What would a world without prisons be like?

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

We take prisons for granted – but how effective are they? Are there better alternatives? In a new BBC ideas video, David Scott and Deborah H. Drake ask what a world without prisons would be like. The video is available to view at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/viewpoint-what-would-a-world-without-prisons-be-li/p08nbj02?playlist=made-in-partnership-with-the-open-university

The video is accompanied by Scott and Drake’s Abolition in Questions: Part One, a previous HERC blog post, which is available to view at: https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/oucriminology.wordpress.com/593.


Abolitionism must come from below: A critique of British Anti-Slavery Abolition

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, David Scott argues that contemporary penal abolitionists can take inspiration not from British liberal anti-slavery ‘abolitionism from above’ but from the lived experiences and testimonies of slaves and former slaves. David Scott is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.

Picture of Black Lives Matter Activists Throwing Statue of Edward Colston into river, June 2020

The political fall-out following the death of George Floyd, who died on the 25th May 2020 during a coercive physical restraint by a police officer in Minneapolis, USA and the revival of Black Lives Matter on a global level, has placed renewed emphasis on calls for defunding the state police and greater acknowledgement of the brutal British colonial past.  These calls, alongside those for further recognition of the manner in which British wealth is in large part historically derived from the slave trade, have great significance for penal abolitionism (a moral philosophy which questions all forms of legal repression and dehumanisation).   In the UK one of the main mobilising events of Black Lives Matter  has been to call for the pulling down of statues and monuments which were erected to honour slave traders, such as the statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. 

Given this renewed emphasis on the British slave trade, should penal abolitionists today take inspiration from anti-slavery abolitionists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and the broader political culture in Britain at that time? The short answer, I would argue, is NO. The bourgeois British liberal anti-slavery ‘abolitionism from above’ was not an emancipatory social movement like Black Lives Matter, nor did it connect with, or was motivated by, the experiences and voice of former slaves, as was sometimes the case in the USA anti-slavery movement during the mid-1800s.  If we are looking for inspiration when challenging legal repression, dehumanisation and state coercion, then it is to the lived experiences and testimonies of slaves and former slaves, such as the American former slave Frederick Douglas, or Toussaint Louverture and all those slaves involved in the proclamation of the Republic of Haiti (Saint Domingue) from 1791-1804, that we will find genuinely radical and emancipatory social actors.

The politics of anti-slavery and English liberty

Whilst calls for the abolition of slavery had a long history – such as Jean Bodin in the 1570s or Antonio Vieira in the 1650s, in the main slavery was taken for granted in moral and political philosophy.  Indeed, it was not until the writings of John Woolman and his fellow Quakers that there was an organised and principled critique of slavery in Britain.  The British anti-slavery abolitionist movement that is most heralded today, however, emerged in the 1780s, and was underscored with ideas of free trade and free labour.  For the British anti-slavery abolitionists ‘coerced labour‘ (i.e. slavery) was increasingly seen as less productive than ‘free labour’ (i.e. labour exchanged for money in the free market) and this was something that would become of increasing significance for capitalist accumulation across the British colonies at  turn of the nineteenth century.  Whilst these economic arguments proved wrong, they opened a space for a moral critique of chattel slavery.

Recognition that chattel slavery was a ‘social evil’ also gained moral and political significance following the defeat of the British in the American War of Independence in 1781.  From the 1780s chattel slavery was increasingly considered as something which caste a moral stain on the British Empire.   Whilst it was to take a number of decades for slavery to be fully denounced / abolished, the distancing from American slaveholders (rejecting their rejectors) as an ‘un-British’ state of affairs was of crucial importance.  This was in part because it resulted in the promotion of a new moral basis for the empire through the very ‘English’ value of ‘liberty’’.  In the late eighteenth century, the seeds of British Virtue and American Sin were sown and the critique of chattel slavery was the key symbolic index of this moral differentiation.   For the British, it was not just military power than had failed them in the American war of independence, but also the moral foundations of their global leadership.  Privileging English liberty and free market economics over slavery was one way of addressing this moral deficit.  Indeed, ‘English liberty’ (and the moral condemnation of slavery) and free trade was considered as something that could justify further imperial expansion around the globe, especially Africa.  In other words, anti-slavery advocacy provided a new form or ‘moral capital’ for the British Empire.  Critiquing slavery and critiquing the British Empire, then, are not necessarily the same thing.

