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Reform and Abolition:
Points of Tension and Connection

Most activists in prison and their allies outside want to reduce the suffering of people in prison and people in communities that are targeted for imprisonment. Many also work to challenge prisons more broadly. Increasingly activists and academics are talking about the points of tension and connection between reform efforts that seek to improve conditions in prison and those that take a more radical abolitionist approach to the problem and call for the eventual elimination of the prison altogether.

While the goals of the prison reform and prison abolition movements are both grounded in a concern for alleviating the suffering of people in prison and communities targeted by the prison industrial complex, there is a growing awareness that the political Right has manipulated and reappropriated the rhetoric and strategies of reform efforts to expand the prison system. There is a resulting need to challenge the Right by identifying those efforts at reform that contribute to an expansion and entrenchment of the system and those efforts that are necessary steps toward a world that no longer relies on imprisonment.

Since the birth of the penitentiary system almost two hundred years ago, the majority of advocates for people in prison have focused on reform as a strategy for reducing the suffering of people in prison. In fact, reform efforts to eliminate public displays of corporal punishment gave birth to the modern penitentiary.1 Once prisons were adopted as the norm, reformers almost immediately began to voice concern about the impact of imprisonment, in particular the effects of isolation on the mental health of people in prison. Moreover, the rise of the prison system occurred in reaction to the abolition of slavery and from very early in its inception the institution was deeply rooted in racism. Immediately following Reconstruction, the Black prison population exploded through the implementation of Black Codes and the development of the convict lease system.2 The legacy of that racism is present today in racial profiling, the tracking of young people of color into state systems, and the disproportionate number of Black and Brown people who continue to populate the prison system.

Reformers historically focused on conditions in prisons. Proponents of women’s rights who were alarmed by sexual violence against women in co-ed prisons argued for separate institutions for women for instance.3 Absent a radical critique of prisons themselves, concerns about conditions for women were used as a justification for the birth and mass expansion of the women’s prison system4 where rampant abuse of women continues.5 In fact, one of the legacies of prison reform (as opposed to radical critique and resistance) is the expansion of the prison industrial complex and the increasing use of the prison as a mechanism of social control and State violence.6

The history of prison reform efforts reveals that mere reform fails to address the inequalities, oppression, and state violence upon which the institution of the prison is built, leaving the violent foundation intact and rendering ineffective attempts to relieve the suffering of oppressed people confined within it.7 Moreover, all too often such reform efforts are re-appropriated by the Right and used to strengthen the prison industrial complex and to make it more impervious to critique, resulting in bigger, "better," and more numerous prisons housing increasing numbers of oppressed people.8 In the contemporary era of the prison, the Right has used a number of strategies to build the system on the backs of reform efforts.

Strategies of Prison Reform Used By the Right To Grow the System


Complaints of overcrowding or decrepit conditions are often taken up by the Right to justify building more prisons. Complaints about how far prisons are from urban centers are used to justify maintaining those prisons and also building new facilities. Complaints about private prisons and arguments that they are worse than public prisons because of abuses within them or the blatant profit motive behind them are seized on by the Right to erase both the egregious human rights abuses and profit-motive that also exist in State-run prisons. Complaints about inadequate healthcare are taken up to justify bigger prison budgets and increases in staffing that rarely materialize as better healthcare and instead build the prison system.

Rather than proposing reforms that are readily co-opted to grow the prison system, arguments can be made that critique prison conditions while also challenging the expansion of prisons. Activists can: argue that decarceration should be the answer to prison overcrowding; organize urban/rural coalitions to close prisons in rural locations and stop new prisons from being constructed; work against privatization while simultaneously fighting against imprisonment in any facility; argue for improvements to healthcare that actually decrease prison spending by providing alternative sentencing and/or releasing sick people in prison.


