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Prison Abolition 

by: Maya Simmons


Prison abolition is a social campaign that calls to eliminate prisons and offer alternatives to incarceration. The U.S. prison population has increased rapidly in recent years, skyrocketing from 500,000 in 1980 to 1.3 million in 1990 and 2 million by 2000. The main reason for the prison abolition campaign is because prisons don't prevent crime or get rid of social problems; they simply get rid of people, people who are disproportionately Black and brown. According to a study done by the Washington-based Sentencing Project, in 1990, one in four Black men, ages 20-29, were either in jail, on parole, or on probation. A second study in 1995 showed that this number had rapidly increased to nearly one in three or roughly 32.2%. The same could be said of more than one in ten Latino men. Lastly, the study showed that Black women experienced the highest increase in incarceration rates with percentages up by 78% since 1990. Because of numbers like these, people of color, more specifically the Black population, are often assumed to be more criminal and deserving of their harsh sentences. This falsehood fails to acknowledge the deep-seated systemic racism that creates these disproportionate numbers and the social conditions that necessitate crime among minority groups in the first place.  


America needs a more comprehensive response to social problems and crime, one that examines the circumstances and systems (like racism and capitalism) that cause them.  Prison abolition also urges the American people to forget that prisons are a necessary and inevitable part of our society. Because it is so difficult to imagine an America without prisons, suggestions for prison reform dominate conversations about the problems with incarceration, arguing that we should be aiming to create a better prison system. Renowned civil rights activist and prison abolitionist Angela Davis says it this way: "It has become so much a part of our lives that it requires a great feat of the imagination to envision life beyond the prison." According to Davis, reform in some areas, like ridding prisons of sexual abuse and medical neglect, is necessary. Still, the primary goal of discussions about the problems with prison expansion should be de incarceration.




Although activists such as Angela Davis began their anti-prison work as early as the 60s, the prison abolition movement gained traction in the 1980s after the War on Drugs, which caused a drastic increase in nonviolent offenders being sent to prison. The leaders of this movement criticized the disproportionate number of people of color being incarcerated, and the effect of poverty/the inability to hire an attorney affected their sentencing. 



    • Prison abolition is the call to eliminate prisons and find alternatives to incarceration.
    • Prisons do not prevent crime, but instead, they allow us to ignore the significant social problems, like racism and capitalism, that lead to corruption in the first place.
    • The prison problem disproportionately affects Black and brown people 

To take action, we should be focusing on long-term preventative measures. 

    • Decriminalizing sex work and drug use
    • Fund mental health services 
    • Consider restorative justice strategies rather than punitive ones
    • Address the social and economic conditions that track so many people from poor communities of color into the prison system



Davis, Angela Y. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete?. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Smith, Tiana. “The Prison Abolition Movement (1985- )", February 6, 2020.  

 The Sentencing Project". The Sentencing Project.