Imagining a World Without Prisons

by Judy Meikle
Wilton Meeting


In a recent article in Sojourner Magazine, Joshua Dubler and Vincent W. Lloyd, writing as scholars and religious practitioners who have worked with incarcerated people for two decades, argue that “the principal obstacle to (prison) abolition is its seeming impossibility. Making the impossible possible calls for an exercise in radical imagination.” As a Quaker, with a core belief of that of God in every person, I choose to imagine the impossible and work towards a world without prisons.


Although slavery was “officially” abolished by the 13th Amendment of 1865, prisons continue the morally outrageous legacy of denying human worth. Our current prison system normalizes the horrendous practice of caging people and is based on the lie that this serves public safety and justice. Today’s prison abolitionists lift up a vision where communities are made secure by providing resources and services, and where institutions and systems that do harm are dismantled and replaced with restorative practices.


Abolitionists also direct us to focus on policy work that reduces the scope and footprint of the prison industrial complex by closing prisons and jails, stopping new prison construction, and reducing prison populations. We can examine our Quaker prison witness through an abolitionist lens. Do the reforms that we advocate for accept a narrative that prisons are a given?  Or do they dismantle the system? Do the programs we fund foster transformative justice by remediating harms?


If the obstacle to a shared vision of abolition is the seeming impossibility, how does one begin? A first step is to care about and be in relationship with the incarcerated. When people are put in cages, they are out of sight and out of mind; they become the forgotten “other.” It has been my experience that my relationships with incarcerated Friends help me stay grounded in the need to hold space for an abolitionist vision.


The invitation to us in NYYM is to step into mutual ministry with those in prison and those who are coming home. Through prison ministry—worshipping with or visiting and corresponding with incarcerated Quakers—outside Friends connect with inside Friends on a human-to-human basis. It is mutual ministry because it is a shared experience in which both people are giving and receiving the blessing of spiritual support.


The legacy of Fay Honey Knopp has been a constant inspiration to me. She was a member of my meeting and was designated a “minister of record” to serve as a prison visitor throughout the Federal system. In 1976 she collaborated with a group of fellow activists to publish the book Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists. This book was reprinted in 2005 by Critical Resistance and has informed generations of people organizing for a better world.


Can we agree that “Prisons Are Not the Answer”? As Friends, we are rooted in our testimony of peace, in supporting non-violent methods of achieving change. “War Is Not the Answer” is our mantra. Knowing that the prison system perpetuates violence and is an engine of harm to communities, we must commit to people, not prisons.


“Abolitionists are, simply put, those beings who look out upon their time and say “NO.”’— Mumia Abu-Jamal, incarcerated journalist