Toward the Abolition of the Prison System

By Steve Martinot

This article will consider three topics: the existentiality of imprisonment, what the nature of the prison system reveals about the US as a colonialist society, and finally, some aspects of the prison abolition movement and what kinds of alternatives are being posed in terms of resistance.

The existentiality of prisons involves not only what prison does directly, but how it affects the society that accepts it as normal, and that can have what prisons do as a purpose. This existential aspect is applicable to all societies that use imprisonment as a way of implementing political decisions. It reflects the understanding that crime itself is politically defined. Imprisonment as punishment of crime exists only within a matrix of political uses (such as class control, racialization, social militarization, etc.).1

I will deal with the prison system in the US as the world’s extreme case, that for which all other prison systems are lesser forms. And I will argue that in order to get beyond capitalism, the social/cultural framework that sees prisons as normal will have to be transformed. Every society has its own traditions with respect to imprisonment, but the existentiality of prison will have to be addressed in general.

Prison is used to punish. Punishment is used to establish the cultural norms of a society. And law is thus deployed for the creation of cultural norms.2 We can see this not only in US history, but also in the history of the birth of capitalism in Europe. As Silvia Federici has shown, a culture that could accept capitalism arose through the criminalization of women, and through the colonial imposition – via the church – of certain laws, in particular, pertaining to witchcraft.3 In England, the previous norms of cooperative production were squelched and replaced through the state’s systematic torture and murder of anyone who took goods without paying for them.

The colonialist context for this discussion is threefold, understanding colonialism as the arrival or invasion of an alien power that dominates for its own benefit an indigenous people, which it then reduces to subhuman status by force and through destruction of the indigenous culture. The US dominates most areas of the world financially or militarily. There is also an internal colonialism in the US governed by the corporate structure, white supremacy, and the structures of racialization; the institution of prisons sits at the core of this. And finally, there is the domination of humans globally by the corporate structure, which colonizes by its indifference to human concerns.4 Here I will focus on the second of these three forms of colonialism.

The existential dimension of prisons in general

An existential examination of prison is necessary in order to go beneath the political rhetoric by which it legitimizes itself, to its underlying structure.

Prison is a form of violence. It has the same structure as a number of different criminal acts. A person is forcibly removed from social space and social relationships, immobilized spatially, and made to suffer thereby. The removal from social space is an act of violence; the immobilization is an act of control over a person’s consciousness through control of the body; and the resultant suffering serves an intended ideological or political or psychological purpose. That is the basic structure of imprisonment.5

The crime most similar or isomorphic to this is kidnapping. Its purpose is personal gain of some kind for the kidnapper, and its major instrument is spatial constraint. When a man sequesters his wife as a form of patriarchal control, keeping her locked in the house, it amounts to the same thing. Imprisonment also resembles torture. The precondition for physical torture is immobilization, but its major element is inducing suffering, so as to control consciousness, i.e., force the subject to behave in accordance with the torturer’s wishes. The most prevalent form of torture in civil society is rape. A person, most often a woman, is immobilized for the purpose of using her body for some form of personal gratification. In the sense that no ransom is demanded, incarceration is most isomorphic to rape, as it supposedly gives the entirety of society some form of satisfaction.

All of these crimes are acts of extreme violence. Prison, despite its acceptability, fits this category. It serves as a role model for all these other acts. In this sense, the violent act of imprisonment does more than punish violation of the law; it situates prison at the source of social violence.

Judicial process claims to punish criminals as a means of making them “pay” for what they have done. That is, they pay for their transgression by undergoing a transgression against themselves. The act of punishment is indistinguishable from revenge. The core of incarceration is a revenge ethic. That revenge ethic is the essence of any and all judicial process that pursues imprisonment. But a revenge ethic cannot be used to respond to or diminish the violence in a society because it is itself an act of violence. It thus doubles the violence of society, and doubles its criminality. Insofar as any concept of justice is motivated by a desire to diminish social violence, to heal the wounds to community caused by violence, the revenge ethic accomplishes the opposite.

For a society that operates on the basis of a revenge ethic, justice is impossible. And the possibility of equality between persons is canceled by the existence of institutions that can impose this revenge. Therefore, democracy, which depends on justice as well as equality, becomes impossible in such a society. In the US, this existential absence manifests itself as the ease with which political voice and political participation are reduced to merely a periodic vote (with growing deployment of police repression, which we shall examine shortly). Rather than a “justice system,” a society that operates on a revenge ethic can at most have a “judicial machine.”

