abolition movement



(circa 1783–1888) Movement to end the slave trade and emancipate slaves in western Europe and the Americas. The slave system aroused little protest until the 18th century, when rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment criticized it for violating the rights of man, and Quaker and other evangelical religious groups condemned it as un-Christian. Though antislavery sentiments were widespread by the late 18th century, they had little immediate effect on the centres of slavery themselves—the West Indies, South America, and the southern U.S. In 1807 the importation of African slaves was banned in the U.S. and the British colonies. Slavery was abolished in the British West Indies by 1838 and in the French possessions 10 years later. In the 11 Southern states of the U.S., however, slavery was a social and economic institution. American abolitionism laboured under the handicap that it threatened the harmony of North and South in the Union, and it also ran counter to the U.S. Constitution, which left the question of slavery to the individual states. The abolitionist movement in the North was led by agitators such as William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, writers such as John Greenleaf Whittier, former slaves such as Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The election of Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the spread of slavery to the West, marked a turning point in the movement. Convinced that their way of life was threatened, the Southern states seceded from the Union (see secession), which led to the American Civil War. In 1863 Lincoln (who had never been an abolitionist) issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves held in the Confederate states; the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1865) prohibited slavery throughout the country. Slavery was abolished in Latin America by 1888. In some parts of Africa and in much of the Islamic world, it persisted as a legal institution well into the 20th century.

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The prison abolition movement seeks to abolish prison and the prison system which advocates of the movement claim are inhumane. Prison abolitionists present a broad critique of the modern Western criminal justice system, alleged to be both racist and classist as well as ineffectual at reforming criminals, decreasing crime, or reconciling the victims of crime.

Advocates for prison abolition

Historically, Quakers were among the first advocates for alternatives to prison.

Anarchist groups such as Anarchist Black Cross have played a significant part in the prison abolition movement and this trend continues today. Anarchists wish to eliminate all forms of state control, of which imprisonment is seen as one of the more obvious examples. Anarchists also oppose prisons because they house non-violent offenders (e.g., thieves and swindlers instead of just murderers and rapists), incarcerate mainly poor people or people of color, and do not generally rehabilitate criminals, in many cases making them worse. As a result, the prison abolition movement often is associated with anarchism and anti-authoritarianism.

Prison reforms and alternatives

Proposals for prison reform and proposed alternatives to prisons differ significantly depending on the political beliefs behind them. Proposals and tactics often include:

  • Penal system reforms:
  • Prison condition reforms
  • Crime prevention rather than punishment
  • Abolition of specific programs which increase prison population, such as the prohibition of drugs (e.g. War on Drugs), gun control, prohibition of prostitution, and alcohol restrictions.
  • Education programs to inform people who have never been in prison about the problems
  • Fighting individual cases of wrongful conviction

Anarchist view

In place of prisons, anarchism proposes community-controlled courts, councils, or assemblies to control the problem of social crime. They argue that with the destruction of capitalism, and the self-management of production by workers and communities, property crimes would largely vanish. A large part of the problem, according to anarchists, is the way the judicial systems deals with prisoners, people and capital. They argue that there would be fewer prisoners if society treated people more fairly, regardless of gender, color, ethnic background, sexual preference, education, etc.

Arguments made for prison abolition

  • Prisons may be less effective at discouraging crimes and/or compensating victims than other forms of punishment.
  • Degree and quality of access to justice depends on the financial resources of the accused.
  • Laws are biased towards profiting one segment of the population over another. For example, in most countries tobacco is legal, while marijuana is not, because large corporations control the former, while the latter is not currently taxed.
  • Prisons alienate people from their communities.
  • In the U.S., people of color and from the lower class are much more likely to be imprisoned than people of European descent or people who are wealthy.
  • People who are put in prison for what are arguably crimes motivated by need, such as some minor theft (food, etc) or prostitution, find it much harder to obtain legal employment once convicted of a crime. Arguably, this difficulty makes it more likely they will find themselves back in the prison system, having had few other options or resources available to support themselves and/or their families. Many prison abolitionists argue that we should "legalize survival" and provide help to those who need it instead of making it even harder to find work and perpetuating the non-violent crimes.
  • Prisons are not proven to make people less violent. In fact, there is evidence that they may instead promote violence in individuals by surrounding them with other violent criminals, which can lead to predictable negative/violent results.

Opponents of the abolition argue that none of the above arguments addresses the protection of non-criminal population from the effects of crime, and from particularly violent criminals.

See also

List of organizations supporting prison abolition

List of other relevant organizations

Relevant topics


External links

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