Many prison reformists yearn for the end of imprisonment but find themselves confronted by questions which seem difficult to answer:
What do we do about those who pose “a danger” to society? Don’t we have to solve that problem before we can advocate the abolition of prisons?
Is it possible to work for short term prison reforms without being coopted?
If we devote our energies to abolition, are we not abandoning prisoners to intolerable conditions?
How can we work for needed prison reforms which require structural change within the society, before a new social order comes about?
As some of these important questions are addressed, we will discover that many reforms can be achieved in an abolition context. The primary issue for abolitionists is not always one of reform over/against abolition. There are “surface reforms” which legitimize or strengthen the prison system, and there are “abolishing-type reforms” which gradually diminish its power and function. Realizing the differences requires some radical shifts in our perceptions, lest we fall into the trap which has plagued earlier generations. Our goal is to replace prison, not improve it.
Many criticisms of abolition arise from confusion about time sequences. Prisons are a present reality; abolition is a long range goal. How do we hasten the demise of prisons while creating an alternative which is consistent with our ideals?
We perceive the abolition of prisons as a long range goal, which, like justice, is an ever continuing struggle. Tho voices for abolition have been raised over the centuries, until today no cohesive movement for abolition of prisons has emerged. We have observed how countless revolutions have emptied the prisons, only to fill them up again with a different class of prisoner. Our goal, on the other hand, is to eliminate the keeper, not merely to switch the roles of keepers and kept. Excerpted from Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists