A Nation Without Prisons?

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
  • Isolation
  • Rehabilitation
  • Retribution

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.

24 thoughts on “A Nation Without Prisons?

  1. Richard Kopf


    Two things in response to your forceful essay, all of which you know but might be instructive to your readers:

    1. In the federal system, and with the exception of rehabilitation which is not explicitly a part of the sentencing goals, 18 U.S.C. section 3553(a) latches on to the goals you describe but in no particular order of importance. For judges like me, sentencing then becomes a sort of ink blot test but worse. Pick a flavor and do your will. Assuming prisons aren’t going away, the body politic would be well advised to pick one rationale. At least then, sentencing would be less of a lottery.

    2. Hate has been fancified into the word retribution or “just punishment.” Believe me when I say I have hated more than a few of the people I have sentenced because of the pure evil of their crimes. Retribution is supposed to be a “safety-valve” for the society writ large so we don’t descend into vigilantism and express our collective hate in the form of violence. If sentencing on the basis of hate offends the sensibilities, then welcome to legal realism.

    Thanks especially for this post. It truly raises profound questions. More importantly, it is truthy on a subject that is too often discussed in mythological terms.

    All the best.


    1. Ray

      Cesare Beccaria addressed these two items in On Crimes and Punishments in 1764. It takes society a little while to catch up. It has only been 255 years–so learn to be just a little more patient.

  2. bl1y

    We’re routinely advancing towards kinder, gentler punishments, but what if the motivation isn’t to be gentler on the prisoner, but rather gentler on ourselves?

    I’m thinking in terms of the sort of enlightenment dignity culture vs. honor culture. Generally speaking, people who buy in to enlightenment, traditional liberal values don’t want to harm other people; it’s just not very appealing and they don’t think it elevates them in any way. By contrast, in an honor culture, you have status not only be being able to harm others, but by being very vocal about your willingness to do so.

    Maybe folks like Gilmore don’t want to execute people, or cut off their hands, or throw them in a dank cell for the rest of their lives not for the prisoners’ benefit, but for their own, because they don’t want to be the sort of base creature that does that to another human being, deserving or not.

  3. John Neff

    If half of the prison inmates returned corrections would be no better than chance. If you take into account lifers about 40% return so it is not much better than chance. A discussion about what would give better results is in order but eliminating prison is not an option in my opinion.

      1. John Neff

        The use of confinement as a punishment is very old but was seldom used becaue of the expense.
        When we figured out how to achieve a high inmate to staff ratio it seemed like a good alternative.
        It seems to me that a major reason we are discussing incarceration is the cost. We have a high incarceration rate because we thought we could afford it. Most other countries know better.

        1. SHG Post author

          Cost became a talking point to get tough-on-crime cons to see that there was something in reform for them too, but it was never the primary point, just a value-added benefit.

  4. Black Bellamy

    Prisons are the worst! Thank god the future is coming. Like an individual tries to steal something, we strap him down and point an iPunisher 12S at him and zap the stealing center in his brain. Just burn it out! I mean yeah we still give them the due process; “We spoke with UMG and they’re definitely on board. Next time BUY your music!” So there’s justice and transparency like that.

  5. Kirk A Taylor

    There is, built into this view, an assumption that if we created a nation the was fair to all

    that was fair to all

    1. SHG Post author

      They don’t do me any good in prison. They need to be out to earn money to retain me for the next case.

      Oh wait, that was the type of traffic you meant, was it.

  6. Shannon

    Exile was also considered a harsh punishment, at least before the advent of planes, trains and automobiles.

  7. j

    For your consideration:
    “Yes, flogging is a severe and even brutal form of punishment. Under the lash, skin is literally ripped from the body. But prison means losing a part of your life and everything you care for. Compared to this, flogging is just a few very painful strokes on the behind. And it’s over in a few minutes.If you had the choice, if you were given the option of staying out of gaol, wouldn’t you choose to be flogged and released?”

    [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]

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