We need to abolish America’s prison system. Here’s how we can do it.

Inside US prisons
Inmates walk around a gymnasium where they are housed due to overcrowding at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, California, June 3, 2011.
  • For Black and brown Americans, the prison system in the United States is ripe with false incarcerations and oppresive sentences.
  • This system cannot be fair, and should be abolished. While this may seem impossible, it is important to think big in order to reshape society.
  • Instead, we should create a system that focuses on rehabilitation and restorative justice.
  • Ashish Prashar is the Sr. Director of Global Communications for Publicis Sapient.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

 

Imagine a world without prisons. For millions of Black and brown Americans, this radical imagination is urgent and necessary. Prison has been a blight on their lives for generations, reaching back to the 13th Amendment, which freed their enslaved ancestors in the 19th century.

The world is now seeing in stark relief the result of 150 years of a poisonous criminal justice system. We know that if we were to cut the current prison population in half but keep the prison-industrial complex intact, we would still be consigning millions of people to isolation and violence. We can't abide this inhumanity.

Prison and police abolitionists are calling for a fundamental shift in thinking, approach and design. While complete elimination of the current justice system can't be done in one fell swoop, there are steps that can put us on that path. 

The majority of the reasons for incarceration are false, oppressive or due to societal deprivation. Survival and care for one's family and identity can push us over the line. Take Cyntoia Brown, a victim of human and sex trafficking, who shot and killed her abuser. She deserved far more understanding of the context of her situation than a life sentence in prison. After a letter-writing and legal campaign, her sentence was commuted last year, after she served 15 years. 

The work of abolitionists is to reveal the fundamental problems with the prison system and imagine a different structure-- one that is predicated on restoration and healing. Instead of beginning with punishment, we begin with care.

Redesign for rehabilitation 

In a system designed for rehabilitation, the restriction of personal liberty is the punishment. Remove no other rights. Therefore, life inside prison must resemble the best version of life outside, and prisoners should serve their sentence at the lowest possible security level. Any deviation from this requires a compelling reason; justification is required to deny a person their rights, not to grant them.

The more institutionalized a system, the harder it is for incarcerated people to thrive when released. Therefore, instead of keeping people in stasis, let's design a journey of ever-expanding freedoms, so when the sentence ends, inmates can step back fully into freedom. 

No further sentence, written or unwritten, should be imposed exceeding the loss of liberty. This includes the withholding of medical treatment, privacy, food and water, solitary confinement, or any other abuse. In practice, this means providing critical non-security services to incarcerated people using local and municipal – non-correctional – service providers. Prisons do not have staff for medical, education, employment, clerical, or library services; these are imported from the local community and overseen by local governments. Incarcerated people also have normal contact with community members and organizations while in prison. As a result, continuation of care and services after release can be easy, while community perceptions of incarcerated people will improve – enabling their reintegration. In this system, once a sentence is served, the debt to society is paid: previously incarcerated people can move freely, without prejudice. 

How do we reduce the prison population in the US?

About 40% of the incarcerated population doesn't present a public safety concern, according to a 2016 Brennan Center for Justice report.  If we commit to a restorative system instead of a punitive one, there is opportunity for fundamental change and community-based alternatives to incarceration and detention. 

Let's begin with three policies already in play, which fully embraced could redefine criminal justice: restorative justice, misdemeanor reform and legislation that would eliminate punishment for parole violations.

Restorative justice, not punitive justice

Restorative justice focuses on the relationship between the offender and the victim and centers the survivors' needs in ways the traditional court system does not.

Youth courts use programs like these, such as the Red Hook Community Justice Center, Harlem Community Justice Center and the Impact Justice's Restorative Justice Project. The work interrupts the cycle of offending, repairs harm caused to the victim and the community and incorporates restorative healing circles.

Restorative programs have higher survivor satisfaction rates than punitive systems. Programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion in Seattle are also important. The program joins civilians with  police to divert offenders to needed resources without making an arrest. 

Misdemeanor reforms

Misdemeanors vary in severity from jaywalking to unpaid parking tickets and third-degree assault. While the latter may need stronger consequences, facing jail time for not being able to pay a moving violation or jaywalking isn't just. Misdemeanors make the U.S. criminal justice system a profit center, consisting of 80% of state criminal dockets, putting throngs of people in U.S. jails and prisons and providing millions of dollars for city and state governments.

Don't eliminate misdemeanor sanctions, but enforce appropriate consequences for offenses rather than disproportionate punishments.

Don't arrest for parole violations

Passing legislation that would eliminate parole violations would go a long way toward keeping people out of prisons and jails.

New York City's Less is More Act is an example. The act, if passed, would eliminate technical parole violations. The state's taxpayers spent millions of dollars last year incarcerating people for technical parole violations. New York wouldn't be alone in this. After South Carolina adopted sanctions — which included disciplinary actions outside of incarceration — violations decreased and recidivism dropped. 

Committing to restorative justice, implementing these reforms and other changes will focus the justice system on in the principle of care. 

Do not stop at the prison walls

We can't stop at the prison walls. The aim should be to reshape our society as a whole. We are not doing enough to address the root causes of the prison cycle: poverty, addiction, homelessness, mental-health issues, harsh fines and debt regulation and heavy-handed drug laws. This is one of the key differences between reform and abolitionism: The former deals with pain management and the latter with the actual source of the pain.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic has taught us that we're all in this together, allowing us to explore building a new care-based reality. People are flexing their visionary skills and imagination, something we're often kept from in our society.

We need a vision—that drives better structures: a future in which vital needs like housing, education, and health care are met, allowing people to live big, beautiful,  fulfilled lives—with not a prison in sight.

Ashish Prashar is a justice reform campaigner, who sits on the Board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Leap Confronting Conflict and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice and is a fellow at the Royal Society of Arts.

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