This article originally appeared on the blog of Heretic, the magazine of We Are Libertarians.
The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is a complex system that uses police, the courts, and prisons to violently enforce the will of the political and economic elite. The PIC has a mutualistic relationship with racism and classism – the PIC depends on those evils to exist and expand, and the bigots and elites in society (and their enablers) use the PIC as a tool to advance their vile agenda.
The PIC operates under the guise of “public safety” – I don’t agree that we need the PIC to keep us safe. In fact, I contend that we would be much safer without the PIC, and that we should work to build safe, healthy, and equitable communities that are not dependent on police, prisons, and punishment.
The PIC has not always existed, it’s not an inherent part of society that we can’t live without. In fact, the modern PIC as we know it has only existed for roughly 200 years, and even in 2020 there are places were communities rely on each other rather than police, courts, and prisons.
Does PIC Abolition Endanger Public Safety?
All of us who are sane and not sociopaths want safe and healthy communities. But how do we actually create safe communities? Can we forge safety by more-heavily policing our streets and imprisoning more and more of our neighbors? Or rather, is safety better fostered by dealing with the root causes of the acts called “crime”?
Something I earnestly believe is that no harm – not even the very worst kinds – happens without a reason. It seems obvious to me that simply locking up or executing a harmer does nothing to address that root reason, the problem that lead to the harming (such as drug addiction, generational poverty, violence, mental illness, etc.). In fact, it seems to me that taking these people out of their communities, away form their neighbors, friends, and families, and then isolating them in often violent and abusive environments (jails and prisons) would do very little but make these root problems worse.
I do not want to underappreciate the seriousness of the harm that day-to-day crime has on individuals and communities. But I also do not want to just worry about the symptoms and ignore the disease. I am convinced that in order to reduce overall harm, we all must work to change the underlying social, political, and economic conditions that fertilize these harms.
An easy example to look at to show this point is that of drug use in communities. When those addicted to drugs are provided with health care, effective treatment options, and harm reduction strategies/facilities, the overall potential for the harm that they might otherwise cause is significantly reduced, much more so than if the same people were simply arrested, railroaded through a trial, incarcerated for a few years and then sent back out into even worse circumstances than they were in beforehand. Now, I am morally skeptical of the idea of using public funding for just about anything. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that when public funds are directed towards police and prisons, funds are cut or deprived from social programs such as harm reduction facilities, women’s shelters, homeless shelters, food programs, etc., thus leaving the underlying ills of society unaddressed.
If we are going to use public funds to attempt to keep communities safe, shouldn’t we invest in strategies that will actually result in meaningful, long-term success? Multiple studies have proven that states and areas with more prisons and higher incarcerated populations absolutely do not have lower crime rates than other states and areas. When the PIC claims to be protecting you, it is nothing but a naked emperor. The PIC tells you that it is essential to safety and social order – in reality though, the PIC does the opposite: It is is one of America’s largest terrorist organizations. The PIC makes the lives of almost every non-elite (especially the poor and black and brown people) more endangered and more chaotic. The poor and black and brown are often targeted for how they look, where they live, and for their vulnerability. When people try to use the police to solve problems, they are often far more disruptive than the original problem could have ever been.
If we continue to remove members of a communities instead of restoring their relationship with said communities, if we continue terrorizing huge sections of the population with the PIC’s enforcers, if we continue to ignore the systemic violence at the root of all surface-level violence, then safe and orderly communities will be nothing more than a myth.
Alternatives to the PIC
I do not have the answers to what could replace the PIC. I have ideas, but no concrete answers. I’m not a policy wonk and I’m certainly not an architect of institutions and social systems. But I can tell when a system is rotten to the core and evil, and I know that such a system needs to be abolished. For me, the question of PIC abolition is primarily a moral one and only secondarily a practical one.
Thankfully, I don’t have to have all the answers. Millions of people from other parts of the world are already far less reliant on police and prisons than we are here in the U.S., and those societies also suffer from far less harm from crime. We can also see numerous examples of communities that have invested far more into housing, health care, food security, education, and employment than a PIC, and have seen continually lower crime rates.
Not only the best, but truly the only way to create a world of safe, strong, healthy, and orderly communities is to ensure that basic needs are met for all and that those most in need of community are not isolated from it. That world is the alternative to our current PIC system.
The Abolitionist Legacy
It has taken over 200 years for the PIC to build itself into the monolith that it is today, so obviously we cannot expect to dismantle such a complex system that has ingrained itself into our social fabric easily or quickly. But it can be done.
I use the term “abolitionist” when referring to my stance on the PIC intentionally. I mean to directly refer to those brave abolitionists who boldly called and worked for the end of slavery. These abolitionists did not believe that slavery could simply be reformed or made more humane and prudent. Hell no. They knew that it needed to be abolished. As a PIC abolitionist, I too reject the notion that this vile cancer can be satisfactorily reformed to be more just or even effective. The goal should not be to make the PIC better, the goal is to hammer the system into non-existence (though reformist damage control tactics can certainly be valuable in the meantime).
The first slavery abolitionists began working decades, some would say centuries, before they finally won. Likewise, the struggle for PIC abolition will be long, difficult, and full of setbacks. But believing that the PIC can be abolished is the first step.