Prison Abolition in 2038

amst335- final paper

Introduction

The passage of time can has proven to have massive impacts on frequently contested policy issues. Actions and decisions are not merely trendy headlines for media outlets; rather, the changes undergone to institutions and policy issues have the ability to reconstruct the spaces that define our day to day lives. People and social institutions are responsible for creating and defining social spaces, including determining who has access/is excluded. Throughout history, societies have grappled with the question of crime and punishment – whether they are shaping legal principles or structuring the institutions that enforce implemented legal standards. Public safety is highly prioritized as necessary to having a society in which people can lead lives void from constant fear. Often times, communications and representations of crime in society are etched with the intention of instilling a sense of fear that you could possibly fall victim to criminal activity. Responses to crime have varied historically, and prisons as a social space reflect trends in viewpoints as well as political agendas.

Today in 2038, the abolition of prisons has resulted in a drastic shift in the social meaning of this physical space as well as the idea of punishment. Prior to this monumental decision, the utilization and expansion of prisons were justified on the grounds that they (1) aimed to rehabilitate incarcerated individuals to be able to be functioning citizens in society and (2) protected the public against criminals. However, several facts demonstrate that the structures of prisons were not conducive to meeting fulfilling the goals used to justify the creation and maintenance of prisons. Prison abolition as a policy action has resulted in substantial improvements in public safety as well as addressing the various social issues often at the root of criminal activity. The transformation of this space – and subsequently the meaning of punishment – has reshaped the world in which people and families live.

 

Part 1: Prison as a Social Space

            Before prisons became a critical aspect of the United States criminal justice system, extremely forms of corporal punishment were utilized as a response to criminal activity. Yet, as the nation developed, the shift to adopt prisons and hard labor over physically violent punishments was seen as necessary to the moral fabric of the country: prisons were viewed as a more humane option that was still considered an effective deterrent of crime. Angela Davis discusses the transformation of forms of punishment, citing the widely believed notion that “labor was a means towards a moral end.”[1] The use of hard labor was conceived as a form of corrective punishment, where the individual convicted did not face immediate, blunt violence; rather, they became workers in various prison-based jobs. As the country fixated itself on the idea of morality, corporal punishment became outdated as cruel and inhumane – the same logic used to challenge slavery. However, the structure of prisons in the United States has frequently been challenged on the basis of being inhumane, from the physical conditions of the facility to cruel punitive tactics adopted by prison officials. There are several aspects of the foundation of the prison system that render it inherently against standards of human decency. The documentary 13th explains the ways in which the prison system has both historically and contemporarily been used as a racially discriminatory tool against people of color. Throughout this film, DuVernay explains the link between the 13th Amendment’s ban on slavery and the system of mass incarceration that expanded the prison system.[2] The literal language of the amendment did not completely ban slavery because it includes a clause that permits slavery as a punishment of crime, thus they system of slavery shifts from the plantation to the prison using the very legal protections to ban this inhumane practice. There are several laws and events throughout history that show a pattern of using reform to deflect immense social issues – such as race, poverty, etc. Slavery – like corporal punishment – was challenged on the basis of being inhumane, yet prisons carried out and exacerbated the racialized forms of punishment consistent with American practices. Alexander Mitchell’s The New Jim Crow thoroughly addresses the ways in which the War on Drugs and mass incarceration disproportionately impacts communities of color and serves to recreate and reflect the same racist ideologies contained in slavery and Jim Crow segregation.[3] Imprisonment as a form of punishment was historically rooted in targeting marginalized groups such as people of color and the working class (think of debtor’s jail). As an institution, prisons have served to punish those in society do not have the identity and/or resources to circumvent the law.

