Abolish Prisons

jail being taken down

Prisons have not always existed.
They can come down.
The time has come.

Prisons used for punishment are a relatively new phenomenon, dating back less than 150 years. Mass incarceration in the U.S. is an even newer phenomenon dating back less than 30 years.

Jails used for temporary confinement existed back to the start of history, but confinement as punishment were recent inventions developed as a more humane alternative to public ridicule, banishment or execution. Increasingly, especially since the 1970s, social and individual problems are less likely to be dealt with on the community level and are instead criminalized.

Incarceration rates were stable in the United States from the 1930s to the 1970s at around 110 per 100,000. Since 1970, they have risen to about 700 per 100,000. The growth appears to have stabilized but is far above the rest of the world with only one close rival: Russia.

When societies evolve, they change their means of social control. Not so long ago, it became unacceptable for society to put its citizens in stocks, or publicly dunk them in water, brand them or to burn them alive. Confinement as a form of punishment was an evolved step, and now it is time to move on to more evolved methods of dealing with social problems before we normalize not only incarceration but obscenely high levels of incarceration

I don't dispute that bad acts happen and that society needs to reduce bad acts. But we need to do so in a way that makes bad acts less -- not more -- likely to occur. The current reliance on incarceration is not reducing crime and the pain we inflict on our own citizens threatens to erase any moral authority we wish to give our laws.

I can hear the sputtering of thousands of my readers. "But what about bad people who can't be helped?" I'm not sure such people exist, because no one has ever seriously tried rehabilitation. But even my critics admit that such people are a small minority, so I am willing to compromise with critics and propose a more reasonable slogan than "Abolish Prisons."

In the spirit of Newt Gingrich and welfare reform, I therefore propose to:

Abolish Prison As We Know It

Divert addicts to drug treatment not prison. Deal with people who are not immediately dangerous in their communities and offer meaningful treatment to those who are incarcerated. Invest in future postiive acts instead of in past bad acts. Offer education and job training to all people who need it inside and outside of prison.

Many European countries have incarceration rates under 100 per 100,000. In Japan, the rate is 40 per 100,000. Norway even has a short waiting list to get into prison. It's not true that these countries have less crime, they merely have a different response to crime.

The United States should follow the lead of other countries with more reasonable incarceration rates. We should drop our incarceration rate to match that of Japan. The U.S. can use those 40 cells per 100,000 residents however it wishes: lots of short sentences or a few long ones. By the time we reach an incarceration rate of 40 per 100,000, I argue that prison won't be the same thing anymore.

The experience may teach this country that incarceration is not the only answer to crime. And in the process I expect we will find that incarceration is not necessary for anyone.


The ideas on this page are not the only ones about prison abolition or radically reducing the prison population and belong only to .

Abolishprisons.com is hosted by the Prison Policy Initiative to foster a debate about prison reform. In furtherance of that goal, the Prison Policy Initiative has scanned in an excellent 1976 book: Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Prison Abolitionists. This book summarizes the research on prisons as of the 1976 writing and discusses the strategy of abolition. For example, how do we pick reforms to fight for now that make our long term goal of abolition easier to obtain?

Please add your organization to the Prison Policy Initiative visitor links.