Why I am a Prison Abolitionist

By Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom

I am a prison abolitionist for many reasons. The primary one is that I believe that education is a human right, and prison is a strong prohibitive force against access. African American men are the largest group of people residing in U.S. prisons. In the U.S., wide gaps persist in the educational attainment of African American men and other ethnic groups. African American men are not only disproportionately overrepresented in our prison system; they are also disproportionately undereducated.

Education is a primary good for all people. It enables them to participate more fully in society, to become contributing citizens, and to find meaning and flourishing in their lives and work. With regard to its good effect on the lives of people who are or have been incarcerated, studies show that it is a significant factor in keeping people out of prison. A 2013 study by the RAND corporation concluded that education in prison reduces recidivism by 13.8 percent, and persons who receive education in prison are 40-50 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated than those who do not! Academic courses alongside the more popular vocational programs show positive results in the areas of job attainment, satisfaction and mobility.

Beyond research studies, education programs in prisons boast of their power to transform lives. For example, the Prison University Project has educated 1000 plus students in San Quentin State Prison for more than eleven years. In that time, not one of their graduates has returned to prison for a violent crime.

Caenisha Warren’s post last week was on point—higher education is good, but there are significant areas it needs to change. One way is by joining higher educators in prison and advocating for Pell Grants and other funding for those in prison to have access to credit bearing courses.

Another is for whites to start thinking more about reparations through education. Slavery as it was practices in the antebellum South may be over, but slavery as an ideology that maintains unjust (and very real) power dynamics between whites and blacks is not. Research such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow surfaces underlying connections between slavery and mass incarceration in the U.S. landscape. Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? argues forcefully that America’s super-incarceration is in fact new age slavery.

We will only find our way out of unjust access to education by investing in individuals who are incarcerated. “Each One Teach One” is an African proverb referring to slaves who learned to read. African Americans slaves were denied education because keeping them in a state of ignorance helped slave holders and others maintain order and control. Education offers pathways that dignify all human beings behind bars and perhaps even re-animate the possibilities of education to abolish ongoing racial injustices.

Note: Pieces of this blog were originally posted in my article “Resist Incarceration–Through Education” on Sojourners’ blog in November 2015.


2 thoughts on “Why I am a Prison Abolitionist

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  1. Michelle: Thank you for this. I did an internship in the chaplaincy program of our county jail, and I saw firsthand some of the injustices that land people there. The writings of Wally Lamb were a great influence on me, and I eventually wrote an ethic papers on restorative justice in seminary. Every study I have read points to the benefits of both restorative justice and education both in and outside the system, some with almost unbelievable results as in the San Quentin project you mentioned. Justice, sentencing, incarceration, and the way we “do” jail and prison need to be truly redirected towards restoration instead of merely punishment. It is biblical and it is effective in getting the kinds of results that all Christians–and Americans–should want.

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