The good people who support change in our highly unjust criminal justice system often see a sharp divide between prison abolition and prison reform. Some who are dedicated to ending mass incarceration have been known to ignore or spurn what are commonly known as “conditions issues” like solitary confinement, prison medical and mental health care, and the availability of education and other programming behind bars.
It’s understandable that people would want to reject any efforts to “build a better prison” that could undermine or delay the drive toward meaningful decarceration. But from my perspective as someone on the inside, the equation is just not that simple.
Since 2007, I’ve humbly served the San Quentin prison community as a journalist and life coach. I do what I do with a keen understanding of what 26 years of incarceration has taught me: What happens in prison doesn’t stay in prison. The good, the bad, and the ugly of this oppressive environment ripple beyond these walls into the rest of the world. Incarceration leaves a stain on peoples’ psyches that’s hard to shake even after they return to their communities, as 95 percent of all incarcerated people eventually will.
Moreover, what I’ve learned about who ends up in prison and why has convinced me that the lingering damage that comes from imprisonment would wane if we were to significantly reduce the number of people we send to prison at all, as well as getting away from sentences that go well beyond any notion of fair punishment. At the same time, we could release those incarcerated people who have simply aged out of criminality, have completed required rehabilitative courses, and otherwise pose no danger to public safety.
I see these decarceration strategies working together: getting more people out of prison and keeping them out through parole, clemency, and re-entry support, while dramatically bringing down incarceration rates by ending policies that criminalize substance use disorders or depend on prisons and jails to provide mental health services. Reducing incarceration by finding ways to keep kids in schools, and out of foster care, is important, too. So is addressing the racism that infects every level of our criminal legal system, and the poverty, inequality, and lack of social support that leave so many people with no place to go but prison.
The science on these concepts is not new. But as a citizen on America’s front line of crime and punishment, I have a unique view of what’s working and what’s not working in our society. From my perspective, mass incarceration is not giving Americans its promise of public safety, because the oppressive nature of American prisons on the human spirit creates a lasting toxicity. I believe that in a more just and compassionate society, prisons would be at best obsolete, and at worst rare. This belief makes me identify myself, ultimately, as a prison abolitionist.
Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in. If we cut our prison population in half tomorrow—a distant aspiration in this era of revived “tough-on-crime” attitudes—it would still leave more than a million souls living in conditions of abuse and neglect that would be unimaginable to most people in the free world.
It is with that rationale that I find it crucial to serve people where they’re at, not where I think they ought to be. The concept is simple. When someone begins understanding themselves, they’ll begin to make better decisions. This rehabilitative effort, based on restorative justice, is in line with the understanding that reducing recidivism must be one of the cornerstones of prison reform.
The solution, to my mind, is obvious: a humane prison environment. That, however, does not call for building so-called better prisons. There are already far too many prisons. An improved prison environment means getting rid of antiquated practices that have no place in contemporary America, such as solitary confinement, the death penalty, slave labor, inadequate health care, and deliberate indifference.
I have personally witnessed people transformed from seeking ways to further their lives through crime to enrolling in college to becoming a college tutor and then a college clerk to earning parole—and then returning to the same prison to guide other incarcerated folks to a responsible life. Such things are more than possible, and would set us on a path toward ending mass incarceration in America and stopping its toxic side effects in our society.
It’s time we take accountability for the harms that prisons are causing. It’s time we recognize the logic and justice of ending the punishment-based policies that fill our prisons. But none of this means we shouldn’t also be seeking ways to return currently incarcerated people to their families and communities as rehabilitated and productive citizens.
Working to build a better environment within prisons while simultaneously working to abolish them is not a contradiction—it’s exactly what we need to do right now.
Read earlier dispatches:
September 2022: Torture Before Trial
April 2022: The Myth of Safety Through Punishment