Guest Post: Prisons don’t work; let’s stop pretending otherwise

'The rate at which incarceration has increased over the past 50 years is one this country’s greatest shames.'

The United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX). Fremont County, near Florence, Colorado.
The United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX). Fremont County, near Florence, Colorado. (Photo by jaygannett, Creative Commons, Flickr)

Colorado was in the news recently as commentators speculated where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman would serve his sentence. Several outlets pointed to ADX, the federal “Supermax” facility in Florence, and then went on to tout the prison’s defining features: small cells where inmates spend 96 percent of their day; levels of security and prisoners’ sensory deprivation that create conditions “worse than death.” Given El Chapo’s previous escapes from custody, the conceit seems to be that, finally, justice would be served. ADX exists precisely for monsters like El Chapo.

Yet, we know prisons do not work. In the case of El Chapo, reports related to the cartel leader’s initial capture suggest it is business as usual for drug trafficking in general and El Chapo’s absence has made things worse in Sinaloa. More to the point, what justice is served, what community benefits do we in Colorado, or anywhere in the U.S., derive from the trends in incarceration or the existence of prisons in the first place?

Data and analysis compiled across disciplines have long argued prisons are inherently inhumane and contribute to, rather than mitigate, the concerns they are charged with addressing. The rate at which incarceration has increased over the past 50 years is one this country’s greatest shames, a testament to institutionalized racism and xenophobia, to our failures to confront socioeconomic inequality, and to our endemic willingness to warehouse people considered threats to public safety and personal property rather than fostering accountability or solving the underlying problems that reproduce criminality.

Further, the prison system — which includes, at least, federal and state prisons, local jails, immigration detention facilities, as well as parole and re-entry programs — is an unsustainable money pit. The returns on this public investment are damaging and ineffective.

Angela Y. Davis diagnosed this disconnect between knowing what prisons are and a relative lack of intervention to improve or replace this system as, in part, negligence on the part of our collective imagination. Why our imaginations fail is perhaps not as important as whether we are able to revitalize them — and then start acting together and with greater focus to end a multigenerational crisis.

I’m endorsing no specific policy here. Instead, let’s jump start our creative thinking about ways to create a world with no prisons. First, it can be far more sustainable to be concretely for rather than simply against something. How would we need to treat one another? How would we, as individual local communities and larger, more abstract communities at state and national levels, come together to decide how to deal with those who violate community expectations, rules, and boundaries?

There are already dozens of ways communities and governments have begun to chip away at the perceived absolute necessity of prisons in this country. None of them will single-handedly undercut the notion that safety and security are contingent upon warehousing troublemakers. But each does a part to erode the “common sense” underpinning prisons. For example, look up what drug courts and mental health courts are doing to circumvent the imprisonment of drug law violators and those in need of mental health treatment. Look up groups and organizations that promote and train restorative justice philosophies. Look up advocacy for ending money bail or developing justice reinvestment or community justice planning. Look up community corrections as a solution in and of itself rather than a tool for parole and reentry. In Colorado, look at what Adams County is doing with the Safety and Justice Challenge program. Check out what Detention Watch is doing to disrupt ICE activities and the conditions in immigration detention centers.

Each of these provides jumping-off points for the imagination for considering communities where prisons are not the default and where those communities decide how to intervene and ensure its health and safety.  

With involved community creating their own systems of mutual aid and collaboration, it is within the bounds of possibility that one day prisons will no longer exist. This is the case because we will not only be committed to more humane solutions to social problems, but because the feeding grounds where exceptional figures like El Chapo make their way will have been plowed over and repurposed for something deliberately attuned to community needs.  

How many people are locked up in the United states
Colorado ranks around the middle in terms of number of incarcerated in the US; that puts CO on par with authoritarian states like Russia. (Graphic by the Prison Policy Initiative)

The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact or visit our submission page


  1. Mr. Proctor,

    Earlier this month Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán was found guilty on each of the 10 charges he was tried on including smuggling more than 200 tons of cocaine into the United States .

    In a world with no prisons what form of justice would Guzman be facing?

  2. In a common sense world, those like Guzman would be locked up in a secure place, but not in endless solitary confinement.
    Those with petty crimes would be in a less confined situation with learning how to get along in a society with rules. The German and Netherlands system works well.
    Hopefully we can finally treat mental illness before people harm themselves or others, are homeless and penniless, and unable to function in a normal world.
    The very worst part of our system is the profit making private jails, prisons and Community Corrections systems. All of our Colorado Community Corrections systems are for profit operations and can deny clients early release, or probation, by trumped up charges, against cooperative clients because they can depend on those clients to work and bring in money.
    Another problem is excessive fines for those who have no money. Then, the confinement becomes a “Debtors Prison”. That works well for the private system, but not for a taxpayer system, or the client.
    We can do more to work in constructive ways in communities where poverty , education and language are obstacles to success. Preventative medicine is always the best solution to any problem.

  3. Ms Hix needs more accurate sources before presenting. Community corrections providers in Colorado are predominately county or nonprofit owned and operated, provide early release for prisoners to attend their reentry programs and a diversion from prison for felony offenders of low risk, and have nothing to do with probation. Comcor clients must work and pay rent far below market rates, attend and pay token rates for professional therapies dealing with their psychological and criminological dysfunctions, and by applying themselves can work their way to non-residential status in three months. Comcor providers have no incentive to retain custody of any client; there are always more prison inmates waiting for acceptance and transfer than beds available.

    Jeffrey Mannix, Chairman
    Sixth Judicial Community Corrections Board
    Durango, Colorado

  4. It all depends on one’s expectations for what a prison should do. My expectation is that violent offenders will be segregated from the rest of society for a very long time, decades rather than years, and only released at all when they’re too old and frail to be a threat to anybody. I also expect, having once been an inmate in another state’s prison system, that violent offenders will be segregated from nonviolent inmates; administrative segregation certainly serves that purpose.

    I specifically reject the notion that there is any such thing as “treatment” for rapists and pedophiles, that would enable them to re-enter society without their predatory desires. Boulder Shelter for the Homeless currently houses seven of these individuals, who live under the same roof with the adult survivors (both male and female) of sexual violence. As a homeless man for a decade in that city, I can assure you that most homeless-on-homeless crime never gets reported to the police, and sexual predators in such an environment are living in their own version of Paradise.

    I don’t support vigilantism, but if I ever saw it I wouldn’t be inclined to report it.

  5. This read is a starting point to thinking outside of the prison system. ADX is basically an underground coffin. Rehabilitation and intergration back into society. Utilizing current program models and adopting alternatives to incarceration. Mentoring programs within the prison system is a model used in the state of Illinois. Thank you for this article. The increase of the prison population and recidivism is the data that proves that current rehabilitation model is not working.

  6. The State of Colorado made my son a FELON at 13 years old. He was a great, boxer, wrestler, maybe MMA fighter professionally and if he could have been mentored. He is now 28, Most of his life locked up.But instead their rehabilitation was to throw my child into incarceration. He has deep physical, emotional, mental problems and scarring. I should sue the hell out of Colorado Justice System in its entirety for reating a violent, gangster criminal out of my son. He is paranoid, has no social or life skills and they want to convict him more and put him in 23 hr lockdown indefinately?!! For the monster they created? What a shame. I should sue the whole lot of them for 15 years inhumane treatment of my son. For ruining his life!!!

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