Introduction to The Prison System

The United States prison system is deeply flawed. It mistreats incarcerated people, incarcerates people at alarmingly disproportionate demographic rates, and does not have a positive impact on the people who are incarcerated. Something has to change. There are two primary camps of thought regarding prisons: reform and abolishment. However, this is a system so entrenched in inequality and cruelty that abolishment is the only option. Is abolishing prisons even possible? Yes. Through community infrastructure, restorative and transformative justice, and widespread alteration of policing and justice systems, prison abolition is the next step towards a community-oriented society. Although some argue that there is nothing wrong, the US prison system is inhumane, inequitable, and ineffective, so it must be abolished and replaced with a community-oriented restorative and transformative justice system. 

Abolish vs Reform

There are two main ideologies of people who are unhappy with our current prison system. “Reformers object to how the prison is administered. Abolitionists object to the prison’s very existence.” A reform includes new budgeting, more humane treatment, and in-depth inspections of the way our prison system is run. But is this enough? A system so deeply flawed may require more extreme changes. A world without prisons? Decarceration of people with drug charges can happen through non-custodial and therapeutic treatment, like it has with the drug court system in Australia.  These people return to prison at a lower rate than those who served conventional prison sentences. Studies have shown that financial penalties and shaming are more likely to prevent white-collar offenses than conventional sentences. The US prison system is run on such a flawed basis that abolition is the only way to go. 


Prisoners report experiences of “physical mistreatment, excessive disciplinary sanctions, barely tolerable physical conditions, and inadequate medical and mental health care.”  Although overcrowding, lack of healthcare access, and lack of resources have always been prevalent in US prisons, COVID-19 has shed a light on the inhumane treatment of people who are incarcerated. Compared to the general population, COVID-19 cases in US prisons are 5.5 times more likely to occur, and 3 times as deadly. In the Marion Correctional Institute (Ohio), 80% of prisoners had COVID-19. It is inhumane for prisons to lack appropriate resources to such an extent that ⅘ of inmates are infected. It is clear that the US prison system does not humanely care for inmates, and this negligent treatment has only become more clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Populations within the United States prison system are the largest in the world, but that hasn’t stopped our country from continuing to incarcerate people at alarming rates. The United States only accounts for  5% of the world’s population but houses 25% of the world’s prison population. One demographic in the US is disproportionately impacted by these flawed and deeply inhumane treatments. Who? As just one example, there are 10 times as many black people than white people imprisoned on drug charges, even though 5 times as many white people use drugs. This inequality demonstrates the flawed policing and justice systems that feed into the United States’ disproportionate prison population.


Finally, this deeply unfair and unconscionable system isn’t effective in rehabilitating incarcerated people! Over 79% of prisoners re-offend within five years. This overwhelming recidivism rate is concerning—isn’t our prison system supposed to stop crime? Studies have shown that prison facilities with programming (mental health, skills-based, education, etc.) have lower recidivism rates. For example, Norway’s prison facilities look more like a hotel than a prison. Norway provides vocational programs for prisoners and aims to reintegrate incarcerated people into society—and it’s working. Norway’s recidivism rate is a mere 20% compared to our 79%. The United States’ prison system is inhumane, inequitable, and ineffective. What can we do about it?

Is It Really That Bad?

A common counterargument among those who do not support positive change in the prison system is that it’s “not that bad.” These people claim that there are no issues with our current criminal justice system, or that incarcerated people deserve sub-par conditions because prison time is punishment. This argument is inhumane and deeply flawed. Although the criminal justice system was constructed for the purpose of “punishing” people who commit crimes, people who are incarcerated do not deserve to suffer. “Criminals” have the right to be treated humanely, but in our current system, they aren’t. The prison system should instead focus on rehabilitative measures to reduce recidivism, rather than turn to cruelty. So yes, it’s that bad.

Moving Forward

The prison system is flawed and abolition is required. Where would this start? There are three steps. First, community infrastructure. It’s not just about abolishing prisons but about addressing the larger systemic oppression that leads to such high rates of incarceration and abuse towards certain groups. By building up community infrastructure, we can create accountability and strengthen resources. Second, restorative and transformative justice. Restorative justice restores communities to how they were before harm. Transformative justice transforms communities so this harm doesn’t happen again. The third step is reimagining these systems that have caused so much harm to our communities: abolition. These three necessary steps help address the need for a more just system through community-oriented efforts. 


Corporal punishment was an integral aspect of the US justice system until 1972. Although today it is obvious that violent, physical punishments are inhumane, many people fought against the abolition of corporal punishment, claiming that “it is absolutely necessary” and that they “cannot manage 2000 men of the character of our convicts without corporal punishment.” The same arguments of necessity and control are used today by the people who fight against the abolition of prisons. Although such thorough alterations to our prison system seem extreme, they are essential in the fight for a community-centered society. The cruelty within our prisons has gone on for too long, and although the unjust prison system impacts some population groups more than others, it is the responsibility of all of us to make these changes. Prison abolition is a necessity in order to implement effective restorative and transformative justice measures.