Why prison should be abolished

In this series exploring utopian ideas, prison abolition campaigner Jasmine Ahmed tells Casper Hughes that incarceration cannot solve society's ills

Casper Hughes
Wednesday 28 March 2018 14:07
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About 70 per cent of prisoners are there for non-violent crimes
About 70 per cent of prisoners are there for non-violent crimes

With reoffending rates at stratospheric levels – and the vast majority of prisoners coming from disadvantaged backgrounds – it’s clear there are fundamental problems with our current criminal justice system. But does it have to be like this? In this instalment of The Big Idea, Jasmine Ahmed insists prison is a demonstrably wrongheaded solution to distinctly social problems – and argues that only through transformative justice and community accountability can we prevent harm and reduce rates of violence.

What’s the problem prison abolition is trying to address?

The criminalisation of vulnerable people. In women’s prisons, 57 per cent of prisoners are survivors of domestic violence; in the wider prison population, 24 per cent have been in the care system. On top of this, the majority of the crimes these vulnerable people are committing – theft, handling stolen goods, drug offences and so on – are largely out of desperation and the need for survival created by a capitalist system.

Approximately 70 per cent of prisoners are there for non-violent crimes. Cast aside as inherently bad, prisoners are mostly working-class – disproportionately black or brown – and are nothing more than a product of their social realities. We want to change that narrative around there being good people and bad people, and the idea that there’s no other reason people break the law other than malice, when it’s usually out of desperation and because of problems our society has created. Prison keeps these people in a controlled, violent, isolated environment and brands them as criminals rather than coming to terms with the social issues that have shaped their circumstances, and the way we have victimised them because of it.

So, what’s the solution?

In the short term, stop the expansion of the prison-industrial complex. The Government currently plan to build six mega-prisons, some of which have been delayed at this point partly because of our campaigning.

In the long run, there’s a lot to do. To deal with the social problems that lead to crime, we need to dramatically change the infrastructure of our society. We need better housing, mental health and domestic violence services, and a universal basic income. But we also need a massive overhaul in our attitude to justice. Prisons as a necessary form of punishment are ingrained in our consciousness, and partly because of the way its punitive practices are mirrored throughout society. So children at school are put in detention when they are naughty – they are isolated and taken away from engaging in their education when they are seen to behave badly. Our urge is to punish in the hope they will learn to alter their behaviour, rather than attempting to understand why someone is behaving a certain way.

Regardless of what you think of punishment on a moral level, surely it does work as a deterrent?

In some cases yes. But punishment in the form of the prison system clearly doesn’t work. Half of the people who leave will end up reoffending. Prison clearly doesn’t reduce crime or rehabilitate offenders – it just reproduces the cycle. Children whose parents are in prison are far more likely go on to be incarcerated. It’s clear we need a completely different model that focuses on prevention and rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Transformative justice is the way in which we would propose to that. In this model, the majority of work needs to go into supporting and focusing on the needs of the survivor. But importantly, then the community takes responsibility for the fact that we as a society have created a culture that has allowed that harm to happen. This is not to absolve the perpetrator of wrongdoing, but to understand that their behaviour is a product of the power structures and culture that have conditioned them – not just simply because they’re inherently evil or bad – and so can be fixed if we change wider societal practices.

OK, there’s a logic in that. But surely there are some people who, while not necessarily evil, are at the very least a danger to those around them – rapists, for example. Should we not lock them up for the benefit of others?

Transformative justice is interested in ending sexual violence rather than simply locking up rapists after a rape has been committed. Of course, we want survivors to be safe – and it is something that would definitely need to be thought about further if these process were implemented on a wider scale – but we don’t believe isolation is the best way of halting sexual violence in the long run.

What we do know is if you take a violent person and subject them to isolation and more violence, which is what happens in prisons, that has never been proven to make a person less violent. Furthermore, there is an assumption that rapists are the people who are in prison, right? The conviction rate for rape cases is 6 per cent. And, as we know, rape goes massively underreported because of the traumatic experience people have when reporting to the police and because of the dynamics within relationships: the majority of sexual violence happens between people who actually know one another.

For someone to change it takes a lot of work, it really does, which is why we want to prevent harm before it happens. But currently the work of supporting survivors is also underestimated and that should be our main focus.

Jasmine Ahmed is an organiser with the campaigning group the Empty Cages Collective

If you have a utopian idea that needs to be heard, why don’t you get in touch? Send an email to casper.hughes@independent.co.uk

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