Prisons Don’t Make Us Safer: Myths About Mass Incarceration

January 5, 2023 | Victoria Law

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I’ve been writing about incarceration and criminalization for nearly two decades.

Over the past several years, I have witnessed mass incarceration enter everyday conversations among people who have never been directly impacted. While there is increasing and wider-spread recognition that incarceration is a travesty—pre-pandemic, the U.S. had approximately 2.3 million people in jails and prisons—understandings about the drivers of the U.S.’s dubious distinction as a prison nation often fell back on popular (and inaccurate) myths.

I wanted to write a book dispelling popularly held myths. I wanted it to be both an easy-to-read primer for people new to the issue as well as a resource for those who want to learn more.

That led to “Prisons Make Us Safer”: And 20 Other Myths about Mass Incarceration. One of the most pervasive myths is that we need prisons to keep us safe(r). It’s a myth we’ve been fed since childhood from school seminars about safety, to crime shows and daily news hours. Every abolitionist has been asked, repeatedly, some variant of “How will we stay safe?” We have to remember that the United States contains less than 5 percent of the world’s population and approximately 25 percent of its prison population. If prisons kept us safe, then the U.S. should be the world’s safest nation. That’s obviously not the case, but we still have this persistent myth that without mass imprisonment we’d devolve into a nation of violence and chaos.

For the book, I drew from years of previous reporting, research, and writing about these issues—as well as correspondence and interviews with dozens of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people across the United States—to examine both these myths and their consequences. I shared draft chapters with the incarcerated people who participated to ensure that I wasn’t misrepresenting their observations, experiences, and analyses. Through the time-consuming process of back-and-forth correspondence, waiting on both prison mailrooms and post offices to deliver our letters, the incarcerated participants were able to preview how they—and their experiences—would be represented and were also able to comment and expand upon their original words. 

Debunking inaccuracies about the causes—and consequences—of America’s prison build-up became particularly important in the summer of 2020 when there was an explosion of movements and mobilizations to defund the police. Those newly galvanized in the fight for racial justice may understand that policing and prisons are related forms of state violence, but know much less about prisons, making them susceptible to some of the most pervasive myths about mass incarceration. I utilized the format of myths—and short chapters—so that the information was easy to read and share.

When the general public doesn’t understand the causes behind mass incarceration, they are vulnerable to believing myths that point the finger at entities that are parasites, but not primary drivers, of mass incarceration. They may then embrace proposals that don’t solve underlying (and structural) causes of harm and violence but instead reinforce the notion that prisons are necessary for personal and public safety and that entrench the surveillance, control, and captivity inherent in prisons into other forms in our homes and communities.

I end the book examining possible and proposed solutions. These chapters cover the popularly proposed myth that focusing solely on people incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes will end mass incarceration as well as examining (and debunking) myths about prisons’ effectiveness in preventing or addressing violence, including murder, rape, and child sexual abuse. I end by introducing readers to two methods of addressing harm, violence, and survivors’ needs without incarceration.

Restorative justice centers the victims and allows them to speak directly to the person who harmed them about the consequences of their actions and what the survivor wants to see from them. This typically involves a facilitated meeting in which survivors are able to talk about the long-lasting effects of the harm and what they need to begin healing, including actions the harm-doer(s) can take. The harm-doer is encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and work to repair the harm. In our existing court system, the person accused of harm is encouraged to deny, downplay, and dismiss the consequences of their actions.

Transformative justice goes deeper, not only centering survivors and their needs, attempting to hold harm-doers accountable for their actions, but also examining and changing the social and political conditions that enabled the harm.

Relying on mass incarceration hasn’t made our country safer. But, as I noted earlier, myths about mass incarceration continue to crop up and support solutions that further entrench racism, surveillance, and control in our societies.

Victoria Law’s book “Prisons Make Us Safer” and 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration was a 2022 Media for a Just Society Award finalist. You can read more about Victoria’s journalism and writing on her website,

This post is part of a blog series written by Media for a Just Society Award finalists and winners. Check back often to catch the latest.

Photo credit: Ricardo Horatio Nelson