British anti-slavery abolition

For Quakers such as John Woolman, who was writing in the 1750s, chattel slavery should be morally condemned because was inconsistent with Christian morality and undermined the possibilities of a universal Christian brotherhood.  Though providing strong moral and intellectual leadership, as well as being able to promulgate their ideas through the Quaker religious network, these and other early abolitionists were only moderately successful because they lacked access to political power.  The ultimately more successful bourgeois British anti-slavery movement, mobilised across 50 years from 1788-1838, may well have drawn upon increasing grass roots support against the slave trade, but they also were part of the establishment.   The British liberal anti-slavery abolitionists, such as Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, all benefitted from either aristocratic patronage, wealth and/or had access to the political elite.  It was these members of the British establishment who most strongly argued that chattel slavery stood against ‘English liberty’ and infringed upon basic British freedoms.  Such anti-slavery also differentiated the British from the Americans and appeared to reinstate a sense of ‘moral superiority’ over their former colony.  Yet, rather than being tied to emancipatory politics and praxis or calls for radical social transformation, the British anti-slavery abolitionists were reformers who were looking to strengthen the moral legitimacy of the current social, political and economic order.  In so doing they worked closely with the British State to achieve their aims.

The intimate connections between anti-slavery abolition and the emerging capitalist state included then a clear moral discourse challenging the most barbarous social institutions of that time and showing moral leadership to the new (industrialised) working classes.  The moral message was not just about the errors and vice of chattel slavery, but also about the importance of self-discipline, personal industry and engaging in what the anti-slavery abolitionists considered to be non-coercive labour – the capitalist labour market.  This was in part because of growing (inaccurate)  economic concerns among the ruling elite that the coerced labour of slavery was much less productive than ‘freely chosen’ labour of workers in the labour market and the increasing ideological influence of the free labour doctrines of political economists such as Francis Hutchenson.  Chattel slavery was deliberately isolated from other forms of labour exploitation and presented as a unique and immoral aberration across the British Empire.  The liberal, anti-slavery abolitionist ideology, highlighted the specificity of the misery of slavery, but in so doing deflected attention away from the inequities of the given social order, state racism and wider colonial abuses of power in the Empire.

It is important to note that the context of chattel slavery in Britain was different to the USA even before the defeat in the war of independence.  In a 1772 legal case, which considered whether JamesSomerset could be treated as a slave on British shores, prominent abolitionist Granville Sharp successfully argued that as vlleinage – the then only legal form of feudal human bondage in Britain – had fallen out of usage in the early 1500s if not before, chattel slavery was against both natural and English common law.  TheSomerset ruling was largely interpreted as meaning that chattel slavery was illegal in Britain, and whilst this was not actually the case, it did result in reinforcing popular mythologies of British freedom / English liberty as well as deterring many slaveholders from openly displaying their slaves in public or bringing new slaves into the country.  Popular support against slavery was also augmented by the extensive evidence compiled by the British anti-slavery abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, who produced detailed accounts of the barbarous nature of the slave trade on his wider travels around the Empire.  By 1789 William Wilberforce had initiated an anti-slavery abolitionist campaign in Parliament, and whilst this in the long term proved decisive, the French Revolution of the same year and the slave rebellion in the French colony of Haiti initially poured cold water on this idea.  Yet the wheels of change had been irrevocably set in motion.

Toussaint Louverture, who was one of the leaders of the slave rebellion in the Republic of Haiti (Saint Domingue)

Ending chattel slavery but the unfreedom of free labour

By the 1830s chattel slavery had undoubtedly became the unacceptable face of labour exploitation, state racism and class domination in Britain and its empire. The Slave trade had been abolished in 1807 in Britain and the delayed introduction of the Slavery Abolition Act (1833) brought an end to slavery in British Empire in 1838.  But during this this time, not only was there an intensification in the exploitation of ‘free labour’, but also a rise in penal servitude, which was to reach its zenith in Britain later that century with the ‘hard fare, hard bed and hard labour’ prison policies under the tenure of Edmund Frederick Du Cane.  Indeed, there proved to be nothing inconsistent between the promotion of the liberal ideology of anti-slavery and associated adherence to “English liberty” and the creation of dehumanising ‘reformed prisons’ grounded in legal repression, nor the rampant domination and exploitation of labourers through free market capitalism. 

