Instead of prisons: a handbook for abolitionists

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The power of words

Nine perspectives for prison abolitionists

1. Time to begin

Voices of abolition • Advocates of swift and massive change • Constitutionalists • Advocates of moratorium • Peace advocates • Developing an ideology • Economic wsocial justice • Who decides? • Who benefits? • Concern for all victims • Reconciliation rather than punishment • Abolition strategies • Power and prison change

2. Demythologizing our views of prison

Crime: Myths & realities • A society of criminals? • Who gets defined as "criminal?" • Crime wave statistics & public fear • Myth of the criminal type • What causes crime? • The culture of violence • Patriarchy and violence • Official violence • Guns • Organized crime • Drugs • Criminal law & social change • The myth of protection • The few who get caught • The few society fears • Prisons & a safer society • The myth of deterrence • Difficulty in wading deterrence • Theories of deterrence • Problems with special deterrence • Problems with general deterrence • The myth of rehabilitation • A lesson for abolitionists • "Rehabilitation" = punishment & control • The cage • Indeterminacy & the treatment model • Behavior modification • The "game" • Hard days for rehabilitation • Three directions & our response • The myth that punishment works • Prison punishment: Cruel and illegal • Escalatory nature of punishment • Justifications of punishment • Learning punishment: There's no place like home • Prisoners & childhood abuse • New directions • Nonpunitive alternatives: Reconciliation • The myth that prisons are worth the cost • Economic origins • Tracking the dollar • Prison prospects • Costly decisions • Prison life is unconstitutional

3. Diminishing/dismantling the prison system

Value of creating a model • The attrition model • Moratorium • Decarcerate • Excarcerate • Restraint of "the few" • Building the caring community

4. Moratorium on prison/jail construction

Public education • Arguments in favor of prison construction • Moratorium responses • Developing a strategy for local moratorium • Researching a moratorium campaign • What do we need to know about the prison establishment? • Where do we find the information we need? • Sources • Funding prison/jail construction • How do we use the data collected? • What every prison changer should know about LEAA • The Federal Bureau of Prisons: A growth industry

5. Decarcerate

Strategies for decarceration • Decarcerating a juvenile prison system • Abolitionist proposals • Interim strategies • Modes of decarceration • Abolishing indeterminate sentences & parole • Indeterminate sentences unjust • Voices against indeterminacy • Maine's new law • The struggle in California • An interim sentencing proposal • An interim parole proposal • Prisoners view parole • Sentence review process • Relieve prison overcrowding • Restitution to victims • The Minnesota Restitution Center • Parole contracts

6. Excarcerate

Moving away from incarceration• Paradox of interim strategies • Modes of excarceration• Decriminalization • Why decriminalize? • Undercriminalization • Decriminalizing prostitution • Decriminalizing homosexuality • Decriminalizing public intoxication • Decriminalizing marijuana • Abolition of bail & pretrial detention • Constitutionality • Who pays? • Who benefits? • Is bail necessary? • Costs to hostages • Costs to the taxpayer • Release on recognizance • Pretrial diversion • Abolishing bail • Interim strategies • Community dispute and mediation centers • Mediation & arbitration • The moot model • Kinds of conflicts /crimes • Abolitionist criteria • Community Assistance Project • Restitution • Outside the system • Within the system • Victim Offender Reconciliation Program • Fines • Suspended Sentences • Probation • Alternative sentencing • Alternative sentencing thru law • Current status of sentencing • Interim strategies

7. Restraint of the few

The politics of dangerousness • "Dangerousness" and predictability • Counteracting belief in predictability • Research challenging overprediction • Shifting the emphasis • Prison: More dangerous than prisoners

