Should We Abolish Prisons?

Tommie Shelby

America’s prisons are grossly dehumanizing and unjust. The eminent political philosopher Tommie Shelby debates prison abolition and what kind of radical change justice demands.

In his new book, Tommie Shelby argues that radical reformers and abolitionists should make common cause. (Getty Images)

Interview by
John-Baptiste Oduor

Mass incarceration continues to be a devastating blight on the United States, with particularly destructive impacts on the poor and people of color. Yet people across the political spectrum are increasingly aware of the gross injustice of the US prison system and are taking action to change it.

On the Left, opponents of the country’s carceral regime have been divided between “reformist” and “abolitionist” camps. Reformists argue that our current practices of imprisonment are horribly unjust and ought to be radically changed, while admitting that prisons in some form may be socially necessary and morally legitimate. Abolitionists, on the other hand, think of the prison as a fundamentally rotten institution: our goal shouldn’t be to make prisons fairer or more humane but to eliminate them entirely.

The eminent political philosopher Tommie Shelby takes up this debate in his new book, The Idea of Prison Abolition. In the book, Shelby sympathetically and critically examines arguments by leading abolitionists for their position, with a particular focus on the work of Angela Davis. Jacobin’s John-Baptiste Oduor interviewed Shelby about what he finds valuable in abolitionist thought, what he disagrees with in it, and why thinking about what a just society would look like is essential to the socialist project.

John-Baptiste Oduor

Your book The Idea of Prison Abolition is in part an extended dialogue with Angela Davis and other abolitionists. What contribution do you take these authors to have made to our understanding of prisons?

Tommie Shelby

My focus in the book is on the writings of Angela Davis and other like-minded abolitionists in the black radical tradition, with its critical focus on racism, class-based oppression, and capitalism. It is a tradition of political thought that I call my own and is, to my mind, the most compelling strain of abolitionist theory. Davis, a former political prisoner, has been reflecting on and resisting the prison system for more than fifty years, and she is the leading abolitionist philosopher. Her writings on prisons are a touchstone in the abolitionist movement and exemplify the form of black critical theory I’m examining in the book.

Although I am critical of some abolitionist ideas and arguments, I firmly embrace several key abolitionists insights. For instance, abolitionists rightly emphasize that incarceration can be an instrument for political repression and has been used repeatedly to undermine the radical black freedom struggle. By allowing the state to use incarceration to control crime, the public is also equipping state officials with the means to contain and silence political enemies on the pretext of ensuring public safety. This is a serious danger of the practice that should be confronted forthrightly by anyone who would defend prisons.

Abolitionists also argue compellingly that the failure to meaningfully address structural injustice — particularly racial, gender, and economic injustice — almost inevitably leads to the use of incarceration to deal with social problems best addressed by uprooting the oppressive conditions that circumscribe the lives of so many. And, with their focus on the prison-industrial complex, they highlight the numerous ways that capitalists profit from criminal legal practices and exacerbate crime while contributing little if anything to combating criminal wrongdoing or repairing the harm such wrongs cause.

Many dismiss abolitionists as calling for dramatic social changes that can’t realistically be brought about. But some of the utopian dimensions of abolitionist thought are what I find most appealing in the outlook. By insisting that prisons are unnecessary, they challenge our uncritical acceptance of imprisonment practices and urge those who care about justice and victims of mistreatment to experiment with less harmful and more effective ways of responding to harmful wrongdoing. Though I’m not sure it can ever be fully achieved, I regard as valuable the aspiration to create social conditions where no one is tempted or disposed to seriously harm others.

John-Baptiste Oduor

The use of the term “abolition” is supposed to draw a connection between the United States’ system of mass incarceration and slavery. Undeniably, the polemical force of this comparison has helped to draw people’s attention to the injustices found in American prisons. What do you take to be the limitation of this framing?

Tommie Shelby

As a rhetorical strategy to raise awareness about mass incarceration and to mobilize people for change, suggesting that imprisonment is akin to enslavement or that it is a legacy of slavery might have its advantages. In addition, many existing prisons do share features in common with slavery that make them objectionable. I’d cite, for example, the minimal control that prisoners generally have over their own labor and the meager compensation they typically receive for such work. But this complaint suggests obvious reforms that don’t require dismantling prisons, and the objection to some prisons doesn’t show that the practice of imprisonment is inherently wrong in the way that slavery is.

For instance, imprisonment does not equal social death. In many prison systems, prisoners have effective constitutional liberties, including, in some countries and some US states (Maine and Vermont), the right to vote. Prison officials needn’t, and generally don’t, have absolute or arbitrary power over the lives and labor of prisoners. It is not an inherent or even a typical feature of prisons that prisoners are bought and sold or used as collateral in commercial deals.