The British anti-slavery abolitionist focus on a distinctly “British [English] freedom [liberty]” obscured the problem of ‘wage slavery’ and the appalling living and working conditions of people exercising their non-coerced ‘free labour’.  Early socialist activists, including The Chartists, challenged anti-slavery meetings in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s, highlighting the close similarities between ‘wage slavery’ and ‘chattel slavery’.   Indeed, this was no more certain than in the overtly ‘coerced’ labour of the ‘free market’, where, for example, English sailors were impressed into the navy; Scottish coal miners were forced to remain in this line of work for life; and until 1875 certain workers could be sent to prison for quitting their jobs under the Master and Servant Acts

There are then clearly blurred boundaries between ‘coerced’ and ‘free’ labour.  Market capitalist societies are inevitably underscored by some form of coercion, but this takes a number of different forms – slavery, imprisonment, contracted labour exploitation or starvation – for if people do not ‘freely work’ they will die.  The differences between these forms of coercion are certainly important, and the nature and extent of coercion is clearly different between slavery and factory work for example, but still they operate on a continuum of coercion rather than as distinct entities. The beautiful idea of ‘freedom’ certainly is not well served in capitalist labour markets.

It is also worth remembering that there was no ending of penal servitude in the colonies of the British Empire post the ending of the slave trade.  Prisons continue into the present and transportation to British colonies continued well past the end of chattel slavery.  Further, the reformed prisons, since the early 1800s, have at various different times been places characterised by hard labour and are widely conceived in the critical penological literature as a state institution designed to discipline the labouring poor.  They perform an important remainder of the coercive power of state and what awaits those who do not adhere to the requirements of ‘free labour’. Apparent contradictions in the language and commitment of liberty and freedom of the anti-slavery abolitionists may in fact simply just be a further indication of the fact that the capitalist free market is underscored by ever-present coercion.  One of the leading ‘free labour’ advocates in the eighteenth century was the famous enlightenment thinker Francis Hutchenson.  In his System of Moral Philosophy (Volume 2), published in 1755, he argued that “perpetual labour” may be “justly adjudged” as an appropriate punishment for law breakers.  He goes on,

… no law could be more effectual to promote a general industry, and restrain sloth and idleness in the lower conditions, than making perpetual slavery of this sort the ordinary punishment of such idle vagrants, after proper admonitions and trials of temporary servitude, cannot be engaged to support themselves and their families by any useful labours.  Slavery would also be a proper punishment for such as by intemperance or other vices ruined themselves and families, and made them public burden.

Finally, a number of British anti-slavery abolitionists, including leading campaigners like William Wilberforce, Samuel Romily and Thomas Fowell Buxton became prominent penal reformers.  Indeed, William Wilberforce unsuccessfully acted as the advocate for Jeremy Bentham’s proposals for building a ‘Panopticon prison’ with the British Cabinet in the early 1800s. Penal abolitionism in Britain does not find its roots in the anti-slavery abolitionist movements of slavery, but perhaps penal reform does.

Frederick Douglas, a freed slave anti-slavery campaigner in the United States in the mid-1800s

Four Things We Can Learn

The above critique of the British anti-slavery abolitionists may be helpful to us at this given moment for the following four reasons.

First, it indicates that a focus on the critique of slavery is not the same as shining a light on the brutal harms of colonial power and the British Empire.  If the ending of slavery was a means of providing new moral capital for the expansion of the empire into Africa and elsewhere, then it is important that Black Lives Matter looks directly at the legacy and atrocities of the British Empire.  This perhaps means a shift towards some of the harder symbols of the British Empire, including the historical and contemporary constitution of the British State.

Second, it indicates that anti-slavery abolition can be co-opted and utilised in the interests of the capitalist state and inform the moral discourse of the ruling elite more broadly.  This shines an historical lens on the current moral capital that is accumulated through discourses of ‘modern slavery’.  It is important to note that like its historical predecessors, modern slavery focusses neither on penal servitude or the exploitation of free labourers.

