Defining Zemia

Avi Boukli, The Open University


What is fascism?

A student asked me

and can you believe
I couldn’t remember
the definition?

 — Solmaz Sharif, from “Force Visibility”, Look: Poems, published by Graywolf Press 2016.


Zemiology, since its emergence at the start of the 21st century, has an ambiguous relationship with criminology. Whilst the tensions are often overstated, recent attempts to reconcile and harmonise these two perspectives are also problematic. In this brief blog spot, I focus on “zemia”, the central concept around which zemiology has been organised. While this is the first attempt to define “zemia” based on its historical and linguistic past in the context of zemiology, this current work is part of a larger project (Boukli 2019; Boukli and Kotzé in print).

Briefly, zemia can be approached in four different ways:

  • It can be taken to denote a communicative idea, thought, feeling or emotion.
  • Its meaning may be understood in relation to performative speech acts conveying wear, decay, attrition, wastage, lack, loss, disadvantage, bodily harm, damage, disaster, spoiling and debt.
  • It may be seen as being directly connected to criminal jurisprudence.
  • It may be seen as being directly connected to the practice or institution of punishment of a) crimes; and b) deviant transgressions, as well as to informal “punishment” in a less literal sense.

Current zemiological work fits most closely with the second category of the list above. Indeed, within this growing body of work copious references are made to various forms of financial, physical, psychological and environmental harms which impinge upon basic human needs and rights as well as earth’s well-being. This includes, but is not limited to, poverty, debt, malnutrition, inadequate housing, the proliferation of preventable illness and disease, pollution, destruction, accelerated animal extinction, resource depletion, genocide and numerous other deleterious events or absences that emanate from either too little or too much state intervention (Hillyard and Tombs 2007; Muncie 2000). Similarly, Tifft and Sullivan (2001:198) define social harms as “actions or arrangements that physically and spiritually injure and/or thwart the needs, development, potentiality, health, and dignity of others”. In other words, the perpetuation of social conditions that facilitate the proliferation of what Arendt (1958:134) has called the “waste economy” and of what Bauman (2004) subsequently refers to as the mass production of “human waste”.

While much of the social harm literature acknowledges the intellectual debt owed to early pioneers such as Sutherland (1945) and more recently Mathiesen (1986) and de Haan (1990), the intellectual debt evidently runs much deeper. Indeed, Plato follows the Socratic paradox, according to which no one causes harm out of their own will (οὐδεὶς ἑκὼν κακός). Rather, any form of harmful injustice emanates from ignorance, or by omitting to act or intervene (Plato 2000 Republic Book IX, 589c; Pemberton 2004). From this, it becomes obvious that the English word “harm” is not as conspicuously ambiguous as the Greek word “zemia”. Yet even with this ambiguity a few points of clarity can be teased out. Zemia is sometimes (quite commonly in Ancient Greek) used to mean (a) “make worse”. However, it is also sometimes used to denote (b) “hurt”. For instance, we may hurt someone without necessarily making them worse. We may “hurt” someone by thwarting them, by interfering with their interests, by making life somehow more unpleasant for them (e.g. by fining, by depriving them of drugs and cigarettes, by preventing them from drunk driving), but we do not thereby necessarily make them worse than before. For example, punishment could take the remedial form of treatment, which may actually do some good. That is, if zemia is used in this latter sense it is inflicted upon someone in order to make them better (Cross and Woozley, 1994:21-21).

Very much aligned with the speech acts outlined above in approach two, zemia, according to the Greek Neohellenic Lexicon by Aulos, denotes not only damage, but financial loss or deficit due to a “wearing down or decline” of some kind. Similarly, Aristotle distinguishes between kerdos (gain) and zemia (loss) and in doing so identifies the mean between these two poles as dikaion (just). Any deviation from the mean is to transgress an external standard of distributive fairness and therefore constitutes injustice. In this context, then, Aristotle asserts that gaining (kerdainein) more than one’s own share while causing another to suffer a loss (zemiousthai) is to commit an injustice (Balot 2001). As a result, at the very core logic of free-market competition lies zemia, animated by unrestrained competition and unlimited gaining with no social obligation.

Zemia is then linked to relational justice. For Aristotle, “justice is something in relation to some people” by which he means that it is not a characteristic of an individual but rather a characteristic of a good divided up by individuals, who stand in a certain relationship to one another (Balot 2001:27). This is particularly interesting considering our current socioeconomic immersion within an inherently exploitative capitalist system and its attendant dominant ideology of capitalist cruelty. Another reading of zemia makes this link between capitalist exploitation and harm a little more explicit. According to Allen (2000:69), zemia primarily meant “harmful loss” or “payment” and understood outside the context of punishment the word “linked the process of punitive exchange to the process of monetary exchange and to the status of citizens as economic actors”.

However, as intimated here, and articulated in approach three above, zemia can also be understood in the context of punishment. Indeed, Allen (2000) identifies a number of punitive words used in fourth century Greece to signify punishment, among which she notes the word zemia as denoting penalty. In this context, zemia and its cognate zemioo (verb, meaning to cause zemia) refer to the effect or consequence punishment has on the wrongdoer rather than a “set of relations between people or their roles in punishment” (Allen 2000:69). Allen (2000:174) further demonstrates the punitive tones zemia possesses by referring to Demosthenes’ (21.42) explicit description of laws as a codified delineation of how much anger should be ascribed to various wrongdoings: “Observe that the laws treat the wilful and hubristic wrongdoer as worthy of greater anger (orge) and punishment (zemia)”. Moreover, in Kata Agoratou, Lysias uses the term zemia in several places to denote punishment in either the form of fines or the death penalty. Similarly Xenophon, in Apomnemoneumata (3.9.10-3.9.13), uses the terms “imminent zemia” and “death is the zemia” to signify zemia as punishment in the legal sense. Crucially, in Protagoras Plato argues for the utilitarian efficacy of zemia/punishment by highlighting its seemingly reformative and preventative utility. The word zemia therefore means both penalty and punishment and refers to disparate sentencing practices from fines to death. Furthermore, the cognate word zemiotis (ζημιωτής) refers to the person who sets a penalty.

From this brief historical excavation of zemia’s deep roots we can see that zemia is the word missing from today’s puzzle. In a world of snap decisions, elections, connections and separations, zemia can encapsulate a wider range of meanings linking structural and interpersonal harms.


Photos © Avi Boukli

Forthcoming relevant publications:

Boukli, A. (2019) Zemiology and Human Trafficking, London & NY: Routledge.

Boukli, A. and Kotzé, J. (eds.) (In Print) Zemiology: Reconnecting Crime and Social Harm. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Do new laws on phone use whilst driving fully reflect scientific knowledge?

Gemma Briggs, The Open University


On 1st March, tougher penalties for hand-held phone use whilst driving came into force. Those who are caught now face a £200 fine and 6 points on their licence. On announcing the change in legislation, Transport minister, Chris Grayling claimed that drivers must “take responsibility” for their actions, making phone use behind the wheel as socially taboo as drink and drug driving. This is a message few would disagree with, yet the legislation it relates to misses one crucial point: hands-free phone use is just as distracting as hand-held conversations.

The difficultly with this issue is that people are often unwilling to believe that hands-free phone use is any different from talking to a passenger. I’m often asked if this research means drivers must travel in total silence to avoid distraction, or whether I’ve ever tried to drive with screaming kids in the back of the car – surely that’s more distracting than a simple phone call? Of course, any type of secondary task whilst driving can be distracting, but phone use seems to be qualitatively different due to where both conversation partners are: someone on the phone cannot see what the driver can, and therefore consistently demands their attention. A passenger, on the other hand, can see when the driver is facing a challenging situation and can stop talking, thus reducing the amount of information the driver needs to process.

Our research takes this a step further by investigating which aspects of a phone conversation affect driving. As we all have a limited amount of mental resources available to us when completing any task, speaking on the phone introduces competition between the two tasks for these resources: the cognitive resources needed for driving may also be needed for a phone conversation. When talking on the phone, drivers may create mental images of what the other person is saying, where they are and what they’re doing. If this is the case, the conversation could have a ‘visual’ element to it, meaning some of the resources needed for accurate visual attention whilst driving may already be in use for a phone conversation.

Using a hazard detection test, we measured driver’s reaction times to hazards and their eye movements. Some drivers were distracted by a phone task which sparked their visual imagination, and others completed a phone task which did not require imagery. A final group of drivers completed the task without any distraction. Unsurprisingly, we found that dual tasking drivers reacted to fewer hazards, and took longer to react to those hazards they did notice, than undistracted drivers. But, those who were distracted by a conversation sparking mental imagery were the most distracted. Of more interest to us was the finding that those distracted by imagery took longer than undistracted drivers to react to hazards that occurred right in front of them, in the centre of the driving scene, yet did not take longer to react to hazards in the periphery – to the sides – of the scene. This seemed odd, until we established a worrying trend: very few dual tasking drivers reacted to the peripheral hazards at all, suggesting they hadn’t seen them.

Eye-tracking data revealed that dual tasking drivers looked at an area of the driving scene around four times smaller than undistracted drivers – in fact, they tended to focus on a small area at the centre of the scene, largely ignoring what was happening at either side. But, even though they were looking directly ahead, dual taskers took longer to react to hazards presented at that point, and on occasion still missed them altogether!

Taking hazard detection and eye-tracking data together we were able to identify that dual tasking drivers can look at a hazard yet fail to see it, due to a lack of available cognitive resources.

So, having two hands on the wheel and two eyes on the road isn’t enough if a driver is distracted by a phone call. Essentially, distracted drivers can be ‘cognitively blind’ to important aspects of the driving scene, making them more likely to be involved in accidents which could affect both their own and others’ safety. Phone use behind the wheel should definitely be as socially unacceptable as drink driving, but legislation needs to recognise and acknowledge decades of scientific research which emphatically demonstrates that hands-free phone conversations pose a significant danger.


This blog post originally appeared on the Open University Centre for Policing and Learning blog, at:

My Life Began At Forty

As co-Directors of HERC, we’re delighted and privileged to publish this contribution from ‘outside’ the OU. As you read this stunning piece, you will understand why it absolutely belongs here. Vickie Cooper and Steve Tombs


My Life Began At Forty

Michael Irwin

On the 29th August 2007, prison officers in England and Wales went on strike. I only knew this when it was shown on BBC News as there were no staff on the wing. At the time I was on remand on HMP Lewes and decided there and then that the world had gone mad and that the general public should know what goes on in the institution of prison. I started to write with pen and paper and record the events that were unfolding on a daily basis. This has now been turned into a book called My Life Began At Forty.

I was arrested at Gatwick Airport on the 19th June 2007 with 1.1 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the lining of bag I’d collected in the Caribbean. At the time I was addicted to cocaine, and the alcohol intake was just as bad. After a few months of detox I got my half sensible head back on and started to write. I ended up receiving a twelve year sentence for drug trafficking, six in prison and six on licence and decided to put my ‘Time’ to good use.

I served my sentence in six different prisons starting at HMP Lewes then moving on to HMP’s Brixton, Rye Hill and Highdown in England and then transferred back home to Northern Ireland and HMPs Maghaberry and finally Magilligan. There are many prison books out there and one of the unique features of my story is that I served in two different jurisdictions and was able to compare and contrast as I progressed through the system.

It was Erwin James who once said ‘no one will fully understand the strength it takes to get through a day in prison.’ My story not only captures these struggles it also captures the battle that goes on within one’s self. It explores the mind numbing boredom of lock ups, the chaos of the wings, isolation and vulnerability compared to the endless illogical bureaucracy of a dysfunctional  prison and criminal justice system.

My book also tells of the struggle to gain an Open University Degree in prison. As a man in his forties (soon to be fifty), the education system in prison was not really set up for me. The education system is more to do with the tick box culture of getting half of the population to level one or two in basic maths and English. As far as the system goes in England and Wales, a prisoner must be serving a sentence of four years or more to even be considered for an OU degree. So, in a way I was lucky that I got a lengthy sentence.

I completed my OU openings course in HMP Rye Hill in 2008 and, due to a plethora of administration errors by the prison service (not the OU), it was only when I arrived in Northern Ireland in 2009 that I was able to start my first module, K101 (An Introduction to Health and Social Care). My book describes how on the one hand I got the most amazing support from the education department at Magilligan to the loathing of prison staff who saw me as a threat as I had half a brain.

My Life Began at Forty Cover.jpg

This of course was true in a way as the more knowledge I attained via my OU coursework the worse I got. The more I understood the angrier I got. I started to challenge and question policies and decisions designed to protect me under the alleged duty of care provided by the prison system. I became a mentor and a prison Listener which allowed me to see that my problems were not that great when compared to others. Considering the level of suicides in our prison system today my book gives a unique insight into how this develops, how it festers in the psyche and how unequipped the criminal justice system is to deal with social inadequacies in our society.

Before I went to prison I was living in Cape Town and living a hedonistic life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. My addiction spiralled out of control and my money dried up and ultimately led to my trip to the Caribbean. What my book also delves into is the fact that I had lost everything. It explores how a person has to deal with these harsh facts of life in a closed environment and how one lives a parallel life. Without the support of family and friends would I have made it?

These questions are asked and answered throughout the book, the goal posts continually shift over time, place and circumstance and illuminates how family ties and peer support are crucial when serving a prison sentence. I continually speak of family throughout the book and this brings the reader back into reality and perhaps thinking, could I do this, could I survive it?

It’s been ten years since I first put pen to paper. I scribbled on court benches, police cells and hospital beds. I typed it up when I had time and out of sheer tenacity I now have a finished product. My story is one of hope and how as human beings, even at the lowest of low, when there is no way out we can find the strength to dig deep, put one foot in front of the other, survive the day and get to the end. Several of the world’s top criminologists have already read the unedited version and suggested ‘for anyone studying criminology this is a must read. Get it out there Michael.’

I now have a BA (Hons) in Criminology and Psychological Studies from the Open University and an MSc in Criminology at Queens University Belfast. Next stop PhD. My message is simple ‘never, ever give up.’

As Friedrich Nietzsche stated “Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there is a mighty lord, an unknown sage – it is called Self; it dwells in your body, it is your body.”


Vickie Cooper and Steve Tombs added:

My Life Began At Forty will be published at the end of April. To pre-order at a discounted rate, go to and type in Michael Irwin. Michael can be contacted at

Britain’s dark history of criminalising homeless people in public spaces

Victoria Cooper and Daniel McCulloch, The Open University


Image source: özge çağla aktaş/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND


Since the onset of austerity in 2010, the estimated number of people sleeping rough in England has more than doubled, from 1,768 in 2010, to 4,134 in 2016. As the number of homeless people increases, while support services and hostels are diminishing, rough sleepers are becoming ever more visible in British cities.

But rather than finding ways to accommodate the homeless, the UK government has sought to criminalise them. From archaic vagrancy laws, to the more recent Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), governments have been passing new laws and reviving old ones which result in the punishment of people with no fixed abode.

People without access to land or property are denied the freedom to roam, sit, eat, wash or sleep in public spaces. Or, where local authorities do lawfully permit street homeless people to access and use public spaces (for homeless camps, homeless shelters or day centres), these sites are routinely monitored by criminal justice agencies, bringing the homeless under direct surveillance and control.

Modern day vagrants

The criminalisation of the homeless can be traced back to 1824 and beyond, when vagrancy laws were implemented to control the spread of “urban poverty” at the height of the industrial revolution. During this time, land privatisation was being rolled out on a mass scale, and hundreds of thousands of people who lacked the means to purchase property were displaced from their homes and prohibited from accessing the land they once lived on.


Sleeping outlawed. Image source: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums/Flickr, CC BY


Vagrancy laws criminalised access to land in cases where there was no contractual relationship, which gave police the power to arrest people who were not legally bound to property or land. These individuals were characterised as “incorrigible rogues” and “mobile anomalies” by the law, and punished with flogging, incarceration and even transportation to penal colonies such as Australia.

Fast forward almost two centuries, and these antiquated laws – and imperious attitudes – are still very much with us. In the period from 2006 to 2014, the number of court cases for “vagrancy-related offences” in England increased by 70% – from 1,510 prosecutions to 2,365. The most noteworthy cases involved three men who were very nearly prosecuted for taking food waste from a supermarket refuse bin, and an operation in Sussex involving undercover police, which led to the arrest of 60 rough sleepers for accepting money from the public.

Hostile streets

This is the work of successive governments. Civil orders introduced under Tony Blair to target “street-crime” effectively led to a clampdown on begging, which sanctioned homeless communities en masse. When the coalition government came to power in 2010, these civil orders were amended to give local authorities even greater powers over what people do in public spaces.

In particular, Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), brought in under the 2014 Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, allowed local authorities to enforce on-the-spot fines for certain activities. Predictably, local authorities are applying these new powers to target homeless people by sanctioning what they do in public spaces: street drinking, begging, camping in parks, defecating and urinating and in some cases even sleeping.

Not only do PSPOs criminalise the homeless, they also make these tactics appear as a local response to a perceived problem and avoids the exposure and opposition which national measures usually invoke. Yet PSPOs are not a local response: their use is widespread across England, and it’s increasing, with one in 10 local authorities now using PSPOs to criminalise homeless people.

To make matters worse, private owners of commercial land are boarding-up shop doorways, erecting spikes and using possession laws to forcibly remove the homeless from commercial spaces.

The fight for the right to exist

Yet there have been moments of resistance against these anti-homeless measures. Both campaigns by organisations such as Liberty, and individuals like the family who placed cushions over anti-homeless spikes in Manchester, are challenging the punitive measures adopted by local authorities. In some areas this has led to the successful withdrawal of PSPO proposals.

In austerity Britain, these movements are gathering momentum and stirring up indignation about the uneven distribution of wealth, property and land. Some resistance movements are even occupying empty properties to make space for homeless people and homeless communities themselves are documenting their own daily struggle as they fight for the right to exist in public spaces.

Homelessness itself is not yet a crime, but anti-homeless laws and strategies are restricting homeless people’s freedom, and turning everyday activities into punishable offences. Yet survival defines the daily lives of homeless people, and in the face of oppression they will find new ways to expose the violence and prejudice they encounter in the every day.


This article was originally published in The Conversation, at:

How the last man to see Sylvia Plath alive was punished for his quiet homosexuality

Christopher Bissell and Avi Boukli, The Open University


At the start of LGBT history month in February, the government announced it would pardon 49,000 men of sexual offences for homosexuality. While this is an important nod to justice, it is also a reminder of everyday injustices suffered by LGBT people in Britain when it was still a crime to be gay.

Nearly 50 years ago, in July 1967, the government voted to partly decriminalise homosexuality for men over 21-years-old. The illegality of homosexuality had ruined countless lives and careers – even of those who were not actually convicted of a crime.

One of those who fell foul of the law two decades earlier was the distinguished art historian and curator of Leicester Art Gallery, Trevor Thomas. His story is indicative of how others were treated and cautionary of how current injustices inflict harm.

Thomas was a great supporter of German expressionist art, which ultimately resulted in Leicester possessing the best collection in the UK – around 500 pieces. In 1944, he organised a renowned exhibition at the Leicester Gallery. He had helped Tekla Hess, who was persecuted in Nazi Germany and her son Hans, who became Thomas’s assistant, to settle in Leicester. The Hess art collection formed the core of the exhibition. Patrick Boylan, director of Leicester Museums between 1972 to 1990, recalled that the exhibition was highly unusual and one of the first in the UK to show the work of German Expressionist artists, some of whom were in exile, during World War II.

Falling foul of anti-gay laws

But Thomas’s quiet homosexuality soon got him into severe trouble. By 1946 there was a significant, very discrete, gay community in Leicester, including prominent people in public life and the arts. Most of the time, gay men were ignored by the police, but at times “cottaging” – anonymous sex between two men – could be severely punished. In an interview with the LGBT Oral History Project, Boylan recalled that Thomas and another man were arrested for allegedly looking at each other in a local public lavatory.


Source: Leicester Arts and Museums Service, URL:


Thomas was ill-advised by his lawyers to plead guilty to “corrupting a young man”. But he was given a glowing character reference by Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, who had expected Thomas to succeed him. But it was to no avail. Thomas was subjected to a tirade from the bench and thrown into a cell for four days. He was not actually convicted of any offence, though he was “bound over” – a punishment similar to an antisocial behaviour order today – to keep the peace for 12 months. But he lost his job.

Simon Lake, the gallery’s current curator, has explained how quickly Thomas was ostracised, receiving his dismissal notice from the assistant town clerk on the steps of the town hall.

Following his brush with the law, Thomas, like many gay men at that time, visited a psychiatrist, who advised him to marry – or, like the mathematician Alan Turing undergo “cure” treatment. Thomas did get married, and had two sons, though he later divorced.

Thomas lived abroad from 1949 to 1960, holding a number of prestigious posts, including with UNESCO in Paris and professor at what is now University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York. Returning to England in 1960, he became art director for Gordon Fraser greetings cards and from the early 1970s an active and respected figure in the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

Plath’s neighbour

Thomas lived for a time in the flat below the American poet Sylvia Plath and her two children in north London. Their relationship was uneasy to begin with – partly, at least, because Plath had secured the larger flat that Thomas had hoped to rent.


The flat in north London where Sylvia Plath died.By Anosmia via flickr, CC BY


Later, though, they developed a friendship of sorts. One afternoon, Thomas recalls in a short, privately published memoir, that they were reading the Observer, when Thomas chanced upon a review of The Bell Jar, by a certain Victoria Lucas. When Thomas said he thought it looked interesting, and that he intended to get a copy, Plath owned up to the authorship.

Thomas was the last to see Plath alive. She borrowed some airmail stamps from him on the eve of her death, but he was not aware of the tragedy until the arrival of the emergency services the following day, as he had himself been overcome by gas fumes. He died in 1993. His life reminds us of the invisible persecution suffered by LGBT people in the UK.

Prison Abolition in Question(s): Part One


Deborah H. Drake and David Scott, The Open University


Prison abolitionists question the moral and political justifications of imprisonment and call for the radical reduction or elimination of the use of prisons as they are currently constituted.  Abolitionists are concerned about the harmfulness that prison causes to those imprisoned, victims, families, prison staff and society at large.  They are also concerned with the continued failure of prisons to fulfil any of their stated aims or purposes.  Below we consider a range of questions that often arise whenever the idea of prison abolition is raised and offer some detailed, but concise, responses that may be used as a resource for those who are new or wish to learn more about abolitionist ideas.



