Abolitionism in Question(s): Part Two

Deborah H. Drake and David Scott, The Open University

 

A

  1. Can prison abolition work in large urban centres and inner cities with high crime rates and where ordinary people are fearful of being victimised?

Abolitionism is about building communities of inclusion and strengthening social bonds.  We are less likely to be fearful of ‘crime’ if we feel a sense of connection to our local communities.  Fear and insecurity around ‘crime’ are often closely tied to people feeling socially isolated.  Fear of victimisation is significantly decreased when there are strong local communities and support mechanisms for people to participate in community activities and opportunities to get to know their neighbours better.  Although measuring the relationships between communities ties and ‘fear of crime’ is complicated by other variables (most notably because social and economic inequalities often blight high crime areas sharpening tensions and conflict rather than fostering closer human connectedness) there is empirical evidence from Nordic Countries, which themselves are grounded more holistically in welfare policies and economies promoting social integration, indicating that stronger culture promoting the welfare of others and collective solidarity has a significant impact on both perceptions and recorded rates of ‘crime’.

 

  1. Isn’t it human nature to be self-interested and to take advantage of others? Don’t we need a tough and harsh criminal justice system to keep these natural human impulses under control? 

It is inaccurate to suggest that human beings are “naturally” interested mainly in themselves.  No person is an island and we are all social beings.  We cannot thrive without the help and support of other people.  Human nature and human survival is dependent on us being grounded in notions of mutual aid and collaboration and we may well have a natural or innate predilection to help and care for other people.  There are many historical and contemporary examples that can be drawn upon to indicate that human beings have a natural propensity to care and support people, sometimes even those that they do not know.  There are everyday examples of human beings helping others when they are in trouble, from small acts of kindness like offering advice on directions when someone is lost to attempts to rescue other unknown people when their lives are imperilled (with the classic example of given here of the people who in flimsy lifeboats in coastal towns across the UK would risk life and limb in treacherous waters to rescue survivors of ship wrecks).  There are also wonderful tales of hospitality to strangers when people have been dependent on others for guidance and assistance, most recently evidenced in the accounts of George Mahood or Peter Mortemor, whose travels  across the UK were dependent upon the generosity of the general public.

 

  1. Don’t we need criminal justice responses that morally condemn and punish those who have broken the law?

Blame and moral condemnation are based on the assumption that people should ‘get what they deserve’.  However, this idea often begins at the wrong starting point, that is, at the point when someone breaks the law.  But – for the sake of argument – if people really should get what they deserve, then how do we make sense of unjust and unequal societies where we do not all have the same choices and options?  We may well make choices, but often these choices are heavily constrained by limited options and we do not all live in circumstances of our choosing.  When we decide to lay the blame for a misdeed solely on the shoulders of an individual we fail to recognise the complex web of social, political and economic factors that may have also played a role.  Even philosophers of law who are strong advocates of prisons and punishment have acknowledged that it is impossible to achieve justice through the penal law in a structurally unequal society.

 

Davis

 

  1. Prison abolitionists only focus on traditional forms of crime, with identifiable offenders and victims – what about providing an appropriate symbolic response to harms with no obvious victims?

Abolitionism recognises that problems, troubles and harms exist – they step outside the normal boundaries and parameters of legal definitions of “crime” and think about the wider harms that come to people at the hands of states, corporations and – most importantly – the criminal justice system itself.  So abolitionism is very well suited to dealing with new problematics and wrongful conducts whatever their origin.  They also recognise that the symbolic message of punishment can be interpreted differently by different people.  The penal law has never proved very effective in sending a symbolic message to its intended audience of law breakers and this is likely to remain the same whatever the criminal activity in focus.

 

  1. Doesn’t prison abolitionism focus too heavily on individual, inter-personal crimes and ignore the structural issues that cause harm and violence – like gender, race, class inequality?