Third, for penal abolitionists, it is essential that connections are made across a wide range of sites of exploitation, repression and domination.  The socialist critique of the anti-slavery movement in the 1830s and 1840s highlights the importance of exploring all forms of exploitation and close scrutiny of legal forms of coercion.  Penal abolitionism must then consider together the historical legacies and contemporary manifestations of state racism; the insidious masculinist bias within the law and broader society; and the profound exploitation of capitalist labour relations.

Fourth, that engagement with the political, social and economic elite will not deliver social justice and radical social and economic transformation unless it is strongly tied / connected to the ‘view from below’ and infused with socialist emancipatory politics and praxis.  What we can learn from the anti-slavery abolitionists is that when the ruling elite champion a given moral cause, it may well be for the ‘moral capital’ that can be transferred to them rather than an honest and noble intervention. 

There are anti-slavery abolitionists that we can take inspiration from in the present, but these are the men and women who won their freedom through pain, personal struggle and triumph.  It is the narrative of the slaves and former slaves that penal abolitionism should draw strength and it is their conceptualisation of freedom and liberty which should inspire abolitionists and anti-racist activists today.

Hearing voice and recognising privilege: Engaging in non-reciprocal dialogue

David Scott, The Open University

Voice entails the act of speaking and the art of listening. As an expression of our distinctive place in the world, the acknowledgement of voice is essential for human well-being. One of the key principles of ‘penal abolitionism’ is that we listen to the voices of others, recognising their diversity and facilitating their right to define their own reality.  To speak is to have an opinion heard, to count as a fellow but unique human being.

Through harnessing the principles of mutual respect and cooperation, the approach to hearing voice known as ‘discourse ethics’ attempts to arrive at a valid, mutually recognised consensus based on speech acts from debating partners. Discourse ethics is a centrally important process for hearing the voices of others. It is rightly promoted in the academy and aspired to in public debate. Yet its predication on equal co-responsibility for dialogue means that discourse ethics collapses without reciprocation.  Discourse ethics also restricts the hearing of voices to those based on mutual reciprocation alone. As Peter Kropotkin argued in the early 1920s, whilst a political system based upon reciprocation may be the preferred option, it is the non-reciprocated act of self-sacrifice for another person that signifies true ethics. Our responsibilities for hearing the voices of others emerge through asymmetrical relationships – that is, encounters with someone who is less powerful than us. The ethics of hearing voice, by necessity, are an ethics of responsibility that go beyond the rules of discourse. The limitations of discourse ethics for penal abolitionists – and I am thinking in particular here of those who are activist scholar – can be highlighted in two specific situational contexts: first in terms of hearing the voices of prisoners and second in terms of hearing the voices of abolitionist activists in the community. 

Let us first briefly note the difficulties of hearing the voices of prisoners through an exclusive commitment to discourse ethics. Discourse ethics face particular problems in the prison place because prisoners may be physically and / or structurally prevented from participation in conversations with the wider public. There may be no, or only limited, access to spaces for dialogue with debating partners within the prison place.  Further, given their socially excluded backgrounds, many of those behind bars have found it difficult in the past to perform the ‘language games’ or follow the rules of discourse ethics. Prisoner protests and small acts of disobedience, and perhaps sometimes even acts of self-harm, are forms of communication that should be listened to but do not conform to the rules of discourse ethics. Abolitionists have recognised that our ethical responsibility exists irrespective of the question of reciprocation or the following of rules of discourse. In other words, even if the prisoner is disrespectful and fails to engage with us in ways we would like, we should still patiently, respectfully and openly listen and respond when they speak. It means being prepared to be persuaded through the dialogical process.  Reciprocation can result in unjust compromises where the interests of the powerless are erased in appeasement of the claims of the powerful. For abolitionists it is important to be prepared to surpass reciprocity and discourse ethics in the pursuit of hearing prisoner voices.

