Rethinking American Prisons

NB: This essay is adapted from Dan Berger and Toussaint Losier’s 2017 Rethinking the American Prison Movement (Routledge Press), a book that examines how incarcerated people have challenged prison conditions and other forms of inequality through strikes, uprisings, and other creative tactics, and in doing so have waged transformational struggles against America’s prison system. We republish it here on occasion of the nationwide prison strike, in the hopes that it will provide useful perspective on the ongoing struggles of our incarcerated comrades. To the end of prisons.


Rethinking American Prisons

Dan Berger and Toussaint Losier

Throughout its existence, the prison movement has meant many things. We have highlighted four principle components: 1) Defense committees working to free people—typically political activists or survivors of racial and/or gender violence—from prison or prevent them from going to prison in the first place; 2) Legal campaigns to extend lawful rights and protections to incarcerated people, including religious freedom, personal safety from assault, access to health care, and the right to organize, speak, read, or communicate without censorship or reprisal; 3) Resistance strategies to avoid, minimize, or remove the harms of prison conditions through such means as individual refusals of prison discipline, petitioning authorities, or collective strikes and uprisings; and 4) Revolutionary challenges to prison authority as the most repressive site of social control, political disenfranchisement, and economic inequality in the United States, especially concentrated by class, race, and gender. Such challenges have sparked study groups, strikes, uprisings, and physical confrontations with authorities.

While distinct, these four approaches have often coexisted and informed each other. More than any one particular method, the prison movement has emphasized the self-activity and collective organizing of people in prison. These efforts, whether peer education or class-action lawsuits, have been strongest when prisoners have forged relationships with free-world allies. Outside supporters have raised funds, published prisoner writing, dramatized prison conditions through art or protest, and provided reading material, legal aid, medical support, or other necessary items. Perhaps most important, non-incarcerated people have provided visibility that has kept prisoners from being forgotten or neglected inside the total institution of confinement.

Yet such coalitions have faced steep barriers to being established, much less maintained. Institutionally, prison authorities have exhibited ambivalence or outright hostility to most kinds of prisoner organizing. The widespread use of racism, isolation, physical intimidation, sexual assault, behavior modification, and transfer between institutions that we have chronicled here are the most common ways that officials have sapped the strength of the prison movement—both as it exists within an institution and as it coalesces with outside supporters. Such repressive measures exacerbate the foundational barrier prison poses, which is the geographic—and therefore emotional—separation between prisoners and their friends, families, and loved ones. Although the prison movement has secured a number of significant legal victories that have improved conditions, American courts have nonetheless erred on the side of protecting institutional security over individual rights.

The constraint of prison imposes other challenges on the movement. The institution restricts communication between prisoners and their loved ones or supporters, making it hard for incarcerated people to truly lead campaigns on their own behalf. Prisoners must depend on outside support to accomplish a number of things, yet such support also feeds into the institution’s tendency to enforce a feeling of helplessness among its wards. There is no easy way to manage the tension between self-organizing within prison and coalitions connecting incarcerated people to free-world allies. Incarcerated people need to overcome the entrenched differences of hierarchies within the institution while also navigating coalitions on the outside that themselves can be riven with differences according to race, gender, class, geography, or other social positions.

A new generation began to navigate these tensions beginning in the early twenty-first century. Against the backdrop of economic crisis, by 2010 several politicians from both parties agreed that it was too expensive for the country to incarcerate so many people. By that point, the United States had incarcerated more than 2.3 million people in prisons, jails, and detention centers, with another five million people under some form of correctional control outside of prison and more than six million barred from voting due to felony conviction. Many Democratic and Republican politicians agreed that mass incarceration was too costly, while diverse campus and community groups challenged the system’s endemic racism.[1]

As of 2017, however, most conversations about prison reform have focused on what political scientist Marie Gottschalk calls the “non-non-nons,” that is, people convicted of non-violent, non-sexual, and non-serious offenses. This focus on the “non-non-nons,” or what geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls the “aegis of relative innocence,” has cast a narrow net of prison reform: mainly, people convicted of first-time nonviolent drug offenses.[2] Such an emphasis may have called into question the wisdom of America’s expansive war on drugs, but it has excluded the vast majority of people in prison. While nearly half of federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses, the federal system accounts for about one-tenth of America’s total prison population. Further, prosecutorial discretion and mandatory minimum sentences means that people may be convicted of violent offenses even where no violence occurred (such as if they had a gun on them at the time of their arrest).[3]

