Voices of abolition

It's time to stop talking about reforming prisons and to start working for their complete abolition. That means basically three things:

First, admitting that prisons can't be reformed, since the very nature of prisons requires brutality and contempt for the people imprisoned.

Second, recognizing that prisons are used mainly to punish poor and working class people, and forcing the courts to give equal justice to all citizens.

Third, replacing prisons with a variety of alternative programs. We must protect the public from the few really dangerous people who now go to prison. But more important, we must enable all convicted persons to escape the poverty which is the root cause of the crimes the average person fears most: crimes such as robbery, burglary, mugging or rape.

—Prison Research Project, The Price of Punishment, p. 57

Fervent pleas to abolish prisons collectively present powerful testimony to the necessity of bringing an end to caging:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me; He has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

—Jesus, quoted in Luke 4, 16-30

That Jesus called for the abolition of prison, comes as no surprise. However, during the past century, there have been constant and unexpected calls for prison abolition. Here we present a few from the wide spectrum of abolitionist voices.

Judge Carter, of Ohio, avowed himself a radical on prison discipline. He favored the abolishment of prisons, and the use of greater efforts for the prevention of crime.

He believed they would come to that point yet .... Any system of imprisonment or punishment was degradation, and could not reform a man. He would abolish all prison walls, and release all confined within them...

—Minutes of the 1870 Congress of the American Prison Association/American Correctional Association

There ought to be no jails; and if it were not for the fact that the people on the outside are so grasping and heartless in their dealings with the people on the inside, there would be no such institutions as jails .... The only way in the world to abolish crime and criminals is to abolish the big ones and the little ones together. Make fair conditions of life. Give men a chance to live .... Nobody would steal if he could get something of his own some easier way. Nobody will commit burglary when he has a house full. The only way to cure these conditions is by equality. There should be no jails. They do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish. If you would wipe them out there would be no more criminals than now. They terrorize nobody. They are a blot upon any civilization, and a jail is an evidence of the lack of charity of the people on the outside who make the jails and fill them with the victims of their greed.

—Clarence Darrow, An Address to the Prisoners in the Cook County Jail, Chicago, Illinois-1902

The proposal toward which the book points... is...nothing less than that penal imprisonment for crime be abolished.... The author can hardly escape the apprehension that the mass of the public will dismiss this as preposterous and impossible. And yet nothing is more certain in my opinion than that penal imprisonment for crime must cease, and if it be not abolished by statute, it will be by force.

—Julian Hawthorne, The Subterranean Brotherhood (New York, McBride, Nast, 1914) pp. xii-xiv

We must destroy the prison, root and branch. That will not solve our problem, but it will be a good beginning.... Let us substitute something. Almost anything will be an improvement. It cannot be worse. It cannot be more brutal and more useless.

—Frank Tannenbaum, Crime and the Community (New York, Ginn, 1938)

The American prison system makes no sense. Prisons have failed as deterrents to crime. They have failed as rehabilitative institutions. What then shall we do? Let us face it! Prisons should be abolished.

The prison cannot be reformed. It rests upon false premises. Nothing can improve it. It will never be anything but a graveyard of good intentions. Prison is not just the enemy of the prisoner. It is the enemy of society.

This behemoth, this monster error, has nullified every good work. It must be done away with.

—John Bartlow Martin, Break Down the Walls (New York, Ballantine, 1954) p. 266

The prison, as now tolerated, is a constant threat to everyone's security. An anachronistic relic of medieval concepts of crime and punishment, it not only does not cure the crime problem; it perpetuates and multiplies it. We profess to rely upon the prison for our safety; yet it is directly responsible for much of the damage that society suffers at the hands of offenders. On the basis of my own experience, I am convinced that prisons must be abolished.

—Ralph Banay, formerly in charge of the psychiatric clinic at Sing Sing Prison, "Should Prisons be Abolished?" New York Times Magazine, January 30, 1955

Elsewhere it has been shown that prisons provide no real safety for society and no real reform of criminals. Most people realize this, at least insofar as they agree that crime is generally caused by social factors and in the long run can be dealt with only by changes in the social and economic spheres. Why the logical next step of abolishing the prison system is not made seems to be because, as with other aspects of our society, it is easier to fall back on a distant and impersonal system that already exists than to try to create new alternatives.

—Gunnar Knutson, ex-prisoner, Behind Bars (Chicago, Cadre, December 1970)

One of the most difficult and one of the most ignored of our social problems is the problem of prisons—a problem which might be ameliorated thru drastic prison reform, but which can be solved only thru the abolition of prisons.

The elimination of imprisonment may at first seem like a radical step, but alternatives to imprisonment are already widespread-fines and probation are often used, and traffic law violators are sometimes sentenced to attend classes in driver education. The advocacy of prison abolition implies simply that other courses of action, including, sometimes, doing nothing at all, are preferable to imprisonment.