Discourse ethics can also have limitations if exclusively adopted for engagement between abolitionists in privileged positions, like academics / activist scholars and community activists. There are clear power differentials at play here and there needs to be full acknowledgement of privilege. Privilege reflects life course, historical and current access to resources, and wider societal structures and divisions, and it is incumbent on those who hold privilege to not only recognise this, but also to give their time generously and be guided by the principles of kindness, care, compassion, love, friendship and the spirit of solidarity when engaging in dialogue with those who do not share their privileged position. Abolitionists in privileged positions, like academics / activist scholars, should be accountable to local communities, grass roots activism and struggles for social justice. This entails working towards collective knowledge and the building of trust.  It is essential for this that all abolitionists are prepared to listen and learn from others, especially those directly engaged in abolitionist struggles in the community. None of us are ‘soloists’ playing their own tune, but rather perform a role in a wider abolitionist ‘orchestra’. It is the liberation of the oppressed and the reduction of violence, harm and death that are of paramount importance, and those in privileged positions should attempt to infuse the local community activists with confidence, renewed belief, pride and dignity. 

Those abolitionists, such as those activist-scholars working in the academy, who are in a more privileged position should engage in non-reciprocal dialogue, always looking at the world sensitively from the perspectives of others, adopting or translating their language, meanings and understandings and trying to read unexpected forms of communication. This means at times going beyond reciprocal dialogue so voices can be heard and concerns addressed. It means reaching out and listening. Learning to learn from the voices of others requires service, apprenticeship and a constant willingness to try and understand their point of view. This is not easy, but hearing voice should always be aspirational and unfinished because it demands the continual search for new inclusionary visions of social reality; the acknowledgement of difference and diversity; and the desire for a new broad-based consensus or at least agreement to disagree.

I think it is important for all penal abolitionists to continually search out and acknowledge voices that are denied, silenced or ignored and to engage fully with divergent perspectives amongst those voices. Ultimately this means listening and hearing without assuming respectful reciprocation from debating partners or maintaining a rigid adherence to the principles of discourse ethics. They may be our aspiration, but sometimes we have to go beyond them to effectively hear and listen and to respect the starting points of those we are listening to. So I, and others, may sometimes disagree with the views expressed by prisoners, activists, academics or other activist scholars, or I may disagree or dislike how they perform their speech act, but it still seems essential that everything is done so that their voices are heard irrespective of how that voice is expressed. Perhaps the best we can hope for in this is that we are all a little more sensitive when appreciating differences of opinion; that we maybe become a little more skilled at seeing things from the opposing point of view; and that it reinforces our recognition of and sympathy for the inherent vulnerability of all people, including our debating partners. In the end, abolitionists may simply have to agree to disagree on certain issues, but perhaps we can emerge with a better understanding of where and why we see things differently.  The abolitionist struggle is against the violence, suffering and death that is insipid in the daily workings of the penal apparatus of the State. Even in disagreement we must stand against imprisonment in a way that is united.

Build communities, not prisons

Deborah H. Drake and David Scott, The Open University

buildcommunities.JPGImage source: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-fq2W0bJAAKE/UEBDMMO_jyl/AAAAAAAADIk/EQx2Nm74aaw/s1600/buildcommunities.JPG


The prison industrial complex is large and growing. Prison building and expansion projects generate trade exhibitions, mail-order/Internet catalogues, and direct advertising campaigns that seek to engage architects, construction firms, investors, food, landscaping and plumbing supply companies, and other firms that specialise in fixtures and fittings for large industrial building. There is no doubt that the building of prisons creates a market of both temporary and permanent employment opportunities and can appear to increase the economic potential of the lucky local community that agrees to house a prison in their area.

If we look more carefully, however, at what the prison industry is, does and costs, prison building programmes become less attractive.

Economic benefits?

In 2003, researchers King, Mauer and Huling carried out the first study to use statistical controls to measure the effect of a prison on the local community, including its impact on the local economy and on employment and per capita income trends.  The study examined 25 years of economic data for rural counties in New York and looked at 38 prisons located in upstate counties.  The full report can be found here: Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison Economics in Rural America, but some of their key findings indicated that:

  • In 25 years, there was no significant difference or discernible pattern of economic trends between the seven rural counties that hosted a prison and the seven rural counties that did not;
  • Residents of rural counties with one or more prisons did not gain significant employment advantages compared to rural counties without prisons;
  • Unemployment rates moved in the same direction for both groups of counties and were consistent with the overall employment rates for the state as a whole;
  • During the period from 1982 to 2001, these findings are consistent for the three distinct economic periods in the United States, and in fact, the non-prison counties performed marginally better in two of the timeframes;
  • Counties that hosted new prisons received no economic advantage as measured by per capita income;
  • From the inception of the prison building boom in 1982 until 2000, per capita income rose 141% in counties without a prison and 132% in counties that hosted a prison.

