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Historians for Prison Abolition

Roundup
tags: prison, Prison Reform



Eric Morgenson is a PhD candidate in history at the State University of New York at Albany. His research interests include the intersections of race and class in the United States, the relationship between liberalism and the left in the twentieth century, and American Jewish history.

The past several weeks have seen horrific images of immigrant children ripped away from their parents at the border and housed in abandoned Walmarts as collateral for Donald Trump’s racist border wall. While this is certainly shocking and repulsive, the American penal system has been building an infrastructure for this kind of detainment for decades. The privatization of the American prison system since the 1980s has led to mass incarceration at levels higher than any other country in the world. The same companies that house prisoners are also paid by the government to house immigrants, creating a problem that sits at the intersection of race and capitalism. The logic behind this is simple. Private companies exist to make money. When you operate a prison, the best way to make money is to make sure that the prison is full. The companies running private prisons have faith that the administration of Donald Trump will keep the prisons full for them. With stock prices dropping in the war industries as the United States and North Korea work towards peace, and segments of the manufacturing industry leaving the United States because of Trump’s various trade wars, prison contractors may very well end up being the one segment of the economy that truly benefits from Trump’s policies.

Prison abolitionists themselves understand that ending America’s carceral crisis will not be something that occurs overnight. While working towards the end goal of eliminating imprisonment, abolitionists also work to alleviate the suffering of those currently in prison, and work with people behind bars to improve their quality of life. Prison abolition is not just about ending prison, but also about making prisoners’ experiences more bearable. Most prison abolitionists support a gradualist approach to ending the prison system by advocating for more lenient sentences, as well as redirecting funds away from prisons and towards spending on education and welfare. Ultimately, the goal of prison abolitionists is to make society more equitable. The demographics of America’s prison system show that punishment in the United States is based much more on raceincome level, and their intersections than the idea of equality under the law.

The rise of the American prison population has its roots in Reagan-era neoliberal free market policies, as well as racist drug laws. The American prison population surged after 1980, with non-violent drug offenders facing decades behind bars. Democrats, who have also worked towards the creation of the prison-industrial complex, have offered their own versions of prison reform that do not get to the root of the problem. The plans offered by Democrats are corrections and tweaks to the existing system, and not the change on a massive scale that is necessary for true racial justice. The 1994 Crime Bill enacted under Bill Clinton added to the prison population boom and proved that liberals, including Bernie Sanders, were just as capable of supporting racialized police oppression as Republicans.

The American police state took an even more extreme turn after 9/11. The Bush administration responded to 9/11 not only with multiple military ventures causing millions of deaths, but also put in place the tools of a deportation machine that would be utilized by three administrations and lead us to the crisis that we have today. Despite little evidence that these systems actually worked or could even be clearly defined, they continued to be used and even expanded under the Obama administration. Ironically, at the same time that he was expanding parts of the security state, Obama was stating his belief that people imprisoned for drug offenses should have their sentences reduced. It is not a coincidence that many of the same people who are calling for police abolition are also on the frontlines of the battle against ICE, as the two are deeply interconnected in the continually expanding American police state.

The idea of police reform is bandied about in debates within the Democratic Party, with Democrats running further to the left embracing the idea, and other more centrist politicians shying away from a substantive dialogue. A much more radical solution than liberal ideas about police reform and training and more minorities on the police force, the prison abolition movement aims to upend the entire American criminal justice system. While advocacy for prison abolition has existed for decades, beginning with the Attica prison uprising of 1974, it has gained more traction in recent years.[1]  Prison abolition has become a more widely accepted stance, as leftist groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America as well as grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter have thrown their support behind the movement. Advocates for prison abolition argue that the racism and over-policing of poor communities and communities of color are clear indications that the American criminal justice system does not function properly. ...


Read entire article at The Activist History Review

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