—David S. Greenberg, The Problem of Prisons

Today's prison system should be abolished because it is a system predesigned and constructed to warehouse the people of undeveloped and lower economical communities. Under the existing social order men and women are sent to prison for labor and further economical gain by the state. Where else can you get a full day's work for two to sixteen cents an hour, and these hours become an indeterminate period of years. This is slave labor in 20th century America ...

Our only hope lies in the people's endeavor to hear our protest and support our cause. Building more and better prisons is not the solution-build a thousand prisons, arrest and lock up tens of thousands of people; all will be to no avail. This will not arrest poverty, oppression, and the other ills of this unjust social order .... We need people who will stand up and speak out when it is a matter of right or wrong, of justice or injustice, of struggling or not struggling to help correct and remove conditions affecting the people, all I ask is that the people support us, I will break my back in helping bring peace and justice upon the face of the earth.

I've seen too much injustice to remain mute or still. The struggle against injustice cannot be muffled by prison walls.

—A letter from prison by John Cluchette, printed in Angela Davis, If They Come in the Morning (New York, Signet, 1971)

After a single night at the Nevada State Prison, for example, 23 judges from all over the U.S. emerged "appalled at the homosexuality," shaken by the inmates' "soul-shattering bitterness" and upset by "men raving, screaming and pounding on the walls." Kansas Judge E. Newton Vickers summed up, "I felt like an animal in a cage. Ten years in there must be like 100 or maybe 200." Vickers urged Nevada to "send two bulldozers out there and tear the damn thing to the ground."

—"The Shame of Prisons," Time, January 18, 1971

It is time to begin to dismantle the prison system--lock, stock and bar. It is beyond renovation. The only way to save it is to destroy it--or, most of it.

No objective examination of the best prison system can avoid the conclusion that it is primitive, coercive, and dehumanizing. No rational, let alone scientific, appraisal of treatment or rehabilitation programs within the prison setting can assess them as anything but a total sham. The best efforts of correctional personnel are doomed to frustration and failure, whether measured by recidivism rates or any other reasonable standards of "progress."

—Emanuel Margolis, senior editor, Connecticut Bar Journal, Vol. 46,3(1972)

I am persuaded that the institution of prison probably must end. In many respects it is as intolerable within the United States as was the institution of slavery, equally brutalizing to all involved, equally toxic to the social system, equally subversive of the brotherhood of man, even more costly by some standards, and probably less rational.

—Federal Judge James Doyle, Western District of Wisconsin, Morales v. Schmidt 340 Federal Supplement (W.D. Wis. 1972) pp. 544,548-49

Forget about reform; it's time to talk about abolishing jails and prisons in American society.

The killing of George Jackson and the massacre at Attica have turned a real but hesitant concern about prisons into a sizable movement...

Still--abolition? Where do you put the prisoners? The "criminals?" What's the alternative?

First, having no alternative at allwould create less crime than the present criminal training centers do.

Second, the only full alternative is building the kind of society that does not need prisons: A decent redistribution of power and income so as to put out the hidden fire of burning envy that now flames up in crimes of property--both burglary by the poor and embezzlement by the affluent. And a decent sense of community that can support, reintegrate and truly rehabilitate those who suddenly become filled with fury or despair, and that can face them not as objects--"criminals"--but as people who have committed illegal acts, as have almost all of us.

—Arthur Waskow, resident fellow, Institute for Policy Studies, Saturday Review, January 8, 1972

No longer am I interested in or concerned with prison reform. Neither am I interested in or concerned with making life more bearable inside prisons or protecting the legal rights of those behind the walls. I am interested only in the eradication of prisons.

Should this seem to be the attitude of a "hardcore," "bitter," "incorrigible" radical, the credit must go to those who lock my barred door each night.

—James W. Clothey, Jr., Vermont Prisoner Solidarity Committee, NEPA News, January 1974

We need to create an atmosphere in which abolition can take place. It will require a firm alliance between those groups, individuals and organizations which understand that this will not happen overnight. Just as the slavery abolitionist movement extended over decades, we must be prepared to struggle at length. But we must start, we must fuel the fires, we must make the alliance that will gain us victory.

—John Boone, former Commissioner of Corrections, Massachusetts, Fortune News, May 1976

We are working for a society in which the worth and the preservation of dignity of all people is of the first priority. Prisons are a major obstacle to the realization of such a society. NEPA stands for the abolition of prisons by all means possible.

We believe that the primary task of the prisoner movement at this time is to organize and educate in the communities, work places and prisons to develop the mass support needed to abolish the prison system.

—Resolution passed by the Ex-Con Caucus, 2nd Annual Northeast Prisoners' Association Meeting, Franconia, New Hampshire, NEPA News, April/May 1975

Scores of groups focus on changing portions of the criminal (in)justice systems but few links exist between our efforts. We have no common ideology, language or identification of goals, no mechanism for a coalition. Yet the basis for an alliance is present.

Prison abolitionists arise from a living tradition of movements for social justice. Most especially is their connection with the 19th-century struggle against slavery. Imprisonment is a form of slavery--continually used by those who hold power for their own ends. And just as superficial reforms could not alter the cruelty of the slave system, so with its modern equivalent--the prison system. The oppressive situation of prisoners can only be relieved by abolishing the cage and, with it, the notion of punishment.