When comparing new prison towns across the USA with other towns of a similar size, Besser and Hanson also found that there was no discernable differences between unemployment rates between 1990 and 2000 between the towns.  Like King et al., they concluded that building a new prison did not create jobs for local unemployed people.

At a similar time to the above studies there was a further comprehensive analysis of prison towns in the USA which explored the impact of prison building and job growth in the USA from 1976-1994.  In a follow up study, expanding the period to 2004, the evidence shows that rather than promoting economic prosperity and creating new jobs, in both urban and struggling rural communities, prisons may actually impede employment growth.  Hooks et al. (2010) conclude that ‘our research into employment growth suggests that prisons are doing more harm than good among vulnerable counties’.  The reasons why prisons failed to provide economic stimulus to the local economy included:

  • There were not necessarily new jobs as prison officers moved from other prisons to fill the new jobs;
  • There was the possibility of adverse local impacts of prison labour through prison industries and low cost prisoner labour;
  • There may be a paucity of local skills and direct connections to the services required by the new prison.

Despite the initial promises of economic prosperity that it is assumed can be made from opening a prison, these promises are not borne out in practice.  Moreover, no prison can generate income or be ‘cost efficient’. Prisons cost a lot to run and they drain resources from other areas of social life, such as hospitals, schools, housing or social services.  Investing, instead, in local services, programmes, health and education sectors or other community-focused initiatives would be a far better use of resources and, incidentally, are more effective than prisons at PREVENTING crime, as opposed to responding to it after the fact, as prisons do.  That is, the idea that increased funding for police and a larger prison estate will solve and economic problems is a myth.

Human costs

Setting the obvious economic shortcomings to prison building aside, let’s think for a minute about the human and social costs of prisons.  Firstly, there is no evidence that prisons effectively do very many of the things they claim to do.  This has been repeatedly demonstrated through society’s years of experimentation with the prison and in numerous academic considerations (see Mathiesen, 2000 for example).  Prisons do not deter crime, they do not ‘rehabilitate’ prisoners, they do not prepare people well for law-abiding lives in the community.  The only functions that prisons serve well relate to pain and suffering: they deliver punishment and incapacitation and, symbolically: they are a demonstration that ‘justice’ is being done and that the ‘system works’.

Prisons are places that cast out, ostracize and de-socialise members of our communities and society.  They are places that take things away from people: they take a persons’ time, relationships, opportunities, and sometimes their life.  Prisons constrain the human identity and foster feelings of fear, anger, alienation and social and emotional isolation. For many prisoners, prisons offer only a lonely, isolating and brutalising experience.  At best, prison environments are dull and monotonous living and working routines depriving prisoners of basic human needs. At worst, they are places of violence, suffering and physical and psychological pain.  Combined with saturation in time consciousness/awareness, these situational contexts can lead to a disintegration of the self and death (Scott, 2016).

For prison officers and other prison staff prisons are toxic environments.  Stress, illness and sometimes also death are perils of prison work.  Prisons do not encourage health, education, renewal, care, compassion, decency or any of the other values that most societies and individuals cherish.  Instead, they stimulate humiliation, illness, anger, hatred and punishment.  They are places that encourage moral indifference between staff and prisoners, where the shared humanity of prisoners and staff is neutralised and where the pain and suffering of one another is ignored.

Rather than investing in criminal justice and building more prisons in a time of economic austerity, we should be demanding investment in our communities, in our social lives and in programmes that centralise the importance of social justice – for everyone.


This article first appeared on the Reclaim Justice Network site, at: https://reclaimjusticenetwork.org.uk/2017/06/29/build-communities-not-prisons/

Abolitionism in Question(s): Part Two

Deborah H. Drake and David Scott, The Open University



  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.




  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.




  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. 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’.


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.


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.


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.


  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.