Berkeley Talks: Paul Butler on how prison abolition would make us all safer

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The United States now locks up more people than almost any country in the history of the world, and by virtually any measure, prisons have not worked, said Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University, during a UC Berkeley lecture in October. Instead, Butler advocates abolishing prisons and finding alternative ways to deal with those who cause harm — something that he says would create a safer, more just society.

“Prison has been a miserable failure,” said Butler, also a legal analyst on MSNBC. “It doesn’t work. Most young people who come home from prison wind up right back there within two years. Prisons themselves are horrible places. They’re violent, they stink, they’re dangerous, they’re noisy. It’s really hard to leave a space like that better than when you came in.”

Butler, author of the 2017 book Chokehold: Policing Black Men, gave a talk called “Prison Abolition, and a Mule” on Oct. 16, 2019, as part of UC Berkeley’s Jefferson Memorial Lectures, sponsored by the Graduate Division. It was also part of the campus’s yearlong initiative, 400 Years of Resistance to Slavery and Injustice, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the forced arrival of enslaved Africans in the English colonies.

“So, what does prison abolition mean?” asked Butler. “Let me start with what it doesn’t mean. It does not mean opening every prison door tomorrow. Most abolitionists don’t think that we should storm the prison and let everybody go home tomorrow. Think of it as a process of gradual decarceration with the goal of finding how close we can get to completely eliminating incarceration while finding alternative means of accomplishing any of the possible benefits of prison.”

Watch or listen to past Jefferson Memorial Lectures on the Graduate Division’s website.

Find upcoming events related to the 400 Years initiative on the Othering and Belonging Institute’s website.

This lecture was recorded by Educational Technology Services and produced by University of California Television, a public-serving media outlet featuring programming from throughout the University of California. Watch a video of the lecture below.

Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University and author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men, gave a lecture in October 2019 as part of UC Berkeley’s Jefferson Memorial Lectures and the 400 Years of Resistance to Slavery and Injustice, a yearlong campus initiative. (Video recorded by ETS and produced by UCTV)


Also, watch an interview with Butler on Conversations with History, an interview program created, produced and hosted by Harry Kreisler, former executive director and current visiting scholar at Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies.


Harry Kreisler interviews Butler for Conversations with History. (Video recorded by ETS and produced by UCTV)