Advocates of swift & massive change

The most common cry for abolition is one using such slogans as "Tear Down the Walls" and "Free All Prisoners." These anguished demands have been issued by a wide range of persons including judges, physicians, prisoners, ex-prisoners and anarchists, to name a few.

Very often this graphic message is accompanied by calls for community alternatives, or if none can be satisfactorily developed—no alternatives at all. Doing nothing is seen as a better response than imprisonment.

The demand for immediate abolition of prisons speaks to the urgency of freeing prisoners from oppressive situations. It admonishes us to act swiftly to end imprisonment. Such demands also serve to raise public consciousness to the need for fundamental change.

Mere repetition of slogans, on the other hand, does not suggest a process for crumbling those walls, and it may even play into public fear. The myth that prison protects is widespread. To a public immersed in the myths of prison protection, the image of prison walls suddenly being torn down can create unnecessary fear and a backlash that ultimately may inhibit change.

Nevertheless, it is important to observe that the closest anyone has come to abolishing an existing prison system, involved a relatively abrupt strategy. The almost total abolition of juvenile prisons in Massachusetts occurred because of a rare combination of personal creativity and the power invested in that person by the legislature. Dr. Jerry Miller, Director of the Department of Youth Services, in three years emptied all but one juvenile prison in Massachusetts by "transferring" the young prisoners into a variety of community alternative living situations. Miller believes "swift and massive change" is the only sure way to phase out juvenile institutions: "Slow-phased winding down can mean no winding down," and often insures they'll "wind up" again. [1]

Individual prison closings have been cited by some prison changers as examples of "Tearing Down the Walls." This is usually not the case. For instance, Vermont's Windsor Prison was shut in August 1975, leaving Vermont the only state other than Alaska without a maximum security institution. However, dispersement of 22 prisoners into "secure" federal institutions in other states and the balance of the population into smaller community prisons merely re-distributed prisoners--it didn't abolish caging. The walls still stand.


The most hopeful constitutionalists support the theory that prison walls will eventually collapse under the weight of mounting legal pressure. They recommend a dual strategy: pressures by prisoners "via constitutional case law" from within, and social and legal pressure from reformists, legal advocates and abolitionists, from without. [2]

Many prison litigation advocates describe prisons as "lawless agencies," almost totally non-responsive to due process of law-or law itself.[3] Because the constitution should follow a person into prison, the prisoners' legal struggle is one for rights-not privileges which can be manipulated or withdrawn as a control device. Prisons lack substantive and procedural safeguards to redress grievances. Since rights cannot be guaranteed, prisons per se are profoundly unconstitutional and illegal.[4]

These legal advocates are optimistic about the courts' ability to demand that prison administrators enforce rights for prisoners. They see the system gradually rendered impotent by a combination of forces.

Others, tho constantly loyal and active in the movement for prisoners' constitutional rights, are less optimistic. They caution against exaggerating the possibilities of litigation, both in impact and implementation.[5] They remind reformers and abolitionists of the enormous problems which lie in translating a court decision into reality.

Whether or not we are skeptical of constitutional approaches, we can appreciate them as one of the most promising components of a movement to abolish prisons. Four substantial forces for change are at work in a dynamic pattern:

Advocates of moratorium

In response to an unprecedented wave of prison/jail construction across the country,[8] the prestigious National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) issued a policy statement in April 1972, calling for a halt to construction of all prisons, jails, juvenile training schools and detention homes, pending maximum utilization of non-institutional alternatives to incarceration.[9]

In January 1973, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals [10] recommended a ten-year moratorium on prison construction "unless an analysis of the total criminal justice and adult corrections systems produces a clear finding that no alternative is possible." They also recommend the phasing out of mega-institutions at the earliest possible time.

William Nagel, Director of the American Foundation and a former prison administrator, has repeatedly called for a moratorium on building new prisons, jails and training schools. [11]

Organizations representing ex-prisoner groups, religious denominations, prison reformers, abolitionists and others have added their voices to the swell for moratorium. The National Moratorium on Prison Construction, established in Washington in February 1975, provides staff, data and funding for a national impetus to halt federal and state construction.

Peace advocates

The peace movements' strategies and tactics are often the same as abolitionists; so are the individuals and institutions opposing them. But compared to antiwar activists, abolitionists are fledglings in challenging the criminal (in)justice systems' war model, its militarized terminology and weaponry, its command and control systems and its threat of massive retaliation.

Allowing public views of crime and criminals to be shaped by those who strategize the "war on crime" is equal to permitting perceptions of war and politics to be shaped by Pentagon generals. The peace movement provides us with an analysis of events and alternative solutions to foreign policy problems. A similar nonmilitary interpretation of crime and justice issues is needed. Solutions free from the violence of caging or death are required. It is essential that abolitionists join together to begin to build that kind of movement capability.

