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Identity & Community

No More Prisons: An Alternative To Criminal Justice Reform?

Marc Levy
Tommie Shelby will give a public lecture on prison abolition at Pitt School of Law Wed., Oct. 25, 2017 at 5 p.m.

Issues such as police use of force and mass incarceration have long fueled calls for criminal justice reform. But some have proposed going a step further by abolishing prisons altogether.


In his book published last year, Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform, Harvard philosophy professor Tommie Shelby addresses poverty and racial marginalization. He argues they will persist unless society tackles the underlying inequities that sustain them.


To Shelby, interventions targeted at single motherhood, joblessness, crime and other specific symptoms of poverty are not enough. In an upcoming lecture at Pitt, Shelby will discuss how his philosophy applies to prison abolition. 90.5 WESA’s An-Li Herring spoke with Shelby ahead of his visit.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

AN-LI HERRING: Let’s start with the idea of prison abolition. What is it?

TOMMIE SHELBY: Well, there are a number of activists and scholars who have been thinking about the problem of the growth in incarceration. Many people have come to think that the response to the growth in the penal system is not just to reform it in various ways, but to think about ways in which we might restructure our society as a whole, so as to make the use of prisons unnecessary. And some think, in fact, that it’s morally required by justice and simple humanity to decarcerate our society, to have significantly much less reliance on prisons in our lives. That activism has been going on for a while now. In some ways, it seems like a startling idea for a lot of people. But I think it’s worth engaging with even if one ultimately walks away thinking that reform, rather than abolition, is the way to go.

HERRING: That does sound like a pretty radical idea. Do you think it’s a good idea?


SHELBY: I think in some ways, as an aspiration, I think there’s probably a lot to be said for it. Compare it to the fight against poverty, just as an example. You could imagine thinking of poverty as something that we should just simply try to reduce, or that we should just make the lives of the poor more bearable.


Or, you might think that poverty, as Martin Luther King, Jr., thought, was a kind of intolerable feature of modern social life, just given our technical capability and the wealth at our disposal – that no modern, serious democracy should have poverty in its midst, that this is something that we should be trying to abolish entirely.


I think as an aspiration, you can see that our attempt to maintain security of our person and possessions in a way that didn’t rely on having to confine people and take away their privacy and freedom of movement and freedom of association and so on – if we could find a way to protect our property and persons without having to rely on the use of incarceration, that’s a worthwhile goal.


HERRING: What kinds of things could take the place of prisons and make them unnecessary?


SHELBY: Prison abolitionists tend to focus on a range of things. One of the things they focus on are various forms of rehabilitation and treatment. So if you thought that some of the crime that we see – as is clearly the case – springs from mental illness issues or drug addiction issues, then various forms of reform and treatment could respond to some of that as a matter of expanding the health care system in ways that take these things seriously.

Some of the problems of crime arise because of poverty and social inequality. In some ways, focusing on reducing inequality, ending poverty, making sure people have opportunities so they aren’t tempted to turn to crime are some of the things you would do.

For the harm that’s done through crime, some people emphasize restorative justice and reparative justice – finding ways to reconcile assailants and victims and their families and finding ways to repair the harm done where possible.

I think there are ways of reconciling offenders with [society] by having them contributing in some kind of positive way to make our society better without necessarily doing it through a punitive response.

So, there’s no one thing, and I think abolitionists would resist the idea that we should be looking for some alternative to the prison as another institutional site. They’d rather think about ways in which our society could be made more just, more humane, more caring, which would make the need for us to rely so much on incarceration much less acute.


HERRING: Is that realistic?

SHELBY: Well, I’m not sure. I think there are things we don’t know about what’s possible in terms of human behavior and psychology. But, I think it’s something that is worth trying for.

There are certainly societies where prisons play a very small role in their lives. And you see this certainly in Scandinavian countries but also in places like Japan. Prisons just aren’t such a big part of the landscape, and where they do exist, they are often much less restrictive than what we have, much less violent places than what we have.

