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10 steps towards prison abolition

Analysis
Prisons
police
Protesters march with a banner that reads: 'Disarm, defund, abolish' in red capital letters
Protesters call for abolition of the police in New York, June 2020. KEVIN RC WILSON/ALAMY

1 Stop criminalizing poverty

Poor and marginalized people are the most targeted by legislation around things like homelessness and theft. On the African continent alone, at least 42 countries have laws, often dating back to colonial rule, on ‘petty offences’ such as loitering or being a ‘vagabond’. In England and Wales, a recent survey found that a quarter of the prison population were homeless before entering state custody and over two-thirds were unemployed.

2 Meeting basic needs

Poverty, inequality and exposure to violence are among the major contributing factors to criminal and harmful behaviour. So why not focus resources on meeting people’s needs for safety and decent food, housing, education and healthcare? Abolition is about building a society where prisons and the police are obsolete because we have developed new ways to stop harm and violence happening in the first place.

3 Legalize drugs

It is estimated that 2.5 million people are in prison worldwide for drug offences – over 22 per cent for possession of drugs for personal use. An additional 1.6 million are estimated to have drug related convictions.1 But prison doesn’t stop people using or selling drugs. These people should be released, have their convictions erased and the money that would be spent on their imprisonment and legal cases put towards accessible treatment programmes and provisions that focus on safety and not punishment.

4 Decriminalize sex work

Research across various countries has consistently found that criminalization makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence as they’re seen as ‘easy targets… unlikely to receive help from the police’. Criminalization also means that sex workers are more at risk of harassment and violence from law enforcement officers and less able to organize collectively. Convictions not only wrap them up in the criminal justice system, but also make it harder to find other employment.

5 Shrink prisons

More and bigger prisons are not the answers to overcrowding. Extra prison space is followed by increases in numbers of prisoners. Instead we can get behind campaigns to stop building and expanding prisons – including prisons by other names, like migrant detention centres – and push for them to be shut down, and prisoners released.

6 Defund and reduce police forces

The police act as a gateway into the criminal justice system. An increase in police officers leads to higher prison populations. Police budgets need to be cut and the money redirected into social good. A further step is to abandon legislation that expands the power of law enforcement.

7 Disarm and demilitarize

Weapons boost the police’s ability to maim and kill, to say nothing of quashing dissent. Guns escalate tense situations and even ‘less lethal’ weapons – such as tasers – can lead to devastating consequences and deaths. A start can be made by removing arms from the police in settings such as schools and hospitals. Disarming police would ideally happen alongside disarming wider society, but many other public workers – such as paramedics and firefighters – frequently enter dangerous situations without weapons. In Iceland, where there is a gun for every three people, police do not carry them on regular patrols. Schemes that supply military equipment to police forces could be closed down, as well as military training programmes for cops.

8 Take down the prison-industrial-complex

A vast, multi-million-dollar network of state and corporate interests overlap in the big business of surveillance, policing and prisons. As Corporate Watch have noted: ‘Architects and engineers pore over designs of cells and wings, construction companies build the structures and a range of other businesses create locks, alarm systems and fences.’ In the US alone, it’s been estimated that 4,000 companies profit from mass incarceration. We can campaign for the divestment of money from this web of beneficiaries.

9 Invest in alternatives

Across the globe, people have found their own ways to address and prevent violence and harm in their communities. But often this work lacks the funding and support needed to make it sustainable and scale it up. Community-based initiatives also need the same time and space to make mistakes – and learn from them – that is given to the criminal justice system.

10 Build collective strength

While working for large-scale change we can also practice everyday abolition. This requires a radical shift in mindset when it comes to how we deal with problems in our communities, including how we approach relationships with the people around us – and how we work collectively. We can also work together to fight patriarchy, white supremacy, structural classism and the other roots of much of the harm we face. After all, as abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba has said: ‘Everything worthwhile is done with other people.’

New Internationalist issue 536 magazine cover This article is from the March-April 2022 issue of New Internationalist.
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