In the eyes of some, we are already bound together. They have dismissed us as "dreamers, crackpots and sentimentalists." [12] But we have learned that the real "dreamers" are criminal (in)justice planners who place poor and powerless people inside exorbitantly expensive cages for arbitrary periods of time, expecting this cruel process to "rehabilitate" individuals and reduce crime.

It is appalling to discover that altho "experts" and "professionals" have few solutions to the problems of crime, they remain welded to the gargantuan, bureaucratic and bankrupt prison system. It is a system that continues to expand as it fails, grinding up billions of taxpayers' dollars along with the lives of prisoners and their families, spewing out damaged human beings, further alienated from their communities.

Tho the above strategies cover a wide range of concepts and tactics, most prison changers are bound together by at least two commonly held beliefs:

Developing an ideology

In reversing the prison response to crime and social inequities, we need to be confident that our abolitionist advocacy is rooted in the most humane, useful and realistic points of view. Most changes needed to reduce crime and eliminate prisons lie outside the criminal (in)justice systems—in the cultural values and institutions of society. [13] These causal factors necessitate broader systemic analysis. For the purposes of this handbook, however, we limit our focus to the connections between social, economic and cultural causes of crime and the use of prisons as a social control mechanism.

On the basis of our analysis, we have formulated a series of practical abolitionist actions. These strategies rest on an ideology—a set of beliefs and values which serve as reference points for our actions.

We advocate a three-pronged abolitionist ideology: (1) Economic and social justice for all, (2) concern for all victims and (3) rather than punishment, reconciliation in a caring community.

Economic & social justice

Persons in daily touch with society's victims, have more clarity about injustice in our society than they do a vision of what a just system might entail. Most of our energies and responses have been directed toward bringing occasional relief to the victimized—issue by issue, cruelty by cruelty—on both sides of the wall. We cannot profess an innocence of the root causes that give rise to collective injustices of racism, poverty, sexism, ageism and repression which flourish in our society while, at the same time, we continue to relieve individual sufferings. Unequal distribution of power and wealth does not occur in a vacuum. It results from a series of economic, social and cultural arrangements which benefit only a few. [14]

Justice is difficult to define. Traditionally we think of it in terms of fair dealing and the rescue of the exploited, associating it with freedom, social progress and democracy. But when we speak of justice as being "meted out" as a retributive response, the term is used not as something good, helpful or valuable, but as something to hurt and punish.

For the abolitionist, justice is not simply a collection of principles or criteria, but the active process of preventing or repairing injustice. [16]

If there were but one word to describe the necessary ingredient for acquiring a more just economic and social order, that word would be "empowerment."

...People must be treated as complete human beings; they must be afforded the freedom of the whole range of society, in all its phases and aspects. People must be asked to think free and reach for everything they want to be and be given their social share of the means to achieve it. This requires community participation, a new socialization which is mutually supporting.

-The Action Committee of Walpole Prison, NEPA News, April/May 1975

The creation of new, caring communities where power and equality of all social primary goods [17] will be institutionally structured and distributed to every member is implicit in the long range goals of those who would see penal sanctions drastically reduced and eliminated. But the new community will not miraculously appear. Its creation rests upon the participation and empowerment of all its members.

The focus on power is the major issue. The only meaningful way to change the prevailing American system of liberty for the free, justice for some, and inequality for all, is thru shifts in the distribution of power. [18] Any ghetto dweller can link powerlessness to poverty—it is caused by lack of money. They are poor because they have first, insufficient income—and second, no access to methods of increasing that income-that is, no power.[19]

Who decides? Who benefits?

If being poor is having no money, "poverty in the U.S. is almost a picayune problem. A redistribution of about $15 billion a year (less than two percent of the Gross National Product) would bring every poor person above the present poverty line." [20] The amount involved is less than half the U.S. annual expenditure on the Vietnam War.

Yet decisions are now being made by the powerful to spend at least $20 billion on the construction of new prisons to house the powerless. Cages which cost from $24,000 to $50,000 each to construct [21] will provide space behind the walls for many who have never had decent housing in the community. In New York, it will cost an average of $13,000 a year to keep each prisoner on the cage side of the wall. A willingness to commit these resources to the community would improve the lives of those who are targets for imprisonment as well as society in general.

Thus the questions "Who decides?" and "Who benefits?" are most relevant. They must be raised repeatedly. If the just equalization of power, resources, income and self-respect could rehabilitate the community, who decides otherwise? As abolitionists seek answers by engaging in power structure research, strategies for change will emerge.

True community requires the exercise of power as a condition for self-esteem and full humanity. The need for potency, which is another way of phrasing the struggle for self-esteem, is common to all of us. "We see its positive form in the rebellion at Attica, where the leader of the revolting prison inmates proclaimed: 'We don't want to be treated any longer as statistics, as numbers .... We want to be treated as human beings, we will be treated as human beings.' "[22]

At Attica the response by those in power to requests for humane treatment was raw force—resulting in a massacre. At the time of the 1971 rebellion, Black and Spanish-speaking prisoners made up 70 percent of the prison population; 50 percent of the prison population received 25 cents a day for their labors; all were fed on a daily budget of 65 cents each in an atmosphere of daily degradation and humiliation charged with racism. And little has changed since 1971. [24]

Prison is a microcosm of society. The abuse of selected and particular segments of the population labeled "criminal" is rampant on both sides of the walls. The struggle for justice should be the primary agenda for all concerned Americans.