The majority of people are not in prison for drug-related offenses; many of them have been convicted of a violent offense. If everyone convicted of nonviolent drug offense were freed tomorrow, the United States would still have the world’s largest prison system.[4] Research has shown that people “age out of crime” and that those convicted of violent offenses may in fact be the safest group to release from prison, especially if they are over 50. As of yet, however, they have been excluded from the reform agenda. Some reform packages have even increased length of sentence or mandatory minimum for violent offenses even while reducing it for drug possession.[5]  Likewise, despite several unprecedented hearings on solitary confinement, the only mobilization to restrict its use came from a legal settlement California prisoners secured after a series of hunger strikes. And efforts to restore the civil and human rights of formerly incarcerated people, including the right to vote and access public benefits, remain piecemeal at best.

After being largely silent about the criminal justice system throughout his presidency, Barack Obama issued several critical statements about mass incarceration in 2014 and 2015. He became the first sitting president to visit a prison, when he went to the El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma in 2015. In 2016, Obama took several important actions to reduce the number of people in federal prison. In January, he banned solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system and took executive action to limit the reasons for sending someone in federal prison to solitary confinement as well as how long they can be held there. Both of these changes came after popular outcry after 22-year-old Kalief Browder committed suicide following a two-year stint in solitary confinement as a juvenile in New York’s Rikers Island jail. He had been arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack and was eventually released without standing trial. (Browder’s suicide prompted a campaign to close the aging jail complex; in the spring of 2017, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a 10-year plan to shutter Rikers by opening smaller jails throughout the city.)[6] Obama also commuted the sentences of 1,715 people in his final year in office, largely for people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, some of whom were serving lengthy or life sentences. He offered few pardons, however, thereby leaving intact the post-release exclusions that accompany a criminal conviction.

Still, Obama was the first president in fifty years to leave office with a smaller federal prison population than when he entered. Yet because most of his criminal justice reforms were done through executive action, the broad spirit of change threatens to be undone by the Trump administration. Trump and his surrogates have argued for greater policing of low-income Black neighborhoods and a further fusion of the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems (the so-called “crimmigration” system) at all levels: policing, prosecution, and imprisonment in detention centers en route to deportation. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has opposed many of the bipartisan reforms that have weakened the war on drugs, including the legalization of recreational and medical marijuana. Sessions has indicated support for harsher mandatory minimums, expanded private prisons, enhanced police and prosecutorial discretion, and no end to the civil forfeiture laws that allow police to seize property of people who have arrested. In one of his first acts as Attorney General, Sessions ended the Justice Department investigations of racial violence in major urban police departments. All told, the administration represents a strong swing of the pendulum back toward the failed policies of the mass incarceration era. Yet such approaches have far less support than when they were first implemented. What tone this sets at national and local levels will need to be monitored in the coming years.[7]

At the statewide level, advocates achieved several successes in criminal justice policy under Obama that may yet influence the Trump era. They limited the death penalty and the shackling of pregnant women in prison, shrunk the juvenile incarceration rate and made it harder to sentence juveniles to life without parole (hallmarks of America’s excessively punitive approach), and worked to eradicate cash bail requirements for indigent defendants. Some states eased their drug laws and excessive sentences, making it possible to close facilities, even in an incarceration-heavy state such as New York. Grassroots coalitions pursued a strategy of “decarceration,” working to reduce the number of people in prison, close prison facilities, and shrink the reach of the criminal justice system. In California, the dire state of prison health care offered one venue through which prisoners and their lawyers could demand a reduction in the state’s prison population. Finally, several political activists incarcerated since the 1970s or 1980s won their freedom in the 2010s (even though others died in prison or remain incarcerated).[8]

