Can incarceration ever be just?

Philosopher Tommie Shelby pushes me to question my abolitionist convictions.

In The Idea of Prison Abolition, Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby asks whether incarceration can ever be just, either in an unjust world such as ours or in a fully just society. He shows his cards early, writing on page 4 that after using all the philosophical tools in his toolbox, he favors prison reform over abolition, believing that there is a way in which prisons can be just. I do not come to the same conclusion, even after reading Shelby’s book twice. But I find his arguments thought-provoking, particularly for the questions they inspire about the nature of the debate between prison reform and prison abolition.

Shelby begins by introducing the debate between reform and abolition, noting that he will approach the question philosophically and in dialogue with other thinkers, especially prison abolitionist Angela Davis. Shelby’s engagement with Davis, which runs throughout the book, is thoughtful and respectful. He states early on that while Davis is often treated as a hero who shouldn’t be argued with, he finds her deserving of “the same kind of critical but respectful engagement that distinguished male or white philosophers regularly receive.” He spends significant time coming to terms with Davis’s idea of incarceration as political. He also explores how incarceration is connected to slave narratives and to Black radical thought, providing helpful background information.

Shelby lays out clear definitions of incarceration and prison. Incarceration, he writes, is a “hierarchical institutional practice defined by a set of rules, roles, and goals” that involves involuntary confinement in an enclosed space isolated from the rest of society and being placed in the “custody of carceral authorities.” By this definition, quarantining people with infectious diseases and holding enemy combatants in times of war are forms of incarceration—and, Shelby argues, they exemplify how incarceration can be legitimate. Prison, he explains, is a form of incarceration used for the purpose of punishment, which is “unwelcome and unpleasant treatment.”