Our history illustrates that people in society are responsible for shaping what constitutes crime and what forms of punishment should be applied. Slavery and corporal punishment shifted to extended imprisonment with hard labor, which reflects society’s ability to create and alter spaces and their meanings. Chapter 9 in The People, Place, & Space Reader outlines the ways in which spaces are the result of social production. This chapter discusses Lefebvre’s three parts of socially produced spaces –  spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space – that explain how spaces are produced and subject to change over the course of time based on shifting social patterns.[4] Applying this logic to the social production of prisons, it is possible for one to understand the ways in which the meaning of this space has consistently been portrayed as necessary to public safety but in reality served to punish certain groups. The daily routines inside prisons (spatial practice) reinforce control, separation, violence, and inhumanity, including the use of solitary confinement and denial of basic human rights. However, the way prisons were represented aimed to show them to be spaces where people who committed crimes could be rehabilitated. Often, this was the rhetoric used to justify expanding prisons and utilizing disciplinary tactics such as solitary confinement. As a representational space, people harped on prisons as a space that ensured public safety by locking away people deemed criminals, which was vital as media communications focused on misleading crime statistics that painted a picture of terror that required a remedy: prison expansion was the prescription.

The social production of prison as a space was complex, as it was thought to provide public safety, yet the prison system – as well as facilities – denied groups of people safety and basic human decency. In order to understand the ways in which punishment and prisons have shifted, it is important to consider the three aspects of spatial production as well as the social patterns that inform our daily lives. Racially discriminatory practices as a social pattern have manipulated the structure of punishment in this country – from slavery to mass incarceration. In addition to racially informed social patterns, class inequality fueled the ability for a prison industrial complex to solidify prisons as a source of economic revenue, shifting the meaning of this space from one of rehabilitation to one for profit. Countless resources have gone in to creating and maintaining a space that reproduced the same social issues that prisons claim to rehabilitate – it’s no wonder people released from prison were vastly unable to obtain employment and function as “productive” persons when reentering society.[5] Over time, challenges to the use of prison as a space resulted in uncovering the racial and class-based motivations of this system. Marginalized groups that were impacted by the grip of this system were not able to achieve significant prison reforms because this issue was commonly associated with a group not deemed “vulnerable” and/or conflicted with political agendas.[6] Reforms were band aid solutions to deeper issues; thus, the abolition of prisons was vital to tackling these pervasive social issues.

 

Part 2: Effects of Prison Abolition

Since the abolition of prisons, there have been several changes in to world around us. Many people feared that eliminating prisons as a space would result in rampant crime and unsafe living conditions for the public. However, prison abolition has had the exact opposite effect in that societies and communities are safer, more wholesome places to settle and/or start a family. The removal of this space has caused perspectives to shift towards acknowledging the social issues rendered invisible – under the cloak of ‘tough on crime’ politics – and has revealed historically overlooked social patterns.[7] Prison abolition as a policy action has led to substantive protection for communities of color – who faced excessive and brutal policing, imprisonment and staggering rates of recidivism.[8] The main impact of eliminating prisons as a space has been the elimination of mass incarceration and the ability for society to confront racial injustices. While prisons were portrayed as vital to safety, the stark reality of this space – and its associated practices – was a system that targeted and destroyed communities of colors. Cycles of recidivism often kept families apart, and the inability to obtain employment due to a criminal record perpetuated a cycle of poverty.[9] Prisons rendered these issues invisible because they were physically isolated from other social spaces and stigmatized the people within these spaces as undeserving and/or dangerous. With the elimination of these spaces, society has been able to better grapple with the issue of racial inequality. Communities of color are not the targets of excessive policing, which has also forced localities to implement alternative avenues to address the root causes of criminal behavior, whether it be education/employment assistance or rehabilitation facilities.

When society addresses the root causes of issues that may at times result in criminal activity, we are better equipped to keep the public not only safe but healthy. Prisons as a space served as a false sense of security, especially considering the ways in which marginalized groups were terrorized in these spaces and by the systems guiding them. Lessened incidents of police brutality have provided an avenue to repair the trust often broken in communities by authority figures such as the police. The elimination of prisons has also transformed other social spaces. For instance, the school to prison pipeline no longer removes students from the classroom and subjects them to harsh zero tolerance policies. Rather, the students who misbehave are met with the services needed to work through behavioral issues. The way that society deals with discipline is different now that being sent off to prison is not the one-size-fits-all solution being used.