Concern for all victims

Abolitionists define victims as all those who have suffered either by collective or individual acts of violence. Victims usually feel powerless to alter their situations since few avenues for relief are available. [25]

Without relief or opportunities for constructive action, feelings of powerlessness can easily turn to rage and violence. [26] Thus, out of frustration, victims often become victimizers themselves, setting off new cycles of punishment and violence. The need to "get even" is satisfied by engaging in vengeful behavior toward the oppressor or a symbol of the oppressor. If no other remedies are apparent, victims of collective social and economic oppression strike back at society and its members. Victims of individual criminal acts strike back by demanding long prison terms or sometimes death for the lawbreaker. In order to break this cycle of violence and vengeance, as well as bring needed relief, all victims must have access to services, resources and redress of grievances.

The voices of victims of violent and repressive societal structures and practices can be heard thru prisoners' perceptions of themselves as "victims of a society which never gave them a chance; victims of a criminal justice system which selects a few to be incarcerated; and victims of a prison system which breeds a bitterness and self-contempt. It is understandable, then," they say, "when a public cries out 'What about the victim?' that the man or woman in the prison cell responds with, 'I am a victim. What about me?' "[27]

Collective victims of institutional racism and sexism, of familial violence, of corporate indifference, of the lawlessness of prisons and other total institutions all cry out, "What about me?" What aid and relief is there for these victims of violent acts not presently considered illegal?

The long range solutions are clear. Relief for victims of social structures and practices will occur as we move toward a just society, casting out inequities, racism, sexism, violence and lawlessness and inhumane institutional practices. In the interim, we must hear victims' grievances and respond to their emergency needs. And like all members of the community, victims must be empowered to act upon their repressive situations—to change them by nonviolently countering the forces that victimize them.

Victims of individual criminal behavior are forgotten people, seldom collectively identified as a group with immediate and crucial needs. Rarely are they at the center of public policy, [28] even tho protection of the society is a responsibility of the state. Ironically, most victims of violent crimes are from economically deprived or minority groups; thus, they are twice victimized.

Public attention fostered by the media is riveted on punishment of selected lawbreakers, ignoring the plight of victims. The criminal (in)justice systems shift the focus away from the victim's needs to punishment of the lawbreaker. Millions of taxpayers' dollars are wasted in punishing and incarcerating the poor and minorities, while little is spent in responding to victims' (or lawbreakers') needs. The victim's physical or material loss or damage, personal degradation, suffering and grief are hardly acknowledged as the systems concentrate on revenge against the lawbreaker. Punishment of the lawbreaker becomes the main business of the state.

In almost all cases, damage done to the victim is regarded as a private matter, to be dealt with by the victim alone. Draining the lawbreakers' financial resources thru legal expenses and fines or removing them from the community thru incarceration, prevents them from making direct restitution to the victims. Thus one important remedial option for victims and wrongdoers is eliminated. In lieu of restitution to victims, the development of state victim compensation plans is crucial to the victims' well-being, especially that majority who are poor. [29]

An entire range of victim services can be made available to the victims of crime, preferably by peers. They include listening and responding to victims' emergency needs; arranging for restitution by the victimizer; securing compensation from the state; providing personal, psychological and legal support and re-education and training to avoid further victimization.

The availability of remedies for victims of crime is central to reducing the victims' need for vengeance and retribution, which grows hand in hand with frustration in failing to find relief.[30]

Reconciliation rather than punishment

The present criminal (in)justice systems care little about the wrongdoer's need or the victim's loss. The abolitionist response seeks to restore both the lawbreaker and the victim to full humanity, to lives of dignity and integrity in a caring community.

The community we hope to build is one that assures us our basic needs and inwardly binds us in responsibility for each other. The commission of crimes by individuals from all strata of society, and the almost total disregard for the victims of crime is a reflection of the breakdown of community—the lack of rootedness in the idea of community.

Abolishing the punishment of prison is a fundamental step in abolishing the present punitive criminal (in)justice systems. [32] Helping both wrongdoer and wronged to resolve their differences thru mediation, restitution and other reconciliatory practices, are alternatives we can build into the new system of justice.

