debate is about whether that solution is prison reform or prison abolition.

    In his latest book, The Idea of Prison Abolition (Princeton University Press, 2022), Harvard philosophy professor Tommie Shelby takes Angela Davis seriously as a philosopher making claims about incarceration to which we ought to pay attention, and respond. He finds Davis to be a sophisticated advocate for abolition and a worthy sparring partner as he wrestles out loud, as it were, with which side of the reform-versus-abolition debate he ought to endorse.

    While Shelby does not limit himself to Davis’s work, her expansive writings on abolition offer an entry point to the battery of arguments that one hears in contemporary debates around the prison. Shelby takes his task to be sorting these arguments, distilling them, and evaluating them. There are sets of arguments about the prison and slavery, about the prison functioning to perpetuate racism, and about the prison generating profit. Shelby finds each of these types of arguments powerful but ultimately not persuasive; they show that the current US prison system is deeply flawed and requires transformation, but not that it needs to be abolished.

    Finally, he considers the claim, made by Davis and other abolitionists, that there are other ways of responding to harm that are more effective and morally responsible than incarceration. Community-based transformative justice processes bring together those who harm and those who were harmed, and their loved ones, to engage in dialogue that will produce actionable steps toward the work of repair. While Shelby finds these practices laudable and worth expanding, he argues that transformative justice is only a partial solution to grave harms. Sometimes those who perpetrate harms are unwilling to participate, and sometimes those harmed are unable to participate – notably, in the case of murder. In his view, transformative justice ought to complement rather than replace a conventional criminal justice system.

    Shelby presents crisp, clear arguments. When activists proclaim that the US prison system is inherently racist, Shelby understands this to mean that the function of the prison is to perpetuate racism. If that is indeed the case, he counters, all we need is a better prison, one that does not perpetuate racism, rather than no prison at all.

    Still, a Harvard philosopher of Shelby’s caliber taking prison abolition seriously would have been unthinkable two decades ago, when prison abolition was a fringe position associated with the hard left – with people like Angela Davis. The publication of The Idea of Prison Abolition testifies to the power of activists to rapidly transform public discourse.

    A paradox of social movement success, though, is that the energy that fueled the movement, in part a product of radicality’s titillation, may dissipate once movement ideas enter the mainstream. The energy around prison abolition seems diminished when that movement is represented in the New York Times or in academic philosophy. A key source of the movement’s power is that participation often grows out of existential concern. If you have been incarcerated or you have family members incarcerated, the prison is not a mere “idea.” The sounds, smells, rhythms, and personalities of the prison make your breath quicken, your heart race, and your muscles tense. For you, organizing against the prison is a way to restore the agency and community that were taken away by incarceration.

    There is a way in which a philosophical analysis of prison abolition is rather like making a PowerPoint presentation of a novel. Yes, you can convey information about the main characters and events, but the richness and force of the text is lost. Judgments about a novel grow out of the effect the novel has on you, how it shifts your perception of yourself and the world, not just introducing you to a new story but allowing you to tell new stories. Or not, if the novel fails.

    If we know the names and stories and voices of people who are incarcerated, our judgment on questions of incarceration may be quite different. Justice may look quite different.

    In the case of prison abolition, the method of pursuing justice and the claims of justice are closely connected. The prison itself abstracts: it identifies a person with one criminal act, equates that act with a price in months or years of a life, and literally substitutes the name of a person for a number once that person is confined to a cage. Such a process of abstraction unleashes the worst human instincts; the more an incarcerated individual is treated as an abstraction, the more a guard’s will to dominate runs wild. If we know the names and stories and voices of people who are incarcerated, even just one or two of them, our judgment on questions of incarceration may be quite different. Justice may look quite different.

    Of course, it is possible to know people incarcerated, or to be incarcerated oneself, and reject prison abolition. But what counts as an argument in such cases does not consist of premises and conclusions.


    The issue here is not the superior authority of lived experience, or at least that is a misleading formulation. Being close to the prison and allowing the prison to challenge and transform one’s intuitions can yield moral insights. Angela Davis has allowed her experience of incarceration to push against the wisdom of the world and against her own intuitions, producing new claims about incarceration that themselves push against her experience.

    Shelby, following standard practice in contemporary analytic philosophy, makes arguments that rely on intuitions that are commonly held, about what is blameworthy, what is permissible, and what is just. He takes his task to be unfolding those intuitions and sorting through them. His arguments are supposed to persuade because the reader is assumed to share, or at least find plausible, Shelby’s intuitions. But the radical Black tradition in which Davis was formed starts with the claim that errors are baked into conventional wisdom. Capitalism and white supremacy, for example, do more than cloud our intuitions; they obstruct our comprehension of truth. If this picture is right, philosophy’s task is not just polishing and sorting inherited intuitions but also absorbing new insights gleaned by those struggling against systems of domination.

    If Shelby is hesitant to think about the depths of domination in our present world, he is also hesitant to believe in a future world free from domination. The final chapter of The Idea of Prison Abolition is devoted to the power and pitfalls of “utopian imagination.” While he appreciates the capacity of such imagination to generate practices in the present world that prefigure the utopian world to come, he worries that abolitionists’ visions of a new world are often untethered from empirical facts, ignore the human inclination toward violence, and do not account for uncertainty about what a future world could look like, particularly technologically.

    These objections get at the heart of abolitionism, and they point to its necessarily spiritual dimension. Shelby is right that, based on what we know now and the direction the world is going, we cannot see a path to a domination-free world or, specifically, a prison-free world. But the utopia imagined by abolitionists does not appear a certain number of years in the future, beckoning us toward it through a certain series of actions. It exists apart from the world, uncontaminated by the forces of domination: capitalism and racism and all the rest. Abolitionism requires faith. What now appears impossible may actually be imperative. By believing in the impossible, abolitionists have already changed the conversation on prisons, and they may very well change the world.

    Contributed By portrait of Vincent Lloyd Vincent Lloyd

    Vincent Lloyd is a professor of theology and religious studies and the director of the Center for Political Theology at Villanova University.

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