Role models are ethical as well as structural. When the state executes a convicted person, it is saying that murder is not impermissible. When it imprisons a person, it is saying that kidnapping and torture are not impermissible. It signifies that violence itself may be illegal, but is not impermissible. War is a role model, not in the sense of exemplifying courage, but rather in making it acceptable to use hyper-technological means of killing others who are defined as a threat. Thus, when a cop kills an unarmed man, and says he felt threatened, he is claiming a war situation between himself and his victim, and using his socially given technology to carry it out. When Reagan sent 14 fighter-bombers over Libya to try to assassinate Qaddafi, he was ordering a drive-by shooting (and killed 100 people in the process). Someone who does a drive-by shooting in LA is simply trying to keep up with the president. Gun control will not put a dent in the effects of social role models. When parents punish their child by locking him in a closet, they are acting in keeping with the political structure.

Imprisonment, however, is considered paying a “debt” to society. The form in which this debt is paid is control over the convicted person’s body, followed – upon release – by social ostracism, aggravated impoverishment, and harassment, signifying that the debt never gets paid. But to whom is the debt to be paid in the first place? Not the person wronged, and not society. It is paid to the judicial machine. The judicial machine collects the debt in the name of the victim. This makes the victim an accessory to the criminal violence committed against the convicted person. Thus, the victim becomes complicit in the crime of imprisonment, while the convicted person is commodified by becoming a form of payment.

This commodification of persons is performed for its own sake, with no socially redeeming value. It only expresses the political character of criminalization. Though the state performs acts of violence against people, it defines its own violence as something else (“justice”). In the same way that the state has the power to politically redefine what it itself does, those acts it considers criminal become so as well only through political definition. We see this when definitions of criminal acts are modified.

Marital rape, for instance, used to be non-criminal. It has been redefined. Marijuana use is currently in the process of being redefined as non-criminal. Thus, a crime exists as such only because an act has been politically defined as a crime, and not otherwise. Debt servitude, sweatshop labor conditions, racial segregation, and rent gouging all make people suffer, and do so by trapping them in social situations from which extrication most often requires an act of violence, for which the perpetrator will be punished. But those conditions that make people suffer are not defined as criminal.

In short, there is nothing that distinguishes the existentiality of imprisonment from the fundamental aspects of capitalist society – the violence against persons, the social immobilization of persons, their commodification, the reduction of certain persons to lesser human status for the benefit or satisfaction of those in certain positions of power, as well as finally the revenge imposed on those who have slighted the self-proclaimed virtue of a self-decriminalizing judicial machine. The essence of prison is the validation of political power, and the bestowal of sanctity on private property.7 It is impossible to get beyond capitalism as long as society insists on the most fundamental form of commodification, the commodification of human beings. We will not have gone beyond capitalism until we have eliminated the ethos of imprisonment from society.

We have to understand that, because imprisonment is an act of violence and violation, and because the prison – whatever its social framework (traditional or revolutionary) – is thus a criminal institution, those who gravitate toward the carceral system for employment do so existentially in order to be able to commit acts of violence against others.

The political dimension of prisons in the US

The degree of commodification of persons in the US has always been extreme. US slavery commodified personhood in a way that no other society, slave or capitalist, has ever done. Here I want to look at the function of prison within a structure of racialization, which reflects a deep-seated sadism at the core of US culture.8 Today’s prisons present templates for that culture.

Racialization is always accompanied by a degree of sadism. Today that sadism lives in the prisons, in beatings, other forms of torture, and indefinite solitary confinement, sometimes for decades. Most prisoners now in solitary are there for having committed a victimless crime in prison, such as organizing prisoners, raising political consciousness, or simply thinking and speaking critically about prison and society.9

The World Health Organization has stated that solitary confinement for longer than a month constitutes torture. The California Prison system has recognized that long-term solitary, such as is administered in Pelican Bay, drives people insane. Insanity then is intentionally one of the purposes for this practice. The prevalence of indeterminate solitary bespeaks the structural and administrative sadism of the system, which then forms part of the role model it provides for individuals, while also attracting some to employment in that system. The role model that prison provides is thus one of destroying consciousness (forget about corrections or rehabilitation).

The prevalence of sadism is revealed by the even worse conditions in privatized prisons. Privatized prisons perform the same function as paramilitary death squads (e.g. in Colombia). Human rights can be violated with impunity by privatized entities, to which the state can shrug and say it has no control over what happens. And yet, the state avails itself of such opportunities when it can, by setting up or allowing atrocity through privatization. Undocumented immigrants are held illegally in indefinite detention (a patent unconstitutionality). What we face is the fact that if human rights do not exist in prison (only privileges, which can be taken away on any guard’s say-so), they do not exist on the street either, except in purely contingent form.