Prison does involve confinement. But it is sometimes legitimate to confine people and prevent them from escaping confinement — like prisoners of war or suicidal children and highly dangerous individuals in psychiatric hospitals.

To settle the reform-versus-abolition debate, we must distinguish the essential features of imprisonment from those features of existing prisons that can be altered without losing the crime-control function of the practice. We should also distinguish typical uses of prisons within a society marred by structural injustice from the uses they might be put to in a society with a just social structure. Invoking analogies with slavery doesn’t help with either task.

In general, I think slavery analogies are greatly overused in radical social criticism. I understand the strategy to indict a practice that many regard as legitimate by showing how it is similar to a practice that almost everyone would agree is grossly unjust. Yet practices can be wrong, even deeply wrong, in all sorts of ways without them being tantamount to slavery. We undervalue the moral resources of social criticism when we fall back on invoking slavery to condemn every injustice.

The overuse of slavery analogies isn’t limited to black radicalism but extends to more orthodox Marxism. The charge that capitalism is “wage slavery” isn’t compelling either. I have an employer and lack sufficient wealth to get by financially without working for someone. But there is no meaningful sense in which I am a slave, and it would be insulting to my enslaved ancestors to suggest otherwise.

John-Baptiste Oduor

Punishment is usually seen as one of the chief aims of imprisonment. Some radical opponents of prisons reject the idea that the state should punish citizens. But you distinguish between punishment as retribution and punishment as deterrent. Why do you take the latter and not the former to be defensible?

Tommie Shelby

When many hear “punishment,” they immediately think it must involve retribution or retaliation, a kind of state-sanctioned revenge. Retributivists generally defend the practice of imprisonment on three main grounds. They believe that those guilty of wrongdoing deserve to suffer deprivation — of their liberty, their possessions, or perhaps even their lives. They hold that the guilty should suffer in proportion to the moral depravity of their wrongful acts — the worse the crime, the more they should be made to suffer. And they think that imposing suffering on the guilty is not a necessary evil (say, to prevent crime) but an intrinsic good (for example, a requirement of justice). Retributivists think this suffering is good quite apart from any beneficial social consequences that may occur as a result.

Davis does not believe that this is a morally acceptable way to respond to harmful wrongdoing, even when the wrong is very serious. I agree with her. So, I’m with those who insist that imprisonment as retribution should be abolished.

However, I think that imprisonment can be a just penalty for wrongs that cause great harm or trauma. This kind of penalty should be imposed not because those who do wrong should suffer but only if such penalties can help to prevent or reduce serious crimes.

Prisons can help to prevent crime in three ways: deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. If imprisonment is defensible — and I believe it is under certain circumstances — then it must be because prisons discourage crime through the threat of incarceration, or because prisons restrain highly dangerous persons that we can’t otherwise contain, or because prisons are sometimes suitable socio-spatial sites for rehabilitating those who are disposed to harm others.

Radical abolitionists — those who think imprisonment is never justified — deny that prisons can justly or effectively reduce crime. Much of my book is an attempt to think through the strengths and weakness of this radical abolitionist position.

With respect to deterrence specifically, I think penalties can sometimes discourage wrongful conduct. We all agree, for instance, that fines can effectively discourage reckless driving. The threat of a ticket, or even the suspension of a license, can’t stamp out such recklessness entirely, but it can help reduce the problem to tolerable levels.

The question is whether the general threat of incarceration can effectively reduce serious crime. Though theoretical considerations bear on the matter, this is largely an empirical question, and here reasonable disagreement exists. In the book, I give my reasons for thinking incarceration as a penalty can sometimes be an effective deterrent and that the alternatives currently available, though welcome on other grounds, are unlikely to be adequate in the absence of prisons.

But even if I’m right about the deterrent effect of prisons, this wouldn’t be a sufficient defense of the practice. One would also need to show that penalizing crimes with imprisonment need not be (though it often is) inhumane, dehumanizing, unfair, or exploitative. Taking up these moral issues is my main objective in the book.

John-Baptiste Oduor

The Left is often unwilling to engage in ideal theory: inquiries that seek to specify how social and political institutions ought to be. Your book takes a stance sympathetic to ideal theory. What is your response to critics that argue that, by asking how prisons ought to be, you’re drawing our attention away from advancing a critique of the myriad failings of prisons as they actually exist?

Tommie Shelby

I’m all for critiques of the current prison system and its many failings. But such critiques presuppose a position on how social institutions ought to be, because the charge that these institutions are unjust or undemocratic is another way of saying that they aren’t arranged as they ought to be. The relevant standards of evaluation — the principles of justice or the democratic principles — are simply left unstated and often undefended. Making these standards explicit, systematizing them, and showing them to be justified is ideal theory, at least as I understand the enterprise.

Moreover, I don’t believe left-wing abolitionists consistently take a hostile stance toward ideal theory. Their vision embraces “radical imagination” about a post-prison, noncapitalist world, and they call on us to join them in bringing that world about. Though their dreams of freedom are perhaps less systematic and comprehensive than the visions that academic philosophers map out in their treatises on justice, these dreams of a post-prison future are forms of ideal theory. Indeed, Davis’s defense of “abolition democracy,” which draws on W. E. B. Du Bois’s egalitarian philosophy, is precisely about how social and political institutions should be organized, and rightly so.

Social critique is certainly vital. But would-be socialists must do more than highlight the flaws and pathologies of capitalism. They must defend an alternative way of arranging society, and they must do so notwithstanding that this new form of social life has yet to be fully realized anywhere. Otherwise, few will join their effort to dismantle capitalism, despite that system’s well-known problems, because many will reasonably fear we could end up with something far worse — particularly considering failed socialist experiments.

To draw enough people to their cause, socialists must give skeptics reason to believe that this new type of society would be not just realizable but also more just than capitalist society could ever be. To do that, they must articulate and defend the relevant moral standards of evaluation. These standards needn’t be entirely new. They might be sound principles that are already embraced by many, but that capitalist society is incapable of fully embodying. Yet showing that this is the case — that these standards are sound and that capitalism can’t meet them — would also be a form of ideal theorizing.

John-Baptiste Oduor

Your book seems to be, in part, an attempt to convince activists currently organizing under the slogan of abolition that they ought to advocate for reform instead. This argument seems to implicitly assume that, given that many of the aims of people who call themselves abolitionists are compatible with radical reformism, by making their demands in such maximalist language, abolitionists are undermining the possibility of coalitions with reformists. Is this a fair characterization?

Tommie Shelby

I think some activists organizing under the slogans “abolition” or “defund” are actually advocating for reform. They are simply using hyperbolic language to do so. These propaganda tactics can be misleading and thereby undermine democratic political struggle.

Yet my book is not principally concerned with abolitionists’ choice of political rhetoric. My main concern is with whether the substance of their cause is one I should embrace.

Some abolitionists, including Davis, define their political position in direct opposition to those who advocate for prison reform. Indeed, they sometimes describe reformers as complicit in legitimizing an unjust practice or even as engaging in a form of liberal counterinsurgency. These abolitionists see their support for “nonreformist reforms” as a necessary pragmatic compromise with injustice to enhance the welfare of those who are imprisoned. Such reforms would be comparable to buying slaves to free them. It legitimizes the practice to some extent, which is certainly troubling but perhaps the best option available, all things considered.

Yet this stance is defensible only if imprisonment is inherently unjust, only if a society that uses prisons could never be a just one, like a slave society could never be just. Though I believe creating a society that doesn’t need prisons is worth striving for, I think abolitionists are wrong that prisons are inherently unjust, and I try to show this in my book.

But even if I’m wrong and the moral objections to prisons are decisive, abolitionists generally agree that ending the social conditions that make prisons necessary will likely take a very long time. In the meantime, improving prison administration and the physical conditions of prisons is imperative. So is dramatically shrinking the prison population. We must save as many prisoners as possible from the debilitating and sometimes deadly practices of existing prison systems.

On this point, reformers and abolitionists can work together productively, even if they part company on basic philosophical principles. Casting committed and honest reformers as apologists for a neoliberal social order, just like regarding principled abolitionists as politically naive utopians, can only inhibit such necessary collective work.

More broadly, many reformers — particularly those on the Left — believe that wide-ranging social transformation, reaching far beyond the criminal legal system, is critical if social justice is ever to be achieved. Mass incarceration, like the ghettos from which so many prisoners are taken, is a symptom of deep systemic injustice. On one interpretation of what it means to be “radical,” the point is to attack the roots of social problems. And here radical reformers and abolitionists should make common cause.

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Tommie Shelby is the Caldwell Titcomb professor of African and African American studies and of philosophy at Harvard University. Shelby’s most recent book is The Idea of Prison Abolition, which is based on his 2018 Carl G. Hempel Lectures at Princeton University.

John-Baptiste Oduor is an editor at Jacobin.

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