What Prison Abolition Actually Looks Like

In Atlanta, racial justice activists are close to shutting down the city jail.

Criminal justice reform activists hold up signs that say "no new jails," "free them all," and "abolish prisons."
A protest outside the Tombs, the New York City jail formally named the Manhattan Detention Complex, on June 20. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Hi-Phi Nation, Slate’s podcast of philosophy in story form.

For Marilynn Winn, prison abolition is the mission to make other people’s lives take a different path than hers did. Winn spent 40 years in and out of the criminal justice system, trapped in a vicious cycle where she’d shoplift because she couldn’t get a job with her criminal record—which would land her back in prison, again and again. Now 69 years old, Winn is the co-founder and executive director of Women on the Rise, an organization in Georgia led by formerly incarcerated women of color. She’s working to close the Atlanta City Detention Center, or ACDC, a jail with a perverse history.

Winn explains: “When [Atlanta] was granted the opportunity to host the Olympics, the city said we want to beautify the city of Atlanta. So we’re going to tear down all these projects and we’re going to build nice apartments, and then we’re going to bring everybody back.” But that didn’t happen, according to Winn. When Atlanta displaced people from the housing projects to build new, nicer-looking apartments, they prohibited people with criminal records from applying to live there—people who had otherwise lived in the affordable, subsidized places these apartments were replacing. They even prohibited spouses and family members with criminal records from living there, on pain of evicting the whole family.

“Those people became instantly homeless,” Winn says, “and that’s when the crime rate went up. So then they said, well, what are we going to do with all these homeless people? So they said we’re going to build a new jail, a larger jail. During the time of the Olympics, we’re going to take all the people up off the street and put them in there. And so … they built Atlanta City Detention Center.”

The jail is in downtown Atlanta. It houses people detained for traffic violations, failures to pay a ticket, disorderly conduct, possession of marijuana, sex work, shoplifting, crimes like that. According to Winn, at the time she wanted to abolish ACDC, the annual budget was $32.5 million, and it jailed about 700 people a night. Winn has been to ACDC herself: “It’s where I’ve seen the most abuse. Two or three officers beating a person at one time. That was the reason, in my heart, I wanted it closed.” The steps she took to close the jail are a lesson in decarceration.

Step 1. Decriminalize what you can. “We start looking at low-hanging fruit,” she says. “We started looking at ordinances that people were being arrested for most. So we started attacking those ordinances.” In this case, those were crimes that don’t serve a useful public safety function, crimes that other cities do quite well at not enforcing, like jaywalking, spitting on the sidewalk, standing in the way of a driveway—the kind of crimes that were, frankly, chicken shit. They were the crimes that served as pretext for stop and frisk, and then jailing people on other charges. This eventually included possession of small amounts of marijuana, which they changed from an arrestable offense to a $75 ticket. Winn says that out of 81 ordinances, 41 were removed from the books.

Step 2. Ban the box, or make it illegal in the city to require job applicants to state their criminal history for hiring. The result is an increase in employment and decrease in property crime for people who were once discriminated against.

Step 3. Place something in between police and jails—pre-arrest diversion. Winn calls it a collaboration with the Atlanta Police Department: “If you feel like Marilynn would benefit from a program, instead of taking her to jail, you’ll call someone from pre-arrest diversion.” Sex workers who are picked up, those who suffer addiction, those with mental health disorders, or those who are homeless are placed into the custody of community-sponsored programs to house and treat people.

Most importantly, police must log that they’ve placed someone into pre-arrest diversion so they get credit on the job for something other than a successful arrest. Winn says: “The first thing we do, if they are homeless, they become housed that day. If they relapse, they’re not out of the program. If they go to jail, they’re not out of the program. [The police] ask for the judge or call someone from my office and say, ‘We got one of your folks. You need to come and get them.’ ” It wasn’t easy, and Winn says that some police are still not on board: “They still think people need to be in jail. We do go back-and-forth with them even now.”

Step 4. Be such a pain in the ass to police commanders that they ask their line officers to do pre-arrest diversion when they can. Winn explains: “We get the arrest records, and we’re looking at if this person right here should have came to [pre-arrest diversion], this person should have been not in jail. So we start calling [the police officers’] commanders: Why is this person continuing to lock people up for this crime right here? They should have been calling us.”

In a matter of two years, the work of Winn’s organization dropped the incarceration rate at the jail from 700 people a day to about 70. “It does not make no sense for our city to spend $32.5 million to run a jail for 70 people,” she says. “The jail is the beast. So we made it a point that everything we do, we’re going to take away from the jail. We’re gonna starve the beast.”

The underlying principle of Winn’s prison abolitionism is a principle she has herself lived through: Cages don’t work. They don’t lower crime, and they don’t help the people who are in them become better citizens when they’re out. Instead, respond to wrongdoing with compassion and help, and the reduction in crime and public danger will follow.

Sometimes people respond by denying the facts. They think that, contrary to all evidence of the last 40 years, prisons and the permanent collateral consequences they impose actually improve lives. But once they get past the willful ignorance, the typical response is moral, not empirical: The opponents think that people who do bad things deserve some kind of pain as payback. Maybe not excessive pain, but some kind of pain. They think that it’s an injustice to let bad people who do bad things go free. And it’s even more of an injustice to give them benefits they didn’t earn, like a free education, housing, and medical treatment. This kind of justice is called retributive justice, and it’s contrary to Winn’s entire approach. “I don’t think people deserve to be punished,” she says. “We got people with all types of illnesses. We don’t know what they are, but we have doctors and psychiatrists and all those things—they know what they are. … It’s something else that they need. It’s a service.”

To listen to the entire episode on free will and state punishment, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.