While many of these reform efforts have left out currently and formerly incarcerated people and their loves ones, their organizing created the political conditions in which they occurred. On September 9, 2016, more than 20,000 people began a nationwide strike against “slavery in America” in the place where it seemed most protected—American prisons. Members of the Free Alabama Movement called for the strike with two historical markers in mind. First, the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery except as punishment for a crime. Second was the Attica rebellion, whose determined example of multiracial challenges to punishment continue to inspire prison activism.  Launched on the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica rebellion, the strike involved people held in more than twenty-nine prisons across twelve states. The specific grievances for the strike varied from institution to institution: in Alabama, where the call for the strike was initiated, prisoners protested the free labor they were forced to do for the state. Prisoners in Texas and South Carolina joined for similar reasons. In Michigan and Florida, prisoners called attention to substandard food and grossly inadequate medical care, made worse by chronic overcrowding. Similar issues, exacerbated by the collective punishment used to root out alleged gang members, motivated some prisoners in California to join their efforts. At least two prisoners died in the course of the three-week strike.[9]

The vast scope of punishment in the twenty-first century, together with a conservative judiciary, has made it even more difficult to organize against prisons. Yet the 2016 strike was the latest example of a renewed wave of antiprison activism that began outside of prison in the late 1990s and witnessed a series of labor and hunger strikes by prisoners in the early 2000s. These protests drew from long histories of prison radicalism, as evidenced by the 2016 strike organizers choosing to launch their national demonstration on the anniversary of the most famous episode of the prison rebellion years. Contemporary activists continue to call attention to the punishment of political dissidents and target harsh prison conditions as a microcosm of larger forms of injustice. Yet their approaches have necessarily evolved in tandem with the growth of an unprecedented carceral state.

The first American prison hunger strike of the new millennium actually took place outside the United States, when detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison launched a series of hunger strikes in protest of their conditions, which included a suspension of habeas corpus and due process as well as routine physical and psychological violence. The first hunger strike began not long after the prison camp opened in 2002 and continued periodically over more than a decade. Officials often force fed the hunger strikers, yet the protests continued. In 2013, 106 of the 166 detainees went on hunger strike. Soon, the tactic made its way to the continental United States as well.[10]

American prisons and detention centers witnessed dozens of strikes between 2010 and 2017. In December 2010, prisoners in Georgia staged a statewide work strike coordinated with contraband cell phones. Other strikes and uprisings transpired in prisons and immigrant detention centers in Alabama, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, among elsewhere. The biggest occurred at California’s Pelican Bay—one of the most repressive institutions in the world. There, prisoners staged three hunger strikes between 2011 and 2013 protesting long-term solitary confinement. At its height in 2013, thirty thousand incarcerated people throughout the state joined in support of the leadership collective’s five demands. The strike yielded a legal settlement that removed almost all of California prisoners from long-term isolation. It also produced a historic statement calling for multiracial unity that would deprive the state of what had been its most brutal governing strategy: manufactured racial conflict among prisoners. The strike was organized by a multiracial group of Black, Chicano, and white prisoners who authorities had claimed constituted leaders of rival gangs. Instead, the men organized themselves into the “Short Corridor Collective” and planned a large, nonviolent, multiracial strike. Their success undermined the historic racial divisions of California prisons, speaking to new opportunities for unity among incarcerated people.

While the wave of strikes had died down as Obama departed the White House, it did not end. Less than two weeks into Trump’s presidency, prisoners at the Vaughn Correctional Facility in Smyrna, Delaware, took over one building at the prison. They took five guards hostage in the process and called the media to report their demands. “We know the institution is going to change for the worse” now that Trump is in office, they said. Their demands consisted of educational access, rehabilitation programs, and greater transparency in the overcrowded and underfunded institution. The strike lasted several hours. Ultimately, police stormed the prison and put an end to the rebellion. They found one of the hostages dead, the others unharmed. In April, 750 people imprisoned at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma—half of the institution—launched a hunger strike against their conditions in the privately run prison.[11]

