Written by the Abolitionist Working Group of the Madison Area Democratic Socialists of America (MADSA)
For a nation that claims to be the “land of the free,” the U.S. leads the world in some highly depressing statistics. As of 2016, the United States has the highest prison and jail population (about 2 million1, just counting adults) and the highest incarceration rate in the world (655 per 100,000 people)2. As of 2015, there were around 10.35 million people in various forms of incarceration worldwide2. This means that the US holds about 21% of the world’s prisoners, despite only having about 4.4% of the world’s population 3,4. In our own community, there are 10 jails and prisons in Dane County, Wisconsin, serving a population of 522,837 people in an area of 1,197 square miles. There is 1 jail or prison per 52,283 people, and 1 jail or prison per 119 square miles. As of 2015, there were 13,401 total jail admissions, with a total jail population of 7575.
How did we get here?
Along with incarceration, policing and surveillance are the other arms of the PIC. In America, the police department is the one-stop shop for all property, traffic, mental health, and public safety concerns. Modern police departments in the U.S. can trace their roots to southern slave patrols9. The present-day police department is ruled by racism10, excessive force11, and robbery12. The police face little to no accountability for their actions along with almost no real community oversight13. Between January 1, 2005 and June 24, 2019, 104 law enforcement officers (LEOs) were arrested for murder or manslaughter due to an on-duty shooting. Out of these 104, 35 were convicted of a crime, and only 4 were convicted of a murder charge14. Although 104 officers may sound like a lot, police on average fatally shoot about 1000 people a year15. This means that the vast majority of officers are not held accountable for the harm they cause.
Beyond the violence and trauma it creates, a critical component of the PIC is that the system profits off the people it imprisons. As previously stated, the U.S. prison system has grown exponentially in the last 35 years. Unfortunately—and unsurprisingly—politicians and private corporations have seen this growth as an opportunity to profit. The Atlantic described the PIC as the following:
“It is composed of politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the fear of crime to gain votes; impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development; private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market; and government officials whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population.”16
Although there are many causes, a big one is the so-called “War on Drugs.” In the 35 years since the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the United States prison population rose from around 300,000 to more than two million6. On top of this, the prison industrial complex (PIC)* treats people of different races very differently. While Black people make up nearly 40% of the prison population, they only make up 13.4% of the total U.S. population. Native Americans represent 2.3% of the incarcerated population and only 1.3% of the population. 58.7% of the prison population is white, which includes Hispanic Americans7. In 2015, Dane County jail admissions included 9 Asian prisoners, 304 Black prisoners, 46 Latino prisoners, 8 Native prisoners, and 382 white prisoners8. This prison population is not evenly distributed among the general population of Dane County.
The PIC has been allowed and encouraged to spiral out of control in the last few decades. Internationally renowned activist Angela Davis tells us that “the prison industrial system materially and morally impoverishes its inhabitants and devours the social wealth needed to address the very problems that have led to spiraling numbers of prisoners.”17
With all these glaring issues, a common “liberal” response is to try to reform the criminal justice system. To quote the prominent abolitionist and activist Mariame Kaba, “An institution grounded in the commodification of human beings, through torture and the deprivation of their liberty, cannot be made good.”18 No matter how many reforms are introduced to the PIC, the structural roots that cause the systemic issues will remain. That’s why we as socialists must be abolitionists. We need to challenge the false narrative that policing and prisons make our society safe. They don’t. Instead, they just concentrate the violence among the most marginalized members of our communities.
Why doesn’t the PIC make us safe?