Restitution offers the broadest range of possibilities on which to base a new system of justice. Restitution as we define it requires the wrongdoer to restore the victim to his/her situation before the criminal act occurred. But what is referred to as "creative restitution" can go far beyond that temporary response. It is described as a life-long voluntary task that requires "a situation be left better than before the offense was committed ... beyond what any law or court requires, beyond what friends and family expect, beyond what a victim asks, beyond what conscience or super-ego demands . . . only a 'second mile' is restitution in its broadest meaning of a complete restoration of good will and harmony." [33]

Do the conditions for a new reconciliatory system exist in our fragmented, technological and competitive society? The potential is there, the yearning for true community is consistent with ideals common to our culture. The Christian principle of loving kindness toward every neighbor, including the wrongdoer; the Jewish principle of chesed or steadfast love binding the total community; the Golden Rule of universal benevolence—all are cherished ethics. But they are more than abstract ideals to which abolitionists aspire. They are ideals to be made operational in our programs and strategies to abolish prisons.

Theologian, criminologist and prisoner alike see the healing and restoration of community as the way to reconciliation between the wrongdoer and the wronged:

The wheels of criminal justice should turn in the effort to restore the wholeness of the community. In many so-called primitive societies, especially in Africa, that is the goal in practice. A case is not completed, in many an African village or tribal council, until victim and family are reconciled with offender and family in such a way as to draw the whole disrupted community together. Often it is far from being easy. It would be even harder here in our complex society, but only as we work for that goal can we hope to heal the wounds that are both causes and effects of crime.

—L. Harold DeWolf, theologian in "Crime, Justice and the Christian," ESA Forum—7

...and this is what works, and what has always worked, among people who care for each other, and who give each other offense. The offense is viewed as a joint responsibility. The offense is taken as a symptom that something is drastically wrong—and that something decisive is needed to correct it ... restitution and mutual service as instruments of reconciliation—these are the ways in which offenses are dealt with among the kind of conscience which demands that they treat others as they themselves would wish to be treated ... the change called for is the transformation of a criminal justice system based on retaliation and disablement to a system based on reconciliation thru mutual restitution.

—Richard Korn, criminologist in "Of Crime, Criminal Justice and Corrections," University of San Francisco Law Review, October 1971, pp. 44-74

We are not condemned to live in crime-fear, oppression, constriction, depression, joblessness, sickness. We have the power to create, and we must free that power as it has never been freed before. And, as it always has, once freed, it will offer us a world of inconceivable wonder.

—The Action Committee, Walpole Prison, NEPA News, April/May 1975

Abolition strategies

We must keep in mind that with the exception of capital punishment, prison is the ultimate power the democratic state exercises over a citizen. That prisons fail miserably at their professed objectives-rehabilitation, deterrence and protection—is immaterial to their survival. These failings, along with cruel, dehumanizing prison practices, have constantly been exposed by rebelling prisoners, by shocked reformers, by governmental commissions and academicians. But exposes alone do not determine the fate of prisons.

What determines the survival and expansion of prisons is their success in controlling particular segments of the population. Prisons, the end repositories of the criminal (in)justice systems, maintain the concept of a "criminal class" selected with discretion. Such discretionary power can be wielded indiscriminately by functionaries such as police, district attorneys, judges and the parole apparatus.[34]

Functionaries of the criminal (in)justice systems represent the powerful and influential. Their use of vast discretionary power distorts the principles of justice. Recognizing and identifying the locus and misuse of such power is central to an abolitionist approach to prison change.

If we are unclear about power and how it operates, we will be impeded in our ability to properly analyze specific prison situations. As a result we will find ourselves grappling with only the outer layers of the criminal (in)justice systems rather than the core. We will be relegated to acting upon surface reforms—those which legitimize or strengthen the prison system. We define abolitionist reforms as those which do not legitimize the prevailing system, but gradually diminish its power and functions.

This is the key to an abolitionist perspective on social change. Abolition is a long range struggle, an unending process: it is never "finished," the phasing out is never completed. Strategies and actions recommended in this handbook seek to gradually limit, diminish, or restrain certain forms of power wielded by the criminal (in)justice systems.

The pressure is excessive for abolitionists to immediately produce a "finished" blueprint, to solve every problem, to deal with every "criminal" before we can begin to deal with and change the systems. The first step toward abolition occurs when we break with the established prison system and at the same time face "unbuilt ground." Only by rejecting what is "old and finished" do we give the "new and unfinished" a chance to appear.[35] Pursuing an abolition continuum strategy, we can undertake a program of concrete, direct and immediate abolitions of portions of the system beginning with abolishing further prison/jail construction.

Sometimes our recommended strategies and actions utilize conventional judicial and legislative processes. Abolitionists are not apprehensive about working within the system, so long as it permits us to change and limit the system. When systemic options prove inadequate, abolitionists strive for newer and more creative approaches—building alternatives to existing structures and processes.

As with all social change, prison abolition produces many paradoxes. We work in the here and now: a quarter of a million prisoners suffer in cages; plans or construction are underway for the building of hundreds upon hundreds of jails and prisons while the economy declines for the poor and the powerless. To move from this shocking reality toward the vision of a just, prisonless society, requires a host of in between strategies and reforms.

These interim, or abolishing-type reforms, often may appear to contradict our long range goal of abolition, unless we see them as part of a process—a continuum process—moving toward the phasing out of the prison system. If interim strategies become ends in themselves, we will reinforce the present system, changed in detail only.

