An America Without Prisons: It's Been Done Before

The state of California agreed in early September to overhaul its solitary confinement system. With some 3,000 living and breathing people locked up, some of them for twenty or thirty years, in small cells without windows, all but two hours a day — you can bet the system needs overhauling. It actually needs abolishing. As does our mass incarceration system more generally.

I know, talk of prison abolition is rarely heard in public, but that doesn’t mean plenty of people aren’t talking about it. Oakland based Critical Resistance is just one example and they’re not alone, not now, and certainly not in US history.

The US is an outlier in the so-called civilized world when it comes to writing people off and locking them away. But we’ve only done it for two misbegotten centuries. Go back two hundred years and you’ll find plenty of debate. Colonial jails were tiny wooden buildings - like the one that’s been standing on Cape Cod since 1690 - which housed people just until they were tried.

Incarcerating people for punishment only came later. Solitary, ironically, was the brainchild of the Quakers, the same people who pushed to abolish slavery. They imagined solitary reflection as a humane alternative to stocks and whipping.

Even at that time, though, there were places with no prisons. When Pope Francis passes through Central Park, he’ll pass the site of Seneca Village, a village settled by free blacks and Irish immigrants in the 1820s. According to the NY Historical Society, Seneca Village had three churches, a school, several cemeteries - and no prison - until it was razed for the park.

After the Civil War - those hundreds of towns founded by freed slaves had schools and churches and music halls but not prisons. Anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston described one of those. Eatonville, Florida where she grew up, "As a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred black skins; 300 good swimmers, plenty of guavas, two schools and no jailhouse.”

Abolition may not be as American as apple pie, but it’s certainly not a foreign concept and it’s been around a whole lot longer than the prison industrial complex.

You can watch my interview with Soros Justice fellow Marlon Peterson, who spent ten years in the New York State Prisons, this week on The Laura Flanders Show on KCET/LINKtv and TeleSUR and find all my interviews and reports at To tell me what you think, write to: