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Prison abolition isn’t impossible. It’s necessary.

It's time to take prison abolitionism seriously, argues David Scott.

February 28, 2018
11 min read

To read more in our series on prison abolition, click here


Alongside critiquing of the deadly harms of imprisonment, penal abolitionists strongly emphasise the importance of building something new and much better in place of prisons.  ‘Abolitionist alternatives’ start with recognition that the extensive use of imprisonment is often situated within the context of profoundly unequal societies.  Abolitionist values, such as solidarity, love, kindness, compassion and friendships stand in opposition to social and economic inequalities. Abolitionist alternatives promote then an ethics and politics of responsibility and abolitionists ask us in our everyday lives to take responsibility for others.

To change the world you have to start with yourself. Ideas about institutional change and transforming society are essential, but in the first instance abolitionism means being kinder; more compassionate; and more generous in how we engage daily with other people: it’s about trying to cleanse ourselves of punitiveness.  Whilst no-one is ever going to be able to completely achieve this, and certainly not alone, it is important to live abolitionist values on a daily basis.  We should attempt to create communities of abolition.  Advanced capitalist societies like England and Wales foster hierarchies and a sense of distance and unrelatedness to other human beings, providing a breeding ground for punitiveness.  Abolitionist ‘non-reformist reforms’ therefor include policies that could reduce inequalities.  This includes radical social policies such as the basic minimum income; the abolition of inheritance; the creation of a maximum wage; and a Robin Hood model of taxation. Such ‘real utopian’ interventions could be immediately implemented to help lead us towards a more social democratic, if not socialist, society

The ethics and politics of responsibility operate on a number of levels. Taking responsibility at a societal level (social responsibility) means being responsible for the social harms generated through class, ‘race’, gender, age sexuality and other social divisions. It means saying YES: yes to a more equitable society and new ways of engaging with human beings so they ae less likely to do wrongful behaviour in the future. It means promoting intervention that can help somebody put something back into society. We should have forward- rather than backward -looking approach to social harms. And we should be generous, giving the best possible interpretation to the actions of other and saying YES, I believe you can do this; I have hope that you can get better or redeem yourself and do something really positive with your life; that as a society we should invest in you, take into account the problems that you’ve had in life, and recognise that that probably is going to make mistakes again.

Abolitionist alternatives should help people to think about what they have done wrong. Many of those processed by the criminal law have grown up in care, been sexually abused as a child, or lived in poverty and hardship for much of their lives. Many have also witnessed domestic violence or been bullied. All those horrors characterise the lives of people in prison. We ned then to say YES, we collectively will take responsibility for addressing those harms, and will attempt to make sure that others do not suffer a similar plight in the future. People can apologise and acknowledge wrongdoing without necessarily going through the logic of blame. Blaming is punitive and counter-productive. Through a process of dialogue a person can think about what they have done and what they can do now to take responsibility for putting right what was wrong.  This is not blaming. Blame is about putting the perpetrator in an abstract scenario, finding guilt and then punishing them. Abolitionists call instead for redress, and to do this in a way which reflects that person’s human rights and human dignity.

The phrase that I would use to sum up abolitionist alternatives is the ‘paradigm of life’. This means focusing on human fulfilment, creating life, generating vitality and fostering human wellbeing. In so doing, there is an implicit criticism of those institutions which do the exact opposite to the paradigm of life:  institutions haunted by the spirit of death. We should focus on building institutions which can protect human beings and lead to a kinder society where people reach their potential, instead of that potential being destroyed at an early age.

One objection to taking abolitionist alternatives seriously is that certain wrongdoers, for example murderers and rapists, will always require a prison sentence.  There are continuities regarding how abolitionists respond to the ‘what do we do about the rapists and murderers’ question, but let me start by discussing people who sexually offend.  Rather than not taking sexual violence and rape seriously, abolitionists take such harms exceptionally seriously, but they recognise that only a very small number of people who actually perpetrate these acts end up being dealt with by the criminal law. Abolitionists acknowledge the way in which rape is something marginalised and inappropriately dealt with by the criminal law.  This is because the criminal law is in adequate intervention for dealing with intimate human relationships. Most people are raped or abused, physically or sexually, by somebody they know. And the criminal law, cannot deal with these kinds of situations, because the victim is emotionally attached or cares about the person who has harmed them. Further, if you’re trying to deal with violence, then prison is the last place to send a perpetrator of sexual violence. The prison is likely to generate further violence.  

Prisons were never designed or intended to deal with sexual violence. They were invented to discipline and reform property offences. The government has reinvented the prison since the 1970s as a place that can deal with physical and sexual violence, but this is an impossible aspiration.  If as a society we want to address issues of sexual violence, then therapeutic interventions are the order of the day.  In the 1990s there were interventions by people like Ray Wyre, who ran community therapeutic interventions for violent men. His interventions worked, but they were shut down.  A few years later in the 1990s / early 2000s, the Lucy Faithfull Foundation also developed therapeutic interventions for sexually violent men. People who sexually offended were helped by this treatment programme but it was also shut down. There isn’t really a lot of political will to find non-punitive ways which actually address sexual violence. The key point is that we need to acknowledge the nature and extent of actual harm itself, protect victims and their families, and advocate new ways of intervening that can help reduce this harm in the future.

If we now consider murder, and by this I mean intentional homicide, there are on average about 700 murders every year in England and Wales. There were fractionally more in 2015-2016, and fractionally less the year before that. That is a significant number of people and the suffering of bereaved family members is heart-breaking.   But let me mention two other pieces of data and to explore deadly harms not from the perspective not of intentional homicide, but that of social murder. A social murder is when people die because of the harmful consequences of the policies of government or the practices of state institutions or the working practices of employers.  According to Watkins and others, who published a report in the British Medical Journal in November 2017, due to the austerity policies of governments from 2010 to 2017, every day, 100 people die prematurely. Think also about the arguments of the Hazards Campaign, who look at work-related deaths, and who point out that every day, 140 people die prematurely because of work-related deaths. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that if you look at those figures independently, over a week, there are more people who die because of government policies of austerity or because of work-related illnesses and deaths than die through intentional homicides in a year.

The issue we should be concerned about is avoidable deaths. Abolitionists are very concerned about premature mortality but t looking at it holistically, and situate intentional homicides within this broader focus on avoidable death. Abolitionist alternatives, when it comes to murderers and rapists, entail the acknowledgement of the true nature of the problems and a commitment to take social responsibility for them.  Sexual violence and avoidable deaths cannot be understood outside of broader power relations.  In the main they reflect an abuse of power.  They are also harms that are exacerbated by either social or economic inequalities. Taking responsibility for this collectively, as a society, means trying to address the underlying problems that lead to avoidable deaths, premature mortality and sexual violence. We can do that through promoting social policies that work.

There is undoubtedly a utopian element to abolitionist alternatives, for abolitionists want a better society. I talked about earlier abolitionist real utopias, which focus on what we can do to make things better right now. The abolitionist real utopia aims to make an immediate difference to reduce social and economic inequalities and prison population.  Abolitionist real utopias would offer a number of non-penal interventions in place of the prison sentence.  We have to be careful that we don’t just promote alternatives which are going to be add-ons to the current system. We always have to make an argument against the prison, convincingly point out that punishment is a problem, and demonstrate how kind of society we live in perpetuates our orientation towards punishment, before we promote alternatives. We do, of course, need alternatives, because a rat is not going to leave a sinking ship unless it’s got something to jump onto, and none of us would either.

In shark-infested waters, you’re going to stay in the sinking ship for as long as you can rather than go into the water, because you don’t know what dangers are out there.  Abolitionist alternatives some sense of where we are going to go, and there are literally hundreds of alternatives that can be drawn upon. Examples include up-ending the criminal process, where instead of being offender-orientated it would be orientated towards the needs of victims. This would be a much more sensible approach to creating places of safety, care and protection for people who have been harmed.  Putting the ‘victim’ first would be a real, genuine victim-orientated approach to responding to harms and wrong-doing. Therapeutic communities could be developed which would help deal with even some of the most difficult individuals. There are also example we could draw upon from Sweden in the 1970s, where people who had perpetrated serious offences were allowed to go and restart their lives in isolated areas in the countryside.  It wouldn’t be the same as where they’d come from, but they could take their families with them. It certainly wouldn’t be about estrangement in the same way as prison is… We could use the civil law rather than the criminal law. We could look for restitution and redress. Those kinds of things we easily could do.

Abolitionist alternatives focus on non-penal interventions that work. We should try and fix what’s wrong and take responsibility for moving things forward, rather than actually looking back and blaming and punishing. We should invest in people. We should give kids who’ve got nothing something that they don’t want to lose. They would then have things have a sense of ownership of the society they live in, instead of being a dispossessed sub-proletariat.  Such people would no-longer be on the outside; they would have a sense of belonging. All this could happen tomorrow if we wanted to start moving in that direction.

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