Prison Abolition, Reform, and End-State Anxieties

Recently I’ve been thinking about a book by Erin McKenna which I read as an undergraduate: The Task of Utopia: A Pragmatist and Feminist Perspective. I read it then because it promised to bridge the divide between my favorite genre, science-fiction, and my interest in philosophy. But the book profoundly changed me, and I’m always surprised that others haven’t read it; it feels like a classic. Using John Dewey’s work, McKenna articulates what she calls a “process model” for utopias, whereby we distinguish disputes about “end-states” from judgments about the “ends-in-view.” And this has always deeply affected my politics and thinking about political philosophy. I tend to think that far too many theoretical and practical divides are reducible to debates about end-states, such that even though progressives, libertarians, and anarchists all share the same criticism of some aspect of the state, they cannot work together. Usually these disputes are bolstered by philosophical and theoretical apparatus. The divide between prison reformers and abolitionists, for instance, is understood by abolitionists through the lens of Foucault’s critique of the 19th Century reformers, whose reforms, though sometimes well-meaning, only intensified incarceration by making it more exacting and effective while empowering the reformers. Meliorists who merely protests injustices or inequities but do not loudly call for the absolute abolition of prisons are falling into a “carceral logic” by which prisons will inevitably be preserved in all their evils.

Where I find McKenna helpful is, first, in her claim that end-state disagreements tend to be associated with masculine utopias, while feminist utopias emphasize ends-in-view (which jives with my readings of the relevant science-fiction utopias, and also of polital theories that have utopian elements), and second, in her Dewyan typology for judging ends-in-view. According to McKenna’s reading of Dewey, there are five criterion (five questions, really) by which we can judge an end-in-view:

  1. Does it promote education and participation? Will the people participate in decision-making and goal formation?
  2. Is it realistic? Does it acknowledge our embeddedness in constraining contexts?
  3. Is it flexible? Can it be modified as new conditions emerge?
  4. Does it aim to develop capacities and abilities, not just states of affairs?
  5. Does it open up possibilities or close them off? Does it promote plurality or isolation? Cooperation or competition? Power or paralysis?

Halden Prison, NorwayThis is where I find abolitionism frustrating: the project of prison abolition seems like an end-state rather than an end-in-view. It deliberately ignores (1) the wishes of victims, citizens, and even many of the incarcerated (all of whom are understood to be duped and epistemically blinded by the ideology of carcerality unless they adopt abolitionism.) It doesn’t start with our current carcerality and work away from it, but rather starts with a rejection of the current context and the constraints it creates (2). It’s inflexible (3) in the sense that it does not allow that some limited carcerality (a la Norway?) might still be reasonable. Though there’s the sense that that is the direction that abolitionism must proceed, it does not currently emphasize the development of the skills and abilities (4) that alternatives to incarceration would require. And though it does aim to foreclose carcerality forever, I do think abolitionists are most concerned to promote plurality, cooperation, and empowerment (5) for some of the most dominated people in our world today, which is why I can’t help feeling the pull of abolition even as the other objections I mention raise red flags.

Meliorism, on the other hand, has all the problems that the abolitionists describe. Reformers work with and within the system to resist it, which requires all sorts of rhetorical and practical compromises. By chipping at the edges and living too comfortably with “constraints” and “realism,” (2) meliorists leave the status quo mostly untouched. We adopt democratic projects and processes (1), but leave the fundamental injustices in place. We develop capacities (4) but usually we can’t create the institutions and conditions (5) where those capacities will be actualized. We are, at base, flexible (3) with evil, and thereby compromised by it, while the righteous know that evil requires inflexibility and even sacrifice.

Angela Davis puts it this way at the start of Are Prisons Obsolete?:

“As important as some reforms may be-the elimination of sexual abuse and medical neglect in women’s prison, for example-frameworks that rely exclusively on reforms help to produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond the prison. Debates about strategies of decarceration, which should be the focal point of our conversations on the prison crisis, tend to be marginalized when reform takes the center stage. The most immediate question today is how to prevent the further expansion of prison populations and how to bring as many imprisoned women and men as possible back into what prisoners call the ‘free world.'”

No reformer wants to “produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond prison,” but much of the rest of Davis’s book is devoted to the claim that reform is inextricable from that consequence. Ultimately, she equates prison reform with the absurdity of “slavery reform.” America’s prisons are historically and in current practice entangled with the Black Codes, the convict-lease system, Jim Crow, sexism, and antiblack racism; therefore, reformers are merely (hopefully unknowingly) fluffing the pillows while white supremacy and patriarchy is maintained:

If the words “prison reform” so easily slip from our lips, it is because “prison” and “reform” have been inextricably linked since the beginning of the use of imprisonment as the main means of punishing those who violate social norms.

Yet consider: Davis assumes that the majority of the increase in incarceration has been driven by the drug war, and that alternatives to incarceration will foreground drug treatment and decriminalization of drugs. In fact, though the largest group of arrests are tied to drug use, the largest group of prisoners are incarcerated for violence; this reflects sentencing differences and the kinds of treatment diversion programs for which she calls. There’s good evidence that the drug war, poverty, and racist policing produce some of that violence, but not all of it. Plus, prison populations are already shrinking, but at least some of this decline is due to the increase of post-release strategies that export carceral logics into a parolee’s (or even an unindicted suspect’s) everyday life.  The goals of decarceration can fall into the logic of carcerality as easily as the goals of reform. So how much really separates reformers from abolitionists? A reformer might call for the restoration of prison education and voting rights, for the creation of schools that teach rather than prepare students for prison, for decriminalization and treatment of drug abuse, for poverty-reduction and racial justice, while still thinking that certain kinds of violence should lead to coercive detention, that restorative justice has dangerous implications when applied to cases of sexual assault or organized violence.


And we see similar strands in Davis:

“In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of using an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete. There is a direct connection with slavery: when slavery was abolished black people were set free, but they lacked access to the material resources that would enable them to fashion new, free lives. Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery. They cannot, therefore, be eliminated unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population.”

A reformer sees nothing objectionable in those prescriptions, wants to join with the abolitionists for all their ends-in-view and put off the day when end-states might divide us. When the day comes that prisons truly are obsolete, reformers hope that they will be able to see that, too. But who really thinks that today is that day? Not Davis, who wants to “solve social problems” before throwing open the prison doors. In the meantime, why can we not work together to shrink and ameliorate the torturous institutions we all abhor? Why isn’t the reified distinction between abolition and reform as meaningless, today and for the foreseeable future, as the division between those who want to live in a world where the state withers away (Engels) and the world where the state has become small enough to drown in a bathtub (Norquist)? (Norquist now favors some decarceral strategies: is he an ally or an enemy?) If ends-in-view divide us, we must deliberate, compromise, and fight; so long as we are only divided in our utopias, why not collaborate?

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