« Tennessee poised to become second state to authorize the death penalty for child rape since SCOTUS prohibition | Main | US Sentencing Commission's new compassionate release data suggest (small) uptick in sentence reduction grants to close 2023 »

April 23, 2024

"What Is a Prison?"

The title of this post is the title of this new book review authored by one of my Ohio State colleagues, Grace Li, now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Tommie Shelby’s 2022 book The Idea of Prison Abolition sets out to compile and rearticulate the arguments for and against prison abolition -- using Angela Davis's works as the sole source texts.  In considering the arguments, he concludes that it is not necessary to abolish prisons and instead endorses reform.

In this book review, I argue that Shelby’s most helpful contribution in the book is not his analysis of whether prisons should be abolished but rather his elemental definition of incarceration.  To know what to abolish and when we have abolished it, we need to define what we mean by "prison."  I evaluate and extend his definition by culling some elements, such that the remaining elements are: "involuntary confinement," "in an enclosed space," "away from the general public;" and adding an element, "for a continuous amount of time."  I also add to these elements a list of harms that imprisonment inevitably causes.

April 23, 2024 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


Shocker that your colleague adds a “list of harms,” but no word about a list of “benefits.” After all, you only see what you are trained to see, a scary reminder about this and the next generation of lawyers.

I am convinced that academia is dead, replaced lock, stock, and barrel by an echo culture.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Apr 23, 2024 9:51:46 PM


You could have done your colleague a huge favor if you had just “forgotten” to post about this embarrassment of a paper.

Luckily, it is one of a million such embarrassments that will be forgotten amidst the rubble after the fall of academia.

To your knowledge, are there any thorough and SPECIFIC works outlining what the CJS looks like after the abolishment of prisons?

For example, if I were to murder three people tomorrow, what would come of me? What would the process of rehabilitation look like and how would society be kept safe from me?

That would be so much more helpful than the naive ankle biting of this so-called “scholarly work.” Perhaps you could have Professor Li come here and describe it. Make me a believer.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Apr 23, 2024 10:28:45 PM

TarlsQtr --

The pro-criminal slant of legal academia is indeed shocking. It's so far removed from the thinking of normal, intelligent people that it's made itself irrelevant, may God be praised.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 23, 2024 11:10:20 PM


Indeed it is. I’m most shocked she had time to write it in between campouts at Columbia. I don’t know for sure that it’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Apr 23, 2024 11:26:56 PM

Master Tarls: Did you download and read the full article? It is a book review of philosophy professor Tommie Shelby’s "The Idea of Prison Abolition," which discusses more fully (and pushes back on) various accountings of prison abolition. And the book review cites to some of the leading abolionist literature, though there is far more such literature than I can keep up with (or than I try to keep up with).

Because I am not a prison abolitionist, I am not well-positined to give an accounting of what they think the "CJS looks like after the abolishment of prisons." I do sense many prison abolitionist think of abolition more like a philosphy than as a realistic proposal for short-term reforms. (I am not sure if abolitionists would embrace the analogy, but I see them as kind of like hard-core pacificts. I surmise pacifists philosophically believe violence can never be jusified; I surmise prison abolitionists philosophically believe prison can never be jusified. Or maybe abortion abolition is a better analogy, as I surmise that some pro-lifers philosophically believe abortion can never be justified.)

Notably, though the prison abolition movement has more advocates of late, the movement goes back at least a half-century or more. A famed early book on prison abolition, which I believe seeks to speak to your question, was authored in 1976 under the title: "Instead of Prisons:A Handbook for Abolitionists":

As mentioned before, I do not keep up with all the modern abolition literature, and I post relatively little of it. But in some prior posts, I have sought to flag some leading discussions that may speak in part to your reasonable question, Master Tarls:





I sense the last article noted above, from Allegra McLeod in 2015, has been seen as a foundational piece in the modern movement. I surmise the piece helps explain abolitionist thinking. But, again I am not an abolitionist and so I am not able to soundly speak for them.

Posted by: Doug B | Apr 24, 2024 8:48:15 AM

I read every word.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Apr 24, 2024 6:44:25 PM

Doug --

The reason you're not a prison abolitionist is the same as the reason you're not a death penalty abolitionist, to wit, you have a grip on reality.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 24, 2024 7:23:05 PM

Doug, Bill,

I’ve read about 1/3 of the McCleod piece. Oh, my!

It’s all I expected and more. The answer is, you guessed it, green spaces and Socialism!

The Socialist utopia will eliminate all crime, other than “the dangerous few.” Of course, this number is next to nothing. She discusses people who committed “heinous crimes,” including “murder, carjacking, beheading, and torture,” who went to live “altruistic lives,” so even they don’t need prison. It has to be worse than torture and beheading, don’t you know.

But what about those “dangerous few,” (I have a feeling it means Trump supporter)? On that, she punts. The number will be so small, it will just muddy the waters of the discussion. 😂

I sincerely thank you, Doug. I learned a lot from this, even if it did make me dumber. I’ll read the next in the coming days.