8. New responses to crimes with victims

Crimes against women and children • Rape: Myth and realities • The victimization of women • Patriarchy • Sex-role socialization . • Wife assault • Rape & the criminal (in)justice systems • Placing the victim on trial • Rape law reform • Compensation • Restitution • Racist use of the rape charge • Repeating the cycle of violence • Empowering the victims of rape • Rape crisis centers • An empowerment model: BAWAR • Washington, D. C. Rape Crisis Center .• Women Organized Against Rape • Rape Relief • Innovative action projects • Men Against Rape • New responses to the sexually violent • Breaking the cycle of violence • Alternative House • Prisoner self help: PAR • Sex Offenders Anonymous • Sexuality re-education: BEAD • Treatment program for Sex Offenders • New responses to sexual abuse of children • Myths of sexual abuse of children • Child victimization study • Can a child consent? • Training in fear and silence • Child Sexual Abuse Treatment Program • Recommendations for action • Street crime • Media manipulators • Street crime & its victims • New responses to street crimes • Crime & the Minority Community Conference • CLASP

9. Empowerment

Empowering the community • Services needed • Community solutions • The House of Umoja • Delancey Street Foundation • Empowering prisoners • Qualities of a prisoner ally • Folsom prison strike manifesto • A bill of rights for prisoners • Prisoners' Union • Prisoners' voting rights • A prisoner voting rights project • Empowering the movement • Researching the prison power structure • Prisons as industry: Jobs • Research methodology • Your right to public information • Educating the public • Research/action as organizing


Recommended readings/resources

Instead of Prisons Table of Contents > Preface


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.

As Americans of varying backgrounds and ages, we are required to re-evaluate: (1) our society and its relationship to those it labels "criminal;" (2) our personal values and attitudes about prisoners and the prison system; (3) our commitment to wider social change. It is important that we learn to conceptualize how a series of abolition-type reforms, partial abolitions of the system, and particular alternatives can lead toward the elimination of prisons. Abolitionists advocate maximum amounts of caring for all people (including the victims of crime) and minimum intervention in the lives of all people, including lawbreakers. In the minds of some, this may pose a paradox, but not for us, because we examine the underlying causes of crime and seek new responses to build a safer community. The abolitionist ideology is based on economic and social justice for all, concern for all victims, and reconciliation within a caring community.

This handbook is written for those who feel it is time to say "no" to prisons, for those open to the notion that the only way to reform the prison system is to dismantle it, for those who seek a strategy to get us from here to there.

Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists was also written for ourselvesÑa small group of the already convinced-who have gathered together to clarify and record the insights gleaned from our prison experiences. "We" are ex-prisoners, prison changers, prison visitors, families of prisoners, prison teachers-all allies to those in cages. This handbook speaks for us as "abolitionists."

Dissatisfaction with the present prison system is widespread. Thruout the country innovative projects are being tried. While nearly all of these efforts are open to criticism, we view them hopefully, as steps toward abolition. We describe and evaluate as many of these projects as space allows, in the belief that they suggest many ways in which work can be started right now toward the abolition of prisons.

A successful movement to abolish prisons will grow thru the joining of those who have experienced the system from "inside" the walls with those on the "outside" who are willing to undertake the leap from palliative reform to abolition.

This handbook endeavors to provide a wide range of concepts, strategies, and practical education-action tools. It is of equal importance that we establish perspectives to guide us in defining caring community, while moving away from the era of mega-prisons into confrontation with many more subtle instruments of control and coercion.

You will find a list of resources and recommended readings for abolitionists, as well as a scattering of "Abolition Papers" which can be reproduced for wider distribution. PREAP will continue to issue these occasional papers as the abolition movement progresses.

This handbook was designed for training abolitionists. It is divided into sections according to concepts to be understood and strategies to be developed. There is some deliberate repetition for the purpose of reinforcement. A manual for organizing abolition workshops based on concepts in this handbook is included in the list of resources. We envision these workshops as a medium for bringing together persons who are seriously committed to the goal of diminishing and eliminating the role of prisons in our society.

The ensuing pages provide information and material to facilitate that process. It is a beginning. May our shared experience complete the succeeding chapters.


