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End racial injustice? Abolish prisons, some U.S. activists say

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 11 June 2020 17:12 GMT

A demonstrator waves an American flag during a protest against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in New York City, New York, U.S. June 9, 2020. Picture taken June 9, 2020. REUTERS/Idris Solomon

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Black men are six times more likely to be in jail or prison than are white men in the United States, research shows

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK, June 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As streets fill with protesters calling for an end to racial injustice, police brutality and the mass incarceration of black men, one group of activists is raising the question: why not abolish prisons altogether?

Prison abolition would mean taking the money and resources used to put millions of people behind bars and using it to make those bars unnecessary, supporters say.

Nearly 2.3 million people are imprisoned in the United States and 40% are black, though just 13% of the U.S. population is black, according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.

Black men are six times more likely to be behind bars than white men, says the Sentencing Project, a U.S. research group.

It is numbers like this, protesters say, that show the depth of racial inequality in the U.S. justice system.

Many now support a defunding of the police as they march for justice after the death of George Floyd, and prison abolition goes hand in hand with that demand, said James Kilgore, a researcher and activist who was formerly in prison.

"In the last two weeks, we've seen a huge shift in popular attitudes toward policing," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "If anybody talked about defunding police a month ago, that just is like madness, and now it's being put on the agenda of major cities.

"We should be spending money on programs that keep people out of prisons and provide them with opportunities," said Kilgore, a fellow at MediaJustice, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit.

Once a radical idea that only held sway in leftist circles, the idea of redirecting money away from police and prisons into community support is now gaining a much wider currency.

The United States has the world's highest incarceration rate, followed by that of El Salvador and Rwanda, according to the Sentencing Project.

It found particularly high rates in southern U.S. states.

And as a whole, the country spends more than $80 billion a year on jails, according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization.

Cuts in that funding could instead be spent on programs to get people off the streets, trained or into work, advocates say, while opponents argue it would foment disorder and fail to punish the guilty or protect citizens from danger.

Signs made by prisoners pleading for help are seen on a window of Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., April 7, 2020, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. REUTERS/Jim Vondruska


Rojas, who uses one name, advocates for prison abolition after spending 15 years behind bars for a violent crime.

"Prison abolition taught me that if I had therapy for my anger problems, things would have probably been easier. If there was support groups around my queerness for my family, if we had housing," said Rojas, now lead organizer at the Young Women's Freedom Center, an abolitionist group in California.

"I didn't have therapy... that's for white people. If I had support, I wouldn't have been in the situation that I was in. I see it now."

A landmark in prison abolition came in 2003 when university professor Angela Davis published "Are Prisons Obsolete?"

She said prison did little to stop crime, locked up a disproportionate number of poor and black people and perpetuated rather than resolved problems like poverty and homelessness.

Support for her theory has now taken off, advocates say.

"I've never seen this kind of global solidarity around ending police repression and defunding police," said Jamani Montague of the abolitionist group Critical Resistance.

"These are new times," Montague told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It feels like the sprouts of the seeds that so many abolitionists, scholars and organizers have been planting."

Cities are listening - and already acting.

In the wake of Floyd's death in police custody, the Minneapolis city council announced plans to phase out the police department and create a new system for public safety.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said money would be shifted away from the New York Police Department and into youth programs and social services.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he would put $250 million toward youth jobs and health initiatives, and that as much as $150 million of that would come from the Los Angeles Police Department.

A woman cycles past a boarded-up store with the last words of George Floyd to a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 10, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson


President Donald Trump has slammed the idea of police defunding, tweeting that the "Radical Left Democrats have gone Crazy!," and many Democrats including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden have called for more measured reform.

Biden said in an interview with CBS Evening News that he supported making federal aid to police conditional on whether they met "certain basic standards of decency and honorableness."

Democrats in the U.S. Congress proposed sweeping legislation this week to combat police violence by allowing victims of misconduct to sue police for damages, banning chokeholds, expanding use of body cameras by police and prohibiting "no-knock" warrants" in drug cases.

Floyd's death in Minneapolis could prove to be a tipping point for change, said Justin Piché, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa.

"The care of George Floyd is certainly reigniting calls for racial justice," Piché said.

"Something feels different this time," he said. "Whether or not that actually translates into police defunding and more gains for prison abolition, that remains to be seen."

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(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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