What is Prison Abolition?

Prison abolitionists want to live in a world without institutions such as prisons, immigration detention centres and secure juvenile facilities.

  • They believe that the police, courts and prisons systematically target people in our society – poor people, queer and trans people, people of colour, and people with mental health issues – and that incarceration is a form of violence against these people.
  • They oppose the idea that imprisoning someone is a form of justice, or promises ‘rehabilitation’, and believe that there are better ways of reducing and addressing interpersonal violence.

The mutually reinforcing network of our country’s laws, systems of policing and surveillance, courts, prisons, and the companies which profit from the incarceration and exploitation of prisoners, are collectively referred to as the Prison Industrial Complex (P.I.C).

Prison abolitionists envisage various strategies for dismantling the PIC, which may include:

  • Opposing the construction of new prisons
  • Decriminalisation (removing laws which target, for example, drug users or sex workers, so that fewer people are put into unneccessary contact with a deeply prejudiced judicial system)
  • Improving access to mental health care services
  • Alternative ways of dealing with interpersonal violence within communities, for example through transformative justice processes
  • Fighting against inequalities based on class, race, ability, gender, and sexuality.

Prison abolition may seem an unrealistic or utopian goal, as prisons are such a widely accepted part of our society. But prison abolitionists believe that we do not need to accept prisons as a fact of life, and that a world without prisons is possible


Why not reform?

The prison system as we know it is the result of reform: the prison was conceived as a humane alternative to forms of corporal punishment. While this reform saved lives, the resulting system is far from humane, and only represents a different form of violence.

Well-meaning reforms, such as building separate prisons for women so that they are not vulnerable to violence when incarcerated with men, can have negative long-term effects. Once a prison is built, it will be filled, and women now make up 5% of the UK prison population.

While it is important to consider the wellbeing of prisoners, campaigns for prison reform can have the overall result of strengthening the prison system and normalising incarceration as the main form of punishment in our society.

To campaign for prison reform is to suggest that prisons would be fine if only they were better managed, or more considerate of prisoners’ needs – this is false. Prison abolitionists recognise that prisons are inherently violent and oppressive institutions, and that they cannot be reformed.

Where are we headed if the P.I.C isn’t stopped?