For one, the PIC often traps people into a cycle of incarceration, driving them into further desperation and poverty. According to the Bureau of Justice, “in a 15 state study, over two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested within three years.”18 Furthermore, there are commonly-drawn false equivalencies between legality and morality, crime and harm, that stand in the way of real change. We must remember that slavery was legal in the U.S., but it was obviously not moral. To quote Naomi Murakawa, a political scientist and Princeton professor in African-American Studies:
“It is clear that the criminal punishment system depends on a superficial view of violence, a facile view of good and evil based on the victim-perpetrator binary**. Simple stories of the perfect victim and the monstrous perpetrator bend reality to fit the pretexts for state violence, helping us to pretend that the physical, social, and civic injuries of prison are somehow justice.”19
It is abundantly clear that the current system fails at its stated goal of addressing harm. The PIC is not designed in a way to encourage people to take accountability for their actions. As Mariame Kaba points out, “Instead, our adversarial court system discourages people from ever acknowledging, let alone taking responsibility for, the harm they have caused.”20
So what should we do?
One component that can be difficult to reckon with is that PIC abolition is a long, gradual process. We can’t simply decide to abolish the PIC and make it happen in one day, one month, even one year. Instead, abolition will be brought about by a radical restructuring of society, by deciding to focus on the benefit of people. We accomplish this through increased funding to schools, public works, and healthcare, instead of giving more money to big business, the military, or the police. We accomplish this by addressing harm through transformative justice# and reparations@ instead of state-sanctioned violence. We accomplish this by making sure that each and every person’s needs are met, a radical and effective way of preventing crime. As Angela Davis reminds us, “Rather than try to imagine one single alternative to the existing system of incarceration, we might envision an array of alternatives that will require radical transformations of many aspects of our society”21
What can I do?
Many people become overwhelmed when they look at the sheer size and power of the PIC. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone in feeling this way. It’s always more effective to organize with others. A great first step is to join an organization with which you can perform direct action, like MADSA and many other growing groups such as Freedom Inc., Urban Triage, and JustDane, to name a few. Some local abolition causes that these groups are fighting are include the #DefundMPD campaign, the #DerailTheJail Campaign, and the #FireMattKenny campaigns. These campaigns are based on reducing harm, and ensuring accountability for perpetrators of state violence. In the fight for a better future, donating money and resources to groups on the front lines is always appreciated.
Another major step you can take is to know your community. If your community is tight, you can solve issues without involving the state, and look out for each other against potential harms. This can start with something as simple as getting to know your neighbors22. Say hello to the people you see walking their dogs or going to the mailbox. Offer to shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk or take in their newspaper if they’re going out of town. Welcome new neighbors with a note and your phone number, and encourage them to reach out to you if they need help with anything. Small gestures like this build trust and solidarity, and can be great first steps to bridging the alienation and individualism that capitalism and the PIC contribute to and need to survive.
Finally, educate yourself, your family, and your friends on abolition issues and why they’re important. A big holdup for many people is that they’ve been conditioned to assume that the current system is working, and that it is the only option. It’s not working for us, and it’s not the only option. You can find some initial recommendations for further reading in the linked resources below. Humanity has existed before prisons, and humanity will exist after prisons. We must always remember that a better world is possible and is ours for the taking.
abolition: PIC abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment
*prison industrial complex: “The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.”23
**victim-perpetrator binary: “The criminal justice system upholds a distinction between victim and perpetrator. Its job is to identify perpetrators and punish them, partly as reparation to their victims. But these categories are more nuanced than the criminal justice system allows for and perpetrators are often also victims themselves”24
#transformative justice: “Transformative Justice (TJ) is a political framework and approach for responding to violence, harm and abuse. At its most basic, it seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence and/or engaging in harm reduction to lessen the violence.”25
@reparations: Reparations are broadly understood as the compensation given to a person, group, or country to make up for an abuse or injustice. Reparations are given by the entity which caused the harm. In a modern U.S. context, reparations refers to the potential compensation given by the U.S. government to the descendents of enslaved people.
- Correctional Populations in the United States, 2015
- World Prison Population List (11th edition)
- Population Clock
- The World Population Prospects: 2015 Revision
- Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
- Bureau of Justice Statistics Reentry Trends in the US: Recidivism
- Murakawa, Naomi, foreword to We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba, Haymarket Books, 2021
- Kaba, Mariame, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, Haymarket Books, 2021