If we abolish prisons, what's next?

Prison abolitionists say prison is a failed social policy. The cost of running prisons is climbing upward but it does nothing to address the root causes of crime or the harm those crimes do to society. Ultimately what it does is address the expected consequences of inequality and marginalization. So, maybe, the time has come to get rid of prisons altogether. If so, how do we move forward?

There are more people in prison today than at any other time in history

The number of imprisoned people is increasing with no evidence that incarceration is rehabilitating anyone. (Douglas Grundy/Three Lions/Getty Images)

** Originally published on December 18, 2019.

What would a world without prisons look like? For many of us, the thought of doing away with prisons conjures up images of a dystopian landscape filled with chaos and brutality — rapists running through the streets while ordinary people are left to cower behind locked doors.

But what if those fears are misplaced? What if we've been thinking about prison in all the wrong ways? For abolitionists, the idea of a future without prisons is a vision of a more just future.

Prison in its current form evolved through a series of social reforms. Locking people up was an improvement on the public lashings and shaming that used to be the common response to breaking the law.

Originally, the idea behind the advent of prisons was progressive: that individuals would be isolated from society, given a "time out" so to speak, so that they could reflect on what they'd done wrong. They would spend time on improving their outlook and actions — and once returned into society, would be better, more self-aware citizens who wouldn't commit any more crimes.

'A system that equates justice with punishment'

But over time, the isolation of prison became the punishment itself.

Locking people up with substandard care and little opportunity for self-improvement, or chance to confront whatever factors led them to jail in the first place, meant people who come in contact with the justice system often stay in contact with the justice system. A proverbial vicious circle.

Prison was initially conceived as a kind of spiritual time-out, an opportunity for offenders to sit apart from society and think hard and long about what they'd done. Now prison is mostly about warehousing people. (Burkett/Getty Images)

Justin Piché teaches criminology at the University of Ottawa. He says we need to rethink prisons because prisons do not solve problems. 

"If we were to enter a prison, you would find people who have experienced various forms of trauma, various forms of structural neglect in the form of lack of access to basic necessities of life, such as housing, food, clean drinking water, education, health, mental health and dental care," Piché told IDEAS producer Naheed Mustafa.

Piché says it's those factors that contribute to the ways in which people end up criminalized. 

Joan Ruzsa of Rittenhouse, an abolitionist organization based in Toronto, says a key issue with the justice system is how justice has been entwined with punishment.

"We sort of have this culture that tells us — both I think the government and the media does this as well — that tells us that there are a lot of dangerous people in society and that the only way we can protect ourselves from those dangerous people is through incarceration," Ruzsa explained.

"So we have a system that equates justice with punishment and says that the only way justice can be achieved is through the legal system and prison. But the reality is that the law is not applied equally. And what we see is that there is overrepresentation of particular populations in prisons."

A failed system

There are more people in prison around the world today than at any other time in history. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration globally with more than two million people behind bars. In Canada, on any given day, there are more than 40,000 people in federal and provincial prisons. And while Canada's rate of incarceration has remained stable overall, the number of Indigenous and racialized minorities in prison is rising.

And then there's the cost: on average, $85,000 per year per prisoner at the provincial level. At the federal level, that cost goes up to $130,000.

"If we created a system that had the failure rate that the jail system had and cost the amount of money that it cost, people would go: 'well, we're not going to keep doing this. This is insane. Why would we keep doing this stupid thing that is making things worse'?" Jonathan Rudin said. He's the program director at Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto.

Rudin says imagining a different kind of future is necessary. The system we have isn't helping anyone and it's leaving the harm done to victims unaddressed. He also points out that the harm isn't done only to victims.

Research suggests a brush with the system at a young age virtually guarantees a lifetime of intermittent incarceration. (Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

Perpetrators of violence are also harmed, not just in prison but also by the crimes they themselves commit and the circumstances that led them to breaking the law. According to Rudin, it's not about excusing the harm perpetrators do. Rather, it's about acknowledging that those who do harm are also harmed in various ways — and it's crucial to break that feedback loop.

"At some point we made a decision that punishment was the solution and that punishment would become something that was a kind of end in itself," added Nikhil Singh, a professor at New York University teaching social and cultural analysis and history. The university runs college-level courses at a men's prison in upstate New York.

"That punitive turn, I think is, something that we really do need to overturn. We need to return to a notion that people make mistakes and that people can be put in a position and enabled to redress and repair those mistakes."

Singh says it's not necessary to view everyone in prison as either an angel or innocent. 

"I think we have to proceed with a view that understands the social conditions that put so many people in prison," he said.

"But then we also have to proceed with with a with an approach that views people in prison as agents with a capacity for change." 

Guests in this episode:

  • Justin Piché is an associate professor in the department of criminology at the University of Ottawa. 
  • Jonathan Rudin is program director at Aboriginal Legal Services.
  • Joan Ruzsa is a coordinator at Rittenhouse, a place for support and advocacy for prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families.
  • Nikhil Singh is a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University and a faculty director of the NYU Prison Education Program. 

This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.


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