The Idea of Prison Abolition

Author: Tommie Shelby
Publisher: Prinston University Press, 2022.  248 pages.
Reviewer: Sheldon A. Evans | April 2024

Tommie Shelby’s The Idea of Prison Abolition is the rare success that manages to balance intellectual depth with accessibility to a larger audience. The book is ambitious in its attempts to address the general ideas of prison abolition, most notably by focusing on the work of the preeminent philosopher and activist Angela Davis. What results is a careful and reasoned acknowledgement of the contributions of abolitionist thought, albeit with a respectful set of critiques that cut to the core of Davis’s framework and the broader abolitionist movement. This review seeks to give Shelby the same respect he has given to others like Davis, by respectfully engaging with his work (pg. 15). In this brief review, I address the strengths and limitations of Shelby’s contribution in four areas. First, the scope of Shelby’s focus on the writings of Davis as the vanguard of the abolitionist tradition raises interesting questions about what type of abolitionism he is engaging with. Second, Shelby’s own intellectual commitments to the Black Radical Tradition (BRT) illuminate important takeaways from his conclusions. Third, Shelby’s philosophical framing of abolition is where the book shines as a persuasive counterpoint to the strongest justifications for abolition. Fourth, I address Shelby’s treatment of the traditional justifications of punishment, and whether we should graft abolition into this existing landscape. Overall, despite some of my critiques, I consider Shelby’s work to be a triumph that should be considered required reading for all those seeking to explore the general ideas of prison abolition.

Starting with the scope of Shelby’s piece, his primary focus on the work and activism of Angela Davis streamlines the discussion effectively at the expense of interesting nuances of the larger movement. Shelby is unapologetic for this, but also doesn’t justify the narrow scope of his focus. On the same page that he explains focusing on Davis, he acknowledges there are many different strands of abolitionism including marxist, pacifist, feminist, post-structuralist, and the list goes on (pg. 5). There is a strategic and rhetorical reason that might explain this decision. To expand the book to consider so many different strands, nuances, and brands of abolition would lose the forest for the trees. The value of Davis’s scholarship is that she in many ways incorporates these intellectual schools into one body of work. Davis is a useful rhetorical representative of the movement, so much so that critiquing her is perceived as critiquing the much larger literature.

But abolitionism is much broader than the work of Davis herself, and thus Shelby misses some of the worthwhile consideration of a host of other scholarly approaches to abolition. Shelby does indeed incorporate ideas from legal scholars such as Dorothy Roberts, Allegra McLeod, Michelle Alexander, and activists like Miriama Kaba even if only in the footnotes; thus, his bonafides as a well-read philosopher left me wanting more. Shelby acknowledges the broader legal and institutional questions by mentioning, in passing, problems with overly zealous prosecutors, plea bargaining, excessive bail, and unsympathetic juries, but does little to deepen the analysis of these practices (pg. 28). And in each of these areas and more, philosophers, legal scholars, economists, sociologists, and others have made meaningful contributions that go unaddressed and unacknowledged. Perhaps Shelby sought to avoid this larger literature because he wanted to keep it mono-a-mono, philosopher vs. philosopher. Perhaps Shelby believed this larger literature of criminal justice was not relevant to the question of “prison” abolition. In any event, this larger body of scholarship is incredibly important to framing the philosophical, legal, and social questions of prison abolition and the theoretical treatments of incarceration.

This does not mean that Shelby’s work is incomplete or undertheorized, but rather it establishes the proper audience for this piece. For criminal justice scholars and theorists, Shelby’s work is a worthwhile resource even if it is a bit too generalist. It is not meant to be the end-all-be-all volume on reform vs. abolition. It is not meant to persuade abolitionists or to proselytize towards reformism, but it is an impressive balance between intellectual rigor and accessibility for an educated audience looking to learn more. In that sense, Shelby’s work serves as a fruitful introduction to the idea of prison abolition.

Shelby’s decision to limit the scope of his project also serves an important contribution to the philosophical foundation to which both he and Davis belong. Shelby and Davis associate themselves with the BRT that has passed through “W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Claudia Jones, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney,” and now to the modern Black radical philosopher (pgs. 10–11). Shelby goes out of his way to acknowledge that both he and Davis belong to this tradition, even though such an acknowledgement is not necessary to his critiques of abolition. Instead, I believe he acknowledged the similar foundations of he and Davis to expand and impose accountability for all that carry the torch of the BRT. First, Shelby expands what people think of the BRT by correcting an erroneous assumption many might have about its methodologies; namely, that it is a monolithic and outcome-oriented methodology. In this era in which Critical Race Theory faces similar political and intellectual scrutiny, it seems that many adherents to these methodologies are playing defense by having to prove the rigor of their scholarship. Many might assume that the BRT would side with abolitionism by default because we all Black progressives must think alike. But Shelby disproves this notion. In his direct engagement with Davis’s work, Shelby uses the very tools of the BRT to critique another BRT scholar, showing the depth, the intellectual rigor, and spectrum of thought within the tradition. Second, Shelby rightfully describes the burden of the BRT to “have the capacity to persuade people who are open-minded but perhaps not yet convinced to accept black critical theorists’ basic moral principles and not yet disposed to choose a radical solution to mutually acknowledged social problems (pg. 13).” In other words, the BRT has the burden of persuasion, and Shelby is implicitly suggesting that abolition has not met that threshold. As a citizen of the BRT, Shelby is compelled to hold abolition up to this standard if only to uphold the standards of the BRT. Consequently, I read Shelby’s work as being more than merely the subject of prison abolition, but also about the greater contributions of the BRT and its place in the abolitionist literature.

