The Difference Between Reforming And Abolishing Prison, And What That Really Means

philadelphia county prison
Zain Murdock
May 15, 2023

When it comes to the prison system, some activists focus on decriminalization, decarceration, and non-criminal safety strategies. People who support those reforms and don’t want prisons in the future are abolitionists. 

Other reforms work to fix what’s called a “broken” system. And people who want to keep prisons in the future are called reformists.

Let’s run through some examples.

Both groups often support ending the death penalty, especially knowing that over 40% of death row is Black. But the difference comes when we ask, “What do we do after that?” 

A common answer for reformists is to give people life without parole sentences instead. But for abolitionists, the goal is to create a society that doesn’t rely on prisons, not imprison people longer.

Another example is building new, “better” prisons. There’s way less agreement on that. 

Some reformists intend to decrease overcrowding, modernize prison cells, and address specific populations, like women or children. 

Abolitionists, however, support decarceration, or reducing prison populations. New prisons will fill with new people. The goal for abolitionists is to dismantle the system, not add things to the system that don’t help people.

Understanding the difference between abolition and reformism can be tricky. But the next time you see a new reform, you have the power to research and determine what it really intends to accomplish.

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