What is Abolition Feminism, What Is Carceral Feminism & What Could a World Without Prisons Look Like?

March 26, 2021

Original Source:

Since the murder of Sarah Everard, the role of police has been under discussion in the UK. Police behaviour at Sarah’s vigil was violent and escalated peaceful situations. This led some to call for the police to be abolished for the first time. For marginalised individuals, this was somewhat traumatic. Many marginalised communities, particular BIPOC, have been highlighting issues with police and prison systems for decades. It can hurt to feel like these issues are only being addressed now that it has happened to white people, it can hurt even more when people on social media continue to undermine and belittle an argument that has existed for a long time, and has a long academic history.

For this reason, I wanted to take some time to talk about Abolition Feminism today. This is something I studied during my master’s degree, though I also took the last couple of weeks to read books and source more resources, which are listed at the end of this post. This is just an introduction for those that may be newer to this topic, I am not the ultimate authority on this. I believe it’s up to white people to work to dismantle white supremacy, which is why I’ve created this introductory resource for those who need it. If you’re reading this, however, I urge you to seek out the work of BIPOC feminists and thinkers to learn more.

What is Abolition Feminism

Feminism is a political project about what could be. It’s always looking forward, invested in futures we can’t quite grasp yet. It’s a way of wishing, hoping, aiming at everything that has been deemed impossible

Lola Olufemi: Feminism, Interrupted

Abolition Feminism seeks a world beyond the policing and prison systems we currently have, encouraging us to consider problems from a social justice perspective rather than a criminal justice one. It requires us to think systemically, focusing on developing stronger communities and achieving gender, racial and economic justice for all.

When it comes to gender-based violence, conventional approaches focus on finding solutions that rely on police and prisons. Making misogyny a hate crime in the UK is a recent example. However, this approach misses wider violence from the state itself, especially when it comes to marginalised communities that are already over-criminalised and over-policed. Abolition Feminism wants us to not just think about interpersonal violence, but understand that the state itself causes harm. To truly end violence, we need strategies that address it in all forms.

Countless studies prove that many ex-prisoners go on to re-offend due to lack of employment, housing and social prospects…

If we know that the existence of prisons has no real impact on rates for reoffending, that abuse, self-harm and suicide are rife in prisons and that, in the cases of sexual assault and rape, individuals are very unlikely to go to prison in the first place, it becomes clear that the safety that carceral thinking sells us is a lie.

Lola Olufemi: Feminism, Interrupted

While prisons may seem like a staple feature of life, they’re a relatively new creation that were designed as sites of reformation. They were proposed as an alternative to forms of punishment that usually involved violence, labour, or banishment. The idea was that isolation would give prisoners time to reflect and change their ways. However, in the UK, 75% of ex-inmates re-offend within nine years of release, 39.3% within the first twelve months, while 1.4% of rape cases result in prosecution

It seems pretty clear that prison fails to keep people safe while also failing to reform inhabitants. Is it really so radical to think that other solutions may work better?

Abolitionists don’t want to simply shut down prisons overnight, they want to think beyond them as the tool to solve society’s issues, building a society that renders them unnecessary. They believe that these systems need to be replaced, along with the conditions that create crime and channel people into prison, including racism, poverty and the root causes of violence

The abolition movement has been influenced by the work of BIPOC feminists including Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Patricia Hill Collins, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Mariame Kaba. In the UK, organisations such as Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) and the Brixton Black Women’s Group, campaigned in the 1970s and 80s against police violence and abuse.

Angela Davis’ work discussing the prison industrial complex is some of the most well known. Davis argues that the state uses prisons to manage the consequences of systemic racism and economic inequality, and what needs to be confronted are the systems of police and prisons, and the conditions that make these punishments seem necessary. 

Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore co-founded the first abolitionist organisation, Critical Resistance, in 1997. In 2001 Critical Resistance wrote a statement alongside INCITE! (a network of radical feminists of colour organizing to end state, community and personal violence against women of colour) definining abolitionist feminism and the society of care it envisioned

We seek to build movements that not only end violence, but that create a society based on radical freedom, mutual accountability, and passionate reciprocity. In this society, safety and security will not be premised on violence or the threat of violence; it will be based on a collective commitment to guaranteeing the survival and care of all peoples.

This vision exists because, while it may at first seem rational to want to expand carceral systems in response to violence, prisons themselves are sites of violence that can never be adequately reformed.

What is Carceral Feminism

The label of carceral feminism was coined by sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein in 2007. It describes overly relying on police and prisons, which reinforce state violence, as the solution to gender-based violence. 

Carceral feminism assumes that violence is caused by isolated individuals, that individual punishment or banishment is the only and best option available, and that the system is mostly fair. It frames sexual harassment and abuse as ‘aberrant’ behavior, rather than systemic, and so it works to create stronger laws, policies and procedures, alongside increased policing, prosecution and imprisonment.