Modern reforms attempt to mask the cruelty of caging. Our goals are not diverted by handsome new facades, the language of "treatment" and prison managers who deftly gild the bars. Present reforms will not abolish the cage unless they continue to move toward the constant reduction of the function of prisons.

The abolitionist's task is clear—to prevent the system from masking its true nature. The system dresses itself up: we undress the system. [36] We strip it down to the reality: the cage and the key. We demystify. We ask the simple but central political question: "Who decides?" We raise the moral issue: "By what right?" We challenge the old configurations of power. We begin to change the old, begin to create the new.

Power & prison change

Power, which comes from the root word "posse" or "to be able," can be described as the ability to cause or prevent change—to be able to make decisions about the arrangements under which we live and about the events which make up the history of our period. Power should be of overriding concern to all human beings: what we are able to bring about by our own will and action regardless of societal barriers or limitations, determines the quality of our lives.[37]

We have been socialized to accept the most common view and mystique of power, reflected in the pyramid-like structures which dominate our lives: governmental, military, corporate, educational and other hierarchical institutions and bureaucracies. This learned view sees power vested in and emanating from those at the top of the pyramid, controlling those who occupy lesser roles or stations. Power from this perspective is seen as relatively fixed—strong and unyielding, not changeable. People who are not in designated power roles are considered dependent upon the decisions of those who are. [38] This view promotes the concept of powerlessness and supports the assumption that people will always have very little control over their own lives. Their choices seem limited indeed: if they cannot get to the top of the pyramid themselves, and few have access, they must obey and fit into the dictates of the existing power structure.

Abolitionists reject this monolithic view of power. We do not consider ourselves dependent on the dictates of the criminal (in)justice systems. Rather, we see the system as ultimately dependent upon our support and cooperation for its existence.

This assumption about institutional power leads to the concept of individual empowerment, supporting the view that power is available to each of us for challenging and abolishing cages. We believe that citizens are the primary source of all power, including prison power. By giving or persistently withholding support of any prison policy or practice, prison power can be altered and diminished.

As Frederick Douglass came to see, the source of power did not rest in the slavemaster, but in the slaves—once they realized they could refuse to be slaves. Similarly, striking prisoners have demonstrated that the power of prisons does not lie in prison managers but in the prisoners who give their consent and cooperation in making prison life possible. When that consent and cooperation is withdrawn, prisons cannot function. Those of us outside the walls need to recognize that we give our consent and cooperation to prisons.

It is our responsibility to discover the ways and points at which our lives touch the prison structure—how and when we become collaborators with the evil system of caging. By uncovering those links, we can withdraw our complicity and begin to exercise moral and political power by refusing to cooperate with the caging process.

There are many ways to reduce our complicity with the prison system. For example, do we intervene when prison budgets are prepared, demanding that prisons be cut back and the monies placed in community alternatives? Do we present alternative budgets and organize education/action protests to help get them adopted? Do we escalate our noncooperation by withholding our taxes that pay for cages in the same spirit that antiwar activists withhold taxes that pay for war?

Abolitionists can identify other points where we are linked to the system of caging. Thru elected legislators, thru penal codes enacted into law in our names, thru our use of the systems' dishonest language and in dozens of other ways we give our daily consent to the prison system—consent which we have the power to withdraw.

It is crucial also that abolitionists learn how to research the prison power structure. To diminish the prison pyramid, we must know how the pyramid is built. Who are the rulers and their functionaries? Are they elected, appointed or volunteers? What are their qualifications? What interests do they represent? Who has the power to make decisions about which issues?

Another aspect of power is that it cannot merely be stored for emergencies. If we do not use power, it passes away. Once lost, it may not be found.


1. See Videotape of Jerry Miller at JSAC (Joint Strategy and Action Committee) meeting, "Stop Prison Construction," Northern California, February 16, 1974, American Friends Service Committee Videotape Section, Philadelphia.

2. Eugene V. Natale and Cecelia F. Rosenberg, "And the Walls Come Tumbling Down: An Analysis of Social and Legal Pressures Bearing on the American Prison System," New York Law Forum, Vol. 19 (1974), p. 611.

3. David Greenberg and Fay Stender, "The Prison as a Lawless Agency," Buffalo Law Review, Vol. 21 (1972), pp. 799-838.

4. Max Stern, "Cruel and Usual Punishment: A Constitutional Lawyer Argues Prisons are Illegal," Boston Alter Dark, Special Supplement, Massachusetts-Doin' Time. "Prison life is profoundly unconstitutional. What goes on inside Massachusetts' state and county institutions not only transgresses the Bill of Rights, but, indeed, is the very antithesis of the rule of law."

5. Fred Cohen, "The Discovery of Prison Reform," Buffalo Law Review, Vol. 21 (1972), p. 887.

6. Holt v. Sarver, 309 Federal Supplement 362, 365 (E.D. Ark. 1970)-involved the first judicial attack on an entire system and demonstrated the value of a class action as opposed to an individual lawsuit.

