Opposing Views: Prison Reform vs. Abolition

Rehumanize International (and by extension, Life Matters Journal) is dedicated to ending aggressive violence against human beings. There are myriad acts of aggressive violence that are addressed in this magazine because of that central principle. However, there are also issues which fall in the periphery of the causes for peace and life; on these topics, Rehumanize International doesn't take an official stance, but we still find them important and worthy of discussion. This section of Life Matters Journal, "Opposing Views," aims to highlight varying perspectives on such issues.


Reform

by Anna Zimmerman


The First Step Act, passed in Congress with bipartisan support this past January, has kick-started a national conversation about prison reform. For too long, the U.S. judicial system has dehumanized incarcerated prisoners and expanded governmental power unnecessarily.


The assurance of public safety is considered a legitimate use of governmental power by virtually all voters, therefore rendering the prison system an acceptable use of force and funding. Beyond that, incarceration as negative reinforcement for the most heinous of crimes is generally considered a just consequence. However, our prison system is currently overrun with nonviolent offenders, serving decades-long sentences in inhumane conditions. Nearly half of federal and 20% of all inmates are serving sentences for nonviolent drug charges. Furthermore, even though violent offenders deserve a prison sentence and should be housed away from the general public, the conditions and treatment they encounter deny them their basic humanity.


The high incarceration rate in America (we house 25% of the world’s prison population) destabilizes families, the bedrock of a thriving society. 7% of American children have had an incarcerated parent at some point; this statistic drastically increases for minority children--1 in 9 African-American children have an incarcerated parent. Children with incarcerated parents are more likely to experience psychological and social problems; they are more likely to not finish school and may be more likely to be incarcerated themselves. Furthermore, having an incarcerated parent makes it more likely that the family will stay in or fall into poverty.


Instead of continuing to imprison Americans for decades at high costs without providing a chance for real rehabilitation, we should look to reduce the number of inmates by decriminalizing certain behaviors and providing alternatives, such as community-based treatment and electronic detention. We should decrease or abolish mandatory sentencing and expand the opportunity for parole. We should provide more rehumanizing rehabilitation, such as greater access to education and mental health resources, and abolish dehumanizing practices such as solitary confinement. These solutions will not only reduce government overreach and taxpayer spending (the prison system in 2017 cost $182 billion), but also reintegrate offenders into their communities, reduce recidivism, and stabilize families. With these types of solutions, we can massively reduce incarceration and the myriad problems that accompany it while retaining the prison system (albeit with greater rehabilitation programs) for serious, violent offenders.


Abolition


by Herb Geraghty


While many reforms may be beneficial in the short term, it is not enough to simply attempt to reform American prisons -- they must be abolished. Prisons, by their very nature, dehumanize those who are held behind their walls. By separating people accused of crimes, regardless of their perceived threat to others, from their families and communities, prisons foster an extreme alienation that both inhibits rehabilitation and ultimately causes a domino effect of harm against entire communities; particularly low-income communities of color.


Prisons, like many other violent institutions, aim to slap a band-aid on society's problems without addressing the root causes. The majority of states have at least one prison that houses more people with severe mental illnesses than any psychiatric hospital in the country. A person experiencing homelessness is 11 times more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their life compared to the general population. Mass incarceration serves as an expensive non-solution to the serious crises of housing and healthcare.


Furthermore, unpaid and severely underpaid prison labor -- frequently referred to simply as slave labor by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated activists -- creates a conflict of interest for both states and private companies that seek to profit off of the continued exploitation that further incarceration brings. Additionally, physical and sexual abuse is rampant in prisons, and despite decades of attempted reform such as the Prison Rape Elimination Act the numbers of reported instances of sexual assault are only rising. Statistics about LGBT people in prisons, particularly transgender women, consistently paint a picture of widespread abuse with little to no recourse for victims of prison violence. Although nothing could justify the brutality inherent in our modern carceral system, the potential for reduction in violent crime is alluring; however, studies continue to show that prisons are not even effective at reducing recidivism.


A form of incarceration, at its absolute best, can serve as a tool to decrease the likelihood of future crime and protect the safety of citizens and allow them to live free from violence; American prisons, as institutions of violence themselves that show little to no evidence of preventing crime, achieve neither of these goals.


Text originally appeared in Volume 7 Issue 2 of Life Matters Journal.


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