Our prison system is broken. Is it time to abolish prisons altogether?

David Scott argues that our prison system represents a human rights disaster, and reformist solutions can't tackle the root problems.

February 16, 2018
12 min read

Photo by Olli Homann

Prisons are places of suffering, violence and death. There have been attempts to reform the prison for over 200 years. Yet since the opening of the General Penitentiary in 1816, prisons have been failed institutions. Penal reformers focus on the minutest aspects of prison, calling for changes to its daily working practices – in the firm belief that prisons can be humane and healthy. This is the usual liberal ‘common sense’ – that prisons are necessary, but should be suitably humane. Against this ‘common sense’, the prospect of abolishing prisons entirely seems utopian. But to the abolitionist, clinging to reformism in face of its successive failures seems far more doomed and utopian. It is surely naïve to think there are obvious and simple solutions to the humanitarian disaster confronting prisons.

This doesn’t mean abolitionists wish to stand back and disengage from ameliorating horrific penal realities. Instead of understanding abolition and reform as two polar opposites, it is important to consider them as operating on a continuum. There are reforms that should be advocated, but abolitionists call these reforms ‘non-reformist reforms’. Abolitionists advocate human rights, social justice, democratic accountability and policies that can bring down prison populations: like the legalisation of various illicit substances; the decarceration of young people; the ending of prisons for women offenders, and so on and so forth.

One of the problems of the reformist position is that it can be easily being co-opted. People have been talking about reform for centuries, and yet nothing seems to have really changed for the better. Many well-intentioned reforms end up being sucked into the system, manipulated and used to shore up existing penal realities: we feel ourselves justified in depriving more people of their liberty, as we view incarceration as tolerably human. But this sets the horizons not at ensuring human liberty, but ensuring that society at large can feel comfortable with a system that strips people of that liberty. It is only from an abolitionist perspective that co-option can be avoided. It is only the abolitionists who can draw a line in the sand and say that our ideas, our interventions, our engagement, will not be used to further the hideous nature of penal incarceration.

Nordic countries, like Norway, are much less punitive than England and Wales. As such, they are often presented to us a model of penal reform. However, we have to recognise the differences between a Nordic society, such as Norway, and a society such as our own, which shapes the way ‘justice’ is configured. Whereas England and Wales take a neo-liberal approach to capitalism, exclusively orientating society towards accumulating profit, Norway adopts a social democratic approach emphasing human welfare. Social democratic principles permeate not only their welfare institutions but also their penal institutions. Thus, it’s unclear how a neoliberal society such as the UK could mimic Nordic-style prisons without similar adoption Nordic-style social institutions which target the causes of crime, with a view to reducing the overall prison population.

Nonetheless, it’s useful to dwell on why even a seemingly enlightened social-democratic response still fails to tackle the inherent damage wreaked by the carceral system. Let’s take for example of Bastøy prison in Norway.  Bastøy prison has no obvious walls or barriers, and effectively is a small community on an isolated island. But testimonies of prisoners confirm Bastøy retains all the trappings of a prison: inherently destructive because it is all about wasting life. Prisons take a person’s time for a certain number of years, and so will always hurt. A phrase many people are very familiar with is, when you’re having fun, doesn’t time fly?  But when you’re not having fun, when time is monotonous and boring, when nothing is happening in your life, time drags. This is what prison really is: the dragging out of time, day after day, away from friends, families and loved ones.  A prisoner could be locked in the Ritz Hotel and they would still find it profoundly upsetting, damaging and painful if they’re isolated from their social connections in a single small room. Bastøy prison can not get away from its basic nature: the destruction of a big section of a person’s life.  Nobody copes with this element of prison. Nobody knows ‘how to do the time’. Securing a persons’ identity requires a whole host of forms of support from significant people in their life.  Prison takes these away, so should we really be surprised that it is so destructive, deadly and harmful.  Reforms of prison conditions and working practices can never address this problem.

Despite the more progressive humanitarian elements of the Nordic model, you still find significant problems: in certain years in the past there have been disproportionately higher number of prison deaths in Nordic countries than in England and Wales.  Further, prisons like Bastøy are used exclusively for Norwegian citizens. Prisons for non-nationals in Norway are similar to those in England and Wales, because its non-citizens who are the outsider; the people who don’t count. So, whilst Nordic countries have a more inclusionary model of citizenship at the same time, there is a strong sense of protectionism and hostility to lawbreakers who are refugees, asylum seekers or otherwise seen as migrants.

England and Wales have high numbers of Black Asian and Minority Ethnic communities in prisons. Of the 86 000 people in prison in England and Wales, about 14%, are foreign nationals (which is around 10,000 people). Prisons in England and Wales prisons are undoubtedly used to soak up impoverished communities that have been totally marginalised. This alone should surely shift our attention away from the reform of penal regimes, and towards questioning the function they fulfil in maintaining established systems of power. The people processed by the criminal law have largely perpetrated property offences early in their lives and – perhaps even because of what prison does to them as well all the other damage and wreckage that they have been through in their life –  may turn towards more violent crimes as time goes on. Whereas we do not learn much by looking at the offences people have done, we can learn an enormous amount be examining of who they are. Prison populations are overwhelmingly made up of people who have problematic substance usage; have mental health problems; have grown up in care; and are people who have either experienced or witnessed sexual violence. Image someone in society that most people will have enormous sympathy for – people who have been down-trodden, harmed and abused as a child, have had little real support from others, or can barely read or write – and that is the prison population of England and Wales today.  

