9/13 | Prison Abolition

Reginald Dwayne BettsAllegra McLeod, and Bernard E. Harcourt

read and discuss

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis

Prison Abolition and Grounded Justice” by Allegra McLeod

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Columbia University


What does it mean for an institution like the prison, founded on the very notion of reforming the delinquent, to constantly be defective, deficient, or deviant itself, and constantly in need of reform? How should we think about an institution like the prison that exists in a constant state of needing to be reformed?

Angela Davis opens her book Are Prisons Obsolete? with this puzzle. Davis writes:

It is ironic that the prison itself was a product of concerted efforts by reformers to create a better system of punishment. If the words “prison reform” so easily slip from our lips, it is because “prison” and “reform” have been inextricably linked since the beginning of the use of imprisonment as the main means of punishing those who violate social norms.

Davis points the reader—in her epigraph—to a passage from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, where he writes:

One should recall that the movement for reforming the prisons, for controlling their functioning is not a recent phenomenon. It does not even seem to have originated in a recognition of failure. Prison “reform” is virtually contemporary with the prison itself: it constitutes, as it were, its programme.

An institution of reform in a constant state of reform because it never seems to accomplish its objective: How long do we continue to play that game?

We have become familiar today, too familiar perhaps, with the debate between reform versus abolition—especially with the recurring arguments. Reformers reproach abolitionists for being too idealistic and out of touch with reality. Reformers advocate instead evidence-based policy changes that will return legitimacy to these penal institutions and set them back on track. Some abolitionists are prepared to embrace incremental reforms so long as they promote an abolitionist vision; others respond that reforms will simply reproduce racial injustice, and argue instead for the complete abolition of these institutions and practices. In the media and public debate, we are constantly confronted with these arguments and the choice between reform or abolition.

W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of “abolition democracy” suggests that this is a false dilemma. It is a trap. Neither piecemeal reforms, nor abolition alone would truly advance the cause of racial justice. Neither one, standing alone, properly addresses the legacy of systemic racism in this country. Instead, we need to pursue, simultaneously, the abolition of these punitive institutions and the invention of new institutions guided by a different paradigm than punishment.

That is the lesson of Angela Davis’s writings and the work of so many prison abolitionists. As Davis notes on the very first page of her book, these ideas “reflect various forms of collaboration over the years with activists, scholars, prisoners, and cultural workers…” (7) Yes, this is the work of brilliant critical thinkers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Dorothy Roberts, Bryan Stevenson, Loïc Wacquant, among others, and now Amna Akbar, Alexis Hoag, Allegra McLeod, Derecka Purnell, Jocelyn Simonson, and many others, who have demonstrated well how these punitive institutions reproduce and how, today, we live in the continuing legacy of slavery.

In this session, we reflect and discuss these ideas and the broader debate over the reform versus abolition of the prison.

Welcome to Abolition Democracy 9/13!



“In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete. There is a direct connection with slavery: when slavery was abolished, black people were set free, but they lacked access to the material resources that would enable them to fashion new, free lives. Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery. They cannot, therefore, be eliminated unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population.”

— Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy (2005)


“We should understand abolition not as the “elimination of anything but . . . as the founding of a new society.” The relationship between prison abolition and the Constitution, then, should be seen less as the condemnation of our existing abolition constitutionalism and more as the genesis of a new one.”

— Dorothy Roberts, “Abolition Constitutionalism” (2019)