Prison Abolition–But Make it Indigenous  

By Isabel Coronado and Emily Kim 

Prison abolition is not a radical or new concept. Indigenous prison abolitionists have demanded an end to incarceration as early as 1492 when colonizers brought the practice of carceral punishment to the Americas. Although many people believe that prison abolition is impossible, Indigenous communities have deep experience with anti-carceral approaches to justice (please see the reading list at this link).

In California, the earliest incarceration systems were attached to the 18th- and 19th-century mission system, which included 21 prisons. Our federal government inflicted intergenerational trauma upon Native children during the Indian boarding school era when it ripped Native children from their homes and put them in residential schools to assimilate into European culture and customs. The violence did not end there. A recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs notes that “federal Indian boarding school rules were often enforced through punishment, including corporal punishment such as solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing.” 

Experts say trauma from the boarding school era has been passed through generations of Native families. They point to the lasting effects of historical trauma as causes of the high levels of PTSD, incarceration, violence, and poverty. These examples show that mass incarceration of Indigenous people has a deep historical context and impacts predating the War on Drugs that started in 1971.  

Currently, Indigenous abolitionists are discussing the link between prison abolition and the “land back” movement. Charles Sepulveda (Tongva and Acjachemen), an assistant professor at the University of Utah, writes that “to decolonize Indigenous lands, we must also abolish police and prisons.” Sepulveda explores how abolition and decolonization are intricately tied because they both imagine life outside of violence, land theft, and imprisonment–a life that may exist and move beyond white supremacy.  

Without prison abolition, the criminal legal system will continue to disproportionately harm Indigenous communities. The combined national and state rates of incarceration for Indigenous folks are 38 percent higher than the national average within carceral systems. Additionally, a report by the Lakota People’s Law Project finds that Indigenous men are incarcerated at four times the rate of white men, while Indigenous women are incarcerated at six times the rate of white women. Not only are Indigenous people incarcerated at disproportionately high rates, they are also, “sentenced to longer sentences than white people who commit the same crime.”  

The U.S. Sentencing Commission conducted a review over 10 years ago—but it resulted in few material changes. Native people made up 2.1 percent  of all federally incarcerated people in 2019, larger than their share of the total U.S. population, which was less than 1 percent. In South Dakota, the state with the fourth highest percentage of Native American residents, Native Americans comprise 60 percent of the federal caseload, but only 8.5 percent of the total population.  

In terms of young people, Native youth are over-represented in state and federal juvenile justice systems and are more likely to face harsher treatment in the most restrictive environments. A 2016 study found that American Indian and Alaska Native youth continue to have a 5-15 percent overrepresentation in states like Montana and North Dakota and more than 15 percent overrepresentation in Alaska and South Dakota. Native youth are 50 percent more likely than white youth to receive the most punitive measures. 

The prison system continues to perpetuate and inflict intergenerational harm on Native children today.  Twenty percent of Native children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. Parental incarceration impacts youth’s educational outcomes, physical/mental health, future financial earnings, and housing instability.  

As our criminal legal system has negatively impacted and targeted Indigenous communities across generations since its inception, it’s time to face the facts. The current U.S. prison system does not keep the public safe from “criminals” and “bad guys.” Public safety has not improved since the beginning of mass incarceration. In 2017, a review of “30 of the most rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental studies on the link between crime and imprisonment,” confirmed that there is no concrete evidence that prisons work.  

So, what is the solution to bringing crime rates down? Some research suggests community repair as the answer. A 2022 report states, “community repair calls for the use of publicly funded, community-led services to meet the economic, wellness, and social needs of systems-impacted families and their communities at-scale. [It] is a policy framework that not only seeks to meet the basic needs of systems-impacted families but is also a framework that calls for large-scale public investments to repair histories of systemic divestment and mass criminalization at the community level as well.”  

As Tynetta Muhammad from BYP100 said, “Indigenous resistance is created through wellness, community healing, liberation movements, and abolition of political prisons.” We demand that our policymakers and leaders abolish prisons and instead follow Indigenous anti-incarceration models that invest in communities, so that we may break the cycle of intergenerational trauma, give land back, and eliminate systemic barriers for Native communities to thrive. 

>> Read our indigenous abolition reading list with examples of indigenous anti-carceral approaches