Necessarily, this means that Shelby himself must be held to the BRT’s standard of persuasion, and he largely succeeds based on his talent of framing issues for philosophical consideration. I’ve identified four places where his framing is quite masterful to persuade the reader as to why prison abolition is not necessary or even sound as a policy solution. First, Shelby interacts with the foundational question of what is a “prison” (pgs. 45–48). Brutalist buildings that incapacitate people behind bars would undoubtedly meet this definition, but not all methods of incarceration are inherently dehumanizing or unjust. Even abolitionists support forms of incapacitation to quarantine those suffering from communicable diseases and support reinvest in mental health institutions that can help rehabilitate the mentally ill (pg. 169). Consequently, it is not the act of incarcerating people that is inhumane, but rather the conditions of incarceration that are especially problematic. For instance, if there were a 50-acre ranch that had no fences, but ran a day-spa for incarcerated persons, would this be considered a prison? Many of the same power-dynamics of prison life and loss of liberty would remain, but the conditions of incarceration would be more humane and perhaps even desirable. Shelby uses this framing to question whether many abolitionists are against the prison itself or rather prison conditions that can be readily reformed.

Second, Shelby distinguishes between philosophical arguments of genealogy vs. legacy. By Shelby’s definition, genealogical arguments are about the root sources of how an institution came to be based on its historical roots, whereas legacy arguments are less directly tied to the past and instead argue that modern institutions are similar enough to past institutions to have “inherited” certain practices and qualities from the past. Shelby places value in genealogical arguments to the extent they can educate modern audiences on the historical roots of institutions and unmoor us from erroneous assumptions of the inherent legitimacy of modern practices (pgs. 79-80). But I don’t particularly see the value of the genealogical argument in prison abolition. If abolitionists are making a genealogical argument that modern prisons are a direct institutional descendant from slavery, this says nothing about prisons as a modern practice. Many Germans are the sons, daughters, and grandchildren that are direct descendants of Nazis, and yet for several generations these German descendants have charted a new path to separate themselves from the mistakes of their family’s past. People change over time, and generations introduce new norms. So even if abolitionism was making a genealogical argument of direct descent, this is supportive but not dispositive to abolish the modern-day institution. However, legacy arguments might turn out to be more sound. If abolitionists posit that prisons have inherited practices from slavery because of their common design, this presents a stronger argument that prisons should be abolished because their modern-practices are similar to slavery (pg. 81). But Shelby still questions “whether the objectionable features were also bequeathed and if so, whether these can be removed without destroying the inherited item itself” (pg. 83). Thus, even if prisons operate similarly based on their inherited design from the institution of slavery, this does not end the inquiry of whether the institution can be reformed.

Third, Shelby discusses functional institutional critiques by differentiating between manifest functions—which are the primary and official purpose of an institution—from latent functions—which are consequences that institutions can cause when attempting to fulfill their manifest function (pg. 93–94). To me, this seems to be a bit more of a complicated analysis of primary vs. unintended consequences, or dare I say economic externalities that have yet to be fully considered in a transaction. Shelby believes this distinction is material because if prisons have a manifest function of providing social order, and the racist and classist discriminatory effect of prisons is merely a latent function, the manifest function “must be shown to fail if the functional critique is to justify abolition” (pg. 99). And if the manifest functions are indeed legitimate “and there is no functional equivalent within reach, we may need to reform prisons so that prisons have fewer of the pernicious” latent functions that abolitionists identify (pg. 108).

Although this framing is persuasive, I would slightly revise it into a cost-benefit analysis for a more impactful and accurate effect. If there are legitimate benefits of the manifest function of prisons, abolitionists must prove that the costs of the latent functions outweigh the benefits of the manifest functions. To Shelby, the manifest function of public order is sufficient to justify the existence of prisons (pg. 105), regardless of any latent functions. Only when the manifest function fails should we consider abolition. But my cost-benefit analysis—which is widely considered in many other disciplines—imposes a higher burden on the status quo by requiring the benefits of the manifest function to outweigh the costs of the latent functions. Regardless, Shelby and I come to the same conclusion because both framings would default towards reform rather than abolition to fix prisons so they efficiently fulfill their manifest function while mitigating its latent problems of racism and classism.