Bill, did you work with this crazy person at Georgetown? lol

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Apr 24, 2024 10:07:34 PM

Master Tarls: I am quite impressed that you have the time and patience to read abolitionist literature. I sense you have already gotten to the "Socialist utopia" core that I surmise drives much of this work. The anti-capitalism themes always turn me off, especially since I do not think I've seen much engagement in these pieces with the reality that modern socialist nations --- Cuba, China, Russia --- tend to use prisons more than many other nations. (Moveover, state-funded/owed police, prosecutors, criminal courts, and prisons have always seemed to me to be among our most socialist institutions in the US.)

Your reference to Trump supporters, Master Tarls, is especially trenchant given that I have seen precious few abolitionist critiques of the massive number of Jan 6 prosecutions and jail/prison sentences. The single largest DOJ prosecution of persons in US history, with most of those prosecuted having little or no criminal history, would seem to be an ideal setting to explore Prof McLeod's asserted concerns about "prisons and punitive policing produc[ing] tremendous brutality, violence, racial stratification, ideological rigidity, despair, and waste [while] incarceration and prison-backed policing neither redress nor repair the very sorts of harms they are supposed to address." I would think abolitionists might have a lot to say about what has been achieved --- or not achieved --- by DOJs massive carceral-state spending going after the Jan 6 crowd.

I flagged in a recent post Prof Sam Merchant's data analysis concluding that those "convicted of felonies related to the Capitol Breach appear to actually receive longer sentences than individuals convicted of the same crimes outside of the Capitol Breach context." https://sentencing.typepad.com/sentencing_law_and_policy/2024/04/the-relative-severity-of-criminal-sentences-in-the-january-6-2021-capitol-breach-cases.html Moreover, many Jan 6 who pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and served some jail time (in addition to those still awaiting a trial in jail) are subject to "prison-backed" plea practices. And yet relative silence about the (over?)use of the carceral state for the Jan 6 rioters from the academics who claim to be philosophically committed to the complete elimination of the carceral state. Quite telling.

Posted by: Doug B | Apr 25, 2024 9:06:00 AM

Thanks, Doug.

I really do appreciate you flagging those pieces for me, especially McLeod’s. I am reminded of being fresh out of teaching school and getting my first prison job. Of course I knew there were illiterate people, but it’s different when you walk into a classroom full of grown adults learning A,B,C, 1,2,3.

Same with the prison abolition movement. We have cranks in here spouting it, but a respected academic? It kind of shocks me that she is saying the silent part out loud.

I know you are limited to what you can say about your employer and colleagues but, to the best of your ability without getting in trouble, I am hoping you can answer a question.

I know people applying for positions often go through a panel of staff in the process. Would a prospective law school professor generally be open about such an insane position? Or, would they wait for tenure before revealing it?

Would a rookie professor even be hired supporting prison abolition? I’m all for academic freedom, but I’m also for academic quality. I could no more support the hiring of McCleod at a law school than I could a Holocaust denier to the History faculty.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Apr 25, 2024 4:15:08 PM

Master Tarls, I sense there are a number of academic prison abolitionists (junior and senior) who would just define their abolitionism, in McLeod's terminology, as "an aspirational ethic and a framework of gradual decarceration." So defined, "abolition" can just be an embrace of the notion that prisons generally do more harm than good, and so we should seek to address crime and related problems with means other than prison whenever possible. (Some have made this claim in purely economic terms without embracing the "abolition" label: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2928219)

So defined, "abolition" can be seen as an extention of a fairly mainstream view that prisons are counter-productice for at least some offenders -- eg, the "Right of Crime" principles stress the importance of using "more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety [than] reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for every type of offender. And in some instances, they have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders—making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered." https://rightoncrime.com/about/principles-signatories/

I am not seeking to assert or suggest that the Right on Crime signatories are "prison abolitionists," but I do mean to suggest that many arguments by "prison abolitionists" are clearly just flashy variations on long-standing reform talk about alternatives to incarceration and many less flashy reform philosophies. And, as I flagged earlier, in the 1970s there was broad academic and advocate talk of "abolition," driven in part by the uglness of the Attica uprising. Here are a few examples/discussions:




Indeed, going back to 1955, the NY Times ran a commentary with the headline "Should Prisons be Abolished?" authored by a former Sing Sing clinic head:

I can here provide only a small window into abolitionist academic writings (and I my poorly articulate their thinking because I am not an abolitionist). But I mean to highlight that talk and thought about doing without prisons has been around a very long time and taps into a wide array of academic traditions. Though I do not find modern variations of much of this literature particularly convincing, in its best form this literature can be provocative and challenging in all the ways good academic work should be provocative and challenging.

Posted by: Doug B | Apr 25, 2024 11:36:46 PM

Doug --

It's undoubtedly true that if one defines "abolition" to mean "not really abolition" this debate looks quite different. But if abolition is defined to mean "abolition," then the idea is just as crazy as it sounds.

Still, if you can get Joe Biden to campaign for prison abolition, or at least get his handlers to put it on his teleprompter, I will give you a very nice steak dinner.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 26, 2024 11:18:47 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB