Just Imagine

By Brinley Froelich

What Utah would look like without prisons.

The U.S. incarcerates more people than any nation in the world, including China…. In 2016, the Brennan Center examined convictions and sentences for the 1.46 million people behind bars nationally and found that fully 39%, or 576,000, were in prison without any public safety reason and could have been punished in a less costly and damaging way (such as community service).

—The Brennan Center for Justice (inspired by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr.’s devotion to core democratic freedoms)


When people first hear about the idea of prison abolition, their first response is often fear. “But what would we do about this person, or that person? What about those types of people?” they ask. Misunderstandings of how prisons and the police operate often lead us to believe they are the bedrock of safety and order. The system has become so normalized that we rarely use our imagination to envision alternatives. What might our world look like without them?

Imagination is a dynamic activity, which constantly needs to be exercised. Prison abolitionists use this as a tool to propose different ways of interacting with others in the world. When we rely on the prison system to keep functioning as is, we fail to use the full capacity of our imagination. There’s no telling whether abolition will happen in our lifetime, but many of us see it as a horizon to keep working toward. The abolitionists before the Civil War may never have thought they would see an end to chattel slavery in their lifetime, yet that didn’t stop them from constantly being engaged in that work.

So what would Utah look like if we had no prisons, no jails, not even police?

First let’s look at where we are today. Prisons take a “one-size fits all” approach, placing people out of sight and out of mind. We presume this isolation promotes public safety or even rehabilitation.

This fails to address the needs not only of the victim of a crime, but of the family or friends of the person who is locked away. Further, when you are put on trial, you are encouraged to remain silent or deny any wrongdoing to evade prosecution. Our approach to wrongdoings is essentially, “who did this, and how can we punish them?”

To shift out of that mindset, we could instead ask ourselves, “Who created this hurt, and what kind of obligations evolve from that?” Instead of seeking vengeance and punishment when a wrongdoing occurs, we could be grappling with questions about how we can repair harm, and what or who needs to be involved in that. We could re-examine what keeps us safe and encourage growth to those things that create community and interpersonal harmony.

We could almost completely eliminate what we consider to be crimes today by meeting people’s needs. In order to promote healing communities, we must also reconsider the language we use when we throw out words like “crime” and “criminals.” These labels are often used in a way that excludes people from our community. Before we can transform our framework, we must recognize that violence exists, everyone is capable of harm, and through accountable community work, we can resolve that through a variety of methods that meet the specific needs of each situation.

Utah without prisons, then, would look completely different from how we see it today. Here’s what I imagine. Reciprocity, rather than self-interest, is a primary motivator of actions. In general, our culture would shift from only looking out for our own to caring about everyone in our community. This kind of community would be inclusive and celebratory of differences. It would be the kind of community that recognizes that everyone is capable of harm, and it would be comfortable processing the ambiguity of different circumstances where harm is happening.

Quality healthcare, with preventive healthcare as a priority, would be accessible to everyone at no charge. Relationship skills classes would be taught in public schools, and therapy would be offered even to those who think they don’t need it. With drug use decriminalized, people who choose to use drugs would not have to suffer from social stigma on top of the potential effects of addiction.

Utahns could enjoy being in a place where everyone has a living wage. College, trade schools and universities would be free, with everyone encouraged to attend at any age. All debt would be eliminated. Food and shelter would be a right afforded to everyone.

Caretaking roles would be recognized economically as valuable to the community. Teachers and social workers would be paid significantly more, and domestic work would be seen as a necessity in this society. These kinds of careers would have economic and cultural incentives to encourage people to join their ranks.

I imagine every block in Utah with a community garden to encourage this shift out of isolation. I imagine these gardens as centers of creative participation. Think of the games, concerts, unions, classes, showers, funerals, or weekly dinners that could take place in these gardens. During the winter, a yurt or simple structure could cover the dormant soil, while neighbors could plan their plots together for the next season.

You might be wondering how we would pay for all of this. Consider that the prison relocation in Utah has a budget exceeding over $1 billion, and extra funding for the police during Operation Rio Grande cost around $67 million. This doesn’t even cover the day-to-day operations of the police, jails, courts or prisons.

The problem is not where the money would come from. The problem is our lack of imagination and willpower to assert that we have the tools to keep ourselves safe, and that we can determine the outcome of our own lives.

Brinley Froelich is  the co-founder of Decarcerate Utah. She is also a writer, yoga instructor and embroidery artist.

This article was originally published on December 12, 2019.