Resources have drastically shifted in light of prison abolition. The costs to maintain and operate prisons were burdensome and wasteful to taxpayer dollars – considering prisons rarely met its stated goal of rehabilitating people. Now that the federal government and states no longer pour funds into prisons, there are more resources available for education, employment, affordable housing, health services, rehabilitation facilities, etc. Investing in these aspects of society creates a better quality of life for people, which in and of itself has served as a deterrent of crime. Prison abolition alone is not the only solution to tacking historically neglected social issues; rather, creating a balanced and more just society requires acting upon other policy areas simultaneously.

 

Part 3: Prison Alternatives and Future Prospects

            As prisons have ceased to exist, the world we live has started to become a better, safer, more equal place for everyone. No longer do certain communities face punishment while other communities receive services to support the personal issues that may lead to crime. As a result, society has become a safer place to start one’s adult life – including a career, family, etc.

As the years go on, it is imperative to continue to seek out social patterns rendered invisible by the structures of spaces. Education, healthcare, and employment are three areas of society that tend to be at the root of pervasive inequalities. It is only through a commitment to work towards bringing these issues to light and implementing solutions that long-term generational change can be sustained.

 

Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

New York: [Jackson, Tenn.] New Press; Distributed by Perseus Distribution, 2010.

Eilperin, Juliet. “Obama Bans Solitary Confinement for Juveniles in Federal Prisons.”

Washington Post. 2016.

Davis, A. Y. (2007). Racialized Punishment and Prison Abolition. In A Companion to African‐

American Philosophy (eds T. L. Lott and J. P. Pittman).

Demby, Gene. “Imagining A World Without Prisons for Communities Defined by Them.”           National Public Radio. 2016.

Durose, Matthew R., Alexia D. Cooper, and Howard N. Snyder. “Recidivism of Prisoners

Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, April 2014, NCJ 244205.

DuVernay, Ava, dir. 13th. 2016; Durango, CO: Forward Movement LLC, 2016, Netflix.

Gieseking, J.J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, & S. Saegert (eds.). 2014. The People, Place, &

            Space Reader. New York: Routledge. (Chapters 9 and 10 used in essay).

McLeod, Allegra. “Prison Abolition and Grounded Justice.” UCLA Law Review. 2015.

Miller, Lisa L. Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty, and the Politics of Crime

Control. Oxford University Press: New York, 2008.

Yadin, Daniel. “More Than Prison Reform: Prison Abolition.” Thepolitic.org. 2017.

 

[1] Davis, A. Y. (2007). Racialized Punishment and Prison Abolition. In A Companion to African‐

American Philosophy (eds T. L. Lott and J. P. Pittman). 362.

[2] DuVernay, Ava, dir. 13th. 2016; Durango, CO: Forward Movement LLC, 2016, Netflix.

[3] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

New York: [Jackson, Tenn.]: New Press; Distributed by Perseus Distribution, 2010.

[4] Gieseking, J.J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, & S. Saegert (eds.). 2014. The People, Place, &

Space Reader. New York: Routledge.

[5] McLeod, Allegra. “Prison Abolition and Grounded Justice.” UCLA Law Review. 2015.

[6] Miller, Lisa L. Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty, and the Politics of Crime

Control. Oxford University Press: New York, 2008.

[7] Gieseking, J.J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, & S. Saegert (eds.). 2014. The People, Place, &

Space Reader. New York: Routledge.

[8] Durose, Matthew R., Alexia D. Cooper, and Howard N. Snyder. “Recidivism of Prisoners

Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, April 2014, NCJ 244205.

[9] Yadin, Daniel. “More Than Prison Reform: Prison Abolition.” Thepolitic.org. 2017.

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