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The US Prison System Is Broken Beyond Repair. What Can Replace It?

Want to improve conditions for those behind bars? Then don’t just call for a few changes, according to activist Isaac Ontiveros. What we need to do is get rid of the entire criminal justice system as we know it.

Illustration via Flickr user DonkeyHotey

Prisons are terrible, torturous places where people—who are usually poor and disproportionately of color—are subjected daily to crimes more horrific than the ones that probably sent them there. The vast majority of individuals behind bars are there for nonviolent drug and property offenses. Now, which is worse, do you think: Stealing a late-90s Honda or putting someone in a cage for years where we know they will be physically and emotionally abused? We ask whether criminals can be reformed, when we think of them as people at all, but maybe we should stop to consider whether the idea of prisons and jails can be rehabilitated in the wake of all the injustice they have wrought.


Perhaps the evils of incarceration outweigh the good. Maybe the goal shouldn’t be reform, as welcome as that may be, but something more radical: release.

That’s sort of what a federal court wants California to do. In 2009, it was ordered to improve conditions at its overcrowded prisons by freeing tens of thousands of inmates. The court didn’t buy California’s claim that it could improve conditions any other way, because the state had claimed that before and failed to deliver. The situation had gotten so bad that every week a prisoner was dying a preventable death because he or she didn’t have adequate health care; hundreds of mentally ill inmates continue to be stashed away in mind-destroying solitary confinement for no reason other than that they are mentally ill and authorities don’t know where else to put them.

We’re still waiting for California to comply with the court order—Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, would rather send inmates to private prisons than release nonviolent offenders—but the idea that the only way to address the evil of prison is by putting fewer people in prison has been circulating for a while.

Activist Isaac Ontiveros is the communications director for Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization that seeks to stop mass incarceration by ending the system’s reliance on prisons altogether and by devising alternative, community-based methods of resolving conflict and delivering justice. He is a prison abolitionist who likens his organization’s work to the fight against another one of America’s peculiar institutions (incidentally, more black people are in American prisons than ever worked on American plantations).


I asked Isaac to explain himself, and he was kind enough to do so.

VICE: What does it mean to be a “prison abolitionist”?
Isaac Ontiveros: What we mean is that we want to end the whole system of mutually reinforcing relationships between surveillance, policing, the courts, and imprisonment that fuel, maintain, and expand social and economic inequity and institutional racism. So, not just prisons.

By “abolition,” we mean that we are interested in doing away with the system rather than finding ways to make it work better or for it to be kinder and gentler. We don’t see the prison-industrial complex as broken; we see it working very, very well at surveilling, policing, imprisoning, and killing exactly who it targets. As abolitionists, we work to diminish the scope and power of the prison-industrial complex while simultaneously increasing the ability of those communities targeted by it to be stronger, healthier, and more self-determined.

A sketch of Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth vice president of the US, freeing a man from debtors' prison. Johnson was a 19th-century advocate of ending the practice of locking up people who couldn't pay their debts. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Why do you think imprisonment came to be the dominant means of delivering “justice” in America?
The US government, along with state and local governments, has always been involved one way or another in enforcing racial inequities—whether through social codes, laws and statutes, policing policies and practices, encouragement of vigilante violence, or outright domestic warfare against certain segments of the population. And poor people of color have borne the brunt of this violence—and, importantly, they’ve also been at the forefront in fighting back.


Think about the incredible political repression that goes on in this country; think about the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), unleashed against organizations like the Black Panther Party. Think of the massive cuts to social and health services, massive job loss, attacks on organized labor, and de facto permanent unemployment. Think of the war on drugs, the war on gangs, the war on terror. Think of the thousands of new offenses added to the criminal codes—the equivalent of one federal offense a week between 2000 and 2007. Think of the positively virulent anti-black racism that goes along with this. Think of the militarization of the US-Mexican border and immigrant detention. Think about even small towns having a SWAT team and zero-tolerance policing and of the largest prison-building project in world history in the state of California. Think about the disenfranchisement and dispossession of formerly imprisoned people. Think of the absolute pervasiveness of surveillance as well as media images that perpetuate some of the basest and most racist stereotypes imaginable of who is a criminal, or an undesirable, or a terrorist. And now think of the instability created by such violence and the need to control that instability—and the need to keep people from fighting back.

The US doesn’t actually imprison all that many violent people. Most of those behind bars committed nonviolent drug or property offenses. But what about the violent ones? Aren’t we better off having murderers and rapists off of the streets?
Well, I think an interesting part of that question is that even as the US has managed to lock up more people than any other country in the world, and has built probably the most massive and repressive policing, legal, and imprisonment system in history, we still tend to be pretty terrified in this country. This is not to say that violence—including sexual violence and murder—isn’t a real thing or a real fear. But I think in order to build up any hope of moving beyond the bleak situation we are in… we have to ask a few tough questions, and we have to change quite a few things. How do we relate to violence in our communities vis-à-vis the terrible violence that is wrought by the US government on a global scale, or by the prison-industrial complex domestically on a daily basis? How do we understand violence in relationship to the devastation caused by racism and economic inequity? How do we relate to sexual violence when we are inundated with horrendously misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic images? Our fears might be real, but our fears are also being produced and exploited. And then, of course, how do we think of anything else but prisons and police when we’ve be indoctrinated with this idea that all problems are solved by locking people up?


