Psychology’s own Ethical Standards Demand Prison Abolition

New work takes a closer look at psychology's troubling relationship with the criminal justice system and outlines a path toward abolition.


A new paper from researchers at the University of Denver examines what role psychologists can play in overturning the systems of oppression, inequity, and white supremacy perpetuated by the US criminal justice system.

Psychology and its subfields have long been complicit in systems of oppression, with ties to law enforcement, the police, and current immigration policies. Identifying specific areas of psychology that engage with “systems that have historically been a source of harm and a means for social control,” the authors argue that for psychology to move towards an authentically antiracist practice, practitioners must embrace an abolitionist framework.

Disability justice activists have long made the case that abolition must include psychiatry. Moreover, they maintain that abolitionists must remain vigilant against so-called ‘alternatives to incarceration,’ including house arrest, electronic monitoring, and community-assisted ‘treatment’ programs.

Others have critiqued the coercive practices endemic to civil commitment and forced hospitalization, which remain legal in the United States, although ostensibly outlawed under the UN’s Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Finally, with a heightened awareness of the racism that founds the US carceral state, professional psychologists and psychological organizations have begun to speak publicly about the role of the psy-disciplines in racial justice.

In June 2020, the APA released a statement and action plan to address social, economic, and political inequities in the U.S. ranging from health disparities to police brutality. In its statement, the APA acknowledged psychology’s role in perpetuating discrimination and articulated three “action steps” to guide the organization and individual psychologists in combating racism.

These steps included “reducing police violence against African Americans” and “addressing systemic and institutional racism.” The Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Ethnicity, and Race went further, explicitly adopted a supportive position for the Black Lives Matter movement, and opened a space for grieving the countless lives affected by systemic racism.

Other organizations were not so explicit or lofty in their aims. The Society for Police and Criminal Psychology, for example, stated in 202 simply that “this is a time for reform” but did not explicitly address police violence against the Black community.

Reflecting on this spectrum of responses, the authors argue that “abolitionist goals and objectives align well with those of psychology and … transdisciplinary work can inform an abolitionist lens in the field.”

“Abolitionism,” as the authors use it, relates specifically to the prison industrial complex. But, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.”

Here, the authors advocate changing both the focus and the entry requirements to the field of psychology, with a focus on more social justice-oriented practices of humanistic, community, and liberation psychology.

“With regard to racism and other forms of prejudice, psychology too often has encouraged people to become comfortable in their role of being oppressed and marginalized instead of empowering people to stand up to injustice.”

A version of psychology informed by critical race theory requires the extinction of terms like colorblindness and race-neutrality; it understands that racism in American society is “not limited to isolated cases of bigotry but instead infuses everyday life in mainstream institutions.”

The authors then point out multiple areas where psychologists specifically aid and abet racist systems of carceral control, including mental health courts, which expand the reach of the judicial system; immigration evaluations, which can result in detention or the denial of asylum applications; evaluations of parental fitness for the child welfare system, which has historically read Blackness and poverty as abuse and neglect; and “risk assessments” that determine whether an individual should be detained or allowed to await court proceedings in their community.

As the authors note:

“Some widely used psychological risk assessments have been found to lack significant validity with non-white individuals and communities or to be outright racially biased against non-white and non-U.S. born people.”

In each of these instances where psychologists play a role in law enforcement, there are opportunities to consider how psychological opinions are used for decision making and can therefore be complicit with the harms done by the prison industrial complex.

In all, establishing an abolitionist practice of psychology will require using the research and scholarship of the psy-disciplines to advocate for larger, systemic changes; changes that would “take steps toward creating the conditions that would make it possible … to one day give up our reliance on the PIC altogether.”

The authors conclude:

“By demanding that psychologists first think more broadly about the harm done by the systems of which we are a part and second to actively take steps to dismantle them, abolition is the necessary framework by which psychology will uphold several of its core ethical standards: beneficence, nonmaleficence, and respect for people’s rights and dignity.”



Klukoff, H., Kanani, H., Gaglione, C., and Alexander, A. (2021). “Toward an Abolitionist Practice of Psychology: Reimagining Psychology’s Relationship with the Criminal Justice System.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 61:4, 451-469. (Link)


  1. “psychologists [must] first think more broadly about the harm done by the systems of which we are a part.” Most definitely the psychologists are a huge part of the problems in our society today.

    For one, they have “partnered with,” and function as, the child abuse and rape covering up arm of the paternalistic religions. Which has left us all living in a pedophile empire,” with child sex trafficking and pedophilia running amok.

