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Heba Nimr
Date Published: 
June 01, 2006

Originally published in 1976, Instead of Prisons was written “for those who feel it is time to say ‘no’ to prisons, for those open to the notion that the only way to reform the prison system is to dismantle it, for those who seek a strategy to get us from here to there.”

Recognizing the need in these dire times to equip and inspire those of us who continue to unapologetically advocate for the abolition of imprisonment, Critical Resistance (CR) has recently republished the text. Though they have written a new forward that frames the changing context of punishment and imprisonment between 1976 and 2006, CR chose to leave the original text of the handbook untouched.

Indeed, thirty years later, the vision, fundamental values, strategies and tools that are woven throughout the handbook remain incredibly useful for social justice activists currently engaged in any struggles to say “no” to the exponential growth of state police power and the violence it breeds. So principled and practical is the vision that it is also a useful handbook for those who are seeking to create concrete community strategies that, unlike prisons and punishment, strive towards true community safety and health.

The authors begin with a series of definitions that seek to “consciously abandon the jargon that camouflages the reality of caging.” They are true to this strategy throughout the handbook, creating a vocabulary that can be used by activists to expose the dishonest notions that justify more policing, more punishment and more prisons. In addition, in the handbook’s longest chapter, “Demythologizing”, the authors unpack and reframe some of the basic myths surrounding criminality, protection, safety, and the alleged efficacy and cost-effectiveness of punishment that are used to prop up the prison industrial complex.

Move forward

Noting the overwhelming nature of changing the massive prison system, the remainder of the handbook is a series of chapters that illustrate their “attrition” model that maps out some manageable strategies. Specifically, they provide a wealth of information, tools and case studies to enable activists to strategize specific campaigns that can serve the larger vision of dismantling prisons.

Part of what keeps this handbook so relevant today is one of its core premises: that prison abolition is a long-range process that starts right where we are. We do not need to have a master plan or detailed road map in hand; what we do need is a diligent willingness to navigate the inevitable paradoxes of working to dismantle a system, sometimes from within, by constantly analyzing and revising intermediary reform strategies to ensure they do not reinforce or legitimize the prevailing prison system and its use of coercive power.

Instead of Prisons provides a series of similar analyses that are useful today not because they are prescriptive or formulaic, but because they illustrate how to humanely (and therefore sometimes imperfectly), struggle today, here and now, towards a long term vision of a world without prisons. Critical Resistance has done us all a service by republishing and making accessible this text, which is profoundly relevant and necessary. Now is not the time to get overwhelmed: it is time to commit, engage, and move forward with clarity of vision and integrity.

Republished by Critical Resistance, 2006