The strikes reflected a growing spirit of prison abolition that re-emerged in the 1990s. Prison abolition is often misread as naively utopian. Critics claim it would be foolish to open all the prison cells immediately, as if there is no central switch to flip that would empty all the prisons. Instead, prison abolitionists take inspiration from the slavery abolitionists of the 19th century: like slavery in its day, prisons are a multifaceted system at the heart of American society. And like the abolition of slavery marked a new phase in the life of the United States, so too do contemporary abolitionists view their project as broad-based political, economic, and social transformation. To get there, abolitionists work to reduce the reliance on all aspects of the criminal justice system. They pursue a set of alternative measures to do so, including decriminalization of drugs and sex work, restorative modes of conflict resolution even for serious offenses like rape and murder, and the redirection of funds from policing and punishment to universal health care, quality public schools, and other necessary programs. Most popularly utilized with juveniles, these alternative models of conflict resolution use mediation and non-punitive modes of accountability to address interpersonal harm.[12]

The 1998 Critical Resistance conference placed abolition at the center of contemporary opposition to prisons. That conference spawned an organization of the same name, which became a clearinghouse of sorts for twenty-first century abolitionists. Abolitionists positioned themselves as an alternative to prison expansion from both liberal reformers and hardline conservatives. They pursued a series of reforms that would shrink the prison system but opposed those (e.g., life without parole instead of the death penalty) that extend or continue the state’s capacity to punish. Abolitionism re-emerged through a host of social movements in these decades, first through the anti-globalization and environmental justice movements, and then through Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and immigrant rights. Across these movements, prison abolition was a central tenet of antiracist feminist and LGBTQ activists who pointed to the failed attempts to “protect” women, gays, lesbians, and transgender people through hate crimes legislation or similar efforts that proliferated in this time period. This new generation of anticarceral feminism has updated the 1970s critiques of prisons as forms of patriarchal violence to the contemporary penal landscape. These neo-abolitionists also insist on the inclusion of currently and formerly incarcerated people in any conversation about prison policy. The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, for instance, formed in 2015 with the motto “Nothing about us without us.”[13]

Opposition to police violence often became a frontline response to ending mass incarceration. In New York City, a wave of protest and civil disobedience actions undercut the city’s “stop and frisk” policing policy that brought so many Black and Latino men into contact with the criminal justice system for no reason. Beginning in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement shaped a national debate about police violence. Although ostensibly launched by police killing of Black men, women, and children, the Black Lives Matter movement targeted a range of issues pertaining to the outsized power of police. These included police funding, training, and accountability (or lack thereof), especially in low-income urban communities of color. Black Lives Matter and related movements therefore targeted the logic of criminalization that upholds mass incarceration. Their efforts to reform American policing are part and parcel of the prison movement.

The history of the American prison movement demonstrates the difference between discreet moments of policy reform with the movements that both demand and respond to them. Issues of police brutality, imprisonment, immigrant detention and deportation, solitary confinement, sexual violence, the death penalty, and other forms of state punishment have long sparked powerful, if fragmented, mobilizations that we have identified as the prison movement. Across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the prison movement has tried to supplant the practice of criminal justice with one of social justice. The challenge of organizing in far-flung places and among marginalized populations has only increased over time. Yet the persistence of this movement suggests that prisons will continue to generate broad campaigns for social justice.

More than 40 years of mass incarceration have repressed even the idea that people who are or were in prison are themselves political actors. Mass incarceration has further naturalized the possibility of making policy absent the people most directly affected by such decisions. Mass incarceration has also buried the history of the prison movement recounted in this book. Telling this history provides an opportunity to revisit the ways prisoners have intervened in conversations about prison reform and its limitations. Echoing across the generations, their voices remind all who listen that the people who have the most intimate knowledge of prisons are the best able to determine what should be done about them. They also remind us that any conversation about prison is also a conversation about healthcare, urban politics, rural development, educational equity, sexual freedom, policing practices, worker rights, and other matters of urgent concern. The future of the American prison movement is therefore bound up with its past, pursuing the central questions of humanity.


