Prison Abolition Vocab


Prison Abolition Vocabulary List


The rich history of talking, organising and writing around prison abolition offers us all an opportunity to expand and enrich collective conversations & organising with new concepts and vocabularies. See below an overview of common words and phrases used by grassroots organisations, community people, other activists, scholars, etc who are busy working towards the closure of prisons and the transformation of the criminal “justice” system. This list is offered as a support resource to promote new and/or supplement existing queer education and action around prison abolition.  


— Prison abolition —

Prison abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, detention, policing and surveillance while creating lasting alternatives to punishment and incarceration.

From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives. Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.

Abolition means a world where we do not use the prison industrial complex as an ‘answer’ to social, political, and economic problems. Abolition means that instead we imagine and create new ways to stop harm from happening. It means responding to harm when it does happen, without simply “punishing.” We will try to fix the causes of harm, instead of using the failed solution of punishment. This means harm will occur far less often. This is often called “harm reduction.” We will not use policing, courts, and prisons, which are making us less safe. Abolition means creating sustainable, healthy communities with the power to create safety.


Abolition is not just about closing the doors to violent institutions, but also about building up and recovering institutions and practices and relationships that nurture wholeness, self-determination, and transformation. Abolition is not some distant future but something we create in every moment when we say no to the traps of empire and yes to the nourishing possibilities dreamed of and practiced by our ancestors and friends. Every time we insist on accessible and affirming healthcare, safe and quality. Building an Abolitionist Trans and Queer Movement education, meaningful and secure employment, loving and healing relationships, and being our full and whole selves, we are doing abolition. Abolition is about breaking down things that oppress and building up things that nourish. Abolition is the practice of transformation: in the here and now and the ever after.

Adapted from Dean Spade, Morgan Bassichis and Alex Lee, Captive Genders (AK Press, 2015) Chapter 2

The harm of the prison system isn’t just inside the grey buildings and huge walls. Its web of violent interrelationships entangle prisoners, their families, lovers, friends and communities the world over. As a collective we oppose both state and private prisons and we would like to illustrate how these are connected, and how prisons are used as a tool worldwide for social control and repression.


— The Prison Industrial Complex or PIC — 

The Prison Industrial Complex or PIC is a broad term used to describe and make visible the complex relationships between Government and private companies that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. It maintains, reinforces and replicates damaging stereotypes and inequalities that describe the least resourced communities and individuals as criminal, delinquent or deviant.

The PIC means the physical buildings that warehouse people. It covers public and privately run prisons, jails and detention centres. The Prison Industrial Complex also reveals how Government and corporations work together to control, punish and destabilise the least resourced individuals and communities and/or those most vulnerable to detainment – such as remote and urban indigenous communities; new immigrants; low income LGBTIQ+ people; people sleeping rough; young people at risk; street-based sex workers and those experiencing significant mental health challenges or struggles with alcohol or other drugs.

The PIC is a system of control involving local and global relationships when understood as a complex whole, represent a multi-billion dollar industry with enormous political power. These relationships reflect the links between the police; immigration enforcement and detention; surveillance; probation services; the courts; and all businesses that profit from public or privatised mass incarceration and detention within a country or across international borders. The Prison Industrial Complex also includes how the news, TV networks and film industries show/describe deaths in custody, “crime” and “criminals” and the legitimacy (or lack of) given to social and political dissent by oppressed communities that demand self-determination. Protest the closure of schools, shelters, half-way houses and the erasure of legal aid and other community-initiated projects. And demand justice systems that are not anchored in exclusion, imprisonment and detention.


Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press NY, 2003).


(Click image for link to larger copy) Infographic source: Source –


— The Prison Industrial Complex and Colonisation —

The Prison Industrial Complex is viewed as a colonising project in two main ways. Firstly, the criminal justice system was historically used as the enforcement arm of colonial authority and contemporary practices of criminalisation and imprisonment have been understood as part of the ongoing processes of colonisation in Australia. Practices of criminalisation and imprisonment engage the same logic and practices of rule as colonisation and involve the violent control and segregation of Indigenous communities, the removal of people from their countries and families, and the denial of self-determination for Indigenous peoples. Secondly, in its operation in the United States, the Prison Industrial Complex has been described as “an internal colonizing project that extracts free labor from poor communities, largely of color”.

Reference on the United States:

— Criminal “Justice” System —

The criminal justice system refers to a range of bodies and processes involved in administering criminal “justice” including police, the courts, prisoner transport, prisons, probation and parole officers, diversionary schemes like the cannabis cautioning scheme, and special warning, caution and conference schemes for young people. It can also include organisations such as private security or public transport officials who hand people over to the police. The term justice is included in scare quote marks to indicate that there is no agreement about whether the system seeks or provides justice. This is why some people use the term ‘criminal legal system’ instead. On the term “criminal legal system” see

— Criminalisation —

Criminalisation is the process through which actions become viewed and treated as ‘criminal’. Actions become crimes only after they have been culturally or legally defined as crimes.

