Hedwig Lieback | Anti-Abolitionist Assumptions

By Hedwig Lieback

Reginald Dwayne Betts, in Abolition 9/13, emphasized towards the end of our conversation that the goal of abolition is not “to ‘humanize’ people in prison,” because this phrase – frequently used rhetorically in abolitionist conversations, would assume that a) there is a humanity in need of being staged, emphasized, (re-)created, and that b) a person in a position of power also has the power to ‘humanize’ another living being, another human who depends on this power to get out of prison. Betts continued that the phrase is non-sensical to him, because “how do you ‘humanize’ humans?” When this phrase is used, we need to remember that it is often used eyeing a system that relies on dehumanizing people, especially people of color, and especially incarcerated people of color. Betts’ reproach, however, points out that the mission of ‘humanizing’ prisoners is a mission directed towards the criminal legal system in its current formation and not towards the people it holds in its claws. His call entails a goodbye to the notion that any one lawyer, any one activist or advocate, any one academic tackling these issues has the power – or should have the discursive power – to ‘humanize’ another human in order to cater to a system that has done much to degrade, categorize, and classify different levels of ‘worthiness’ and thus different levels of ‘humanity.’ People do not stop being people by being incarcerated, even if one of the unstated goals of incarceration is this ‘civilizational downgrading.’ In the eyes of their loved ones, people in prison never stop being someone other than their brothers, mothers, sisters, uncles, best friends, lovers, neighbors.

When catering to the criminal legal system in such a way, it underwrites the notion that some people need help in being properly ‘humanized.’ This humanization more often than not also rests on emphases of achievement, accountability, regret, self-reform, and the promise of future contributions to the very society which put the people in question behind bars. Betts, here, also put a pause to this type of rhetoric, exposing it as glossing over complexity. He insisted that he is not arguing that people should be freed because they ‘earned’ it or because they will be assets to society once outside, but because no human being should spend years of their lives caged. When defense attorneys make ‘humanizing’ arguments, they do so to appeal to a legal system invested in notions of individual responsibility and the principal justice of said legal system. Achievement, ‘growth,’ ‘safety,’ regret, etc. are featuring prominently in the playbook of parole hearings. The suggestion here is of course not to say that imprisoned people never change their minds or reassess the world during imprisonment or voice regret. The emphasis on those factors just points to a question of principle: should someone get out of prison due to some form of ‘desert’ or do all people who are imprisoned should not be imprisoned because they are – without any need to externally validate this – humans?

The discussions between Reginald Dwayne Betts, Allegra McLeod, and the various attendees and interlocutors of Abolition 9/13 on Prison Abolition revealed the challenges facing those advocating for prison abolition and those hesitant to fully get behind ‘abolition’ instead of ‘reform.’ This debate is a recurring one in our seminars which lies in the nature of bold proposals – more often than not, they are met with at least skepticism and often there is outright opposition. This opposition, however, should not lead to a stifling of ambition or a mere window-dressing approach. Mariame Kaba, an organizer, educator, and curator McLeod repeatedly cited, lists ten necessary steps towards prison abolition and the ushering in of transformative justice principles and institutions. One of the demands in her report titled “What’s Next? Safer and More Just Communities Without Policing” emphasizes that “[r]eal change comes from material redistribution, not renaming systems” (2020, 5). The backlash to the mere slogan of police abolition, of course, does explain why some activists have already clarified that they by no means actually want to abolish the police or prisons. The last months have, once again, shown that it can be relatively easy to ‘rename systems’ without rocking their substance. McLeod cited Kaba in her presentation to give voice to the suspicion that precisely because a lot seems to be ‘happening’ right now on abolitionist demands, heightened attention to the substance of proposals and change is warranted. Kaba, as cited in McLeod’s presentation, stated that “my natural skepticism is now at its peak mainly because I am a student of history.” Moments of great promise risk being abused by those sailing the winds without wanting to muster the storm or those who are not even trying to understand where the demands for prison abolition actually come from or what they entail. The aftermath of Reconstruction in the South, the Civil Rights Acts and their gradual undermining, as well as the continuous failure to address economic demands of those suffering at the hands of police or in prison illustrate that concessions often fall short of what people were demanding and were sometimes even used to justify violence against the very people they were thought to protect.[1]

Countering the claims of those skeptical or hostile to calls for prison abolition, then, entails specific challenges because the suspicion towards abolition and the investment in the criminal legal system as it exists rest on 1) the privileging of elite knowledge, 2) an understanding of ‘justice’ as a clearly delineated, linear process, 3) the conviction that punishment will lead to remorse, serve as a deterrent, and satisfy those who were harmed, and 4) the assumption that ‘justice’ is an individual issue to be resolved between a victim and a defendant or a defendant and the state.

The first criticism of abolition assumes that calls for prison abolition are solely an academic creature, the brainchild of some criminal justice-oriented professors or activist students who have no idea what ‘actually’ happens in the communities they are talking about or what these communities demand. While academic arrogance is a topic that certainly demands scrutiny and while bold visions often risk a degree of detachment from the very people they rely on in the first place, Chijindu Obiofuma, a movement researcher at Columbia’s Justice Lab, pointed out that several of the theories now en vogue in abolitionist academic circles have been developed by people – often by women of color – involved in their communities to address the harms done through policing and incarceration. Thus, the allegation that calls for prison abolition are mere intellectual fads without substance and detached from community demands also tends to homogenize the very people we talk about in discussions around criminal justice reform. Of course some people in close contact with the prison-industrial complex are skeptical of the effects of prison abolition as Reginald Betts rightly pointed out. Assuming that those people are the only voices in this conversation, however, misses the important work done by formerly incarcerated people and community activists towards prison abolition. Elite knowledge has produced the system we are witnessing now. Certain parts of academic and policy elites have been critical of overpolicing and mass incarceration for a long time but they came to be so because they listened to or – presumably more often – were corrected by people directly affected by Broken Windows policing, by the War on Drugs, by mandatory minimum sentencing, and the like. Labeling abolitionist demands elitist to then not engage with them and dismiss their grassroots origins is dishonest. Calling out particular ways of discussing abolition without addressing the deeply rooted barriers to this massive project’s realization, however, is a helpful way for focusing our thinking and developing convincing arguments to overcome a punitive logic.

The second barrier on the way towards a transformative justice framework is the belief in ‘justice’ as a clearly delineated, linear process. A harm is done, a complaint is filed, a suspect is arrested, a court date is set, a decision is made, a person is sent to prison. The transformative justice framework, instead, focuses not only on the person causing harm but also on the person harmed. Transformative justice, in the words of Allegra McLeod, calls for a system “where punishment is abandoned in favor of accountability and repair, and where discriminatory criminal law enforcement is replaced with practices addressing the systemic bases of inequality, poverty, and violence” (2019, 1616). This often involves a specifically tailored approach to each case that relies on proven methods but also provides for flexibility. When calling the police or sending someone to prison are not the default responses anymore, rethinking notions of ‘punishment’ and harm is required. Reconciliation procedures could evolve into multiple directions and notions of control would change. This requires a leap of faith. Kaba points out that it will also require patience and a lot of trial and error (11). Abolitionists, however, insist that it will be worth it because only a radical rethinking of justice will offer a way out of a cycle of vengeance and violence that is not solved but instead perpetuated by the current legal system.

The idea that only punishment will lead to remorse and that only harsh punishment will serve as a deterrent has not been proven conclusively.[2] In child psychology, for example, research proves that physical punishment – and I consider prison sentences as physical punishment as well – has at best short-term compliance effects but is also linked to “aggression, antisocial behaviour, lower intellectual achievement, poorer quality of parent–child relationships, mental health problems (such as depression), and diminished moral internalization” (Smith 2006). While the investment in physical punishment for transgressions of various kinds is deeply rooted in assumptions about learning, reasons for compliance, and the acceptance of rules, none of those internal motivating factors seems to be activated primarily through punishment, let alone physical punishment. Here, again, the questions of why people commit crimes in the first place and why some peoples’ transgressions are met with school expulsions while the same transgressions elsewhere are met with a concerned parent-teacher conference and counseling will carry the conversation further than insisting on the beneficial effects of (physical) punishment.

Lastly, and echoing earlier points, is the assumption that ‘delivering justice’ means punishing or rewarding individuals. In McLeod’s transformative justice framework and Mariame Kaba’s report on community safety without policing, however, justice is society’s project and everyone interacting regularly with other human beings can be involved. This vision aligns more closely with demands for the democratization of the economy and calls for more room for citizens’ input and direct democracy projects such as participatory budgeting than with traditional visions of separate spheres and the outsourcing of the majority of decision-making to either the state or corporations. It is more expansive and it emphasizes the collective responsibility citizens in a democratic society bear for their legal system and their allocation of resources. To avoid starry-eyed visions of pristine democracy if ‘the people’ would just manage to get it together and get more involved, it is important to acknowledge that there are and have been and will be obstacles to such a vision of society. People who lose when wealth is redistributed will object to it. People who are deeply invested in vengeance or who work for the criminal legal system will see their ideals and/or livelihoods threatened. People who see the harm done but still believe there are salvageable parts will not (immediately) get behind calls for abolition. But the work of abolitionists has always been to expose injustice and convince others that a) the injustices they see are really that – injustices – and not just accidents or minor flaws and point out that b) there are things that can be done and alternatives that remain available. If democracy entails dissent and debate, then abolition democracy entails trying to convince others via dissent and debate that we can do better. It also entails the moral vision that we should do better and here, to close with Betts, it means to argue for people’s freedom not because there are safety guarantees or because they ‘worked’ for this freedom but because human beings should not be caged.


[1] Kaba writes about Hate Crime laws and states that “[i]ronically . . . hate crime statutes, like other criminal laws, are more frequently mobilized against the people they claim to protect than they are against white supremacists and those served by dominant power relations” (Kaba 2020, 18-19).

[2] See Muhammad Awais Arshad’s excellent blog post “Abolishing Mass Incarceration” on the social science (and thus ‘evidence’) for the effect of harsh sentencing on deterrence (2021).


Arshad, Muhammad Awais. 2021. “Abolishing Mass Incarceration.” Abolition 10/13, Jan. 11, https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/abolition1313/muhammad-awais-arshad-abolishing-mass-incarceration/.

Kaba, Mariame. 2020. “What’s Next? Safer and More Just Communities Without Policing.” Interrupting Criminalization, https://www.interruptingcriminalization.com/whats-next.

McLeod, Allegra. 2019. “Envisioning Abolition Democracy.” Harvard Law Review 132: 1613-1649.

Smith, Anne B. 2006. “The State of Research on the Effects of Physical Punishment.” Social Policy Journal of New Zealand 27(January): 114-127.