Prisons don’t need improving, they need dismantling. Now.

"Fire to the prisons!" graffiti
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On 17 February, The Observer asked the question: “Are prisons in England and Wales facing a meltdown?”. The article takes the murder of prisoner Kader Ahmed Saleh inside HMP Wormwood Scrubs as a launchpad to explore a host of problems found throughout our prison system. These include:

  • “Record levels” of self-harm amongst prisoners, running at an average of 117 cases per day across the system.
  • Overcrowding experienced in “two-thirds of prisons” across England and Wales.
  • Living conditions described as “squalor” in multiple prisons including HMP Liverpool.
  • Escalating drug use due to inmates being “desperate to kill time”.
  • Organised gangs that “hold huge power” inside prisons.

During the summer of 2017, prisons in England and Wales were left with fewer than 800 spaces. That’s less than 1% in a system intended for 87,209 potential inmates. It was described as a “crisis”.

The prison population in England and Wales has since fallen. The most recent figure, published on 16 February, is 84,255. But for these tens of thousands still incarcerated, the situation appears to be getting worse.

The answer is not to build 10,000 new prison places, or to train more prison officers. We must first drastically reduce the prison population. And then we must get rid of prisons altogether.

‘Prisons have never worked’

Most people recognise there are fundamental problems with our prison system. But the abolitionist believes the problem is prison itself.

Dr David Scott, a senior lecturer with the Open University, is a leading advocate of prison abolition in the UK. In a recent video series, he explains [0:32] that:

Prisons have never worked as places of rehabilitation. Transformations require voluntary consent and cannot be undertaken within a coercive environment… It is impossible to teach people to live in freedom whilst in captivity.

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He then proceeds to lay out the basics of an abolitionist approach. This involves two important pillars. First, we must drastically and quickly reduce the prison population. Second, we must build social relations and public institutions that truly help the most vulnerable in society.

What reoffending rates tell us

Releasing prisoners begins by recognising that many people currently locked up don’t really belong there. The more than 3,000 prisoners serving indeterminate sentences for public protection (IPP), for example, many of whom are years over their original sentence. Or the estimated 4,500 people prosecuted under joint enterprise for crimes they didn’t themselves commit. And the nearly 12,500 [pdf, p26] men and women jailed for drug offences.

There are also questions about jail terms of 12 months and under. In 2011, the Howard League estimated [pdf, p2] that more than 60,000 people a year enter and leave prison on short-term sentences. But in 2017, the Prison Reform Trust revealed [pdf, p14] that 59% of short-term prisoners are convicted of another crime within a year of being released. The financial cost is staggering [pdf, p14]:

Reoffending by all recent ex-prisoners costs the economy between £9.5 and £13 billion annually. As much as three quarters of this cost can be attributed to former short-sentenced prisoners: some £7–10bn a year.

It suggests prisons are not a deterrent from crime, nor places of rehabilitation. And continuing to imprison people costs wider society.

That’s why the abolitionist position also demands development of strong, healthy social mechanisms to prevent harmful actions from happening in the first place. It’s no coincidence that 50% of prisoners have a reading age of 11 or lower. Or that many people in prison also live with mental health issues. Scott suggests [0:48] we need:

to make sure that we invest in our healthcare, our education and our welfare systems. That we need to have a situation where we meet the needs of those vulnerable people that we currently send to prison.

Accountability and community

But what are alternatives for people that commit acts of profound harm such as murder and sexual violence?

In southern Mexico, Mayan communities known as Zapatistas are building radically different social models. These include models of justice. Serious offences such as murder are handled by facilitating a dialogue between all parties – including the murderer – to reach a solution that serves the victim. During an introduction to their communities, representatives from the Zapatista Freedom School explained:

Some families think – what is the purpose of putting in jail the murderer? I won’t have my son back. So they agree on some other punishment. A murderer serves sentence working to provide for his family and the family of the affected people.

This type of accountability process is widely seen by abolitionists as an effective alternative to prison. And it is the bedrock for dealing with actions that are deeply damaging.

It can be seen in the work of generation FIVE. This US initiative aims to “empower bystanders to confront child sex abuse”. And in doing so end such abuse without prisons. It functions by breaking the culture of silence where child sexual abuse flourishes.

Accountability has also proven to be a powerful tool to fight sexual abuse in this country. The community accountability processes of Circles UK, a not-for-profit organisation, have led to an 83% reduction in re-offending by those convicted of sexual offences.

Fire to the prisons

These examples don’t mean an end to all forms of crime. And there is no single solution. But they show we can engage with more effective responses than putting someone inside a cage.

Crime and punishment has long been a vote winner for successive governments. There are profits to be had for private companies in prisons as well. All of that might explain why there is little will to build serious alternatives to the prison system. But these are not incentives for most of us. We are better served by healthy, empowered communities.

That’s why prison abolition doesn’t ask for better prisons. Yes, cleaner cells, healthier food and more meaningful tasks are an immediate necessity for current inmates. But ultimately we need to practice a more radical accountability. Something that doesn’t let individuals off the hook for committing harmful acts, but does ensure we all take responsibility for creating stronger social bonds and a more compassionate culture. And that won’t happen without dismantling prisons.

Get Involved!

Visit STOP, which offers personal narratives about confronting violent and abusive behaviour through community accountability.

– For media about UK prison abolition check out the Novara Media podcast “The Lockdown”. Or make it to a screening of UK prison abolition documentary “Injustice“.

– The USA has a stronger history of prison abolition thanks to its relationship with Black liberation. Check out the documentary 13TH and the works of Angela Davis.

Featured image via Fred Stampach/Flickr

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