Task force: Robert Brown, Scott Christianson, Lynn Cobden, Fay Honey Knopp, Janet Lugo, Virginia Mackey, Vincent McGee and Sharon Smolick

Workshop consultant: Susanne Gowan

Typists and proof readers: Lynn Cobden, Robbie Dubroff, Wendy Hedin, Burton Knopp, Brett Raphael, Edith Sillman, Sharon Smolick and Isabelle Yolen

Special acknowledgements: This handbook was funded by the New York State Council of Churches' Task Force for a Safer Society. We are particularly grateful for the encouragement and support of convenor Virginia Mackey, and Jon Regier, executive director of the New York State Council of Churches, and the Task Force's commitment to the development of the handbook. Special thanks to American Friends Service Committee for their grant in support of data gathering and research; the Westport Public Library for their special services; Mary Ann Largen for her contributions to the chapter on the crime of rape and our everlasting gratitude to the many prisoners who shared their concepts and information with their allies at PREAP.

Heartfelt thanks to all who furnished graphics, especially Tracy Sugarman, drawings for the cover and 82. Lowell Naeve, drawings from Phantasies of a Prisoner (Denver, Alan Swallow, 1958), frontispiece, 65, 115. James Grashow, woodcut, 19. Warren Levicoff, photo (all rights reserved), 85. Peg Averill, drawings, 139, 142, 149, 153, 155, 161. Chas. Du Rain, Georgeville Community Features, drawing, (all rights reserved), 74. Mark Morris, photos, 15, 33, 104, 105, 136, 166. Joseph Grant of Penal Digest International for photos, 40, 102; drawing, 133. Liberation News Service drawings, 21, 23, 30, 44, 51, 69, 88, 91, 98, 151; photos 25, 94. American Foundation, photos, 37, 48, 77, 113, 128. Fortune Society, photos, 27, 55, 81. NEPA News, drawings, 93. Prisoners' Union, photos, 78, 176; drawing, 135. Clergy and Laity Concerned, drawing by Buu Chi, 99. NORML, photo, 108. PSO Newsletter, drawing, 119. VORP, photo 122. Friends Journal, drawing, 130. Black Scholar, drawing, 188. CLASP, photo, 165. Majority Report, drawing, 148. The National Observer, drawing, 46. Gale Research Company, drawings, 42, 43. Skeptic Magazine, drawing, (© 1974 Forum for Contemporary History, Inc., all rights reserved), 34. Auburn prison, photo, 17. St. Louis Post Dispatch, drawing by Bill Steele, 87. Women Against Rape, drawing by Valerie Klaetke in Stop Rape, 147. Guardian, drawing, 174. Trenton State Prisoners' News, drawing, 57.


People in prison thrive on hope. The despair of a life sentence is made tolerable by the hope of change. Tolerable in the sense of there being some small chance of eventual freedom. But that hope of change far too often is used as a control device; people who support the changes are too easily made the system's tools for chiseling that control. As an example, the stress on improved living conditions in prisons loses sight of the reality of imprisonment. Even a Better Homes and Gardens bedroom, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for 20 years, is an intolerable prison.

What is eliminated in prison is choice. What is encouraged is obedience. Bruno Bettelheim illustrated the result when he stated "a prisoner had reached the final stage of adjustment to the camp situation when he had changed his personality so as to accept as his own the values of the Gestapo .... Can one imagine a greater triumph for any system than this adoption of its values and behavior by its powerless victims?" Until choice can be freely exercised and caring behavior encouraged, there can be no meaningful change and the "rehabilitation" of "criminals" will only be a system's triumph over the values and behavior of the powerless in our society.

It is not enough just to endorse a movement, support an issue or reach out among ourselves, inside and outside prisons. As abolitionists we must look to the future and examine the long term impact of their present reality. We must be creative and inquisitive. We must understand our direction and abolition must be that direction because the entire system of punishment has failed. Abolition is not a toothache, but a people's right to erase useless waste of human life, time and money.