  1. Why call for abolition and not prison reform?

Over the last 200 years, many societies have experimented with various prison reform interventions.  Yet no reform initiative has ever improved the effectiveness of the prison.  Moreover, the foundations on which imprisonment is based are fundamentally flawed.  Prisons are designed to exact particular kinds of punishment: loss of liberty and rights, social isolation, and austere material living conditions.  They are coercive environments in which genuine treatment/rehabilitation/care cannot be provided because they are incompatible with the delivery of punishment. Additionally, pain infliction – no matter how lenient or harsh – is an ineffective means of changing behaviour.  There is no evidence it works under any circumstances but much evidence that punishment (especially severe punishment) encourages violent or otherwise undesirable behaviour.  Thus, the idea that the particular punishment that prisons deliver will transform people and encourage (or force) them to lead better lives upon release is fundamentally flawed.  In an intentionally punitive environment, reform measures are futile.  Through easing moral concerns about the inevitably negative impact of pain infliction, penal reform can actually make it easier for governments to reinforce a given society’s reliance on the prison and increase prison expenditure and expansion. The important lesson is that no measure of reform can ever remedy the harms generated by the prison. 



  1. What about all the dangerous people that are currently held in prisons?

It is important to recognise that, for the most part, prisons aren’t ‘filled’ with dangerous people.  In England and Wales, around 60% of the prison population are held for non-violent offences.  And, of the 40% who have committed a violent offence, very few indeed have been deemed so dangerous that they cannot be released (as of 2016 only 54 people were serving whole life sentences).  The imagined monsters of our nightmares – that is, the serial killer or the otherwise wildly dangerous individual – are exceptionally rare.  The average person who enters prison has low educational attainment and poor literacy/numeracy skills, is unemployed and comes from a lower income or impoverished background.  There is a stronger link, therefore, between poverty and prisons than there is between dangerousness and prisons.  In the U.S. around 16,000 people die each year as a result of street crime.  Contrast this with the 55,000 who die as a result of corporate criminal negligence.  A similar story can be told in many other countries around the world that promote the interests of (Neo-liberal) capitalism above the needs of their people. The way we all think about dangerousness and the structures we put in place to protect ourselves from various dangers needs to be reconsidered.  Prisons, and the harms that prisons respond to, distract us from thinking more carefully about a wider range of dangers that are more imminently and universally harmful than ‘street crime’.




  1. Don’t we have to lock up violent people, murderers and people who sexually offend in order to keep those most vulnerable in society safe?

Serious interpersonal crimes are, of course, a grave concern for any society.  The reduction of violence (in all its forms), harm and unnecessary human suffering sit at the centre of abolitionist thought. Placing people in prison to punish them for what they have done has been repeatedly proven NOT to work and, in fact, frequently stimulates rather than calms violence.  If heightened public protection and reduction in violence and harm is what we hope to achieve – particularly for women, children and other vulnerable groups – then we first need to consider why acts of violence, such as domestic and sexual violence (for example), occur in the first place.  These types of crimes are associated with power imbalances and social structures that objectify, demean and treat women, children and other vulnerable groups as less than fully human.  Societies that tolerate inequalities or that refuse to fully recognise the rights and autonomy of all social members are complicit in the violence that is then perpetrated against these groups.  When horrendous interpersonal violence against vulnerable people happen our first priority must, of course, be to ensure the safety of the person concerned.  However, removing a perpetrator of interpersonal violence from society altogether and placing them in isolated, brutal conditions is surely the worst action to take if the goal is for them to learn to live more safely alongside other social members.


  1. But what about those who perpetrate “hate crimes”, shouldn’t they be locked up?

Similar arguments put forward in the previous response also apply here.  Additionally, if the goal of a justice system is to denounce or condemn particular actions and to try to prevent them happening again, then imprisonment is not the most efficient means of achieving these goals.  Prison environments are full of power imbalances, racial and sexual violence, discrimination and hierarchical social relationships.  All of these elements of the prison environment can, therefore, reinforce the same ideas and social divisions that those who perpetrate hate crimes bring into prison with them in the first place.  Prisons utilise and reinforce imbalanced and harmful power relations and are more likely to exacerbate hateful ideas rather than challenge or reverse them.


  1. Prisons work because they provide an effective deterrent. Shouldn’t there be serious consequences when someone breaks the law?

Of course there should be a proportionate response when somebody does something wrong.  No prison abolitionist would disagree with this idea.  But, the logic that ‘prisons are there because they threaten a consequence or act as a deterrent for crime’ is false.  Firstly, there is no evidence that deterrence works – we simply cannot measure an action which does not happen.  Secondly, on the basis of the evidence we do have – over 200 years of experimenting with the use of imprisonment – no matter how lenient or harsh the punishment given, there is no discernible deterrent effect on rates of crime.  This holds true at different points in history and in different jurisdictions.  It is even true in places that continue to use the death penalty.  In States that retain the death penalty in the U.S. the murder rate is HIGHER than the States which do not use this ultimate form of punishment.


  1. We can’t just let people go free – what about the victims and their desire for revenge?

The needs and desires of victims are not well served by current criminal justice practices or by the use of the prison.  Many victims want a) never to be harmed again by the perpetrator and b) for the perpetrator never to harm anyone else in this way again.  Very few victims of crime actually call for revenge.  Moreover, revenge itself can be profoundly damaging for victims who may become “consumed by the wound”.  And, in this way, a response to crime motivated by revenge can fail victims as much, if not more, than it fails perpetrators and society at large.  There is no doubt that when a serious harm occurs something must be done in response.  There must be some attempt to realign the imbalance and the injustice that has occurred.  But this should be tangible and meaningful and, crucially, not produce further harms – to anyone – including the perpetrator.  Most importantly – for victims – sending someone to prison certainly does not ensure that person will never commit the same crime again.  And, in fact, in some cases it can make it more likely for the person to return to crime upon release.   So, if the goal is to prevent a perpetrator from ever committing further crimes, prison is not the answer.




  1. But aren’t prisons proven to be an effective means of rehabilitating offenders?

No.  They aren’t.  Prisons have continually failed to ‘solve’ people’s problems through ‘treatment’ or other ‘rehabilitation’ strategies.  Prisons are, first and foremost, places of punishment.  Rehabilitation and punishment are incompatible.  As the saying goes: ‘you cannot teach people to be free in captivity.’  This means that the basic structure of the prison is ill suited to showing people how to live safely in a free society.  The idea of rehabilitation is also too narrowly focused on trying to change or ‘treat’ an individual.  Prisons are more closely linked to poverty than they are to dangerousness (see Question 2 above).  The individualised focus of prisons mean that they are unable to address any of the social conditions – education, limited employment or housing options, community support structures – that need to be met for people to be able to live better and more safely in society.


  1. Should we not just lock people up and throw away the key to keep them off our streets?

We cannot lock our way out of the crime problem.  The ‘crime of the streets’ is generational – many lawbreakers desist from ‘street crimes’ as they get older and another group of people (the next generation) become lawbreakers. Following a policy of incapacitation therefore requires disproportionately long sentences and a constant influx of new and younger prisoners.   Where would indefinite detention ever end?  Locking people up for short or long periods of time may only delay, intensify or displace crime problems.  It can also create ‘capacitating’ effects in the sense that new lawbreaking skills can be learnt in prison, in response to the damaging and anti-social environment of prison life.  Additionally, when a family member is sent to prison it increases the chances that further family members will also follow the same path.  Prisons are part of the crime problem, not a solution to it.




  1. Aren’t prisons an essential part of modern society that helps to reinforce the rule of law?

It is sometimes argued that protecting the rule of law requires that the guilty are punished.  However, should the rule of law not be accountable first and foremost to those it is intended to protect, as opposed to those it rules against?  By focusing on actions against perpetrators as a measure of the law we lose our focus on compensating, responding to and caring for victims.  Thus a major reconfiguration of the way the legal system works would be the first step towards abolition.  This is especially urgent in the modern world where prisons – more than ever – are little more than symbols of an older, antiquated, bleak, inefficient and technologically backward time.  The time when inefficient practices that do little to protect victims and even less to address the complex needs of perpetrators (and in most cases worsens their needs) is rapidly slipping away and should be consigned to the past.  A new approach to thinking about how a modern society manages harm, crime and victimisation is long overdue.


  1. If not prisons, then what would we do instead?

There is no single solution.  The idea that there can be one is another myth that the use of the prison perpetuates.  There are a number of alternative responses that could be utilised, including, for example:

  • Focusing on victim needs, compensation and care
  • Adopt a ‘do no further harm’ principle in any new policy decisions taken
  • Non- punitive detention (for perpetrators who have extreme and complex needs)
  • Intensive community supervision
  • Intensive therapeutic intervention
  • Civil law measures
  • Peace bonds, enforced by strict supervision

Relying on the idea of imprisonment to solve our social problems has made us lazy and thoughtless.  Creating and living in a peaceful society takes a significant amount of on-going work.  It requires that we build social justice and community capacities, investment in the economy, education, housing and in human beings.  Removing the prison from the social equation must be a starting point, not the end goal.  Once we relinquish our reliance on these harmful and ineffective institutions, we can then begin the building process of finding fairer, more just and equitable solutions to our deepest and most fearsome social problems.

Learning lessons from the past: What the Government can do right now to do to radically reduce the prison population


David Scott, The Open University


The prison system is now widely considered to be in crisis, with the most recent damning revelations coming from a BBC documentary about Sodexo run jail HMP Northumberland



Prison does not work. Prisons are antiquated institutions that are particularly ill-suited to dealing with people with complex social needs or in response to people who have perpetrated acts of violence.  More than half of adult prisoners are reconvicted within one year of release; there were record numbers of self-inflicted deaths in 2016; and there have been a spate of highly visible prison disturbances across the country in recent months.


These and other intractable problems – such drug taking, mental ill-health, demoralised staff, violence, fear, insecurity and difficulties in maintaining order / control – were all exposed in the BBC Panorama programme on HMP Northumberland earlier this week.


Reducing prison populations in the past

The Average Daily Prison population in England and Wales stands today at 85,000 people and this is more than double what it was in December 1992.  The current prison population is also an incredible eight times higher than that of the late 1930s.  In 1908 more than 200,000 people were sent to prison that year, largely for very short sentences.  The Average Daily Population was 22,029 that year.  Yet, by 1918 the Average Daily Population had more than halved to 9,196.


By the late 1930s the Average Daily Population had stabilised at around 11,000, significantly with less than 40,000 people sentenced to prison each year.  The Average Daily Population was to fall below 10,000 again shortly after the start of World War Two.


The prison population in England and Wales was dramatically cut through diversion schemes; genuine alternatives in place of prison sentences; the abolishment of imprisonment for debt; and by allowing time for fines to be paid by offenders.


Lady Constance Lytton, a suffraggette, prisoner and sister in law of Liberal prime-minster



The main reason the prison population collapsed, however, was because there was a political commitment to do so.  There was recognition among politicians that prisons were brutal institutions that did not work.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a number of wealthy and influential people experienced imprisonment – suffragettes, prisoners of war, conscientious objectors to World War One, political prisoners and those imprisoned for their (homo)sexuality.


Rich and influential former prisoners, like the suffragette Lady Constance Lytton, who was sister in law to a former Liberal prime-minster, talked openly and wrote about the pain and unnecessary suffering generated by prisons.  As such a bad conscience about using prisons was created among the political elite.  Despite many changes in prison policy over the last 100 years, prisons remain in many ways the same today.


The current government agenda

The Conservative government will shortly release its new Prisons and Courts Bill.  It is set on the path of building five new ‘super-sized’ prisons and increasing capacity of the prison estate by 10,000 places over the coming years.


Yet, the historical and contemporary evidence overwhelmingly shows we cannot build our way out of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in our prisons on a daily basis.  What is required are policies, like those of 100 years ago, that can immediately reduce the prison population.


HMP Berwyn under construction in 2016



Alternative policy proposals

The policy suggestions are simple but not easy.  A starting point would be to halt plans to build the five new mega-prisons.  There should be an immediate prison building moratorium.  A clear and unequivocal message should also be sent to the judiciary that in cases of relatively harmless offences or where the person who has broken the law has considerable vulnerabilities, that a prison sentences should, if at all possible, be avoided.


The call for penal reductionism is sometimes referred to as “playing the get out of jail free card”



The age of criminal responsibility should be raised as soon as possible to 16 years and diversion schemes introduced which keep young people out of the criminal process.  Petty but persistent property offenders should be dealt with in their own community through schemes that help build a collective sense of safety and redress for the harm done, as well as fostering notions of respect and responsibility for all.


The vast majority of women prisoners have been sentenced for petty and non-violent offences and could be released through probation, home monitoring or amnesties.  Sentencers could also pilot the introduction of prison waiting lists for women offenders.


Residential therapeutic communities have been shown to work in addressing problematic behaviours and drug usage and could be expanded to help deal with the estimated 45,000 ‘problematic drug users’ in prison.  There should also be further priority given to diverting people with mental health problems from the criminal process.


Politicians and members of the public need to once again recognise that prisons are places of intense pain, harm and suffering.  Rather than defending the size of current prison populations, our high ranking politicians and members of the judiciary should profoundly regret the existence of the prison at all.


Public education, informed rational debates and deep-seated reflections on exactly what the prison is and what it does to people, are urgently required.  Perhaps then, calls for a radical reduction in prison population will be warmly welcomed.