The ability to normalize sadistic procedures and the cancelation of human rights manifests the colonialist principle that the people victimized are victimizers, criminals, terrorists, etc. The acceptability of these practices is a cultural phenomenon, though one can see it only in those individuals who carry it out (torture in police stations, on the street) – people who imagine ways of doing it and who like doing it, who don’t see it as an aberration (recall the talk in the Wikileaks video of US helicopter gunships circling and then massacring a gathering of people on the street in Iraq).

There are states that imprison teenagers as adults, giving sentences of Life Without Parole. In Michigan, there are 400 young people now serving such a sentence. Prison is all they will ever know. 90% of them are people of color.10  The horrors of long-term solitary are now creeping into social consciousness. There was broad support for the recent massive hunger strike in California, whose demands were for simple human rights (food, medical care, respect, non-harassment). And there are organizations protesting the practice in most major cities in the US. One basic demand is for accountability, against both prison procedures and police impunity. It is this movement that is gradually articulating the systemic criminality of the judicial machine, and its instrumentalization of those who work for it.

Solitary confinement is now understood as an icon for the judicial machine as a whole. It replicates the way the government addressed the communal foundations of the civil rights movement: by passing anti-discrimination legislation that moved the problem to the courts, where the complainants found themselves alone against the system.

Police conduct as an extension of the prison paradigm

Policing is not merely repression, it is also performance. In harassing a person on the street, massive presence is practiced, with some officers positioned as a perimeter, keeping civil society at bay. In one case, in Berkeley recently, a white man going through an emotional crisis brought down ten police cars, and over 16 cops. They tortured him by wrapping him in a massive restraining suit, hogtied, with a mask placed over his face. Other cops formed a barrier between this process and the people on the street, keeping them under threat of arrest. Having established their impunity through racialized repression against people of color, they can now extend their colonial paradigm to white people as well.

The slow torture of people on the street is a spectacle that unfolds before our eyes, but remains nevertheless out of reach. There is no way to stop them without putting one’s own life in danger. The police are untouchable. By their insulation, this act of torture gets transformed into an affirmation that the police are dealing with crime. The police’s own criminality is endowed with a different character, from which civil society is marginalized. What the police enact is both a sign of what is enacted daily in prisons, but also a distraction, a paradigm informing people not to think about it, and to remain silent.

Prison guard impunity is the very essence of the exercise of power in any prison. When slavery was replaced by Jim Crow, the system of segregation engendered was so complex that no police department could effectively enforce it, so the entire white population was enlisted, and given impunity.11 This included murder, assault, rape, insult, and humiliation at will. In general, the punishment white people would face was for having insufficiently fulfilled their job, and their allegiance to whiteness. Jim Crow became a different form of prison, in which labor was characterized by debt servitude, chain gangs, and the contracting of convicts to plantations by the police (who actually got payoffs for providing this free labor to plantations).

Today, police harassment criminalizes whole communities. To this we can add that felony conviction in the majority of states leads to disenfranchisement. The prohibition from receiving state aid, food stamps, rent subsidies, welfare, and the difficulty getting work for former prisoners almost guarantees impoverishment and recidivism.12  And as hundreds of people are simply ripped off the streets, their communities suffer disruption, losing stability and cultural coherence.13 In other words, it is Jim Crow all over again.

The overall effect of these processes has been a rebuilding of the structure of white racialized identity. As I have analyzed that structure as it emerged historically during the 17th century,14 it is a confluence of paranoia, white solidarity (passivity/pacifism), and institutional violence. It depends on the existence of an excluded and dehumanized other who is nevertheless present as that which white people must not be. The police and media are creating the paranoia, the judicial machine is in charge of daily violence, and white solidarity is the response to the fear created.

Prison abolition

The prison abolition movement is at the forefront of the struggle against capitalism and corporate domination because it reveals most starkly the contemporary colonialist structure of both – both the US as a colonialist power in the world, and the corporate structure as a colonialism over humans even at home. By pointing out that the US is a land without justice, the prison abolition movement leads in undermining the longstanding myth of US democracy.

The prison system is expresses a racialized class structure and the hyper-commodification of people. It is the renewed embodiment of the racial segregation that has always been at the core of US society. If we are to get beyond capitalism, all institutions of commodification of persons must be expunged.

