Is Prison Necessary? Prison Abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore Changed The Way People Think About Criminal Justice

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Written by Ann Brown
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Simon Thompson (Wiels, Brussels), Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Graduate Center of the City University, New York)

Ruth Wilson Gilmore considers herself a prison abolitionist and has worked for the past three decades to convince people that there needs to be not just major prison reform but a total abolition of the prison system in the United States.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore considers herself a prison abolitionist and has worked for the past three decades to convince people that there needs

 to be not just major prison reform but a total abolition of the prison system in the United States.  

Ruth Wilson Gilmore considers herself a prison abolitionist and has worked for the past three decades to convince people that there needs

 to be not just major prison reform but a total abolition of the prison system in the United States.  

“Abolitionists argue that many reforms have done little more than reinforce the system…Reforms have not significantly reduced incarceration numbers. In the last decade, prison populations nationally have shrunk by only 7 percent, and 40 percent of the reduction can be attributed to California, which in 2011 was ordered by the Supreme Court to reduce overcrowding,” The Crime Report reported.

Gilmore, a respected geography professor (the University of California, Berkeley, now at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan) and an influential figure in the prison-abolition movement, wants to close prisons.


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“I get where you’re coming from,” she said. “But how about this: Instead of asking whether anyone should be locked up or go free, why don’t we think about why we solve problems by repeating the kind of behavior that brought us the problem in the first place?”

Gilmore urges the government to invest in jobs, education, housing, health care, which she said will encourage a productive and violence-free life.

According to Gilmore, there are just too many people locked up, though there has been some slight movement though cutting back on the prison population.  Last year President Trump signed into law the first federal prison reform in almost 10 years, the bipartisan First Step Act. It will release only about 7,000 of the 2.3 million people in prison. First Step applies only to federal prisons, which hold less than 10 percent of the nation’s prison population.

The government still maintains more prisons than does the private sector. “Ninety-two percent of people locked inside American prisons are held in publicly run, publicly funded facilities, and 99 percent of those in jail are in public jails. Every private prison could close tomorrow, and not a single person would go home. But the ideas that private prisons are the culprit, and that profit is the motive behind all prisons, have a firm grip on the popular imagination,” The New York Times reported.

While government agencies don’t turn a profit, they do need revenue.  “If you follow the money, you don’t have to find the company that’s profiting,” Gilmore said. “You can find all the people who are dependent on wages paid out by the Department of Corrections. The most powerful lobby group in California are the guards. It’s a single trade, with one employer, and it couldn’t be easier for them to organize. They can elect everyone from D.A.s up to the governor.”

Through her research, Gilmore found that between 1982 and 2000, California erected 23 new prisons and boosted the state’s prison population by a whopping 500 percent. As Gilmore wrote in her 2007 book “Golden Gulag,” “Crime went up; crime went down; we cracked down.” But this, said Gilmore, didn’t get to the root of the problem.

Mass Incarceration
** ADDS STORY ADVISORY ** TO GO WITH STRY SLUGGED DOMINICAN PRESUMED GUILTY ** Several inmates buy supplies at Najayo jail’s store in San Cristobal, west of Santo Domingo, Wednesday, May 30, 2007. Latin America prisons are overflowed with men, women and even minors who have not been sentenced. In the Dominican Republic, around 15,000 prisoners, almost two-thirds of the jails’ population, have not been convicted. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Over the years, through her own personal experiences as well as her well-honed observations, Gilmore explained that there are certain narratives people cling about the prison system that not only false but are used to push policy positions.

“Gilmore takes apart these narratives: that a significant number of people are in prison for nonviolent drug convictions; that prison is a modified continuation of slavery, and, by extension, that most everyone in prison is Black; and…that corporate profit motive is the primary engine of incarceration,” The New York Times reported.

Gilmore wants to destroy the belief that the majority of those in prison are Black, this feeds into a stereotype and harms Black people. “In terms of racial demographics, Black people are the population most affected by mass incarceration — roughly 33 percent of those in prison are Black, while only 12 percent of the United States population is — but Latinos still make up 23 percent of the prison population and white people 30 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics,” The New York Times reported.

For Gilmore, abolishing the prison system would not only rid society of these false stereotypes but also present a more humane and complete way to get to a way to solve crime and why crime is committed.


About Ann Brown

Ann Brown has been a freelance writer for more than two decades. Her work has appeared in CocoaFab, Black Enterprise, Essence, MadameNoire.com, New York Trend, Upscale, Moguldom, AFKInsider, The Network Journal, Playboy, Africa Strictly Business, For Harriet, Pathfinders, Black Meetings & Tourism, Frequent Flier, Girl, Honey, Source Sports, The Source, Black Radio Exclusive, and Launch. She studied journalism at New York University and has her B.A. Born in New York, Ann lived in Praia, Cabo Verde, for nearly a decade. She created “An American In Cabo Verde,” a Facebook community.