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Mass incarceration is slavery. Abolition is a vision for the future.

by Olayemi Olurin

Yes, when abolitionists say abolition, we do really mean abolish prisons, policing, and America’s entire criminal system as it exists. Yes, going as far as abolishing it is necessary. No, it’s not radical. And yes, we know it’s a process.

Before we can understand how we get to abolition and why it’s necessary, we first must understand why mass incarceration and prisons aren’t, and exactly what they’re meant to accomplish.

When you say you want to abolish the prison industrial complex, or more specifically police and prisons, one of the first things people ask is, ‘How will we address crime?’  The premise that underlies that question—that our existing system actually does address crime—is wrong. Our criminal system does not address crime or stop harm from occurring, because that’s not what it’s intended to do. In fact, it’s meant to reproduce it. America’s criminal system is a vehicle for maintaining racial, social, and economic inequality by criminalizing poor Black and brown communities, using them for labor, and saddling them with debt, trauma, and rap sheets whose lifelong collateral consequences can rarely be outrun. It’s not a coincidence that the same communities dubbed “high-crime areas” are those most historically and perpetually under-resourced, generation after generation.

Understanding why abolition isn’t about depriving us of the means to stop crime or address harm—it’s actually allowing us to design a system where we do those things for the very first time—requires reckoning with the true purpose and goal of our criminal system. Our current criminal legal system perpetuates harm. Mass incarceration is slavery— a fact that the thirteenth amendment explicitly acknowledges by abolishing slavery except for anyone convicted of a crime. In the same breath that the U.S. government purported to abolish slavery, they established the means to continue the practice. 

And the criminal legal system’s slavery business is expanding. America makes over $11 billion yearly in goods produced by prison labor. Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people owe at least $27.6 billion in fines and fees nationwide. Their families spend over $2.9 billion in commissaries each year. This is on top of another $14.8 billion in costs associated with moving, eviction, and homelessness brought on by these cases

No system designed to make money by subjugating specific populations for allegedly committing certain harms actually intends to rid us of those harms. If slavery is a system of bondage where a person is treated as property, deprived of their freedom and personal liberty, and forced to perform labor for another’s gain, mass incarceration is slavery. And it’s making the rich richer but absolutely no one safer.

When we plainly state what mass incarceration is, it’s clear abolition is neither radical nor unnecessary. Still, we recognize that though the right thing to do would be to end it all now in one move, that will not happen.  

Abolition is a vision for the future, a world where we’ve divested from police, courts, and prisons; because instead of pumping money into the criminalization of the most disenfranchised among us, we’ve put that money into addressing the root causes of crime, like poverty, unemployment, poor housing, starved school systems, and mental health issues.

The idea is that by divesting from this system bit by bit—and instead investing in the people and communities the system has enslaved—we will eventually do away with the system altogether. That’s why defunding the police, ending cash bail, and other efforts to decarcerate and take power away from the state are central to building a world without policing and prisons. 

Right now, fear is standing in the way. Fear is what keeps 2 million people locked behind bars while the social ills that led them there rage on, unaddressed. It’s not fear of the people we’ve locked away, it’s fear of reckoning with the fact that despite incarcerating more people than anywhere else in the world and spending more money on some local police departments than other countries spend on their militaries, we aren’t and don’t feel any safer. The fear is in starting over, in the daunting task of what it would mean to start from scratch. The fear of trying to create something new and possibly failing. The fear of admitting that all the harm mass incarceration has caused was for naught and knowing that what’s been done to people, communities, generations, cannot be made right. Fear, just like guilt and defensiveness, cannot create— but it does keep us stuck in place, hiding our problems behind bars.

ICYMI — from The Appeal

As cities look to make new investments in non-police responses to gun violence, Durham, North Carolina’s Bull City United program shows the importance of stable funding and sustained commitment to community-based alternatives, reports Rebekah Barber.

Hollywood depictions of psychopathy have helped fuel harmful criminal legal system responses, write Arielle Baskin-Sommers and Jorge Camacho. Psychopathy is not a moral deficiency, and people with this sort of impairment are not inherently violent or evil.

Chris Blackwell reports that Washington prison officials failed to monitor a court e-filing inbox, leading to serious consequences. One prisoner received documents months after they’d been sent, informing him his appeal had been dismissed without his knowledge. 

Cordell Miller was sentenced to life in prison at 17. After more than 30 years behind bars, he earned a second chance under a youth resentencing law, only to be deported by ICE. Read the final part of Sylvia A. Harvey’s series, published with The Imprint. 

Recently filed complaints allege that guards at New Jersey’s South Woods State Prison are running a “fight club” in a specialized housing unit, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports. The allegations follow a troubling pattern of violence by NJ prison staff.

For the past year, the Texas Jail Project has been investigating abuses faced by pregnant people in Houston’s Harris County Jail. These tragedies are just one part of a broader crisis faced by people detained in Harris County Jail, where at least 28 people died last year alone, write Krish Gundu, Elizabeth Rossi, and Eric Reinhart.

Officials in New York City say they must eliminate physical mail at Rikers in order to prevent contraband from entering the jail. As David Campbell writes, the small amount of drugs that do enter via mail likely pales in comparison to what guards bring in.

When it comes to COVID restrictions at San Quentin Prison, “the people with the least power are being held the most accountable,” writes Rashaan Thomas. Meanwhile, officials “let staff come in untested and then test us and lock us down for getting sick.”

That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, donate here.

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