In many instances, the Right attempts to co-opt reformist language to its own ends to justify and grow the system. Efforts in California to implement a strategy of decarceration for seriously and terminally ill prisoners through compassionate release have been co-opted by that state, for example. California anti-prison activists have argued that prisons are ill-equipped to deal with the needs of seriously and terminally ill prisoners and therefore they should be released to their families or to hospices in their communities. However, in an effort to keep people in prison and increase the number of beds within the system, the rhetoric deployed by anti-prison activists to persuade politicians and the general public that people in prison who are dying deserve to die with dignity is being used by the California Department of Corrections itself. The CDC is now arguing for the creation of hospices within prisons and corrections-controlled skilled nursing facilities in the community that could house prisoners in locked wings.9 This rhetorical reappropriation has had a secondary effect on the prison population by obstructing activist efforts to prevent people, whose seriously compromised health render them particularly vulnerable to the harms of imprisonment from going to prison in the first place-mainly because the State can argue that such people's health will no longer be compromised during imprisonment, so the argument goes, because there are places within the prison to accommodate them.10

Because the rhetoric of public safety has become so entrenched, the State can make the claim that the expansion of the system into skilled nursing care is necessary because a person in prison is a threat to society merely by virtue of her status as a prisoner, regardless of her physical or mental capacity. In fact, the strength of those arguments has increased to the point of absurdity: ostensibly out of security concerns, in 2004 California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have saved California millions of dolllars by allowing the early release of the 13 people in California's prisons determined to be permanently unable to tend to any of their daily needs or in a vegetative state.

To ensure that rhetoric aimed at reducing the suffering of people in prison is not used to justify prison expansion, we can work to ensure that decarceration strategies are intrinsically linked to the rhetoric we use. For example, "compassion" and "dignity" for people facing terminal or serious illness in prison should always be linked with "release" and policy aimed at expanding corrections should be resisted. Moreover, we must make and reaffirm the argument that "compassion" and "dignity," as well as "treatment" and "rehabilitation," are fundamentally at odds with the goals of punishment and prisons.


Because the existing framework for arguments for changes to the system has become so limited, in many instances reformers rely on arguments that have the potential to create short-term solutions for some people in prison at the expense of a longer-term vision to improve life for all people in prison. The Right then seizes on these efforts to consolidate existing notions about safety, justice, and the necessity of prisons.

For instance, when reformers argue that we should decriminalize petty offenses so that the police can go after the "real" criminals, the approach fits perfectly into the Right's strategy of fear-mongering by evoking the need for "public safety" that is used to justify maintaining the system or increasing its punitive response to all others.

In response, we can frame our arguments in ways that avoid pitting one category of prisoner against another. In a campaign to get rid of three-strikes policies for instance, we can argue that imprisoning people is not making communities safer and that instead we should invest the resources that go into incarceration into programs that would allow people to re-enter their communities and be safe and healthy. And we can argue that as a strategic decarceration approach, abolishing three strikes is a step toward eliminating the prison as a central feature of contemporary life.


In many instances, the Right seizes upon political strategies that focus on reforming small parts of the criminal justice system to ensure maintenance of the broader system as a whole. For example, in recent years efforts to abolish the death penalty have gained support in the general public. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of death penalty abolitionists in favor of life imprisonment has limited the terms of the debate around how to address violence and consolidated the idea that imprisonment is the only viable solution. This approach also obscures the fact that people who are targeted for the death penalty, who would then end up in prison for life, are disproportionately poor people of color and mentally ill people of all races. Similarly, the rhetoric of the increasingly popular Innocence Projects, which are geared at aiding only the factually innocent, is taken up to limit the terms of the debate around who in prison deserves legal assistance or public attention to just the innocent. This approach again obscures the abuses that occur against all imprisoned people and the fact that communities of color and poor people of all races are targeted for imprisonment.

In response to these failings, we can use work directed at a specific population or sub-issue to highlight the broader violence and failings of the prison system as a whole. We can work to abolish the death penalty because it is the ultimate expression of the power of the State to enact violence and because it is a way to eliminate people who are "undesirable" from the perspective of the State - poor people, people of color and people with mental illnesses. We can work to free the innocent as a means of highlighting the inequities that impact all people in prison and call in to question the integrity of prisons more broadly.

Strategies Abolitionists and Reformers Can Use To Move Toward a World Without Prisons

We can simultaneously address the needs of people who are suffering in the system currently and challenge the efforts by the Right to co-opt our attempts to change the system by carefully crafting reform strategies that are about diminishing the power of the system and building alternatives to it.

