What Replaces Prisons?

A Victim Offender Education Group meeting at San Quentin State Prison
Insight Prison Project
A Victim Offender Education Group meeting organized by the Insight Prison Project, a restorative justice program at San Quentin State Prison, California, 2017

Nearly two decades ago, the activist and scholar Angela Davis observed that prison abolitionists were “dismissed as utopians and idealists whose ideas are at best unrealistic and impracticable, and, at worst, mystifying and foolish.” Today this is no longer the case—the prison abolition movement has gone mainstream. The recent killings by police officers of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade—among many others—have sparked a national reckoning about the entire US justice system that has reached news outlets, city governments, and boardrooms. In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, the school district has terminated its contract with the police department. A majority of the city council, which controls the budget, voted in June to abolish the department outright and replace it with a new system.

For Black Lives Matter activists, whose platform calls for “an end to all jails, prisons, immigration detention, youth detention and civil commitment facilities as we know them,” the movements for police and prison abolition are one and the same.1 Current efforts to defund police forces are part of a larger push to dismantle an entire criminal legal system that Americans increasingly recognize is biased against people of color. Police arrest minorities at higher rates than whites. Prosecutors charge them. Prisons trap them. These interlocking mechanisms have made the criminal legal system so unjust that some activists and scholars have abandoned the phrase “justice system” altogether. Mariame Kaba, a police and prison abolitionist, emphasizes that a society without such institutions is not so far-fetched: affluent communities—where police do not patrol school halls, where misbehavior in school results in counseling rather than jail, where people do not worry for their safety, and where addiction and mental illness are treated rather than criminalized—are “living abolition right now,” she has said.

That would indeed be the desired goal for all communities, even if there’s disagreement as to how to get there. The political scientist Michael Javen Fortner observed in a recent essay in City Journal that some Black citizens want more police rather than fewer, to protect them from crime. He cites a June 2020 Yahoo News/YouGov survey following Floyd’s death suggesting that opinion is split: 50 percent of Black respondents wanted “more cops on the street,” but 49 percent said they felt personally “less secure” when they saw a cop.

Regardless of this division in opinion, the Black Lives Matter movement has helped to expose the profound gap of lived experience between communities that endure police violence and those that barely register the existence of police. What began as a hashtag in 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, has grown into a movement…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.