Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Kropotkin Now: The Case for American Prison Abolition

Some new prisons have been erected here and there, some old ones have been repaired; but the system, and the treatment of prisoners, have remained unaltered; the old spirit has been transported in full in the new buildings; and to see a new departure in the Russian penal institutions we must wait for some new departure in Russian life as a whole. (Kropotkin 23)

Kropotkin’s In Russian and French Prisons poses the question: are prisons necessary? Kropotkin argues that the Russian prison system of his time stemmed from archaic ideas of revenge, punishment, and fear-based deterrence, and if society was radically reorganized to eliminate poverty and live communally, we could prevent crime, causing prisons to become obsolete. Though written over one hundred and thirty years ago, Kropotkin's analysis of the relationship between crime, prison, and capitalism fits the twenty-first century Prison Industrial Complex. Applying Kropotkin’s analysis, we can see that crime in the U.S. is caused by poverty and a culture centered around individuality, both supported and intentionally utilized by the Prison Industrial Complex as a tool of a settler colonial capitalist state. To see a new departure from the American prison system we must wait for a new departure in American life as a whole.

The relevance of Kropotkin’s analysis of crime's relationship to poverty in the present day U.S. can be demonstrated through the examination of crime in formerly redlined neighborhoods. In 1989, D.C. became known as the murder capital of the U.S. D.C. has eight wards, Ward 3 being the richest, and Ward 8 (which was redlined as the Black population of D.C. increased during the Great Migration) being the poorest. Ward 3 has an average annual income of $210,694 and is 82.44% white (DC Government), while Ward 8 has average annual income of $39,473 and is 91.84% Black (DC Government). In 2019, Urban-Greater D.C. reported that Ward 3 had an average of 1.10 violent crimes and 24 property crimes per 1,000 people, which is notably less than Ward 8 which had an average of 10 violent crimes and 27 property crimes per 1,000 people. Ward 8 is largely a food desert, its schools are underfunded, and police are constantly patrolling. It is plagued by gang violence not because there is something wrong with the residents, but as Kropotkin writes, they were “abandoned amidst a population demoralized by a life from hand to mouth, the incertitude of to-morrow, and a misery of which no former epoch has had even an apprehension” (362). The residents of Ward 8 have little access to resources, and oftentimes the only way to make money is through criminalized practices. The differences between Ward 8 and Ward 3 are class, race, location, and policing. These statistics demonstrate that where there is extreme poverty, there is crime. If the residents of Ward 8 had the same resources as the residents of Ward 3, the crime rates would even out.

Not only does poverty cause crime, under capitalism, poverty itself is a crime. There are an estimated 553,742 people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. (National Alliance to End Homelessness). Unhoused people are on the street for a variety of reasons, most obviously because they don’t have the resources to afford housing or because they need professional help they are unable to access.

34% of cities have city-wide bans on camping in public (which, depending on the city, can include everything from setting up temporary housing to simply sleeping outdoors), up 60% since 2011. Forty-three percent of cities prohibit sleeping in vehicles, up a whopping 119% since 2011. And 53% of cities make it illegal to simply sit or lie down in public, a 43% increase since 2011. (Coalition on Human Needs)

These laws create an impossible trap for people experiencing homelessness. Often unable to get jobs due to the lack of essential resources, (the technology to write and create resumes, bathrooms to meet socially acceptable hygiene standards, and transportation), they are unable to make enough money to afford housing and escape homelessness. This forces them into a constant state of breaking laws they are physically unable to abide by. When confronted by police, homeless people acquire fines they are unable to pay, are arrested and held because they are unable to make bail, or harassed and beaten further into a state of despair.

If poverty itself is functionally illegal and the state intentionally creates and maintains poverty, it is clear that law is not a judgement of morals but rather the way through which the bourgeoisie maintains existing class relations to hold a monopoly on resources and power. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault states that in eighteenth-century Europe, during the transition between feudalism and capitalism, there was a shift in economic organization that led to a shift in crime and punishment. The nature of crime changed from a singular criminal committing violent acts to an organized group committing what came to be known as crimes against property. The destruction of private property threatened the wealth of the rising bourgeoisie class. Punishment then shifted to concentrate on the deterrence of property crime and the rehabilitation of the criminal back into the place of an exploitable worker. Though the prison was not a capitalist invention, prisons perpetuate the class divide to maintain the rule of the bourgeoisie who require labor providers.

