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  • Diya Goswami

"Should Prisons Be Abolished? Exploring the Controversy and Alternatives"

Diyaa Goswami

SLS Pune


Delving Deep into the Criminal Justice System: Promoting Prison Reforms

“The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs—it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”(Davis) 


The evolutions of prisons should be credited to the ancient romans, where people were caged, chained, and confined behind metal bars as one would do to tame a wild animal. Later, more nuanced versions of lethal punishments came into existence, for instance the advent of gas chambers during World War 2. Prison Abolishment does not mean completely wiping out the whole concept of incarceration but also bringing out better implementable alternatives.

There are more than 2.2 million prisoners in the United States of America, more than 1.65 million in China (plus an unknown number in pre-trial detention or ‘administrative detention’) (Walmsey).Prisons are designed in such a manner that one cannot enjoy their right to life with full enthusiasm. For around 23-48 hours prisoners live in crammed up cells, with no light, no window, no access to clean sanitation which could lead to serious health issues especially in cases of women. Moreso, prisoners are more prone to being sexually assaulted, especially in such a case if a hard-core criminal is put in a cell with a meek and diffident prisoner, a lot of things could go topsy turvy. I believe, ever since the advent of the prisons we have stopped looking at other mechanisms that could do “criminal justice”. By using the term abolition, I am not just hinting at eradicating slavery, (working for long hours with no source of income and just served stale food, without adequate amount of sleeping hours) unbound dominance but also devising a mechanism to uphold the notion of democracy and coming up with new implementable reformative policies.

Highlighting the Issue

Decriminalization involves altering the legal framework so that behavior previously categorized as criminal is no longer considered unlawful. Prison takes a mass of offenders – many of whom have strong and varied moral excuses – and strips them of community, sanitation, healthcare, climate control, food, and fresh air, while exposing them to violence, rape, depersonalization, and isolation. (Gordon)

"Humans are born free, but everywhere one looks they are in chains”. (Mend) No prison actually promises a reformation. Incarceration is an imposed solution, and it does not guarantee any character building, it is just a form of penalizing criminals for their wrongs so to console the society that justice is served. My question remains unanswered, will society ever except them again? Before we delve into the answer, let’s not forget, it takes forever to build a reputation, but it takes just one act to tarnish it.

Toll on Children

It takes ages to bring up such cases, the gap between the order of a conviction and a sentence is immense. Their cases have been dragged on for ages. In most of the non-bailable cases, the children are robbed of parental love & care and are sent to foster care or to live with their grandparents. Often due to the loss of the breadwinner of the house, many children would succumb to taking the same path as their parents having no choice being left.

These convicts often become a burden for their family, because the court fees are so high that people from economically disadvantaged groups and socially backward classes might not be able to afford this. There are many innocents, who have never even committed the act for which they are convicted.

I live to support the notion of prison abolishment because prisons not just degrade their fundamental right to live with dignity but also when that individual would step out in the real world would face the humiliation again, that scar would always remain, which is why it is imperative to understand that the appropriate exercise of right to be forgotten, wherein a person’s identity remains undercover. However, this too proposes a new problem that there is always a possibility of a case where the same individual could misuse their position in order to commit felony again because their identity was unknown. 

Effect on Marginalized Communities

 Abolition is a call to reduce the use of the deterrent method used worldwide to dehumanize and inflict violence. Denied of freedom, personal possessions coupled with restrictions on eating, sleeping, interactions with other inmates. The presence of prisons exacerbates societal issues by harboring social inequalities and complicating the administration of criminal justice. In the US, African American people are four times more vulnerable, a very fact of the existing inequalities based on ethno racial sites. The killing of George Floyd has left an impact on my political consciousness.

Prisoners with mental illnesses are kept in movable solitary confinement prisons even during ongoing therapy sessions, I strongly condemn this method. Therapy is a method where an individual tries to open up to the therapist but not while still being caged behind bars, although they may still be handcuffed in certain circumstances for there always exists a possibility when the convict might become aggressive. Furthermore, it is insane to expect them to introspect their actions for themselves, if they are not given the opportunity to, because they have suffered mental agony and pain. Traumatized to some extent by their own actions and possibly would want to understand their psychology, at that given time, what could be the provocative reason that led them to do what they did. This basic structure of prison discipline in the United States entails profound violence and dehumanization; indeed, solitary confinement produces effects similar to physical torture (McLeod).

The abolitionist theory does not deny society’s right but suggests reducing the prison population. Indeed, if we could decarcerate to the point where only “the dangerous few” remained behind bars, the thinking goes, abolitionists could claim an extraordinary victory (McLeod).

Facilities for Juvies

It is important to understand that these prisons should be made age specific, keeping in mind the different requirements and facilities required     by prisoners of different age groups, for instance minors – juvenile detention facilities. In juvenile detention facilities, the stated goal is to rehabilitate the minor so that he or she can be reintegrated into society. Minors are often required to be involved in furthering their education or receiving the valuable vocational training needed to function once they have fulfilled their sentence (Child crime prevention and safety center).

Penal Reform International estimates nine million people are in prison or detained often in conditions below applicable international human rights standards and which seriously undermine the chances for their productive return to society. (United Nation Office on drugs and Crime) In truth, the increasing prisoner population is resulting in significant overcrowding within correctional facilities and this overcrowding can serve as breeding grounds for diseases like tuberculosis and AIDS. Upon release, former inmates may inadvertently contribute to the wider dissemination of these illnesses, for instance, covid 19.


The alternative to prisons is threefold: community work, re-education programs, and restitution with victims (United Nation Office on drugs and Crime).

Professor Rachel Barkow advocates that the supporters of deinstitutionalization emphasized the importance of community support, yet such support failed to materialize. Similarly, prison abolitionists often mention the role of community work in addressing the state's deficiencies, but it remains uncertain whether this could effectively occur in a society as intricate and diverse as ours (Barkow).

There are lots of lessons from deinstitutionalization. The first one is that it is easier to end something than to fund something (Barkow). It is imperative to realize how much exactly the State has to spend on maintaining each prisoner including social, economic, and most importantly health care expenses and they go onto become immensely expensive in long term.

We need to raise more awareness by campaigning and educating the youth, addressing dire inequalities and start implementing alternatives like reparation and mediation with hit and trial approaches. It remains a politically urgent issue to address, keeping in account all the possible scenarios and laws in each and every country.

Works Cited

Child crime prevention and safety center, Minors in prison, 2018

Davis, Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press, 2003.

Emptying the Prisons: Rachel Barkow weighs whether arguments for prison abolition will bring needed change to the criminal justice system—or backfire, NYU Law news, 30th March 2023

Frampton Ward Thomas, The Dangerous Few: Taking Seriously Prison Abolition and its Skeptics, Harvard Law Review, Vol.13, no.8, June 2022

McLeod, Allegra M., Prison Abolition and Grounded Justice, Scholarship @ Georgetown Law, 2015. Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 1490.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Why promote prison reform?”, Criminal Justice Handbook Series, 2005

Walmsley Roy, World Prison Population List, Institute for criminal policy research, 2015





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