Book Review: “Free Them All” — The Case for Abolishing Prisons

By Bill Littlefield

Free Them All’s analysis of the broken prison system and the obstacles facing those determined to find solutions combines scholarly discipline with a powerful, emotional appeal for justice.

Free Them All: A Feminist Call To Abolish the Prison System by Gwenola Ricordeau. Translated by Emma Ramadan & Tom Roberge. Verso, 182 pages.

Throughout her argument that prisons should be abolished, Sociologist Gwenola Ricordeau reminds the reader that “penal abolition can only be ‘unfinished.” In the epilogue, she acknowledges that “we are making our way toward a destination that is somewhat hazy.”

Some of Ricordeau’s objections to the institution of prison are central to any argument for the abolition of the carceral system. Recidivism statistics demonstrate that many people who are incarcerated at all levels return to prison after they’re released: one bit of evidence that prisons don’t work.  There’s no good evidence the threat of prison deters criminal behavior in the population as a whole. The institution of prison invites and facilitates mistreatment of the incarcerated and dehumanizes those in charge. Prison reinforces racism. The system that sends men and women to prison is spectacularly unjust, erratic, and fallible, not only in terms of policing and sentencing, but with respect to determining guilt. A prison sentence is the end result of this shaky process. The reliance on private prisons has added additional levels of corruption and profiteering to the enterprise.

In addition, Ricordeau posits a concern that “the criminal justice system’s handling of a problematic situation means the community loses the opportunity to change the social conditions that made the conflict possible in the first place.” This point dovetails with the growing movement to reassign various functions that are currently the responsibility of the police to more appropriate, less aggressive, less well-armed agents and entities.

Ricordeau adds a provocative twist to the debate. She warns that feminists must understand the complexity of the battle. Though it might seem natural for the latter to insist that harsher sentences be handed out to men who rape or otherwise abuse women, Ricordeau regards that position as over simple. Her concern seems to be that the demand that some especially vicious and misogynist men (“the dangerous few”) should be locked away forever undercuts the larger goal of abolishing prisons. She is especially concerned that groups agitating for the end of  prison don’t sufficiently acknowledge the emotional and financial difficulties experienced by the victims, but also by the families of men and women who are incarcerated. Ricordeau contends that those families must be included in the fight to abolish prisons and goes on to point out that the same is true for people marginalized within prisons and outside of them.  As she puts it: “Abolitionism must be feminist and queer, by incorporating feminist and queer analyses and by providing solutions to the large-scale victimhood of women and LGBTQ people, as well as to the forms of criminalization they suffer.”

Toward the end of Free Them All, Ricordeau discusses various alternatives to the current carceral state: Restorative justice, Reparative Justice, Transformative Justice. She writes of the benefits of each and the challenges each approach faces.

Readers looking for a direct route toward the abolition of prisons may be disappointed with Free Them All, but Professor Ricordeau’s analysis of the absurdities of the system and the sizable obstacles facing those determined to find meaningful solutions combines scholarly discipline with a powerful, emotional appeal for justice.

Bill Littlefield volunteers with the Emerson Prison Initiative. His most recent novel is Mercy (Black Rose Writing, 2022).

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