Abolitionism is a way of saying NO to certain responses to problematic and harmful events.  It calls us to beware of punishment and warn that it will not deliver justice.  Justice is a central concern of abolitionists, but they focus on the broader concept of ‘social justice’. They argue that there is an obligation to build a social structure that can meet the needs of all social members. Abolitionism calls for redress not just for individual and interpersonal harms but the harms generated by social injustice.  Abolitionists promote interventions that can help build pro-social attitudes and solidarity as well as calling for a much more equitable distribution of wealth.  The harms, violence and suffering of the prison are then situated within the structural violence of societies and abolitionists call for not only radical alternatives to the criminal process but also for radical alternatives to societies that systematically fail to meet human need.

 

  1. Don’t prison abolitionists just suggest alternative punishments rather than alternatives to punishment?

Abolitionists fundamentally question the rationale of prisons and punishment – they question all institutions and practices predicated on the deliberate infliction of pain.  They promote transformative rather than restorative justice – it is about transforming the lives of ‘victims’ and ‘offenders’ and of society as a whole.  Making changes might be difficult, but the intervention must be predicated upon principles where both the means and the end of the response to the problematic conduct are concerned with building respect, dignity and a more socially responsible society. Abolitionists have called for non-penal alternatives to punishment such as voluntary therapeutic communities and other intentional communities populated by lawbreakers and their families; places of sanctuary and refuge for both offenders and victims; mediation and conflict handling services; and the total reorientation of our response to ‘crime’ away from the offender and towards meeting the needs of victims.

 

  1. Is there any evidence that abolitionist alternatives are cheaper, more humane, or more effective?

Prisons are both exceptionally expensive and impersonal.  They do not and cannot establish an attachment with the law breaker.  Community solutions for many ‘crimes’ have been proven to be more effective and value for money.  Voluntary and community led interventions which have directly engaged with people in their own community have often proven to be the most effective of all (see for example Outside Chance, Liz Dronfield, 1981).  Because abolitionist alternatives are not grounded in the deliberate infliction of pain, inevitably they will be much more humane than any prison sentence could ever be.

 

  1. If societies did away with prisons, wouldn’t we lose legal safeguards that only the criminal law and the certainty of imprisonment can deliver?

Prisons are lawless institutions run often on personal authority and an imperfect application of rules.  Due process and following guidelines and rules are important.  It is significant that any alternative in place of the criminal process has appropriate oversight and accountability.  Alternatives require an awareness of the dignity and human rights of all parties, and a sensitivity to the ethic of care to ensure fairness and humane treatment.

 

C

 

  1. It remains unclear what should happen if things go wrong – what happens when people don’t not wish to participate in mediation process, when the offender might be asked to give too much in mediation process, or power differentials between parties are entrenched?

No crime or harm is exactly the same as another.  The uniqueness of every fracture that occurs in society or in our relations with other people demand a unique response.  There needs to be a raft of alternatives rather than only just one (see this article for example).  The appropriate response needs to be negotiated with all the parties involved.  The needs of the individuals and the safety of victims, future victims and of perpetrators should be top priority.

 

  1. You say that there are a lot of alternatives available – but surely you have to match any suite of alternatives to the historical and political conditions of a given society? How could it ever work?

Alternatives need to be generated from the ground up in a given community and society.  Ideas from other places and cultures should be used as inspiration.  We need to adopt what works best within the social, political and economic conditions of any given society and not be bound by outdated or moralistic traditions.  Abolitionism is a step-by-step process.  Alternatives to the criminal process must be understood within the wider envelope of a commitment to social and transformative justice.   Alternatives mean building a society in which the conditions are suitable for a wide range of interventions that can handle troubles, conflicts and disputes of all kinds.

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

  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’.

2

Source: http://engineering.nyu.edu/news/2010/05/06/can-we-fight-corporate-crime-forbes%E2%80%99-neil-weinberg-thinks-so

 

  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.

3

Source: http://asianworldnews.co.uk/localnews/suicide-in-prison-82-prisoners-took-their-own-life-in-2014/

 

  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.

4

Source: https://uk.pinterest.com/hope4hurtkids/incarcerated-parents-h4hk/

 

  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.

5

  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.