You are sitting in a jail cell. People tell you when to wake up, when to eat, what to do with your time, and finally when to go to sleep. You are tortured by other inmates, degraded and harassed by guards, and instead of spending that time fixing whatever you “did wrong” in society, you are simply rotting away and festering with the same problems that got you there becoming bigger. You are the 1 out of 100 adults who are locked up in the United States of America, home of the free. According to The New York Times, the United States has more people behind bars than any other country in the world, and keeps them there longer and with harsher sentences than can be found in other countries (Liptak, 2008). This is a sign of our government’s authority, and the amount of freedom Americans are actually afforded.
It is easy as the majority of people not faced with issues of the prison system to not face the issue of governmentalized human torture and slavery by justifying a prisoners confinement by ascribing to the fact that said prisoner must have broken some sort of rule or law that we have all agreed to as part of our social contract. When accepting the idea that a criminal broke the law, one must wonder, was this misdeed harsh enough to justify the torture and cruelty that is years in a maximum-security prison being caged like an animal? Under circumstances such as murder or rape, many would say yes, but according to The Federal Bureau of Prisons, most of the United States prisoners are imprisoned on drug-related charges. Drugs are illegal yes, but should someone really have to spend an extended period of time from their life that they will never get back sitting in a cell because they smoked some marijuana-a substance that is legal in some places of the U.S. already? When looking closer at the law the criminal broke however, questions more directed at the heart of the issue of prisons start to arise, such as the amount of power the government is excising over the people, and exactly what kind of people are the ones put in cages and why.
People are beginning to see the judicial system as being run by the elite and criminalizing behaviors of those they are trying to keep down, and are forming groups to promote prison abolition. Groups such as Critical Resistance in the United States and Prison Justice in Canada are working everyday to help end the prison system and all of its control and brutality. Bonnie Kerness, a human rights advocate who helps coordinate with groups such as the Prison Watch Project, wrote in a piece about peace, “In the U.S. criminal justice system, the politics of the police, the politics of the courts, the politics of the prison system, and the politics of the death penalty are a manifestation of the racism and classism that governs the lives of all of us (Kerness, 2011)”. It is the activities of the poor and colored that are criminal, but what’s even more criminal is that enforcing a law upon a people and then locking them up if they disobey isn’t the real crime.
Locking people up does not help them become a better part of society, it does not help heal any wounds that they may have left on the outside, and it does no one any good other than the government who uses it as a weapon of power. Prison abolition groups suggest that reconciliation is better than punishment, and that we instead of wasting time and energy torturing people behind closed doors, we should help them to become better parts of society, which would in turn help all of us.
What would we do with all of the empty prisons if we abolished prisons? We could do what the Dutch did with Het Arresthuis and just turn them into luxury hotels (check out Amusing Planet to see more about Het Arresthuis).
1. Liptak, Adam. (2008). The New York Times. U.S. Prison Population Dwarfs that of Other Nations. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
2. Amusing Planet. Het Arresthius: A Dutch Prison Turned Into a Luxury Hotel. Retrieved from http://www.amusingplanet.com/2013/02/het-arresthuis-dutch-prison-turned-into.html
3. Federal Bureau of Prisons. Quickfacts. Retrieved from
4. Kerness, B. (2011). Torture in U.S. Prisons. Peace Review, 23(3), 364-368. doi:10.1080/10402659.2011.596075