This handbook can serve as a beginning, but it must be perceived as just that, a beginning. None of the models can work if perceived as an answer to the problems. Diverting lives from imprisonment and punishment can only serve as links in a chain of change. We cannot afford to lose sight of the uniqueness of each individual and the needs that filter thru that uniqueness to create one human life; we must create options and equity.

-M. Sharon Smolick # AF01850


In order to shape a new vision of a better future, every social change movement discovers the need to create its own language and definitions. Language is related to power. The world is differently experienced, visualized and described by the powerful and the powerless. Thus, the vocabulary coined by those who design and control the prisons is "dishonest." Dishonest because it is based on a series of false assumptions. In creating a new system, we need to consciously abandon the jargon that camouflages the reality of caging and develop honest language as we build our movement.

Prisoners perceive the use of "systems" language as denying them the reality of their experience:

Just the very fact that they call us "inmates" that's like calling a Black a "nigger" or a Jew a "kike." It says that you are flawed; there's something wrong with you. You're an "inmate" and this is a hospital; this is going to make you well. Well, this isn't a hospital and I'm not flawed. I'm not an inmate. I'm not sick. And there's nothing here being done to make me any better.

--A prisoner, interviewed by Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes," CBS/TV, August 24, 1975

In this handbook, we begin to define and use honest language. But, as with many new ideas, our tongues and brains often remain captives of the old system long after our hearts are committed to the new. To disengage ourselves, we record some of the words we choose to use in this book


Person who believes that prisons have failed. Person who advocates the abolition of prisons as a long term goal. Person who seeks to build the "caring community."

Abolitionist reforms

A reform which does not strengthen or legitimate the prevailing prison system.

Attrition model

A social change model which gradually restrains /reduces the function of prisons in society.


Refers to places of involuntary confinement in prisons or jails. Dishonest language calls them "rooms" or "residencies."

Caring community

Where power and equality of all social primary goods liberty, opportunity, income and wealth and the bases of self respect are institutionally structured and distributed to all members of the community and where the spirit of reconciliation prevails.

Collective criminality

Reflects institutional assaults on whole social groups or on the public. Examples include racism, starvation, war and corporate pollution.


Use of quotes draws attention to the contradictions in this dishonest term, denoting programs, procedures or processes which punish rather than correct.

Criminal (in)justice systems

Denotes lack of justice in a series of procedures beginning with arrest and ending with release from prison or parole, which are not part of a single coherent system.


Modes of getting people out of prison. Also referred to as "depopulation."


Programs or procedures that move away from the notion of imprisonment as a response to lawbreaking.


Refers to people who are paid to keep other people caged in jails and prisons. Dishonest language calls them "correctional officers."

The moot

An informal airing of a dispute which takes place before neighbors and kin of the disputants. It is noncoercive and allows the disputants to discuss their problems in an atmosphere free from the questions of past fact and guilt.


Refers to power and power relationships, especially power that is connected to the state. A "political choice" can refer to a course of action (or inaction) adopted when alternative courses of action are available.


A person held in custody, captivity or a condition of forcible restraint. Dishonest language calls them "inmates" or "residents."


Places of confinement. Dishonest language calls them "correctional facilities" or "reformatories."


Some instruments of reconciliation are mediation, restitution, persuasion, and other nonviolent behavior which are utilized to restore both the wrongdoer and the wronged to lives of dignity and integrity.


Units within a prison that punish by isolating prisoners from the rest of the imprisoned population. Also called "solitary confinement." Dishonest language calls them "adjustment" units.

Unviolent crimes

Crimes in which there is no physical injury, often referred to as "nonviolent" crimes. To use the term "nonviolence" involves not merely an absence of overt violence but positive efforts toward reconciliation.


All who suffer either by collective social and economic or individual acts of violence.

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