Prison abolition movement
The prison abolition movement is a loose network of groups and activists that seek to reduce or eliminate prisons and the prison system, and replace them with systems of rehabilitation that do not place a focus on punishment and government institutionalization.
It is distinct from conventional prison reform, which is the attempt to improve conditions inside prisons; however, relying on prisons less could improve their conditions by reducing overcrowding.:3
Supporters for prison abolition work toward non-reformist reforms, such as ending solitary confinement and the death penalty, stopping construction of new prisons, and the eradication of cash bail. Some organizations such as the Anarchist Black Cross seek total abolishment of the prison system, not intending to replace it with other government-controlled systems. Many anarchist organizations believe that the best form of justice arises naturally out of social contracts or restorative justice.
Advocates of prison abolition
Prominent social activist Angela Davis, outspoken critic of the prison-industrial complex (PIC), openly supports prison abolition. In her work, she writes: "Mass incarceration is not a solution to unemployment, nor is it a solution to the vast array of social problems that are hidden away in a rapidly growing network of prisons and jails. However, the great majority of people have been tricked into believing in the efficacy of imprisonment, even though the historical record clearly demonstrates that prisons do not work." Her relevancy in this movement is attested by her close involvement with groups moving to abolish the prison-industrial complex.
Critical Resistance, co-founded by Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, is an American organization working towards an "international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe." Other similarly motivated groups such as the Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC), a group "committed to exposing and challenging all forms of institutionalized racism, sexism, able-ism, heterosexism, and classism, specifically within the Prison Industrial Complex," and Black & Pink, an abolitionist organization that focuses around LGBTQ rights, all broadly advocate for prison abolition. Furthermore, names such as the Human Rights Coalition, a 2001 group that aims to abolish prisons, and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, a grassroots organization dedicated to dismantling the PIC, can all be added to the long list of organizations that desire a different form of justice system.
Every other year after Ruth Morris organized the first one in Toronto in 1983, The International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) gathers activists, academics, journalists, and "others from across the world who are working towards the abolition of imprisonment, the penal system, carceral controls and the prison industrial complex (PIC)," to discuss three important questions surrounding the reality of prison abolition ICOPA was one of the first penal abolitionist conference movements, similar to Critical Resistance in America, but "with an explicitly international scope and agenda-setting ambition."
Anarchists wish to eliminate all forms of state control, of which imprisonment is seen as one of the more obvious examples. Anarchists also oppose prisons because a significant number of inmates are non-violent offenders. Numbers show incarceration rates affect mainly poor people and ethnic minorities, and do not generally rehabilitate criminals, in many cases making them worse. As a result, the prison abolition movement often is associated with humanistic socialism, anarchism and anti-authoritarianism.
Proposed reforms and alternatives
Proposals for prison reform and alternatives to prisons differ significantly depending on the political beliefs behind them. Proposals and tactics often include:
- Penal system reforms:
- Prison condition reforms
- Crime prevention rather than punishment
- Abolition of specific programs which increase prison population, such as the prohibition of drugs (e.g., the American War on Drugs), gun control, prohibition of sex work, and alcohol restrictions.
- Education programs to inform people who have never been in prison about the problems
- Fighting individual cases of wrongful conviction
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime published a series of handbooks on criminal justice. Among them is Alternatives to Imprisonment which identifies how the overuse of imprisonment impacts fundamental human rights, especially those convicted for lesser crimes.
Social justice and advocacy organizations such as Students Against Mass Incarceration (SAMI) at the University of California, San Diego often look to Scandinavian countries Sweden and Norway for guidance in regards to successful prison reform because both countries have an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment. According to Sweden's Prison and Probation Service Director-General, Nils Öberg, this emphasis is made popular among the Swedish because the act of imprisonment is considered punishment enough. This focus on rehabilitation includes an emphasis on promoting normalcy for inmates, a charge lead by experienced criminologists and psychologists. In Norway a focus on preparation for societal re-entry has yielded "one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%, [while] the US has one of the highest: 76.6% of [Americans] prisoners are re-arrested within five years". The Scandinavian method of incarceration seems to be successful: the Swedish incarceration rate decreased by 6% between 2011 and 2012.
In place of prisons, some abolitionists propose community-controlled courts, councils, or assemblies to control the problem of social crime. They argue that with the destruction of capitalism, and the self-management of production by workers and communities, property crimes would largely vanish. A large part of the problem, according to some, is the way the judicial system deals with prisoners, people, and capital. They argue that there would be fewer prisoners if society treated people more fairly, regardless of gender, color, ethnic background, sexual orientation, education, etc. This is evidenced by the creation of private prisons in America and corporations like CoreCivic, formerly known as Correction Corporation of America (CCA). Its shareholders benefit from the expansion of prisons and tougher laws on crime. More prisoners is seen as beneficial for business.
Many organizations and abolitionists in the United States advocate community accountability practices an alternative to the criminal justice system. Organizations such as INCITE! and Sista II Sista that support women of color who are survivors of interpersonal violence argue that the criminal justice system does not protect marginalized people who are victims in violent relationships. Instead, victims, especially those who are poor, people of color, or trans or gender non-conforming, can experience additional violence at the hands of the state. Instead of relying on the criminal justice system, these organizations work to implement community accountability practices, which often involve collectively-run processes of intervention initiated by a survivor of violence to try to hold the person who committed violence accountable by working to meet a set of demands. For organizations outside the United States see, e.g. Justice Action, Australia.
Mental illness and prison
Prison abolitionists such as Amanda Pustlinik take issue with the fact that prisons are used as a "default asylum" for many individuals with mental illness. One question that is often asked by some prison abolitionists is:
"Why do governmental units choose to spend billions of dollars a year to concentrate people with serious illnesses in a system designed to punish intentional lawbreaking, when doing so matches neither the putative purposes of that system nor most effectively addresses the issues posed by that population?"
This question is often one of the major pieces of evidence that prison abolitionist claim highlights the depravity of the penal system. Many of these prison abolitionists often state that mentally ill offenders, violent and non-violent, should be treated in mental hospitals not prisons. In the United States, there are more people with mental illness in prisons than in psychiatric hospitals. By keeping the mentally ill in prisons they claim that rehabilitation cannot occur because prisons are not the correct environment to deal with deep seated psychological problems and facilitate rehabilitative practices. Individuals with mental illnesses that have led them to commit any crime have a much higher chance of committing suicide while in prison because of the lack of proper medical attention. The increased risk of suicide is said to be because there is much stigma around mental illness and lack of adequate treatments within hospitals. The whole point of the penal system is to rehabilitate and reform individuals who have willingly transgressed on the law. According to many prison abolitionists however, when mentally ill persons, often for reasons outside of their cognitive control, commit illegal acts prisons are not the best place for them to receive the help necessary for their rehabilitation. For many prison abolitionists, if for no other reason than the fact that mentally ill individuals will not be receiving the same potential for rehabilitation as the non-mentally ill prison population, prisons are considered to be unjust and therefore violate their Sixth Amendment and Fifth Amendment Rights, in the U.S., and their chance to rehabilitate and function outside of the prison. In America, by violating an individual's rights as a citizen, prison abolitionists see no reason for prisons to exist, and again, offer another reason people within the movement demand for the abolition of prisons.
1973 Walpole Prison Uprising
After the Attica prison massacre, the inmates of Walpole prison formed a prisoners' union to protect themselves from guards, end behavioural modification programs, more visitation rights, work assignments and the ability to send money to their families and advocate for the prisoner's right for education and healthcare. The union also ended race-related violence within the prison, creating a general truce between ethnic truce and an agreement to kill any inmate who broke said truce. During the black prisoner's Kwanzaa celebration, the black prisoner's were placed under lockdown, angering the whole facility and leading to a general strike. Prisoners refused to work or leave their cells for three months, leading to the guards beating prisoners, putting prisoners in solitary confinement, denying prisoners medical care and food.
The strike ended in the prisoners' favour as the superintendent of the prison resigned. The prisoners were granted more visitation rights and work programs. Angered by this, the prison guards went on strike and abandoned the prison, hoping that this would create chaos and violence throughout the prison. But the prisoners were able to create an anarchist community where recidivism dropped dramatically and murders and rapes fell to zero. The guards retook the prison after two months, leading to many prison administrators and bureaucrats quitting their jobs and embracing the prison abolition movement.
Arguments made for prison abolition
- Lack of proper legal representation
- "Eighty percent of people accused of crimes [in the United States] are unable to afford a lawyer to defend them." The US Supreme Court held in 1963 that a poor person facing felony charges "cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him."
- "Long Term Neglect and underfunding of indigent defense have created a crisis of extra ordinary proportions in many states throughout the country."
- War on drugs conceals racial tension
- (2005) "The United States leads the world in the number of people incarcerated in federal and state correctional facilities. There are currently more than 2 million people in American prisons or jails. Approximately one-quarter of those people held in U.S. prisons or jails have been convicted of a drug offense. The United States incarcerates more people for drug offenses than any other country. With an estimated 6.8 million Americans struggling with drug abuse or dependence, the growth of the prison population continues to be driven largely by incarceration for drug offenses."
- "The so-called drug war was started in the 1980s and it was aimed directly at the black population. None of this has anything to do with drugs. It has to do with controlling and criminalizing dangerous populations."
- "Blacks are 12.3 percent of the U.S. population (2001) but they comprise fully half of the roughly 2 million Americans currently behind Bars. On any given day, 30 percent of African-American males aged 20–29 are "under correctional supervision".
- Blacks constitute 13 percent of all drug users, but 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession, 55 percent of persons convicted, and 74 percent of people sent to prison.
- Incarceration is socially and economically crippling to the convicted and the community.
- "Each Prisoner represents an economic asset that has been removed from that community and placed elsewhere. As an economic being, the person would spend money at or near his or her area of residence—typically, an inner city. Imprisonment displaces that economic activity: Instead of buying snacks in a local deli, the prisoner makes those purchases in a prison commissary. The removal may represent a loss of economic value to the home community, but it is a boon to the prison [host] community. Each prisoner represents as much as $25,000 in income for the community in which the prison is located, not to mention the value of constructing the prison facility in the first place. This can be a massive transfer of value: a young male worth a few thousand dollars of support to children and local purchases is transformed into a $25,000 financial asset to a rural prison community. The economy of the rural community is artificially amplified, the local city economy is artificially deflated."
- Unfortunately, there are no definitive national statistics on the employment status of felons. But both anecdotal evidence and fragmentary data confirm what common sense would predict: individuals who have been incarcerated have great difficulty securing employment when they return to society. Except for a short period in the late 1990s, when the labor market was so tight that the Wall Street Journal reported on employer efforts to reach out to felons, those leaving prison have faced formidable obstacles to employment. Some of these difficulties are related to company policies or procedures and others are the result of employer perceptions of felons' job skills or trustworthiness. Felons are also barred from public employment in a number of states, including three with a high proportion of African American residents (Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina). Occupations that are licensed by states also have restrictions on allowing felons to work in them.
- It is argued by the Massachusetts Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition that the prison system is in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, and which is prescribing life, liberty, equality and justice to all people without discrimination of any sort as an inalienable right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has also abolished all forms of slavery and genocide, including torture, repression and oppression that prisons thrive upon.
- Imprisonment is seen by some as a form of violent behaviour which legitimises violence and cruelty, producing a "boomerang effect of dehumanisation" on the society which dehumanises itself and limits its potential for a peaceful future by resorting to the use of such repressive and cruel institutions.
- Prisons may be less effective at discouraging crimes and/or compensating victims than other forms of punishment.
- Degree and quality of access to justice depends on the financial resources of the accused.
- Prisons alienate people from their communities.
- In the U.S., people of color and from the lower class are much more likely to be imprisoned than people of European descent or people who are wealthy.
- People who are put in prison for what are arguably crimes motivated by need, such as some minor theft (food, etc.) or prostitution, find it much harder to obtain legal employment once convicted of a crime. Arguably, this difficulty makes it more likely they will find themselves back in the prison system, having had few other options or resources available to support themselves and/or their families. Many prison abolitionists argue that we should "legalize survival" and provide help to those who need it instead of making it even harder to find work and perpetuating the non-violent crimes.
- Prisons are not proven to make people less violent. In fact, there is evidence that they may instead promote violence in individuals by surrounding them with other violent criminals, which can lead to predictable negative/violent results.
- Drug-related offenders are being ushered in and out of the prison system like a revolving door. Rather than educate, and rehabilitate the offender to a clean path of sobriety and increased stature, the state ignores them.
Arguments made against prison abolition
Opponents of the abolition argue that none of the arguments above address the protection of non-criminal population from the effects of crime, and from particularly violent criminals.
- Individuals who have committed crimes, especially crimes violent in nature, must repay society. Retributive philosophy argues that punishment is necessary in order for an individual who has done wrong to pay for their crime
- Utilitarian ethics argues that the unhappiness of few is good or right if it leads to the happiness of the majority. The ethical argument in this case is that keeping 1% of the population incarcerated is worth it for the safety of the majority
- Deterrence theory makes the case that prison discourages citizens from committing a crime, because they would not want to end up in prison
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