Tommie Shelby in conversation with Sandra Susan Smith

November 8, 2023

In his most recent book, The Idea of Prison Abolition, Professor Tommie Shelby chronicles his journey of earnestly, seriously, and critically considering the major arguments in favor of prison abolition, including incarceration’s ties to slavery, racism in the prison system, inequities in the criminal legal system more broadly, and the exploitative control of the wider prison industrial complex. As much as Shelby’s book ultimately offers a critique of prison abolition, it is also an entreat to readers and critics “to take seriously abolitionist objections to the practice of imprisonment, even if they don’t agree.” Professor Shelby’s writings recognize that prisons are dehumanizing, unjust, and immoral—that they create conditions that embed and entrench racism, enable political repression, and that justice demands sweeping change. Professor Shelby discussed what he finds valuable in abolitionist thought and praxis, where his disagreements or departures lie, and where abolitionists and reformists could converge in redressing structural injustice and envisioning and building a radically transformed future.


Tommie ShelbyTommie Shelby is the Caldwell Titcomb Professor in the Department of African and African American Studies and the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University, where he has taught since 2000. He first became interested in philosophy and in the world of ideas more generally at Florida A & M University, and earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh (1998). His newest book is The Idea of Prison Abolition (2022), which is based on his Carl G. Hempel Lectures delivered at Princeton University in 2018 and which was co-winner of the 2023 David Easton Award from the American Political Science Association. He has also authored Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform (2016), which won the 2018 David and Elaine Spitz Prize for the best book in liberal or democratic theory and the 2016 Book Award from the North American Society for Social Philosophy, and We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (2005), which was recognized as a 2005 best academic book by New York magazine and a New York Times Editors' Choice. His research and teaching interests include social and political philosophy, Africana philosophy, philosophy of law, critical philosophy of race, history of Black political thought, and philosophy of social science. 

Moderated by Sandra Susan Smith, Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice; Faculty Director, Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management; Director, Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy.