Prison abolishment isn’t just about getting rid of prisons because of inhumane treatment, it’s mainly about the ineffectiveness of prisons. Prisons simply don’t work. According to CNBC a recent study done by a Koch research center estimates that there are between 70 and 100 million convicted felons alive in the United States today (I have come up with a similar number using Almanac data and average death rates). To help put that into perspective that’s about one third of all the United States.

Something is very wrong.

Despite these staggering and appalling numbers prison abolitionists still can’t seem to gain momentum from the American public, why? In my opinion, it’s because the question, “what do we do with the ‘unrehabilitatable’ ones?”, is still unanswered with any specificity. I have to admit, it’s a valid question. While I know plenty of people who have rehabilitated in prison I have also met folks who smirk when they describe their crimes. I cannot tell you how eerie it is to hear a person giggle as they talk about their crimes. It’s deplorable and scary. At the end of the day there is no viable alternative to make the public safer than the modern prison system. Until there is, no abolitionist argument is ever going to accepted as anything more than theoretical jargon perpetuated by a bunch of college kids needing to flex against a machine big enough to withstand an assault. Prisons are the complex America loves to hate.

The problem isn’t abolitionists though, it’s the prison system. No matter how you look at it, the prison system is fundamentally broken and it’s beyond repair if it ever was repairable at all. Prisons have been around for a long time and have never had the reputation of positive, ever. Yet, despite this, people still commit crime. If big scary prison was enough to stop crime, it would have already worked, don’t you think? If some prison guard being a royal dickhead and using the excuse “Then don’t come to prison!” was anything more than plain and simple abuse, prisons would have emptied themselves hundreds of years ago. But they haven’t, have they? This indicates that it doesn’t work.

So what will? That’s the question we all want to know, abolitionists aside. The first thing we have to do is reduce the number of inmates. It simply has to be done. Programs implemented in prisons are a lot like school programs, if there are too many students and not enough teachers the quality goes down, period. So we need less students.

This means we need to create a graduated plan. Step by step. Nothing sudden. Instead of thinking Democrat or Republican or in increments of 4 years for changes, we need to think generationally. Create a plan that spans 10 years. One that shifts the paradigm of what prison actually does and who is here, both staff and inmates.

One quick example of what prisons and their staff could do to change the paradigm is recognize positive behavior. Some prisons, like Washington State’s, has what’s known as Behavior Observation Entries. They are a tool staff can use to acknowledge or document Positive, Neutral, or Negative behavior. The majority of entries entered are negative. Staff is only trained to find and stop negative behavior, not recognize or encourage positive. Some of those observations have serious ramifications for those who must see a parole board. They could have 10 years of doing everything right but one observation of not having a mask on above the nose, despite wearing it properly every other moment of every other day for over a year and it never once going acknowledged, could cost that person their freedom.

It’s not all on prisons either. Prisoners and even the community are just as much culpable. Prisoners have to take some initiative. There are many examples of how this is possible. Christopher Havens, myself, or many others are examples of taking some initiative to self-rehabilitate. The community can also play a part by not leaving prisons and its prisoners to their own devices. Forgetting us is not a signal to anyone that we will be accepted back into the community, nothing breaks a spirit or will more than believing nobody cares you’re gone or in many cases, glad you are.

It will be much easier to understand what is best for our communities once the prison population reduces to a manageable number and programs can focus the proper attention where it can, getting those who don’t need to be here out while recalibrating the system to better reach those who still “do”.

I am asking for your thoughts. Pleading for you to have an opinion, even if it conflicts with mine or is totally different. Have the conversation at least but above all, expect better.

Thanks for reading.

With Love
Ruth Utnage

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