So, I think we shouldn’t just assume, just because we look around us and we see the prisons that we have in the social context that we live in, we couldn’t possibly do without them. Other places are doing pretty well without such a heavy reliance on them.

I don’t think of myself as quite an abolitionist, but I do think of myself as a person who aspires to dramatically shrink the landscape of the prisons in America and elsewhere and to have it be a kind of last resort way of dealing with only the most dangerous, recalcitrant offenders. And with a range of other supports – social justice supports, treatment, health care, including mental health care – then I think the need to have this vast set of incarceral institutions, it would seem much less impractical to think that we could do without such a large system of institutional confinement.

HERRING: In Dark Ghettos, you note that there’s an absence of morality as a lens through which to think about social problems. Why do you think that is, and how could it help to think in moral terms more often?

SHELBY: So much of social policy is driven by empirical research. And in some ways that’s proper, right? You want to understand the problem. We want it studied in a rigorous way, using the best experimental, empirical methods that we have. But often, maybe it’s by disposition, maybe it’s by vocation, social scientists are reluctant to take on the moral questions that arise in their various empirical studies.

To give an example, if you thought – as I think many social scientists believe – that ghettos persist because of high levels of joblessness among the low-skilled, you might just immediately move from that analysis to think, well, of course, the next thing to do is to provide them jobs or provide them incentives to take the jobs that are available.

In doing that, you jump right over a range of moral questions about the structure of our labor market, what kinds of jobs people are taking, how long people are expected to work, what kind of compensation they’re expected to get. How far do they have to travel to get to those jobs? If they take those jobs, will they have enough time and energy to properly care for their children?

And so, there are a range of moral questions that arise even if the problem is properly characterized as a matter of joblessness. And I think it’s important to take up those issues and that’s one of the things that moral and political philosophers and legal philosophers have been doing for decades – trying to think through questions of justice and fairness, right and wrong, what’s the basis of them, how to think about our relations with one another, how to think about questions of reciprocity.

I think, only through a combined empirical, ethical reflection, can we begin to make any kind of progress on these quite difficult and fraught issues.

HERRING: Given ongoing tensions between law enforcement and communities largely of color, how does your framework help us think about and maybe try to resolve this issue?

SHELBY: One of the things I try to do in all of my work is try to think about issues of race and class together. I think it’s hard for people to do that sometimes, but I think it’s extremely important in this instance.

When we think about sometimes violent confrontations between the police and often young black males, but not only them, we appreciate that this is often a confrontation between the police and some of the most disadvantaged people in our society.

And some of these people will not be black. Some of them will be Latino or Native American. Some of them will have ongoing mental illness issues that are not being properly addressed because they don’t have proper support.

So, I think one of the things we could do to broaden the discussion in a way that might be more constructive is to think about the range of people and why those people find themselves in regular contact, sometimes violent conflict with the police.

In my book Dark Ghettos, I focus on the plight of disadvantaged, poor black people in segregated neighborhoods, especially metropolitan areas. And there it makes a lot of sense probably because there’s intensive police surveillance and scrutiny, especially on young black males in those neighborhoods.

In that context, where you have hyper-scrutiny on the lives of the people in these communities, what’s happened over time is a lot of mistrust. And for the people who are vulnerable to having to deal with heavy police presence in their neighborhoods, and [considering the police] are armed and often not terribly tolerant of people who don’t quickly obey their orders, you’re going to get serious confrontations that sometimes turn bad.

I think it’s important, when thinking about this problem, to situate it in these particular contexts so that you can see why it is that these confrontations are going bad. They’re not simply confrontations between the police and black people. They’re often better understood as confrontations between police and highly disadvantaged black people, often young, often male, in the context of ghetto neighborhoods where they’re getting a lot of scrutiny from the state, and not often in a good way.

Professor Tommie Shelby will give a public lecture on prison abolition at Pitt School of Law Wednesday at 5 p.m.