Policing practices can be used to make people and communities appear criminal, even when  their activities are not legally regarded as crimes. For example, police practices of arbitrary stop and search may treat individuals occupying public space as criminal. In Australia and in other countries police stop and search practices have been used to criminalise racialised individuals who are subject to disproportionate police intervention in the street.

The term criminalisation is used to draw attention to the social and legal processes that define particular activities as criminal, and move away from seeing particular activities as inherently criminal. Thus, debates on drug law reform refer to the criminalisation and decriminalisation of drug possession.


— Justice Reinvestment —

Justice reinvestment is a criminal justice approach that diverts a portion of funds spent on imprisonment to local communities where there is a high concentration of offenders. Money that would have been spent on imprisonment is reinvested in programs and services that address the underlying causes of crime, build local capacity and strengthen communities. The first major trial of justice reinvestment in Australia is in Bourke.

For more information see and ABC 4 corners documentary “Backing Bourke”

— Privatisation of Prisons —

“Privatisation means that multinational companies profit from the prison system in nearly all ways, from electronic tagging to running prison themselves. Profit is priority above harm reduction and when a company is paid for how full their prison is, the investment in rehabilitation is clearly running opposite to business goals. Thousands of prisoners are also employed producing goods for private sector companies through mainly menial labour such as packing headphones and boxes.”

Extract from

Immigration detention centres are a prominent example of privatisation with many detention centres across the world being managed by private companies such as Broadspectrum (who manage Australian detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island).


— Recidivism —

The term recidivism refers to the likelihood of a person committing additional criminal acts, particularly acts of the type for which they have previously been convicted. It is commonly used as an indicator of the effectiveness of particular punishment or rehabilitation strategies (eg reports often talk about the ‘risk of recidivism’ after a sentence of imprisonment or after a prisoner participates in a program such as anger management, drink driving, sex offending). It is also often used to analyse the likelihood of repeat offending by specified groups from prison (eg reports may comment on the comparative risk of recidivism on the basis of gender and so on).

One of the problems of using the risk of recidivism as a test of the effectiveness of a particular punishment strategy is that it is sometimes used in an uncritical manner which does not take account of social and economic factors that confront prisoners on release, nor of the stigma attached to offending. In other words it treats criminal offending as a problem of the individual and ignores the role society plays in producing “criminals”. The limits of utilising the risk of recidivism as a framework for evaluating punishment thus reflect underlying tensions in understanding of what causes crime. It connects with debates on the relationship between social realities (such as the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples, poverty, overpolicing) and who and what is treated as criminal.


— Restorative justice —

“Restorative Justice is a philosophy and a social movement which provides an entirely different way of thinking about crime and victimization. Our current retributive justice system focuses on punishment, regarding the state as the primary victim of criminal acts and casting victims and prisoners in passive roles. Restorative Justice, by contrast, focuses on healing and rehabilitation. It incorporates a strong human rights analysis that emphasizes the factors of race and class in the over-incarceration of people. It assumes that the persons most affected by crime, victims and offenders, should have the opportunity to become involved in resolving the conflict. The goals of restoring losses, allowing prisoners to take responsibility for their actions, and helping victims move beyond their sense of vulnerability stand in sharp contrast to the conventional focus on past criminal behavior and increasing levels of punishment.”

Extract from: How Can Restorative Justice Change the Criminal System?

“To date, restorative justice in Australia has been used to deal almost exclusively with offenders who have admitted to an offence (Daly 2001). It can and has been employed at most points of contact with the criminal justice system. For example, it can be used by police to divert offenders away from court (eg youth conferencing), by courts as a sentencing outcome (eg referral to conferencing) or as a means of arriving at a sentence (eg circle and forum sentencing), or following release from prison (eg victim–offender mediation).”

Extract from the Australian Institute of Criminology

In practice one of the limitations of restorative justice processes is that it relies on actors in the criminal justice system (eg police, courts) to refer individuals to the restorative justice program, and thus risks reinforcing institutional favour towards majority groups receiving the benefit of diversionary programs. The restorative processes themselves such as conferences can also assume that participation is on a level playing field, ignoring differences in power between participants, and at the same time making the selective enforcement of law less visible.


— Transformative justice —

Some organisations and social movements use the term ‘transformative justice’ or ‘healing justice’. These terms are used to mean many different things. One approach is articulated by Generation Five, parts of which are extracted below:

“For the Left to accomplish its vision of a just world, we must develop a liberatory response to intimate, interpersonal, and community violence. The daily reality of such violence prevents people and communities from imagining and participating in the creation of a more just world. Without a just world, people cannot find healing and safety. Developing a radical response by Left social movements to all forms of violence opens the opportunity to heal the trauma of past violence, reduce the level of violence we experience, and mobilize masses of people for fundamental social change … Transformative Justice responds to the lack of—and the critical need for—a liberatory approach to violence. A liberatory approach seeks safety and accountability without relying on alienation, punishment, or State or systemic violence, including incarceration and policing.” (Extract from: )