Reform or abolition?

Julia Sudbury describes the activities of grassroots anti prison campaigners in the US

The US anti prison movement is made up of a plethora of grassroots organisations, lobby groups, activist collectives, prisoner associations and student groups (Sudbury, 2008). While the organisations that make up the movement are diverse in their organising strategies, they share the common goal of ending the use of imprisonment to respond to harm.

The anti-prison movement differs from voluntary organisations working for criminal justice reform in two key ways. First, rather than viewing imprisonment as a necessary sanction that should perhaps be used with less frequency or made more effective and humane, anti-prison activists view prisons and jails as a form of racialised state violence that must be dismantled as part of a wider social justice agenda. Second, while voluntary organisations provide important research, policy work, lobbying and direct services, their remit seldom includes community organising or mass mobilisation. As a result, the non profit model of organising is ill equipped to bring about radical social change (Incite!, 2007). Voluntary organisations can and do influence government policy, but they cannot generate the people power necessary to create the kind of fundamental social and economic reorganisation necessary to dismantle what has become a multibillion dollar industry. In addition, the non profit model of social change may actually undermine grassroots mobilising because it produces paid experts who are seen as having more legitimacy than directly affected communities, and tends to eschew popular protest that may lead to conflict with the state. In contrast, as anti-globalisation activist Arundhati Roy has stated: ‘Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary’.

To confront mass incarceration and its corollaries – the overpolicing and criminalisation of poor and racialised communities – anti-prison activists in the US have come to believe that a mass movement similar to the civil rights and anti-war movements is necessary. This movement must involve the active participation and leadership of those from directly affected communities, including low income racialised youth.

Like other new social movement actors, anti-prison activists have focused much of our attention on rearticulating popular understandings and generating new social meanings. Central to this intellectual project has been the creation and popularisation of a new language to talk about imprisonment.

The term ‘prison-industrial complex’ was first used by urban theorist Mike Davis to describe a prison building boom that, he argued ‘rivals agribusiness as the dominant force in the life of rural California and competes with land developers as the chief seducer of legislators in Sacramento’ (Davis, 1995). Angela Y Davis, a co-founder of CR, describes the prison-industrial complex as a symbiotic relationship between state criminal punishment agencies, politicians, corporations and other interest groups, manifested most obviously in the transformation of prisoners into profits (Davis, 2003). Private prisons, for example, transform the warehousing of prisoners and immigrant detainees into a transaction that is traded on the stock market. Prison expansion in the US, UK and internationally has also generated profit-making opportunities for construction and architecture firms, manufacturers of  security and telecommunications equipment, and for service industries including real estate agencies, banks and restaurants (Sudbury, 2000).

Anti-prison activists also work to erode popular support for the ‘tough on-crime’  philosophy underpinning US criminal justice policy. In contrast to the claim that prisons work, CR refutes the belief that ‘caging and controlling people makes us safe’. CR reminds us that both  perpetrators’ and ‘victims’ coexist in a social context devastated by a combination of social exclusion, poverty, racism, addiction and government neglect. This analysis shifts our focus from the commonsense assumption that policing and prisons create security, to the possibility of creating safety by redirecting resources to provide for the basic human rights of all community members.

Contrary to popular understandings, CR argues that prisons undermine safety by absorbing scarce public resources that might otherwise pay for social services that address the root causes of survival crimes – from education, youth and drug treatment programmes, to housing and employment. For this reason, an anti-prison agenda that includes ‘alternatives to cage-based punishment’ as a response to harm, as well as investment in community infrastructure has become popular in urban communities as a pathway to genuine security. Popularising the concept of ‘abolition’ is also central to the antiprison movement’s radical critique of imprisonment. By adopting this term, activists make deliberate links between dismantling prisons and the abolition of slavery.

Abolition exists in productive tension with efforts to reform the penal system. While abolitionists point out that reform in isolation of a broader decarcerative strategy serves to legitimate and even expand the prison-industrial complex, we also work in solidarity with prisoners to challenge inhumane conditions inside. Described by Angela Y. Davis as ‘non-reformist reforms’, these efforts are assessed first in terms of whether they contribute toward decreasing or increasing prison budgets and the reach of the criminal justice system. For anti-prison activists, however, reform is not the primary objective. Rather we work toward dual priorities. First, we aim to transform popular consciousness, so that people can believe that a world without prisons is possible. Second, we take practical steps toward dismantling the prison industrial complex. These steps include campaigns for a moratorium on prison expansion, mobilising community power to prevent the construction of proposed new prisons, shrinking the system through decarcerative efforts and creating community-based alternatives to imprisonment.

By helping the public to imagine the possibility of shrinking the prison-industrial complex and ending their reliance on imprisonment, the anti-prison movement has created a new political climate in which closing prisons is a viable solution to the current economic crisis. For a nation in which being ‘tough-on-crime’ has been a prerequisite for election, this is a significant achievement. Given the success of the US anti-prison movement in mobilising popular support to confront mass incarceration, academics and nonprofits should pay more attention to the role of popular movements in shaping criminal justice policy and consider how they might use their own resources to facilitate and support grassroots popular protest.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Criminal Justice Matters No. 77, Sept 2009.


Critical Resistance. For more information –

Davis, M. (1995), ‘Hell factories in the field’, The Nation, 260 (7, 20 February), pp.229-234.

Davis, A. (2003), Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.

Gilmore, R. (2007), Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalising California, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Incite! (2007), The Revolution will not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, Boston: South End Press.

Sudbury, J. (2000), ‘Transatlantic visions: Resisting the globalisation of mass incarceration’, Social Justice, 27 (3), pp.133-150.

Sudbury, J. (2008), ‘Rethinking global justice: Black women resist the transnational prison-industrial complex’, Souls, 10 (4), pp.344-360.

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