That the law exists to protect bourgeois class interests is embodied by the connection between chattel slavery and the prison industrial complex. The Thirteenth Amendment states that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States” (U.S. Constitution, amend. 13, sec. 1). The U.S. became an empire from the labor of enslaved people, and the landowning white class cemented their class interest by maintaining free labor, ensuring that African Americans would not be able to gain capital. Directly after the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, vague laws were created criminalizing vagrancy, perceived disrespect, and loitering for the African American population. African Americans were sent to prison where they would be leased by companies. They would then be sent to labor in mines, plantations, and lumber camps where they were starved, chained, and beaten, replicating the structure of slavery.

A specific example of how the law was used to replace the labor lost through the abolition of chattel slavery is Nixon’s targeted criminalization of poor Black communities through the War on Drugs. In 1968 the anti-war and Black liberation movements were active and building power. They directly confronted American capitalism. John Daniel Ehrlichman, Counsel and Assistant to Nixon, stated:

We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities (Vera Institute of Justice).

Drug laws were enacted specifically against poor Black people in the 1980s with disparate laws enacted for crack and cocaine. For instance, the distribution of 5 grams of crack and 500 grams of cocaine carried the same minimum sentence (ACLU), even though they are the same drug. Crack is cheaper but not more addictive, as the policy makers at the time claimed. The Nixon Administration’s attack on the poor Black community through the War on Drugs and subsequent racialized drug laws perfectly depicts how laws are written to criminalize already poor populations.

The above illustrations of the ways that poverty is legally criminalized further supports the previous assertion that the prison industrial complex exists to replace the economic gain of slavery through the super exploitation of Black people in order to maintain capitalism. Today prisons are a way to keep people poor by removing them from the work; discriminating against them when they return to society; and using them for cheap or free labor to generate wealth through private companies. In this way, prisoners provide a workforce that is able to maintain the economic growth required to sustain capitalism that was cultivated on the plantation but lost after abolition. Therefore, criminalizing poor populations to increase prison labor maintains racial capitalism and inherently serves the interests of the bourgeoisie.

Crime is caused by poverty, and the prison industrial complex not only perpetuates poverty but creates it in order to maintain racial capitalism. Prisons, therefore, do nothing to eliminate or even reduce crime. Though Kropotkin’s analysis must be expanded to fit the prison industrial complex’s racial origins and repressive strategies, his proposed solution applies. To abolish poverty and therefore eliminate crime, society must be centered around mutual care and shared responsibility, taking a radical reorganization that requires the elimination of capitalism. The majority of people in the U.S. prisons are in need of resources and community care rather than punitive justice.

We live now in too much isolation. Everybody cares only for himself, or his nearest relatives. Egotistic-that is, unintelligent-individualism in material life has necessarily brought about an individualism as egoistic and as harmful in the mutual relations of human beings (Kropotkin 367).

Kropotkin points to the Slavonian and Swiss agrarian communes as societies in which prisons are obsolete because they are based on mutual care; citizens of those communities know each other personally and have a sense of shared responsibility. A present day example of a society centered around mutual care using restorative rather than punitive justice is Rojava. Rojava, also known as The Autonomous Administration of North and East, is an anarchist autonomous zone in northern Syria that gained its de facto autonomy in 2012 during the Syrian Civil War and ongoing Rojava conflict. Rojava is a democratic confederalist state, which can be defined as stateless democracy. The justice system of Rojava has multiple structural levels, the first being the communal level in which Peace and Consensus Committees operate. The Peace and Consensus Committees resolve cases of criminality, and the committee's goal is to reach social peace through consensus. The person accused of committing harm is made to reckon with the harm they have caused through mediated dialogue amongst the parties with the aim of reconciliation. Instead of incarceration (which the Peace and Consensus Committees are not authorized to do), a solution is proposed by the committee. If all parties consent to the solution, it is written and signed by everyone involved in the conflict. If a solution can not be reached through dialogue, the issue is presented to the Peace and Consensus Committee on the neighborhood level. The procedure is similar to that of the communal level and the goal is to remedy the harm and settle the conflict through consensus. If the conflict can’t be resolved, it goes to the people’s courts, whose members are elected by those in the area. This is a brief overview of Rojava’s justice system, and it is not flawless. Rojava demonstrates that it is possible and desirable to live in a post-capitalist society in which restorative and transformative justice are enacted with the goal of living peacefully in community with one another.