    Most definitely, psychology should “uphold several of its core ethical standards: beneficence, nonmaleficence, and respect for people’s rights and dignity,” since they’ve been, and still are, doing the opposite of upholding any of these ethical standards.

    For goodness sakes, their DSM “bible” is nothing more than a book of stigmatizations / defamations of character. And they’re now forcing – and disingenuously trying to force – those conservatorship/guardianship contracts onto people, to cover up the systemic fraud and crimes of all the so called “mental health professionals.”

    But I will remind them of a little slice of wisdom. “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” And I know from first hand experience that too many of the American psychologists want to “maintain the status quo,” and not get rid of their scientific fraud based DSM “bible,” despite it’s “invalidity” being admitted.

    While they also continue to deny the fact that the drugs they’ve been forcing onto innocent others create the symptoms of their “invalid” DSM disorders.

    I don’t personally agree with the WHO in regards to everything. However, I do agree MAJOR reform of the “mental health” industries is needed. This should begin with flushing the psychologists’ DSM “bible,” and setting up places where people can get real help weaning off of the psychiatric drugs, if they so choose.

    And personally I believe there’s a point in time when we realize the psychological and psychiatric industries have so betrayed the masses, that their power to force treat anyone is stripped from them. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power” has corrupted them absolutely. And we look to alternative voices to solve the societal problems, that the psychological and psychiatric industries have created.

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  2. Well,for one thing, when the inmate is incarcerated, he or she still receives a psychiatric evaluation (usually this happens in the pre-trial and trial phases, too.) Then, like many on the outside, he or she gets a psych drug prescription, goes to both individual and group therapy and convinced that he or she did this crime, because he or she is sick with a mental illness. In a system like this, there is absolutely no way recidivism is stopped or one learns not to do the crime again. It is way too easy to say it was because of some alleged mental illness than take responsibility for one’s criminal behavior. The inmate learns nothing and both the inmate and society suffer and suffer … Thank you.

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  3. Oh, by the way, abolishing prisons is stupid, foolhardy and dangerous. However, abolishing or ending psychiatry (psychology) is intelligent, wise, and healthy. It also will provide not only the freedom we crave, but the safety and security we need. The enemy is out there and it is psychiatry/psychology. Psychiatry/psychology probably kills more people in this country and the world than anything else. Please think twice before you abolish prisons (although they need to be humane places for the individuals to stay while doing their time) when it is psychiatry that needs to be end NOW! And I say this as a former correctional officer, a person with a degree in psychology, and a psychiatric survivor who almost died from the evils of psych drugs and therapies, etc. Thank you.

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  4. Here we have a perfect example of a piece of “scholarship” based on the new theories of Wokeness.

    As a framework for critique, Critical Theory and its corollaries might have its place. But as a basis for political action, it comes very close to the epitome of criminal thinking. And the paper’s authors, in pointing out how well they think psychology could support their goals, pull back the wizard’s black curtain to reveal the theoretical source of these broken ideas: Psychology.

    What “modern” psychology has given us is ZERO insight into the psyche, and thus ZERO insight into how to fix the criminality that plagues this planet. For all practical purposes, it instead suggests that we give up; “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

    Psychology was one of the earliest fields in the humanities to become infected by criminal thinking. It asserted that people were just animals and that the problems of the mind could be solved by neurologists. What a cop-out! Meanwhile, they helped governments and big business to find more effective ways to brainwash people.

    The only system to suffer more damage from criminal activity might be the criminal justice system itself. It has been broken for a very long time, because it deals directly with broken people.

    Today, we have enough knowledge to turn this scene around for real. But the people who want to keep it broken still have a lot of influence, and currently that is preventing any real improvement. Don’t believe them that we are “doing the best we can with what we know.” That is BS. The system is purposely being held down.

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  5. The APA destroyed all of their credibility and basically said out loud to the world “ethically we must do evil” by designing and implementing systems of torture for the US Military. The APA is irrelevant, another discredited, failed and corrupt institution. They at once did harm.

    I did a quick word search and didn’t find venture capitalist, hedge fund or militarism. Three examples that both destroy and unequally sustain mental health across the country and beyond. Not under consideration.
    But why not? They make money by locking up the world’s largest prison population, and keeping them locked up longer, and drugged.

    I did find the word poverty once in this oped which is curiously associated with one race. This sounds racist, or misinformed although I am sure the author didn’t intend it to be understood or sound this way.

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