Eliminating the prison and its ethic will not eliminate capitalism, but to get beyond capitalism, special attention must be paid to the prison system, and to the culture that accepts it as normal. In addition, the internationalization of the US judicial machine places its specific politics of imprisonment at the center of anti-colonialist thinking. The terror visited on the Mexican people by the Calderón regime, purportedly to stem the drug trade, is a prime example of the externalization of US forms of criminalization to disrupt and destroy community. It didn’t stop the flow of drugs to the US, but it deflected attention from government involvement.15

There are two types of call for abolition. One focuses on the pragmatic aspect, which is the question of how we deal with prisons in the present, and what we do with contemporary anti-social people. The other is the ethical call, which asks whether we can afford to hide behind the pragmatic, ignore the character of the colonialism that the prison industry epitomizes, and not think about the cultural transformations that could end incarceration.

Resolving the problem – pragmatic dimension

To promulgate prison abolition as a real project, certain extant aspects can be eliminated now. All victims of victimless crime laws should be released.16 To repeal all victimless crime laws would seriously disrupt police impunity. It would therefore restrain any social desire for a policy of mass incarceration. Second, all those sentenced to life without parole should be moved to therapeutic institutions, especially the teenagers, to be rehabilitated from the absolute torture of never seeing the outside world again. All prisoners held in solitary should be released from solitary, and given therapy to overcome the effects of that torture.

With respect to plea bargains, the statement that “all prisoners held on a plea bargain are innocent” is irrefutable, because there are no records of guilt, no trials, no evidence, no witness testimony, nothing but a confession (usually acquired through threats). All those imprisoned on plea bargains should be released in the absence of evidence other than a cop’s testimony. If there is any such evidence – then they should be tried.

To carry out these measures will not obstruct the structures of racialization, nor of the internal colonialism of the US. The system will find another way to accomplish both projects. But these measures will reduce the intensity of victimization of this society for a while. They will not undermine capitalism. Eliminating capitalism will not eliminate the prison system or the ethos of incarceration. It is the elimination of the ethos of incarceration that will be one of the necessary steps to the elimination of capitalism.

Resolving the problem culturally

Two tasks would be sufficient to eliminate the prison system. And they are both cultural, rather than political. They both require a culture that can think in terms of what those tasks imply.

The first is to get rid of the role models. One should not decry the existence of crime that requires imprisonment as long as one supports a system that provides the role models for the criminality that is decried. This means, among other things, the elimination of war, of police impunity, and of the violence that is at the core of white racialized identity. But most important, it would mean the elimination of the prison system, as the primary role model for social violence.

The second task would be the organization of restorative justice, as the prerogative of community, and thus the decentralization of judiciality to the community circle, and to the direct democracy that it implies and requires. The main cultural transformation underlying restorative justice is a prioritization of the rebuilding of social and political institutions from the bottom, a culture focused on the constitution of alternate political structures. At present, there are experiments in California in the organization of restorative justice circles in some middle and high schools. But they are organized from the top, with police control, and thus come nowhere near the real meaning of restorative justice processes.


1. Steve Martinot, The Need to Abolish the Prison System (pamphlet available from the author, 2013), 30ff.

2. See Martinot, The Rule of Racialization (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), esp. Chapter 1. An example is the use of law in the Virginia colony to create a cultural norm of anti-miscegenation where none had existed.

3. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (New York: Autonomedia, 2004).

4. Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization and its Discontents (New York: Norton, 2003).

5. Martinot, The Need to Abolish the Prison System, 1-10.

6. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, rev. ed. (New York: New Press, 2012).

7. Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003).

8. It is almost as if there were two states, the Constitutional and another based on white racialized identity, each using the other as an instrumentality for itself; see Martinot, The Machinery of Whiteness (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010).

9. Nancy Kurshan, Out of Control (Oakland, CA: Freedom Archives, 2013).

10. Lifers V8.pdf. An ACLU report.

11. See Ida B. Wells, On Lynching: Southern Horrors (New York: Arno Press, 1969).

12. Alexander, The New Jim Crow.

13. Thalia Drori, in her documentary video, One Who Survived, on the case of Adam Hakim, who was forced to sell drugs for the cops, gives graphic footage of just such community disruption. See also Victor Rios, Punished, his sociological account of the school to prison pipeline for teenagers in East Oakland.

14. Martinot, The Rule of Racialization, Chapter 1.

15. See Gary Webb, Dark Alliance (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998), for an account of government involvement in bringing drugs into communities of color; also Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall. Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

16. Examples of victimless crimes include drug possession, drug sales, weapons possession, gambling, being black, independent prostitution, and resisting arrest. For a full discussion, see Steve Martinot, “Probing the Epidemic of Police Murders,” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1 (March 2013).

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