The horrors of mass incarceration demand abolition.

Over the last couple years, I’ve learned to expect good things from Teen Vogue. I’ll admit that I haven’t seen the bulk of their material, but they’ve put out a number of excellent and insightful articles on political and cultural issues, often providing perspective and analysis that put more “serious” publications to shame. Over the last few months, I’ve learned to expect good things from a commentator named Olayemi Olurin, who seems to be building a reputation as someone who’s willing and able to push back against conservative bullshit. With their powers combined, we get an excellent article about the cruelty, greed, and incompetence (deliberate or otherwise) of mass incarceration in the self-proclaimed “Land of the Free”.

If how many police we hire, prisons we construct, people we incarcerate, and billions of dollars we invest in the prison industrial complex translated to public safety, the communities with the highest police presence would be the safest, and America would be heaven on Earth. But it’s not — especially not according to the politicians who fearmonger about rising crime, all while asking us to keep investing in the same failed approach to addressing it.

This American system is a vehicle for maintaining racial, social, and economic inequality by criminalizing poor Black and brown communities, using them for labor, and saddling them with debt, trauma, and rap sheets with lifelong consequences that can rarely be outrun. This is deliberate and immoral, but the call to divest from police, prisons, and mass incarceration is about more than morality; it’s about results, and mass incarceration has failed to produce them.

Of course, it’s arguable that mass incarceration has produced the desired results of its architects, it’s just that they’ve been lying about their goals all along. We can acknowledge that clear material incentives that go into building and maintaining a system like the one the U.S. has, while also looking at the rhetorical façade that maintains popular consent for this ongoing crime against humanity. While the recent rise in open fascism and open white supremacy in the U.S., it’s getting easier to find people who will openly support discriminatory policies and practices, but the pretense of “solving crime” and “keeping people safe” remains, and while we have to dig into the deeper issues, it’s important to engage that rhetoric at face value at the same time.

In America, police arrest someone every three seconds, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. A 2020 review from University of Utah professor Shima Baughman, however, found that police solve just 2% of all major crimes. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  A 2020 report from the American Action Forum found that this country spends an estimated $300 billion on policing  and prisons yearly, a figure that has continued to increase despite record drops in crime. Political leaders and the media continue to sensationalize and manufacture crime waves to scare the public into feeling unsafe, so that we continue supporting inflated police budgets, militarized police departments, and incarcerating residents of the most under-resourced communities.

Nearly 2 million people are incarcerated in America, over 400,000 of whom have not had a trial or been convicted of any crime, according to the Prison Policy Institute (PPI). Nearly 60% of incarcerated people are Black or Latino, per PPI’s most recent numbers. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that research shows some 65% of the US prison population has substance abuse issues. The vast majority of incarcerated persons earned wages below the poverty line before their arrest, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, and 43% of state and 23% of federal prisoners have a history of a mental health issue. Add to that, hundreds of people die in federal and state prisons each year. The leading cause of death? Suicide.

Our society constantly dehumanizes people deemed as “criminals”, and none more so than Black criminals. Even leaving aside dubious cases like the “suicide” of Sandra Bland, suicide is not a particularly surprising response to finding oneself in that trap. The U.S. carceral system has become famous for miserable and often lethal conditions, with rampant abuse from guards, debt traps, and little recourse for those who’ve been abused. It seems that the default is to believe that if the government has deemed someone to be a “criminal”, then they have no right to humane treatment, meaningful due process, safety, or any hope of a future.

These profoundly grim statistics extend to what the US asks of incarcerated people while they’re locked away. Incarcerated people, in public and private prisons, produce over $11 billion in goods for almost no income. A 2022 ACLU report found that, on average, most states pay incarcerated people between 13 and 52 cents an hour — of which the government claims as much as 80% — and seven states skip the pretense altogether and pay absolutely nothing for most jobs. Often, incarcerated people can’t afford the basic necessities for which they are charged, their families spend over $2.9 billion in commissaries each year, in addition to another $14.8 billion in costs associated with moving, eviction, and homelessness brought on by these cases.

And the debt doesn’t end there. Many people think “you do the crime, you do the time” and have no idea that criminal convictions also come with fines and fees. We are not only policing and incarcerating the poorest people in our society, we’re billing them for it. Per the Fines and Fees Justice Center, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people owe at least $27.6 billion in fines and fees nationwide.

Let’s introduce another definition for this practice: Slavery is a system of bondage in which a person is treated as property, deprived of their freedom and personal liberty, and forced to perform labor for another’s gain. Mass incarceration is slavery. Not “modern-day slavery” or some other euphemism, just slavery.

It almost seems like it’s a system designed more for profit and social control than for “solving crime” or for keeping anyone safe. More than that, it’s a system for social control that has been shown repeatedly to have an extreme bias against non-white people, and especially Black people. It’s a simple fact of history that the modern law enforcement system not only has its roots in slavery, but also has maintained slavery to the present day with the explicit endorsement of the U.S. constitution. I also think it’s important to dwell on that last point – forced labor is not a necessary component of slavery, only ownership of humans. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like “forced labor” has been the focal point in most discussions of slavery that I’ve encountered. I’m a little ashamed to admit that that had, to some degree, supplanted “ownership of/bondage of a human” in my mind. It’s a good reminder that propaganda works on all of us, no exceptions.

Perhaps you think that holding people in bondage would be necessary at times, even in a perfect society. Perhaps you think that taking away a person’s freedom as a punishment is somehow part of building that perfect society. I don’t agree, but even if that were the case, I think it’s important to confront what it is that you’re supporting, rather than trying to obscure it with rhetoric. The U.S. has made progress over its history, but it still has a system of social control and subjugation that, when you look at outcomes, is largely based on race. Is that part of your notion of justice? If not, why make excuses for a system that manifestly does not serve the purpose for which we’re told it was created? The reason I support police and prison abolition, is that the current system is unjust to its core, and efforts at reform pretend otherwise. Abolition requires us to shift our focus to building something new that is just, rather than trying to whittle away the “bad bits” of something thoroughly rotten.

If you were confronted with the total abolition of police and prisons, what would you want to replace it? What roles do they really serve that you feel would need to be filled? If we recognize that poverty is, itself, largely caused by injustice, then clearly the first step should be to remove the incentives for crimes of desperation. We know that prohibition hasn’t worked to reduce drug consumptions, we know that the drug war was basically a project of destroying lives for political gain, and that the dangers posed by law enforcement are the root of the violence of the drug trade. We should decriminalize all drugs, an invest those resources in treatment, and meeting people’s basic needs. Assaulting, kidnapping, and stealing from unhoused people doesn’t reduce the number of people who can’t afford shelter under our system, so maybe we should focus on providing good housing instead.

There’s no question that that building a different system would be a slow and difficult process – of course it would. There’s no question that a different system would have its own problems and failures. “Perfect” is a conceptual goal to work towards, not an actual way of being. There are surely some things that need tweaking and reforming, rather than replacement, but with such a corrupt, cruel, and bloodthirsty system, focusing on reform merely delays necessary change, and during that delay, more and more lives are destroyed.

We need to stop being so afraid of big changes, especially when the people warning us of “danger” are those who profit most from the horrific way things are.


  1. says

    rock on, brother. like the article on mental health facilities, i can’t help wondering about those cases where there doesn’t seem to be a way around it. like, some creep like ted bundy that just can’t be trusted around humans. coming up with a mental picture of non-incarcerating societies, i think about how tribes would use banishment – indeed, a modern tribe made some headlines for actually doing a banishment again. i don’t know if i’d trust ted bundy types with coyotes and marmosets either, but it’s an idea.

    in the beautiful future where abolition comes to pass, i trust the compassionate thinkers who advocate these policies will come up with better ideas that i would, and surely better than anything currently happening.

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