7. Jessica Mitford, Kind and Usual Punishment, p. 255.

8. See materials developed by the National Moratorium on Prison Construction, Washington, D.C. for statistics on projected jail and prison construction nationwide. In "A Perspective on Crime and Imprisonment," November 1975, the cost of prison construction during next period of planning is an estimated $20 billion.

9. A Halt to Institutional Construction in Favor of Community Treatment (pamphlet), National Council on Crime and Delinquency, New Jersey, June 1974.

10. Corrections, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, p. 597.

11. William Nagel, The New Red Barn: A Critical Look at the Modern American Prison, p. 148.

12. Benedict S. Alper, Prisons Inside Out, p. 199.

13. Struggle for Justice, A Report on Crime and Punishment in America, prepared by a working party of the American Friends Service Committee. We frequently cite this book. Hereafter, it will be referred to as Struggle for Justice. This quote is from pp. 12-13. " ... the impossibility of achieving more than a superficial reformation of our criminal justice system without a radical change in our values and a drastic restructuring of our social and economic institutions." Also Toward a New Corrections Policy: Two Declarations of Principles, Statement of Ex-Prisoners Advisory Group, p. 18. "If we are advocating the advancement of corrections, we must also become advocates for social change in the larger society."

14. See Richard K. Taylor, Economics and the Gospel (Philadelphia, United Church Press, 1973). Also Susanne Gowan, George Lakey, et al., Moving Toward a New Society (Philadelphia, New Society Press, 1976).

15. Karl Menninger, The Crime of Punishment, p. 11.

16. Lenore Cahn, ed., Confronting Injustice: The Edmond Calm Reader (Boston, Little Brown, 1966) pp. 385-97. See also for concept of citizens as "consumers of justice."

17. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Massachusetts, Belknap, 1971) pp. 302-303. Social primary goods are defined as "liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the basis of self respect... are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored."

18. William Ryan, Blaming the Victim, p. 240.

19. Ibid, p. 134.

20. Ibid., pp. 117-18.

21. See footnote 8.

22. Rollo May, Power and Innocence (New York, Norton, 1972) p. 32.

23. See Attica: The Official Report of the New York Commission on Attica (New York, Bantam, 1972).

24. "Attica is Termed as Bad as Before 1971 Rebellion," New York Times, July 21, 1976. See also "Attica prisonfive years later: Reforms spotty, despite funds hike," Albany Knickerbocker News, September 14, 1976.

25. For history of victims, see Stephen Schafer, Compensation and Restitution to Victims of Crime. Also Schafer's The Victim and His Criminal.

26. Hans Toch, Violent Men: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Violence (Chicago, Aldine, 1969) p. 220. "Violence feeds on low self-esteem and selfdoubt, and prison unmans and dehumanizes; violence rests on exploitation and exploitative ness, and prison is a power-centered jungle."

27. "What About the Victims?" Fortune News, March 1975, p. 2.

28. Robert Martinson, "The Paradox of Prison Reform" in Gertrude Ezorsky, ed., Philosophical Perspectives on Punishment, p. 323. Martinson advocates shifting attention from the offender (and the state) to the public and especially to the victim, placing the victim at the center of public policy.

29. Schafer, The Victim and His Criminal, p. 112. Restitution in criminal/ victim relationships concerns restoration by the wrongdoer of the victim's position and rights that were damaged or destroyed during the criminal attack. It is an indication of the responsibility of the lawbreaker. Compensation, on the other hand, is an indication of the responsibility of society which compensates the victim for the damage or injury caused by the criminal attack.

Historically, restitution was a living practice. The change from vengeful retaliation to restitution and compensation was part of a natural historical process, to end tribal and personal vendettas for injuries committed. Restitution offered an alternative which was in many ways equally satisfying to the victim or the victim's family and served as a requital of the injury. The influence of state power over restitution was gradually increased. As the state grew more powerful, it claimed a larger and larger share from the compensation given to the victim.

30. Martinson in Ezorsky, ed., p. 323. "I suggest it should be the aim of public policy to protect the public and to inhibit vengefulness by compensating the victim for the failure of the state to provide protection. Revenge wells up when the victim feels the state abandoned him; he has no place to turn for help. Then 'fear of crime' is magnified out of all proportion to risk. Folk-justice is vengeful and subject to intolerable injustice, because the only gain is the momentary alleviation of feelings."

31. See David Janzen, "Jesus and the Offender," Liberty to the Captives, October 1, 1973.

32. See Gilbert M. Cantor, "An End to Crime and Punishment," The Shingle, May 1976.

33. Albert Eglash, "Creative Restitution," Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 48 (1958).

34. Struggle for Justice, p. 124.

35. Thomas Mathieson, The Politics of Abolition, pp. 24-25.

36. Ibid., p. 208.

37. May, pp. 99-100; Ryan, p. 242. See also, C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York, Oxford University Press, 1959) p. 40.

38. Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. See Chapters I and II for further analysis and examples of these concepts.