At the same time, violence is a very real concern, especially in the communities that are most impacted by the prison-industrial complex. I think we are better off if we can develop sustainable and transformative ways to confront, address, and intervene in situations of harm and violence. And the thing is, for the most part, especially in marginalized communities, people are already working to resolve conflict and address harm without using police or imprisonment all the time. And they are doing it around some egregious forms of harm, including murder and sexual violence. And sometimes some things work better than others. As an abolitionist, I am always interested in figuring out ways to address harm and violence that don’t rely on using the police.

A decommissioned jail in Stockton, Utah, that is now a historical site. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Sure, America may not be as violent as popularly imagined, but there is still a lot of violence in this country. What would a prison abolitionist do if they found out his next-door neighbor was a serial killer or rapist? In the absence of viable alternatives, I think I might call the cops. Is that wrong? Would it be better if I took justice into my own hands?
Rather than saying, “Is it wrong to call the cops?” I want us to ask, “Is there anything we can do besides call the cops?” I think the more we can ask ourselves that question, and ask it among our friends, families, coworkers, neighbors, organizations, etc., and try to ask it and answer it as imaginatively as possible before things escalate, the more we will be able to respond swiftly and thoughtfully during crises.


If you mean, “What could I do if an act of violence was being carried out in front of me?” I would do everything in my power to stop it—and if I were able, this would include drawing in, as quickly and as thoughtfully as possible, the help and support of others. And then, yes, as far as all the lessons we’ve been taught about what to do next, we are in a no-person’s land. But the fact of the matter is, people deal with these situations all the time—sometimes they use violence, sometimes they don’t; sometimes the person who does harm is banished from the family or the community, and sometimes they are drawn closer. I heard a story of an indigenous community where one person murdered another person. There was this long process by which it was agreed that the person who did the murder would essentially replace the person he killed as far as his social and economic responsibilities. Gacaca courts in Rwanda and conferencing circles among indigenous communities in Canada also teach us very useful lessons about the complex ways survivors of very serious violence have attempted to hold those who’ve done harm accountable.

I would challenge the notion that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to these types of situations. That’s the response that the prison-industrial complex has offered us, and that hasn’t worked—except to exacerbate the social instability that fuels the violence we see in our communities. I live in a neighborhood where people are killed from time to time, but it doesn’t help me to understand the person doing the killing to think of them as some monster or serial killer out of a movie. I hope my anger or fear or frustration about this type of violence would lead me to want to fight to change the context in which it occurs, so that it happens less and less in the first place.


Abolishing prisons seems like a pretty distant goal. What then is a prison abolitionist to do in the meantime?
Like any social change, it will take time and is something that requires taking decisive and strategic steps toward the world we want to see. We have a broad vision of a world without prisons, police, surveillance, and the inequities they defend, and as we takes steps toward that world, we understand better what the path forward is going to look like.

In Los Angeles, we work with other organizations and community members to fight back the expansion of the LA County Jail, which is the largest jail system in the world. We are working to do the same in San Francisco County. In New Orleans, we were able to win a cap on the number of people that can be locked up in the notorious Orleans Parish Prison—no small feat, given that Louisiana has the highest imprisonment rate in the US—so now the challenge is to get people out.

In Oakland, we won a fight against the racist policing policy known as a civil gang injunction, which under threat of arrest and imprisonment restricts the freedom of movement and association of individuals profiled as gang members—in the US, this has never been used against a white person—and now we are working in neighborhoods to develop ways people can take care of one another without using the police. In California as a whole we’ve been successful in winning massive cuts to the prison budget. We’ve also worked with prisoners and their loved ones and advocates to support three massive prison hunger strikes in protest of the state’s use of solitary confinement. We run a mail program and publish a newspaper that goes to thousands of prisoners throughout the US, aimed at working to develop our capacity as activists inside and outside prisons. All of our members are volunteers, and we do most of our work in coalition with the idea that we are think it is necessary to build a movement to both dismantle what keeps us down and to build up the world we believe is possible. At every turn, we try to put forward a vision of what we are for as strongly as we fight what we are against.

Working to improve the conditions faced by those behind bars seems like a good thing, but is there a fear it could make the current system more sustainable, injecting life into an unjust system?
This is a crucial challenge that doesn’t have an easy answer. The system we are up against is not fixed, and those who work as its strategists and technicians aren’t stupid—so it grows, changes, and adapts, and that includes accommodating and adjusting to reforms. Our organizing philosophy cautions us to try to not build up something that we have to knock down later. This is not easy, but is also part of any sustainable process of change. For example, ending solitary confinement doesn’t necessarily mean anyone gets to come home, but it does neutralize one of the main tools prison systems use to inhibit prisoner social and political organization. So organizing against that hopefully increases the capacity of imprisoned people (and those in the communities from which they come) to fight for further gains that might lead to more freedom.

Charles Davis is a writer and producer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, the New Inquiry, and Salon.