It’s a provocative idea, that the consequence for the commission of a crime might be something other than prison. Not petty offenses by first-timers, who don’t get prison now, but the more serious crimes, the ones that do real harm to real people. Yet, this is what Ruth Wilson Gilmore proposes.
Prison abolition, as a movement, sounds provocative and absolute, but what it is as a practice requires subtler understanding. For Gilmore, who has been active in the movement for more than 30 years, it’s both a long-term goal and a practical policy program, calling for government investment in jobs, education, housing, health care — all the elements that are required for a productive and violence-free life. Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack. Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they “mess up.”
There is, built into this view, an assumption that if we created a nation the was fair to all, provided “support” for those in need, “jobs, education, housing, health care,” everyone would lead a productive and violence-free life. Right, Ted Bundy?
But even if Gilmore’s vision ignores the reality that there will be people who, despite being afforded every opportunity to live a law-abiding life, are still going to commit crimes. Some are just greedy. Some are violent. Some will harm others, even without reason. But that doesn’t quite answer the question.
In Morris’s era, the prison was relatively new as the most common form of punishment. In England, historically, people were incarcerated for only a short time, before being dragged out and whipped in the street. As Angela Davis narrates in her 2003 book, “Are Prisons Obsolete?” while early English common law deemed the crime of petty treason punishable by being burned alive, by 1790 this punishment was reformed to death by hanging. In the wake of the Enlightenment, European reformers gradually moved away from corporal punishment tout court; people would go to prison for a set period of time, rather than to wait for the punishment to come. The penitentiary movement in both England and the United States in the early 19th century was motivated in part by the demand for more humanitarian punishment. Prison was the reform.
Before there were prisons, the punishment for most malum in se crimes was death or dismemberment, or at least the infliction of horrifying pain. We are a brutal species. Prison was the kinder, gentler punishment of its day, justified by its isolating the criminal from the public, with an overlay of justification based on some imagined deterrent effect.
While Gilmore’s vision of the goodness of humanity, if given the chance to be its wonderful self, might be unduly rosy, the “if some prison is good, more prison is better” mentality has taken the original reform to places of carceral pointlessness. There certainly are those people about whom Gilmore speaks, the ones who stole a loaf of bread to avoid starvation, the ones who sell drugs to feed their own addiction, the ones who are mentally ill and therefore not quite responsible for their actions.
And then there is the assumption that prison is the fix for all conduct that offends. It’s not as if there was some longitudinal empirical study that compared and contrasted various means of accomplishing the task of eliminating crime. Prison came into fashion as the alternative to drawing and quartering a miscreant, and it was a better option, all things considered. But as a societal mechanism to eradicate the harms law seeks to prevent, to serve the legitimate justifications for criminal punishment, does it work?
What is it there for?
- Specific deterrence
- General deterrence
Certainly, it keeps the bad dudes away from your daughter’s window at night, because they’re locked in a cage, but is that good enough? Is that the best we can come up with? Is there no better way to accomplish the goals of imprisonment, to provide for a productive and law-abiding society for most (though not all, because nothing works for all), without dumping ever-more people in the clink?
Curiously, the sort of nice folks who one might expect would be swayed by Gilmore’s perspective are the very ones who are in as much love with prison as, say, Bill Otis. While many understood the lack of principle reflected in this twit, the responses of the woke were illuminating. It’s not that they don’t emote for the poor, black and downtrodden, but that they are just as vile, hateful, vicious and carceral as their opposites, but toward their own disfavored enemies. Four out of five of the factors that legitimize prison militate strongly against imprisoning Felicity Huffman, but she’s white and privileged, so she should pay for a society that mistreats poor black people? Hell yeah, they say.
The lesson is that one of the five legitimate justifications for prison predominates, and that’s good, old-fashioned retribution. Someone must pay, says the people who weren’t actually harmed, because, well, they must. So what if flipping arguments is the best the woke can come up with to justify their viciousness rather than the other tribes’. They believe it, passionately, and isn’t their passion reason enough?
Gilmore sounds like a particularly good and kind person, even if somewhat overly optimistic about the nature of people. And prison is certainly a bit easier on the flesh than burning at the stake, with at least the hope of coming out afterward alive. But we didn’t end up with ever-more crimes, ever-longer sentences and a lust for incarceration because it offered solutions to the problems of crime. We did it because we’re just a vicious animal. The only thing that seems to evolve is who we hate most at any given moment, and then we take out our viciousness on them.