[The image at the top of this essay is of the Attica prison uprising, 1971. Source: Center for Puerto Rican Studies, CUNY Hunter (]




[1] Greg Jobin-Leeds and AgitArte, When We Fight We Win: Twenty-First Century Social Movements and the Activists that Are Transforming Our World (New York: The New Press, 2016), 51-76; Dan Berger, “Social Movements and Mass Incarceration: What is to be Done?” Souls 15 (1-2): 3-18; David Dagan and Steven Teles, Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[2] Marie Gottschalk, Caught: The Prison State and American Politics on Lockdown (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014); Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “The Worrying State of the Antiprison Movement,” Social Justice February 23, 2015,

[3] For more on the role of prosecutors in driving mass incarceration, see John Pfaff, Locked In: How our Fractured Criminal Justice System Creates Mass Incarceration (New York: Basic Books, 2017).

[4] Prison Policy Initiative, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie,”; Gottschalk, Caught; Kilgore, Understanding Mass Incarceration; Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic, October 2015.

[5] Shane Bauer, “The New Bipartisan Criminal-Justice Reform Bill Doesn’t Live Up to Its Own Hype,” Mother Jones, October 2, 2015,; Daniel Denvir, “The Movement to End Mass Incarceration is Still Too Weak to Win Big,” Salon, May 1, 2016; Matt Apuzzo and Eric Lipton, “Rare White House Accord with Koch Brothers on Sentencing Frays,” New York Times, November 24, 2015, A1.; James Kilgore, “The Persistence of Mass Incarceration,” Counterpunch, September 23, 2014,

[6] Michael Scwirtz and Michael Winerip, “New York State Agrees to Overhaul Solitary Confinement in Prisons,” New York Times, December 16, 2015; Juliet Eliperin, “Obama Bans Solitary Confinement for Juveniles in Federal Prisons,” Washington Post, January 26, 2016; Mary McDonnell and Stephen Rex Brown, “Kalief Browder’s brother slams de Blasio’s plan to shut down Rikers Island: ‘It’s a publicity stunt,’” NY Daily News, April 10, 2017,

[7] James Kilgore, “Fighting Mass Incarceration Under Trump: New Strategies, New Alliances,” Truthout, December 26, 2016,; Ames C. Grawert, “Analysis: Sen. Jeff Sessions’s Record on Criminal Justice,” Brennan Center for Justice, January 13, 2017,; Radley Balko, “Jeff Sessions dismisses DOJ reports on police abuse without bothering to read them,” Washington Post, February 28, 2017,

[8] James Kilgore, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of our Time (New York: The New Press, 2015); Marie Gottschalk, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014); Berger, “Social Movements and Mass Incarceration”; Dan Berger, The Struggle Within: Prisons, Political Prisoners, and Mass Movements in the United States (Oakland: PM Press, 2014); Hadar Aviram, Cheap on Crime: Recession-Era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment (Berkeley: University of California, 2015); Jonathan Simon, Mass Incarceration On Trial (New York: The New Press, 2014).

[9] Dan Berger, “Rattling the Cages,” Jacobin, November 18, 2016.

[10] Neil A. Lewis, “Guantanamo Prisoners Go on Hunger Strike,” New York Times, September 18, 2005,; “Gitmo Hunger Strike: Timeline,” Russia Times, October 19, 2013,; Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantanamo Diary (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2015).

[11] Heather Ann Thompson, “What Happened at Vaughn Prison?” Jacobin, February 2, 2017,; Brian Sonenstein, “Prisoner Demands Remain Ignored in Weeks After Vaughn Rebellion,” Shadowproof, March 10, 2017,; Mike Carter, “Hunger strike at Tacoma immigration detention center grows to 750, activist says,” Seattle Times, April 13, 2017,

[12] Dean Spade, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith, eds., Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (Oakland: AK Press, 2011); Beth Ritchie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation (New York: NYU Press, 2012); Kilgore, Understanding Mass Incarceration, 199-234.

[13] Chris Dixon, Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); Dean Spade, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith, eds., Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (Oakland: AK Press, 2011); Beth Ritchie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation (New York: NYU Press, 2012); Kilgore, Understanding Mass Incarceration, 199-234; Rose Braz and Craig Gilmore, “Joining Forces: Prisons and Environmental Justice in Recent California Organizing,” Radical History Review 96 (2006), 95-111.

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