This is one of the reasons why prisons have such a long history of failure.  The argument that ‘prisons work’ because they bring positive consequences just don’t add up given the high re-offending rates. Rehabilitation, deterrence or incapacitation, fail on empirical ground immediately.  As deterrence, for example, cannot be empirically tested because you can never measure what doesn’t happen, there is not a single shred of evidence deterrence works. But deterrence is even more problematic, because what might deter one person might not deter somebody else. Humans don’t have some inbuilt, set deterrent level where when the consequences get to a certain point we automatically refrain from certain activities. Deterrence is dependent our attachments and that we could lose our attachment to significant people.  If someone has a job, social status and position, they have things to lose.  But what happens if you haven’t got anything to take away? Would a prison sentence still be a deterrent? Thinking about this rationally, even if a prison sentence did have some effect, it would surely impact differently upon somebody who’s got a lot to lose compared to somebody who’s got nothing to lose.  Deterrence works for people who don’t need it. It doesn’t work for people who are most likely to become embroiled in the criminal process.

Prisons also systematically generate thought of death.  Prison populations, in England and Wales and elsewhere, have very high levels of suicidal ideation (thinking about ending their own life). Somewhere in the region of between about 40 to 45% of prisoners in England and Wales context, have within a two-year period of time, experienced thoughts of taking their own life. In 2016 there were more than 345 deaths in prison of which, as of January 2018, 120 have been classified as self-inflicted deaths. As more than 40 deaths have yet to be classified, that number will go up. One person took their own life in prison in England and Wales every three days in 2016. When we think about what the prison service will not officially record – attempted self-inflicted deaths – the picture darkens still further.  Estimates of the number of people who have near-death experiences in prison can be gleaned from existing official data. If we examine the number of people in the past who have been hospitalised for substance use overdoses or people who have been resuscitated, then data on this from that past, indicates that there are people attempting to take their lives in prison very regularly. Data published in January 2018 indicates that there were 3007 incidents of self-harm that lead to hospitalisation in 2017, which is 8 each day or one every three hours.

A further significant distinction between penal reformism and penal abolitionism is that reformists are largely, if not exclusively, focused on the criminal process, where abolitionists have a much more holistic approach and highlight the problem of punishment as well as social harms in society as a whole.  People appear extremely attached to punishment and the notion of desert in particular. We apparently live in a meritocracy and desert is deeply engrained in our psyche. ‘Just deserts’ is one of the key rationalisations of punishment and defence of the prison. But in an advanced capitalist society like England and Wales people don’t get what they deserve. They don’t even end up getting what they need.  So what people cling to is a sense of retribution. But two wrongs can never make a right. You can never give people what they deserve through punishment. Blaming is counterproductive. It is backward-looking, is effectively about justifying hurting somebody.  Blaming can make people less likely to be honest; it can create obstacles to future change; it can entrench problematic behaviours in people’s lives and make them more likely to do wrong again.

Unlike penal reformism, abolitionism directly engages with the punishment element of desert, highlighting how the criminal law has a particular focus on n groups of people at the bottom of the social hierarchy who are publicly acting out their problematic behaviour.  The criminal law does not control the rich and the powerful; it doesn’t focus on the harms done by states, it doesn’t even often focus on the harms done behind closed doors by adults. It focuses on the public harms of the powerless.

Prisons and the numbers of people we put in prison are a political choice. There is no doubt that if politicians wanted to radically reduce or even end the use of penal custody tomorrow, they could do so. As conscientious objectors to the prison, abolitionists expose its hideous realities and attempt to put the government under some kind of political pressure. Unequal societies are more punitive societies because they are competitive, hierarchical and rooted in status.  When people are worried about their jobs, status and position in society what you inevitably get is a greater sense of insecurity.  The abolitionist vision of change is not restricted to the reformist vision of cleaner and more human prisons but one which calls for a more equitable society where people’s needs are being met.  Abolitionists want to see a true levelling in the social and economic distributions of wealth and power. Radical reductions in our reliance on prison will come hand in hand with a less hierarchical society that treats people with solidarity and compassion and kindness. We get closer to this goal when people are released from the punitive mentality.  It is often said ‘you can’t teach somebody to live in freedom whilst in captivity’. If what we want is a more caring, humane and safer society, then we have to put the groundwork in place for that kind of society to exist.  This means building an abolitionist future.

But abolitionism isn’t just about a vision of the future. It is about social justice, holding people to account and promoting recognition of human dignity and human rights. But these things aren’t just future aspirations. We can have accountability in the here and now. We can fight for social justice in the here and now. We can respect the common humanity of other people right here, right now. We go forward by promoting non-reformist reforms, advocating changes that can make things just a little bit better, which are humanitarian but at the same time have that future aspiration and goal in mind and ensuring that those non-reformist reforms do not undermine that, but rather facilitate it.