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Prison is not the answer

A humane society shouldn’t be caging up vulnerable people. Jasmine Ahmed of CAPE (Community Action on Prison Expansion) argues for radical alternatives.

5 to 6 minute read

Prison is not the answer

More police, and more power in the hands of the criminal justice system, is the common-sense answer to crime and violence heard across the political spectrum, including in the Labour Party. However, as words like ‘intersectionality’ and ‘privilege’ are increasingly spoken in left-wing spaces, it is frustrating to see the continuing support for criminal justice-focused solutions to what are primarily social problems, and disproportionately affect those with intersecting marginalised identities.

Whether it is prisons, detention under the Mental Health Act or immigration detention centres, we must look critically at the expansion of the prison-industrial complex, and our own punitive impulses.

Prison profiteers

When we speak about the prison-industrial complex, we are talking about the overlap in interests of the government and private companies that profit from social, economic and political problems through surveillance, policing and imprisonment. The UK has 14 private prisons, currently holding just under a fifth of its prisoners.

It’s not just private prisons that create profit for private companies, however, as public prisons outsource provision of food and other services to private companies. For example, Carillion (which has since collapsed) was awarded a £500 million contract in 2015 for ‘facilities management’. There are also nine immigration detention centres in England, almost all privately run. The process of deportation is outsourced to private companies, including airlines providing charter flights.

In 2016, the government announced a commitment to create 10,000 new prison places, with the construction or redevelopment of six men’s and five women’s prisons. At the same time, we see continued cuts to welfare services.

Of the approximately 85,000 people currently imprisoned in England and Wales, 26 per cent are black, Asian or minority ethnic, despite only making up around 10 per cent of the overall population. Over 80 per cent of those held in women’s prisons are there for non‑violent crimes.

More than half of prisoners were abused as children, while 46 per cent of those in women’s prisons are survivors of domestic abuse. But when you are convicted of a crime, you are then defined only by that, and not by the rest of your experience. Over half of people entering prison were assessed as having the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old, with 29 per cent identified as having a learning difficulty or disability. A prisoner with learning difficulties is three times more likely to have spent time in segregation.

In contrast to the non-violence of many of their crimes, prisoners face state violence in various forms: physical aggression, restraint and control, as well as sexual assault (345 reported in 2016; the real number is likely much higher) and the psychological and emotional violence of being isolated – removed from your family and community. Every 15 minutes someone in prison self-harms, and every four hours one person attempts to take their own life. Twelve women died as a result of suicide in prison in 2016.

Who feels safer?

A soft-left feminist approach relies on campaigns for stronger hate crime legislation and other specific laws around sexual offences, as well as longer sentences for inter‑personal violence. This shows the fundamental difference in our perceptions of safety. When more police are on the street, who is it that is made to feel safer? Those benefiting from racial and class privilege do not have the same experience of control and surveillance at the hands of the state, and are therefore more likely to see this system working for them.

The most marginalized, however, will continue to suffer. Victims of crime are less likely to report, less likely to be believed – and more likely to be treated like ‘criminals’ themselves – when they are poor, minority ethnic, LGBTQI, a migrant, a sex worker, a person with mental health needs, homeless, have a substance dependency or a past criminal record. A system that is ready to perceive you as a criminal does not so easily see you as a victim. The prison system often ends up detaining survivors for defending themselves from their abusers. The criminal justice system perpetrates violence against our most vulnerable, while the more privileged escape accountability for even the most grievous of harms.

We should be providing support for marginalised people instead of criminalising them. Feminist anti-violence work that seeks to create safety for all must take a systemic view of the social conditions that lead to imprisonment. We need to dismantle the institutions that perpetuate violence and build transformative alternatives. The prison-industrial complex stands as the fundamental symbol of these oppressive, violent structures.

While private companies continue to profit from the criminalisation of marginalised people, there is no motivation to attempt to heal communities or alleviate harmful social conditions. A world without prisons would be one that provides adequate housing as standard, trauma-informed mental health support and other healthcare services and education. It necessitates the dismantling of racist, patriarchal power structures and the eradication of poverty.

Local solutions – prison is not the answer

When supporting the people we love, we often solve problems without the police. If we implement community-based initiatives, then when, inevitably, harm is caused, we can take a transformative approach to justice where we take responsibility as communities for the oppressive dynamics we have created. When someone acts harmfully, we must ensure that the person who has been harmed has the support they need. We can establish new processes for the perpetrator to be accountable for the harm they have caused and take time to understand and educate on how we as a community can prevent the same problems in the future.

Some groups are fighting against the expansion of the prison-industrial complex. Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) encompasses local campaigns against six new ‘super-prisons’ the government plans to build over the next few years. Opposing the building of new prisons and detention centres aims to resist the expansion of the prison-industrial complex as a first step towards its ultimate abolition.

Activists have seen some success in these campaigns, as most of the prison plans have been delayed so far. Plans for one in Port Talbot, South Wales, have been rejected altogether due to local resistance.

London Campaign Against Police and State Violence and Black Lives Matter UK are trying to hold the state to account and we have seen a shift in the mainstream narrative around police brutality because of their tireless work. Groups such as SOAS Detainee Support and the Anti-Raids Network are organising against the Tories’ ‘hostile environment’, working with individuals on their immigration cases, as well as disrupting immigration raids and charter flights, and drawing attention to violence towards detainees.

The Reclaim Holloway coalition, meanwhile, is campaigning for the site of the now-empty women’s prison to be used for the benefit of the community, with social housing and support facilities for women coming out of prison outside the criminal justice system.

Incarceration is a violent and inhumane response to social problems that serves to maintain the patriarchal, racist status quo. We must confront social problems rather than treating vulnerable people as disposable.

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