For instance, a focus on strategic decarceration is a significant step toward the ultimate abolition of the prison. Such campaigns focus on: implementing a moratorium on prison construction; closing existing prisons; changing laws and sentencing structures that imprison the greatest numbers of people (such as drug laws, three strikes schemes, property offenses, anti-sex work ordinances, etc); and creating community-based institutions that provide services that people need. When implementing such strategies, however, it is important to build them on rhetorical approaches that do not play into the hands of the Right. An example, which often occurs in relation to death penalty and immigrant rights work, is the pitting of non-violent prisoners (those who "deserve" to be released) against violent prisoners (those who do not) or "innocent" prisoners against "guilty" prisoners.

Though the number of people who are in prison for violent offenses is extremely small, the first question posed to prison abolitionists is the question of how to respond to harms that people inflict. In response, strategies for creating systems of accountability instead of punishment when someone is harmed can be developed without relying on policing and prison. While the antiprison movement has historically challenged racist policing and imprisonment practices, few strategies have been developed for alternative mechanisms of safety and justice. As a result, the anti-violence movement has struggled to respond to interpersonal violence in an era when policing and prisons are often the only available response. Moreover, through a desire to have the State acknowledge the vulnerability of marginalized groups, anti-violence activists often push for increased criminalization, such as hate crimes legislation, as a response to discrimination. Through these practices, activists interested in protecting vulnerable groups can unintentionally bolster the same systems of oppression and State violence that most often target the groups they are seeking to protect. There is a need to break down barriers between and within the anti-prison and anti-violence movements, to expand the definition of violence to include Statesanctioned violence such as imprisonment, and to create tangible alternatives for establishing true safety and justice.

The perceived lack of creative responses to violence has been seized upon by the Right to increase the level of fear about violent crime and present prison as the only response. We know that the numbers of women who are survivors of domestic violence or rape, for instance, have not decreased despite the growing number of people in prison. Therefore, strategies for creating accountability locally and in communities will go a long way to countering the notion that we have no choice but to lock people up. Many of these strategies are in place on a local level and can serve as models for organizers who are developing alternatives to policing and prisons. For instance, Communities Against Rape and Abuse in Seattle develops innovative responses to sexual assault that do not rely on the police; SistaIISista in Brooklyn organizes young women to challenge police abuse through direct action, and Generation Five in San Francisco trains community members to implement responses to child sexual abuse that do not rely on child protective services or the prison system.11

We also can implement changes to language that both ensure that we are not undermining a longer term goal of abolition and reclaim language that has been appropriated by the Right. For instance, we can avoid using language that pits categories of prisoners against each other (innocent vs. guilty, non-violent vs. violent) and we can also reclaim rhetoric that has been used by the Right to grow the system (prisons don't make communities safe but affordable housing, healthcare, food and education do).

Questions To Ask When Developing a New Campaign/Slogan/Rhetorical Approach:

  • Are we responding to conditions by calling for more or "better" prisons?

  • Are we calling for new modes of policing that expand surveillance and policing in our communities (for instance electronic monitoring, house arrest, etc.)?

  • Are we calling for more money/staff to go into the system?

  • Does this pit categories of people against each other?

  • Does this approach ultimately undermine the long-term goal of abolition? How can we shift it without losing our goal of addressing current harms so that it doesn't?

  • Can we build into our strategy ways to reframe rhetoric and reclaim language that has been co-opted by the Right, such as "public safety," "safe communities," "violence against women," "compassion," or "family values?"

Anti-prison activists inside and outside of prison have unmasked the many ways in which prisons are predicated on racism and violence and have clearly argued that there are better ways to deal with social problems and the harms that people inflict than to lock people in cages. Because historically efforts that relied exclusively on reform served to strengthen the system, it is imperative that we take seriously the call to abolish it.

The abolition of the prison is a protracted process, not an overnight transformation. Reforms are necessary on the way to abolition, but as anti-prison activists we need to move away from reform as an endpoint, and we need to consider carefully the impact of short-term goals on the longer-term vision of a world without prisons. Abolition as a goal and strategy allows us to break out of the frame that currently confines our ability to imagine alternatives and pushes us to work strategically toward a world free of the prison industrial complex.

Cassandra Shaylor and Cynthia Chandler are the co-directors of Justice Now, an Oakland-based organization that works with women in prison and local communities to build a safe compassionate world without prisons.


Defending Justice is a publication of Political Research Associates (PRA), an independent nonprofit research center that exposes the Right and larger oppressive movements and institutions. PRA produces research and analytic tools to inform and support progressive activism.

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