Prominent organisations and movements fighting gender-based violence have been known to do this, which has been highlighted and criticised by INCITE!.

When accusations against high profile sexual offenders come out, calls for justice often centre on arrest and prison. However INCITE! has emphasised that this doesn’t help achieve real accountability, as implementing harsher punishments and longer prison sentences always fall hardest on communities of colour while failing to actually prevent violence or keep people safe. 

We know that the majority of rapists in the world are not in prison, nor will they ever be. They are walking among us, they are our family members, our friends, they hold government positions; they make the laws they claim will hold others to account

Lola Olufemi: Feminism, Interrupted

State systems have been framed as institutions of justice, but these systems disproportionately oppress marginalised people due to factors such as race, class, gender identity, immigration status and disability. The current criminal justice system has negative impacts on trans and cis womentrans men, gender non-conforming and intersex people, even though these communities are already more likely to experience violence.

Carceral feminism often views issues through a white, middle-class lens. It fails to be intersectional as it ignores how increased policing and state power leaves certain women more vulnerable to violence, and it fails to acknowledge the ripple effects of the criminal justice system, which often hurt BIPOC women.

The majority of women in prison have been victims of domestic violence. Many reported committing crimes in order to support their abusive partner’s drug habits and being trapped in abusive relationships. Criminalising domestic violence means more women in prison. Criminalising sex work means more women in prison. Criminalising drug use means more women in prison – more vulnerable women who fall through the cracks. In 2017, TV licence evasion was the most common offence for which women were convicted, the crime accounts for 30 per cent of all ‘female’ prosecutions. Women are being sent to prison for things as arbitrary as being unable to repay fines.

Lola Olufemi: Feminism, Interrupted

One example is the violence against women act in the US, which made it mandatory for police responding to reports of gender-based violence to arrest someone. This has lead to victims being arrested instead of/as well as perpetrators, while perpetrators are still less likely to go to jail or prison than other criminals, sexual assault remains underreported, and violence hasn’t stopped.

The impacts of prison

The USA has the highest prison population per capita in the OECD with 2.2 million individuals incarcerated. England and Wales is thirteenth, Scotland fourteenth, and Northern Ireland twenty-sixth. That’s a lot of people being impacted by a system that may not be fit for purpose. 

Prison is rarely the beginning of the harm that prisoners have experienced. Many have been neglected early in life due to their families, schools, the care system, the mental health system, and the state in general. Relying on prisons enables society to abandon vulnerable and challenged people. Removing them from the world doesn’t solve problems long term, as reoffence rates show. Abolitionists argue that vital resources of time, energy, money and attention should be used to build stronger communities and to address underlying issues that lead to incarceration. If a person receives support for the first time in prison, we should be addressing why that person didn’t have their basic needs met until they were arrested.

While women may be in the minority overall, incarceration still has large consequences for women, many of which are often overlooked. High profile cases involving women tend to be covered in a sensationalist way, which seriously harms the majority of female non-violent prisoners.

When it comes to female prisoners, the system is skewed. In the US, for example, the vast majority of police leaders and officerscorrections staff and prison wardens are men. In the UK 36.9% of senior leaders in the prison service were female as of March 2020 and almost 2/3 of seats in the House of Commons are represented by men. This means men are disproportionately involved in the administration of punishment and drafting of policies on punishment. The end result is prisons being designed by men for men, which are not tailored to women’s needs. Because incarceration is viewed as a male issue, there are less facilities for women, resulting in women being held at greater distance from their families and communities

The state doesn’t protect women, especially marginalised women, from violence. Women of colour have to deal with immigration laws and ‘hostile environment’ policies, poor women have to deal with benefits cuts and Universal Credit policies that leave them vulnerable and less able to escape abuse. Rape and abuse survivors can be arrested for wasting police time and perjury if they withdraw cases. Migrant women facing domestic violence will be questioned on their immigration status and may be detained if they report to the police. 

Serco’s guards have been recorded using vicious verbal abuse against women of colour detained at Yarls Wood immigration detention centre. Both these companies have also won contracts in recent years to run sexual assault referral centres to provide forensic medical examinations and other services to survivors…

A survivor may also be referred, if she is considered a ‘high risk case’, to a police-led Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference where the key agencies of the state, police, probation, immigration education, health, housing and the voluntary sector, pool information about her, and make decisions about her future, while she herself is prevented from attending. In other words, the survivor who had fled the patriarchal violence of the family is now confronted with the state’s impersonal, controlling, carceral patriarchy.


Abuse & female imprisonment

Of those women who are in the prison system, nearly all have histories of abuse and crimes stemming from these situations, for example drug use to cope with the mental health effects of abuse, or sex work to pay for this self-medication. Mariame Kaba, a key figure in transformative justice and abolition activism, argues this creates a sexual violence to prison pipeline, as women are imprisoned due to the criminalisation of strategies they use to survive.

 In New York state, 67 percent of women sent to prison for killing someone close to them had been abused by that person. Across the country, in California, a prison study found that 93 percent of the women who had killed their significant others had been abused by them. Sixty-seven percent of those women reported that they had been attempting to protect themselves or their children.


The majority of female inmates experience sexual or physical abuse before entering prison. Once incarcerated, the system often fails to address this: there is a lack of mental health services and women are medicated without access to therapy. Sexual assault is also common in prison. In the USA there were almost 25,000 allegations of sexual victimisation in prisons in 2015. Correctional officials have also subjected female inmates to sexual assault during body searches, as well as strip searches and cavity searches. All the while these women can’t escape their abusers, they’re held captive by them. When violence comes from the carceral state itself, carceral solutions can’t solve social problems.

A world without prisons

So what could a world without prisons look like? Abolitionists believe the answer lies in transformative justice and community-based responses rooted in care. These responses also consider factors like poverty, race and exploitation. Angela Davis describes the movement as inherently antiracist, anticapitalist, antisexist, and antihomophobic.

To reiterate, rather than try to imagine one single alternative to the existing system of incarceration, we might envision an array of alternatives that will require radical transformations of many aspects of our society. Alternatives that fail to address racism, male dominance, homophobia, class bias, and other structures of domination will not, in the final analysis, lead to decarceration and will not advance the goal of abolition.


Legal scholar Angela P. Harris advocates for restorative justice which focuses on healing, repair, and accountability. This includes:

  • Investing in resources to help survivors to leave abusive environments, mental health and trauma counselling, and inclusive sexual assault centres that are accessible to all survivors
  • Counselling for the person who caused harm
  • Accountability efforts such as victim-offender mediation, community justice conferencing, workshops and training, removal from leadership positions, admission of guilt, public or private apologies, and specific behavioural changes.

Lola Olufemi builds on these ideas of accountability in Feminism, Interrupted

Instead of relying on the law, prison and police to rectify the harm committed by an individual, we undergo a process of community accountability. A group of friends, a church, an organisation come together and design a process to hold an individual to account without sending them away. This process might look like: community service, reflective practice, reaffirming commitment to values and practices, mediation, finding methods to cope with rage and shame, therapy, mental health support and trauma-centred programmes designed to identify the root causes of behaviour. In the case of sexual violence, often the criminal justice system can re-traumatise victims and survivors, asking them to rehash evidence of the violence inflicted upon them, subjecting them to cross-examination and to the scrutiny of the public.

Transformative justice seeks to build collective and communal support, intervention, accountability and transformation. These principles are formed by the contexts and communities the harm takes place in, while the response is flexible, specific to the needs of those harmed, and focused on lasting change and transformation. Additionally, these strategies require sustained commitment and long-term organising, rather than simply jailing someone.

An abolition framework also requires wealth redistribution so that no one is above accountability (like powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein), unionisation so workers are safe from retaliation after speaking up, rights for refugees and migrants so they can’t be threatened with deportation, universal basic income and better minimum wages so people don’t stay quiet for fear of financial consequences.

Prevention not punishment

It organises to build a world where prisons are not necessary. This means tackling the issues that put people in prison in the first place: racism, borders, drug use, petty fines. It argues for culturally competent, fully funded mental health services where they were most needed and for the decriminalisation of sex work and drug use. It trains mental health professionals and community members to intervene in violent situations and deescalate them before a ‘crime’ is committed. It is attentive to the concerns of communities, seeking to expand benefit, housing, social services, healthcare and education systems, engaging in political education and instilling a radical feminist ethos into every single person that comes under our care and protection. It campaigns against prison expansion, stop and search and mandatory conviction targets, fights the gutting of vital youth services, as well as all overt and covert methods of criminalisation.

Lola Olufemi: Feminism, Interrupted

The key to abolition is to reduce violence by reducing inequality. This redirects resources into preventing violence before it occurs, and addressing the root causes of problems. Prevention methods include investing in education, health, social housing and the creation of unarmed service teams to address mental health, drug-related crises and gender-based violence.

If our goal is not a better system of mass criminalization, but instead the creation of safe, caring, thriving communities, then we ought to be heavily investing in quality schools, job creation, drug treatment and mental health care in the least advantaged communities, rather than pouring billions into their high-tech management and control.


By shifting to a social perspective, social causes of crime can be addressed. This looks like improving quality of life, investing in strengthening communities, and decriminalisation of things that are only prosecuted when a marginalised person does them (see the video below for more information)