By Steven Vogel
Many of us think of abolitionism in the context of the anti-slavery movement; however, today, abolitionism lives on— both as a philosophy and as direct action— in the anti-prison movement led by Angela Davis.
The philosophy of abolition presents a radical critique of existing systems of imprisonment, policing, and the state. It challenges the prevailing belief that punishment and control effectively address crime and social ills, arguing instead for transformative and alternative approaches to justice. Rooted in the principles of liberation, equity, and community well-being, abolitionists seek to dismantle oppressive systems and envision a society that prioritizes healing, restoration, and addressing root causes.
It is vital to, on the one hand, distinguish between the Abolitionist Movement from the early colonial area of America to the 1950s and the Abolitionist Movement spearheaded by Davis, du Bois, Fanon, and C.L.R. James. Specifically, it is important to note, as well as fascinating, how the abolitionist movements historically have informed, expanded, and challenged Marxist theory and its tactical playbook. Marx and the subsequent literature based on his work was and remains a touchstone for so many black revolutionary thinkers.
Furthermore, whilst we focus on Davis’ work, we have to be clear, the abolition movement and philosophy have grown from the singular critique of imprisonment and the state to challenge the entirety of capitalism’s cruelty, and rightly so. The abolitionism school and praxis are the opposite of the most ineffective bourgeois reformist idea of consensus in a capitalist parliamentary reality.
"The abolition of the prison, therefore, requires a complete shift in our view of human rights and the responsibility of the state toward those who have been incarcerated."
- W.E.B. Du Bois, "Black Reconstruction in America"
At its core, the philosophy of abolition questions the very foundations of the prison-industrial complex, recognizing its deep entrenchment within social structures and its adverse impact on marginalized communities. Advocates argue that traditional carceral systems perpetuate cycles of violence, exacerbate inequality, and disproportionately target people of color, the economically disadvantaged, and other marginalized groups. Rather than rehabilitating individuals or addressing the root causes of crime, these systems often lead to dehumanization, perpetuation of harm, and limited opportunities for rehabilitation and reintegration.
But why this focus on prison?
The abolition movement focuses on prisons as a central institution of social control and punishment within the criminal justice system. Abolitionists argue that prisons perpetuate systemic injustices, reinforce inequality, and fail to address the root causes of crime. Here are a few key reasons why the abolition movement directs its attention to the prison system:
Human Rights and Dignity: Abolitionists believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. They argue that prisons violate basic human rights, subjecting individuals to dehumanizing conditions and depriving them of autonomy, agency, and opportunities for rehabilitation.
Racial Injustice: The prison system has long been criticized for its racial bias and disproportionate impact on marginalized communities, particularly people of color. Abolitionists highlight the systemic racism embedded within the criminal justice system and argue that prisons perpetuate cycles of racialized oppression.
Ineffectiveness and Recidivism: Abolitionists question the effectiveness of prisons in achieving their stated goals of deterrence, rehabilitation, and public safety. Studies have shown high rates of recidivism, indicating that prisons often fail to address the underlying causes of criminal behavior. Abolitionists argue that community-based alternatives can be more effective in addressing the root causes of crime and promoting true rehabilitation.
Alternative Approaches to Justice: The abolition movement emphasizes the need for transformative justice, which focuses on repairing harm, healing communities, and addressing the root causes of crime. Abolitionists advocate for community-based solutions, such as restorative justice practices, social welfare programs, and investments in education, healthcare, and employment opportunities as alternatives to punitive measures.
Systemic Critique: Abolitionists view the prison system as a product of broader social and economic inequalities. They argue that the focus on punishment and incarceration diverts attention and resources from addressing social issues such as poverty, inadequate education, and lack of mental health support. By targeting the prison system, abolitionists aim to challenge and transform these broader structures of oppression.
"Abolition is not a negative moment but a positive project of freedom, justice, and equality."
- Frantz Fanon, "The Wretched of the Earth"
Overall, the abolition movement's focus on prisons is driven by a desire to challenge and dismantle systems that perpetuate harm, inequality, and social control. Abolitionists seek to envision and create alternative approaches to justice that prioritize the well-being, dignity, and liberation of individuals and communities.
Prominent thinkers, such as Angela Davis, have been instrumental in shaping the philosophy of abolition. Davis, a scholar, activist, and former political prisoner has argued extensively for dismantling prisons and developing community-based solutions. She contends that the focus should shift toward addressing the underlying social, economic, and political conditions that give rise to crime. Through her work, Davis urges society to invest in education, healthcare, housing, and employment opportunities to prevent crime and promote the well-being of communities.
"It is both possible and necessary to develop an alternative to the punitive paradigm of imprisonment."
- Angela Davis, "Are Prisons Obsolete?"
Additionally, works like "The End of Policing" by Alex S. Vitale and "Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California" by Ruth Wilson Gilmore offer powerful analyses of the failures and shortcomings of traditional systems of policing and incarceration. These books emphasize the need for alternative approaches to community safety and the examination of the intersecting factors of race, capitalism, and state power.
The philosophy of abolition does not merely advocate for the removal of prisons and police but rather for a fundamental reimagining of justice and social systems. It encourages the pursuit of transformative justice that prioritizes healing, restoration, and reconciliation for both individuals and communities impacted by harm. Abolitionists advocate for community-based alternatives to incarceration, such as restorative justice practices, mental health and addiction support services, and investing in social welfare programs that address poverty, education, and healthcare disparities.
"To abolish the prison system is the prerequisite for any significant social change."
- W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Souls of Black Folk"
When we look at how we want to redefine and reshape our tomorrow, the questions asked, critiques, and solutions offered from this school are some of the most important we can ask, and so are their solutions. Their individual and collective work is hugely important in our journey to a world without want and need.