Fourth, Shelby frames the idea of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) as a distinction between economic gain and economic incentive. If abolitionists want to completely eliminate any economic gain for the many businesses and employees that help to facilitate and run a prison, this would lead to nearly absurd results. Security guards could not be paid because they enjoy economic gain by being paid an hourly wage or salary; private businesses could not provide toilet paper, toothbrushes, blankets, soap, and the myriad of other hygienic products to prisoners. Surely, mere economic gain is not enough to support abolition, but economic incentive is trickier.  Abolitionists seek to eliminate perverse incentives of the PIC by explaining that existing prisons and the businesses that they contract with are incentivized by profit margins that are derived from the suffering of others. But Shelby also dispatches this issue by comparing prisons to the medical field, which undoubtedly profits from people’s suffering even if it directly does not cause such suffering. If a person is wheeled into an emergency room after they are stabbed, shouldn’t the nurses and doctors be paid for their labor even if it results from somebody else’s suffering (pg. 132). But perhaps the distinction here is that prisons are institutions intended to cause suffering, while hospitals are institutions intended to rehabilitate suffering. But this begs another question? Why not reform prisons to be harm-reduction facilities instead of harm-causing facilities? Abolitionists have indeed identified troubling incentives of private prisons, security guard unions, and the larger PIC, but abolition is not necessarily the most well-suited solution to that problem. Reforming the institution, its incentives, its business contracting, and so forth could remedy much of the perverse incentives we seek to mitigate. Therefore, the strongest arguments as framed by Shelby and simplified by my own understandings once again point towards reform rather than abolition.

My final takeaway from Shelby’s book is the useful mapping of abolitionist theory within the traditional justifications of punishment. My first issue is what I perceive as a misclassification of retributivism. Shelby ultimately agrees with Davis by rejecting retributivism as a legitimate justification, however his definition of retributivism is limited. Retributivism is more than mere “revenge or to retaliate against those who break the law,” and is a bit deeper than finding “intrinsic value” in the suffering of offender as he defines it (pgs. 51–52). Instead, the retributivist tradition most often associated with Immanuel Kant discusses punishment as a moral virtue that is meant to respect the moral agency of the individual offender. Because the offender is morally blameworthy taking a wrongful action, the government is justified to punish the offender proportionately to their moral blameworthiness and thus returns society to a sense of equilibrium. This has incredible intuitive appeal, which is why retributivist punishments and principles have been found in virtually every society that has been studied in human history. And even though my definition of retributivism could undoubtedly be further refined, it highlights the importance of moral judgements and balancing the moral wrong of the offender with the moral duty of government intervention. This is relevant to Shelby’s approach because he himself acknowledges the role that morality plays in criminal punishment and abolition theory. He recognizes that “[w]hen people refuse to listen to moral reaons, we are sometimes permitted to use coercive means to alter their behavior . . . . (pg. 62).” Davis herself claims that prisons, as a form of slavery, should be opposed based on moral grounds (pg. 81). Both philosophers realize that criminal law and punishment requires some balance between the moral decision of the offender and the morality of government intervention, but they curiously do not describe this as retributivist.

But Shelby is clearly not a retributivist (although he might rely on a few retributivist principles), and instead portrays his own views and those of the abolitionists he critiques within the consequentialist tradition. Although abolitionists might not believe themselves to be a part of either the retributivist or consequentialist tradition, they are ironically a part of both. Retributivism is often described in part as justifying punishment based on the past; in other words, society is justified in punishing the offender based on what crime the offender committed in the past. Consequentialism is forward looking and justifies punishing the offender based on what will produce the best future consequences for the individual and for society. While abolition rejects the government’s monopoly on punishment, it nevertheless borrows from both a backwards-looking and forwards-looking justification. Abolition looks to the past to delegitimize government intervention based on the dehumanization and discrimination of our justice system, but also looks to the future to describe what it would take to produce a consequentialist utopia. This utopia would not include prisons, but as Shelby highlights, they do include transformative and restorative justice mediation as well as rehabilitation practices (pgs. 169–171). Shelby’s treatment of how the theoretical justifications of punishment interact with abolitionism was refreshing and educational, although I believe his definition of retributivism to be too narrow. I found this discussion (primarily in Chapter 5) to be perhaps the most valuable tool for future classroom discussion to interrogate abolitionism in my own pedagogical pursuits.

In conclusion, Shelby has produced an incredibly effective encapsulation of the general ideas, contributions, and critiques of prison abolition that will be valuable for years to come. His commitment to clarity, framing, and rigor are apparent, and this book should indeed be a prerequisite resource for scholars and activists in this field for the next generation. Prisons are not obsolete, but neither is the idea of prison abolition.


Sheldon A. Evans is a Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis.

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