In contrast to the community-based nature of Rojava's political structure, individualism is a corrosive thread sewn through the heart of capitalism and American culture. The American revolution was founded on classical liberalism with the ideals of individual liberty and the free market at its core. Today the individualism of American capitalism manifests as dominant neoliberalism, bootstrap theory, and the American dream. Grasping individualist culture by its roots, we can see that the proposed progressive abolitionist ideas of diverting funds from police to social workers and state sponsored community outreach programs will fail to eliminate poverty and crime under capitalism. The criminalization of poverty is fundamental to the maintenance of capitalism; to abolish capitalism is to abolish the criminalization of poverty.

In opposition to state-sanctioned punitive justice, revolutionary organizations in the U.S. have countered poverty with mutual aid. When poverty has been met with mutual aid, we have seen time and time again that if people are given resources they will not need to commit crime to survive. Mutual aid is a system of power that helps communities rely on themselves rather than the government. A primary example of a system of mutual aid that served to build the foundations for a revolutionary reorganization of society is the Free Breakfast Program created by the Black Panthers in the 1970s. The Free Breakfast Program served breakfast to over 200,000 Black children from impoverished communities before they went to school. School teachers and administrators reported that the academic performance of the students who utilized the Free Breakfast Program significantly improved. The Panthers exemplified a successful endeavor to cultivate and institute a community-based mutual aid program that fulfilled a material need, food, created by poverty. Through building these systems of mutual aid that allow communities to be dependent on themselves rather than the state for their basic needs, the foundations for the revolutionary reorganization needed to abolish the prison industrial complex and eliminate crime are laid.

The above analysis has illustrated that no matter what the causes of crime are, we can conclude prisons are not aiding in the prevention or elimination of crime. Poverty results in the need to commit crime to obtain basic material needs, and the law is created to maintain poverty through criminalizing it. This dynamic creates a vicious cycle where to be poor is to be criminalized and to be criminalized is to be poor. The law maintains this link between crime and poverty in order to increase the prison population and prison labor, and subsequently maintain racial capitalism and serve the interests of the bourgeoisie. Therefore, prisons are not the avenue through which crime will be eliminated. As Kropotkin asserts, humans are social creatures; we must bond with each other to survive. When we live in communities where we care for each other, where we are supported, where we see our communities as a part of ourselves, we are far less likely to be violent with each other. Therefore, enacting systems of mutual aid and restorative justice rather than relying on punitive measures that serve the interest of the bourgeoisie, is what is needed to achieve a peaceful existence rather than one defined by violence and crime.



“ACLU History: Black America: Casualties of the 'War on Drugs'.” American Civil Liberties Union, 1 Sept. 2010,

“Census and Demographic Data.” Census and Demographic Data,

“Data Explorer.” Urban, violent_per1000&topic=safety&year=2019.

“Drug War Confessional.” Vera Institute of Justice,

Imbery, Lecia, et al. “Fact of the Week: More U.S. Cities Have Made It Illegal to Be Homeless.” Coalition on Human Needs, 20 July 2018,

Kakaee, Miran. “Democratic Confederalist Approaches to Addressing Patriarchal Violence within the Justice System.” Capitalism Nature Socialism, vol. 31, no. 4, 2020, pp. 23–33.,

Kropotkin, Peter. In Russian and French Prisons. Schocken Books, 1971.

Pellizzari, Taylor. “The Radical History of the Free Breakfast Program.” Groundviews Blog, 14 Sept. 2020, Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

“The State of Homelessness in America.” National Alliance to End Homelessness, 27 June 2019, melessness-report-legacy/.

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