The Abolitionist Message on Prison Reform, David Gordon Scott

Penal abolitionism is a radical style of thinking which acknowledges that there are many different ways of interpreting and understanding problematic behaviours, troubles and human conflicts. Abolitionists believe that when it comes to prison sentences, it is often more about the person who breaks the law than the illegality that has been perpetrated.

The Abolitionists’ message

Penal abolitionists question the very assumptions of the criminal law and argue that rather than providing a solution, the criminal law is much more likely to create new social problems. The prison is conceived as a place of violence which systematically generates harms, suffering and death. Punishment is understood as the deliberate infliction of pain. Though sometimes prisons are portrayed as “holiday camps” there is considerable illiteracy among the general public about the inherent harms and violence of penal confinement. One of the key goals of penal abolitionism is to help educate the masses about the institutionally structured violence of the prison place. Irrespective of prison conditions, the estrangement from normal life and consciousness of the subsequent wasting of human life is something which has characterised the reformed prisons since their inception over 200 years ago. As such, prisons will always be experienced as painful and damaging.

How do we justify emprisonment?

As two wrongs cannot make a right, abolitionists argue that the onus should always be on the defenders of punishment and prisons to justify the harms inflicted through the penal apparatus of the capitalist state. If the violence, harm and suffering of the prison cannot be defended, then the call should be for the institution to be abolished. Abolitionism should be our default position rather than the basis of critique. Only if convincing arguments can be made to justify pain infliction should the deprivation of liberty be considered as a possible intervention. Penal abolitionists argue that such arguments have not yet been successfully made. In this sense penal abolitionists are conscientious objectors to prisons, punishment and any other policies or practices which are grounded in the deliberate infliction of pain and suffering.

Penal abolitionists then maintain that there is no moral defence for the prison or indeed the application of the penal rationale (logic of punishment) more broadly. There is barely no evidence to suggest that reformed prisons since the 1800s have achieved their aims and goals around deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation. It is impossible to scientifically measure deterrence (we can only assess events that happen rather than guess about the reasons why they did not) and it is well known that what may deter one person will not necessarily deter another.

Human attachments and social bonds are the most effective ways of ensuring human compliance, and state punishments are more likely to destroy human relationships than build new ones. At best prisons displace criminal activities from occurring in wider society, but most likely prisons will delay problematic and anti-social behaviours until after release. Prisons very often also have ‘capacitating effects’ in that they build capacity for future lawbreaking and though the ultimate sanction of the law are steeped in illegalities on a daily basis. There is no evidence that prisons rehabilitate. In fact, they are much more likely to dehabilitate.

The abolitionists’ alternative

Penal abolitionists aim also to find pragmatic and “real utopian” solutions to such difficulties that can be introduced right now to deal with human conflicts without adopting the punitive rationale. Abolitionists point to the importance of the civil law, therapeutic interventions, focusing on the needs of victims and offering mediation and other forms of intervention that can help redress the harm done by the illegal or problematic act.

But abolitionists also promote transformative justice – they are concerned with the victims of social justice as well as illegal conduct. Abolitionists therefore also call for interventions that can help build pro-social attitudes and solidarity as well as calling for a much more equitable distribution of wealth. There are a number of different ‘abolitionist perspectives’ and the core assumptions of the approach are influenced by, among others, Anarchist, Libertarian, Christian and Marxist philosophies. They are all shaped though by a concern with the moral and political legitimacy of the prison and the need to find peaceful means of resolving conflict.

Different abolitionist perspectives also share common ground in recognising that prisons and punishment must be understood with the corrosive nature of social and economic inequalities and the need to build rights regarding cultures within societies that are grounded in the principles of social justice.

Penal abolitionists maintain that there are no radical differences between criminals and non-criminals and divisions between such categories are largely achieved because similar behaviours are treated differently. Connecting individual biographies with broader structural relations of a given historic period abolitionists examine how penalisation operates within a society that is deeply divided around the structural fault lines of ‘race’, class, gender, sexuality and age.

The penal law is seen as being disproportionately applied to the poor, underprivileged, the unskilled and the ‘unrespectable’. At the heart of this process is the use of separating or ‘dividing practices’. Through the act of dividing the manipulative from the genuine, the deserving from the undeserving, and the ‘us’ from the ‘them’, a false dichotomy is established facilitating the differential treatment of people. This means of ‘othering’ is also linked to the construction of social and psychic distance of the offender – the greater the distance between offender and victim, the more likely the criminal law will be used, particularly if they are deemed to be ‘unrespectable’ and low status.

The role of prison

For penal abolitionists then prisons are understood as counter-productive institutions that create ‘crime’ rather than resolve social and moral conflicts. The prison place is conceived as a toxic environment and all humans placed in such a degrading and damaging place are considered vulnerable to its structured pains and harms.

For abolitionists one way to draw attention to the inherent immoral practices of the prison place is through highlighting the everyday problems, troubles and conflicts of prison life and their detrimental impact upon the health of prison populations. These troubles are a private matter that occur within the lived experiences of individual prisoners and affects their immediate relationships and social world. They become, however, a controversial issue when they are transformed into a public matter and linked to the political and economic structures of a given society. Individual troubles in prison can be used to make connections between the micro-realities of prison life and a new and plausible ‘bigger picture’ of the social world – that is the prison can come to resemble a reflection of the inequalities inherent in wider society.

Penal abolitionists therefore demand that as a society we should take seriously the needs of all victims of social injustice and that we collectively work together towards building a society which prioritises human need and social justice. Penal abolitionists are therefore against institutions which are grounded in the production of violence, harm, death and suffering and for institutions which can effectively build human solidarity and meet human need through peaceful means. This briefly is the abolitionist message.

This is a guest blog written by a teacher and researcher David Scott. You can follow him here. It is part of a series of guest blogs written by Injustice Documentary’s interviewees and other criminal justice reformers. If you are interested in submitting a piece, please contact us.

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