What is prison abolition?

Prison abolition is the belief that we would all be better off in a world without prisons. Prison abolitionists see prisons as a cause of harm rather than a tool of justice. Fundamentally, prisons are totally ineffective at addressing harmful behaviour and actually make people more violent. Rather than putting people in prison, prison abolitionists think that we should replace them entirely with systems of rehabilitation that do not focus on punishment.

Why is prison abolition important?

Prisons punish people who have harmed others, but they don’t actually fix the deep social problems that make this violence so common. A context of inequality, racism, and poverty is what causes crime, and putting people in prison does nothing to address it. Prison abolition requires dealing with harm in ways that actually address its root causes. Instead of locking up people and forgetting about them, prison abolitionists believe we need to not only help people change as individuals, but that we need to change the circumstances that lead them to harmful behaviour in the first place.

Why do abolitionists think that prisons are harmful?

Prisons hurt people. Across the world, prisons are often incredibly violent places where physical and sexual violence are everyday occurrences. Far from rehabilitating people, prison teaches people that violence is the best way to address conflict and achieve desired outcomes. When people re-enter their communities, that violence often comes with them. This means that the violence of prisons hurts more than just those on the inside. It hurts entire communities.

Because they overwhelmingly target poor and Māori people, prisons actually reinforce the social inequality which drives crime. Evidence from New Zealand and abroad suggests that having a parent who has been incarcerated substantially increases the likelihood that a child will be incarcerated in their lifetime. By taking away key family members and wage-earners, prisons make families poorer in multiple ways, which in turn means they will continue to be overwhelmingly targeted by the prison system. Prisons contribute to intergenerational cycles of poverty, and create worse outcomes for the communities already most impacted by imprisonment.

What does a world without prisons look like?

There are a large number of people in prison right now who could be released without any negative effects on the community. We could release thousands just by making immediate changes to bail, sentencing, parole, and drug laws, for example. Evidence from abroad shows that there is unlikely to be any major impact on crime as a result.

While we can make immediate changes to reduce the number of people in prison, creating a world without prisons won’t happen overnight. It will take some time to build. The process of abolishing prisons is ultimately about making them redundant. The people in prisons overwhelmingly come from poor backgrounds, struggle with mental illness and addiction, have intellectual disabilities, and are targeted by racist policing. If we address these root causes of imprisonment, we can make prison entirely unnecessary. That means a world without prisons ensures that everyone has a decent standard of living where they can thrive. It means ensuring everyone who needs access to emancipatory mental health and drug treatment can receive it. It means ensuring that people with intellectual disabilities are provided with the support they need to lead fulfilling lives. It means ending racist policing.

However, even in a world without prisons, people will continue to harm one another. Justice in a world without prisons would provide dignity to both victims and perpetrators, and acknowledge that the lines between these categories are often blurred. It would start with the belief that everyone has the capacity to change and everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. Justice is achieved not through punishment but through empowering people to change their behaviour. For the very small number of people who pose an immediate risk to themselves and others, short-term intensive supervision within the community, as well as active therapeutic intervention, would be required.

Doesn’t putting dangerous people away keep us safe?

Prisons do not keep us safe. Prisons take violence from the community and concentrate it all in one place, making it more intense. When people come out of prison, that intensified violence then flows into the community and makes it less safe. The prison environment itself makes people more likely to use violence once they’re released. This makes us all less safe in the long run.

Prison abolitionists also argue that the people who are thought of as “dangerous” are just ordinary people like you and me. These “dangerous” people are pushed into crime by their personal circumstances, including poverty and personal victimisation. Instead of seeing these people as innately “evil” or “dangerous”, we understand that everyone has the capacity to change. Putting people in prison, taking them away from their support systems, makes it more difficult for them to change. Treating people with dignity and providing them with mental healthcare and addiction support, where needed, is much more effective in reducing harm.

What would prison abolitionists do about violent crime?

Prison abolitionists argue that prisons are wholly ineffective at combating violent crime. In fact, prisons make people more likely to use violence when they’re back in their communities.

If we want to be serious about reducing violence in our society, we have to be seriously committed to helping people who have perpetrated violence to change. That means treating all parties to conflict with dignity and respect, recognising that everyone is capable of change, and understanding that all people make mistakes. Where violence is linked to a person’s own victimisation, the person perpetrating violence needs to be provided with the therapeutic intervention they need to work through the underlying causes of their behaviour. Instead of seeing punishment as the primary goal of justice, abolitionists place emphasis on providing support, therapy, and rehabilitation programmes. This kind of approach is much more effective at reducing harm.

Abolitionists also believe that much of the violence in society can be prevented by addressing the inequalities that create it. Abolitionists are committed to building a world where people are equal. That means undoing the broad social structures that create unequal outcomes and experiences of victimisation for certain groups. It also means building a society where everyone, by right, is provided with high quality, housing, education, healthcare, and a standard of living where they can survive and thrive.

What does rehabilitation look like for prison abolitionists?

Prison abolitionists believe that nobody is disposable, and that everybody is capable of changing, provided that they are given the support they need. When somebody does harm to others, we believe that understanding the harm they have done to their community, and working to repair those damaged relationships, is the best way to stop that harm for recurring. This is the tikanga Māori response to violence, and it is what prison abolitionists call transformative justice. You can read more about this here.

How would abolitionists prevent crime without prison as a deterrent?

There is a common misconception that, regardless of the negative impacts of prisons, they are a necessary evil to deter people from crime. In fact, studies from various countries over a long period of time have consistently shown that prisons are not an effective deterrent of crime. This is because in most cases, when people commit a ‘crime’, whether or not they’ll be imprisoned is not at the forefront of their minds.

Indeed, a much better way to prevent crime is to address the causes of crime. Instead of punishing the poor for the circumstances they live in, we should abolish poverty. Prevention starts with providing everyone with a high standard of living in which they can thrive. It involves providing people with therapeutic intervention, as well as high quality education and healthcare. We can prevent most social harm by addressing the root causes of harmful behaviour.

For more information about prison abolition, check this out: