Shanelle Gordon | The Reality of Prison Abolition

 By Shanelle Gordon

In her piece, “Why Arguments Against Abolition Inevitably Fail,” Angela Davis described the historical tension between the concepts of reform and abolition, and how the dynamic between the two is presently changing:

The insight that racism is essentially systemic and structural rather than individual and attitudinal — one repeatedly asserted by health care advocates and anti-police and anti-prison activists over many decades — finally entered mainstream discourse in 2020 under the pressure of Covid-19 and its disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities. Its most popular expression in the slogan “Defund the Police” was disseminated during the mass mobilizations protesting the police lynching of George Floyd. For those who recognize the deeply conservative repercussions of equating “reform” with change, the call to defund the police manifested an abolitionist impulse to eschew the usual calls for punishing individual police officers and instituting some form of civilian overview of the department.

Bernard Harcourt began the Abolition Democracy 9/13 Seminar: Prison Abolition by acknowledging this tension between reform and abolition in the carceral state. He noted that while the death penalty has traditionally been associated with abolition, the seminar’s discussion would focus on the abolition of the prison system in its entirety as calls for abolition of the carceral state have made their way to the center of the abolition movement.

Angela Davis’s question, “Are prisons obsolete?” which Harcourt used to anchor the seminar discussion, encapsulates the question that is at the heart of the abolitionist movement. The question arises from the current condition of the carceral state—an entity that has constantly been “defective, deficient, and deviant itself.”[1] Indeed, the question is an important one especially given the scale of the carceral system in this country. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. It has the world’s highest child incarceration rate as well—a rate that is five times higher than that of the next highest country, South Africa.[2] As for the juvenile prison system, 130,000 juveniles are detained in the U.S each year. On any given day, there are 70,000 children in detention in the United States.

The tension between reform and abolition arises from a belief that opposition and protests calling for reform of police violence and racial injustices, have foreclosed conversations centered around abolishing those systems that perpetuate racism and violence. Angela Davis notes,

Movements against racist police violence and against entrenched racial injustices in this country’s jails and prisons can claim a history that is almost as old as the institutions themselves. Precisely because opposition and protests calling for reform have played such a central role in shaping structures of policing and punishment, the notion of reform has superseded other paths toward change. Ironically, many efforts to change these repressive structures — to reform them — have instead provided the glue that has guaranteed their continued presence and acceptance.[3]

The tension between the two concepts came to a head during the seminar when poet, attorney, and activist, Reginald Dwayne Betts, raised a question as to what is the abolitionist’s answer for what we should do with the criminal who we feel is undeserving of mercy? What is the answer, in an abolitionist’s framework (devoid of a carceral state), of how this person should be treated?  As Betts pointed out, every person has someone in mind who fits this description—a perpetrator of a crime so depraved that punishment seems justified. In response, Allegra McLeod described the prison system as a cycle in which harm is perpetuated or passed on. This is not corrective or remedial justice. Additionally, McLeod pointed out, the prison system oftentimes does not even consider the wishes of a victim when prosecuting the perpetrator of a crime, and where in that, can one claim there is justice?

In a piece called, “What About the Rapists and the Murderers?” Angel Parker, an organizer and domestic violence counselor who works in prisons, gives his abolitionist perspective on the question. Parker’s typical response to this question is, “What are we doing with them now?”  The original question posed, “what will we do about the rapists and murderers,” implies that the prison system is already an effective, or even moderately effective, means to combat these types of crimes. The question almost presupposes that rapists and murderers primarily make up the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated. If that were the case, Parker notes, then the fact that Black people, indigenous people, and immigrants primarily make up the prison population would mean these populations are predisposed to committing such crimes. Yet this is known not to be true. This question glosses over the ways in which the prison system is a mechanism to harm people of color and perpetuate systemic racism. Furthermore, rape and sexual assault are some of the most underreported crimes in the country. Only about 6% of rapists will ever serve a single day in jail, and only around 0.7% of rapes end in a felony conviction. As Parker notes: “This fact speaks to why I respond ‘what are we doing with them now?’ when asked ‘what about the rapists?’” Because the answer is essentially nothing. In fact, there are many more survivors of rape and sexual assault in prison than there are rapists themselves.” Also, this question ignores the fact that police and the prison system are the rapists and sex offenders. Sexual misconduct is the second most reported complaint against police officers, preceded by only by use of excessive force, and jails are also environments that foster sexual violence.

The statistics regarding the incarceration of murderers are similar. In Chicago, for example, the police department’s homicide clearance rate in 2018 was 15.4% and has been declining for the last decade. This rate only indicates the number of cases in which the police were able to identify a suspect. It does not reveal what proportion of those suspects were ultimately charged and convicted of murder. The prospect of going to prison does not prevent murders and it it does not address the underlying reasons people commit murder. Additionally, Parker points out, this question does not acknowledge the fact that one-third of all stranger murders are committed by police.

The ineffectiveness of policing and the prison system is not fodder for an argument on why these measures and systems need to be expanded. Instead, they add context to the increasing debate over why these systems should be abolished. The idea of doing away with the carceral state is often met with incredulity and disbelief because people presume that the existing systems are effective ones that help to bring about justice. When those presumptions are juxtaposed against the reality of the incarceration system in the United States, a serious conversation about abolition—not as an incomplete, far-fetched utopian ideal, but as legitimate means of remedying the existing harm perpetuated by that system—can be had.


[1] Bernard E. Harcourt, “9/13: Prison Abolition,” Abolition Democracy 13/13/ (blog), accessed May 7, 2021,

[2] “United States Profile,” Prison Policy Initiative, accessed May 7, 2021,; Patrick McCarthy, Vincent Schiraldi, and Miriam Shark, “The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model,” New Thinking in Community Corrections no. 2 (October 2016): 15,

[3] Angela Y. Davis, “Believe in New Possibilities: Why Argument Against Abolition Inevitably Fail,” Level, October 6, 2020,

Works Cited

Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle, “Juvenile Incarceration, Human Capital and Future Crime: Evidence from Randomly-Assigned Judges,” (April 2015),

Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete (April 2003).

Angela Davis, “Why Arguments Against Abolition Inevitably Fail,” Level (Oct. 6, 2020),

Angel Parker, “What About the Murderers and the Rapists,” Medium (June 24, 2020),