What Does Justice Look Like Without Prisons?

by Oonagh Ryder 

14 January 2018

Photo by Tiago Pinheiro

While crime and punishment are staples of the news cycle, the state of British prisons and their failure to rehabilitate have been under the spotlight during the past two years to an extent not seen since the Strangeways riot in 1990. Rates of self-harm by prisoners are at the highest levels since records began, the death rate is close to one per day and it is estimated that a prisoner attempts suicide once every three hours in England and Wales. The response to this ‘prisons crisis’ has been calls for additional funding to reform prisons in order to make them safer and more effective. This narrative often implies that the solution to the failure of prisons is to bring them back to their true purpose: to rehabilitate prisoners and to keep the public safe from crime.

An exploration of the history of prisons calls this into question. Prison developed into a standardised response to crime during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Before then, prisons were usually a place you were held awaiting a corporal punishment or execution, or while you were unable to pay debts. As people were forced from the land into wage labour, there was an increase in property crime and in mass resistance to the government and capitalist classes. Techniques of mass policing and imprisonment developed by British colonial administrations in the Caribbean and in Ireland were then imported back to Britain to control and to ‘otherise’ the people deemed surplus to the requirements of the emerging economic system. The emerging concept of ‘the criminal’ – the idea that some people were pre-disposed to committing crime due to their defective moral character – proved a useful dividing tool, pitting ‘criminals’ against workers and reinforcing ideas about the deserving and undeserving poor.

Across the British Empire, imprisonment was used to maintain slavery and to prevent resistance. The notion of ‘the criminal’ was applied to entire populations deemed to be uncivilised and dangerous, producing and reinforcing racialised hierarchies. In these colonial ‘laboratories of modernity’ the British government tested and refined methods of controlling populations, tying notions of criminality to race and class in order to do so.  

In Britain today, the function of prisons has changed very little. The majority of people locked up have experienced extreme poverty and hardship, and many were criminalised from a young age as a result. At least 24% of adult prisoners have been in the care system (compared to 2% of the general population), 42% were excluded from school and while NHS data on prisoners’ mental health needs is poor, the Bradley Review in 2009 estimated that rates of mental illness could be as high as 90%. BAME people are roughly 14% of the general population but make up 25% of the adult prison population and 41% of the youth prison population. The re-offending rate has always been high and currently sits at 49%. Prison categorically does not achieve its stated aims of reducing crime and rehabilitating offenders, but it continues to play its historical role of disguising social problems as individual flaws and dividing the population into deserving and undeserving.

Too often we approach the question of whether we need prisons with the question of “How do we prevent and respond to crime?”. The problem with this question is that it blurs crime and harm into one category and allows us to ignore all the harm that isn’t categorised as crime. Harms on a grand scale go unpunished. The actions of corporations, aided by governments, which cause the air pollution killing thousands in Britain alone continue with little to no consequences for those responsible. We saw people burn to death in Grenfell Tower and seven months later the victims are still homeless while no one has been held to account. Meanwhile, much low harm or no harm behaviour is criminalised. 71% of people who received prison sentences in 2016-17 had committed non-violent offences and we continue to send people to prison for failing to pay their TV licence or being unable to secure their child’s school attendance.

Shifting the question to “How do we prevent and respond to harm?” broadens our analysis. While focusing on crime only allows us to consider the behaviour of individuals, looking at harm enables us to include the ways in which violence is perpetuated structurally and culturally.

Understanding harm can be complex. Someone serving a prison sentence for a violent crime may have been criminalised years earlier (perhaps as a child) for petty crimes relating to difficulties in their life. Taking one act in isolation obscures the role of the criminal justice system and other structures in producing the trauma that can lead to violence

Last year, the mother of a 15-year-old boy who stabbed Quamari Serunkuma-Barnes (also 15) to death, made public the numerous pleas for help she had made in a desperate attempt to keep her son and others around him safe. Gary Younge detailed in the Guardian series Beyond the Blade how the boy’s mental health had deteriorated after his father was deported when he was in primary school. His mother then embarked on a Herculean effort in the years up to the murder to access support for him from mental health services, the education system and local authorities, all of whom acted as jealous gatekeepers of resources rather than harm-preventing institutions. Tragically, her prediction that without intervention someone would end up dead was accurate.

This case demonstrates the need for what abolitionist campaigner and academic David Scott calls ‘interpretive generosity’: a process of understanding the life story of the person who has perpetrated harm, the reasons behind this and how the culture and structures around them allowed it to happen.

Some people, of course, are already afforded this generosity. In 2017, the social media outrage cycle latched onto the case of Lavinia Woodward, a medical student at Oxford convicted of stabbing her boyfriend in the leg while drunk. Taking into account the steps that Woodward was taking to address her behaviour, such as going to rehab for her drug addiction, as well as the impact that imprisonment would have on her potential career as a heart surgeon, the judge gave her a 10-month suspended sentence. Many commentators rightly pointed out that this approach seemed lenient compared to sentences given in similar cases involving less privileged perpetrators.

Prison reform campaigner Michaela Booth, who has served a prison sentence for a similar offence, drew attention to the differences in the way she was treated by the system comparison to Woodward. In Booth’s case, the impact upon her four-year-old daughter hadn’t even factored in the judge’s decision to send her to prison. It seems clear that, while Woodward’s behaviour was seen as an unfortunate episode in the life of an essentially good person, Booth’s was taken as evidence of a fundamentally flawed character in need of punitive reform.

However, it also seems that the approach taken to Lavinia Woodward was sensible. The judge recognised her willingness to be accountable for her actions and the concrete steps she was taking to address her behaviour. He gave her time to demonstrate that this commitment was long-term and concluded that a prison sentence would not be beneficial to her rehabilitation. Rather than calling for a more punitive approach to people like Woodward, we should focus on extending this context-based, interpretive approach to all defendants.

The cases of both Lavinia Woodward and Quamari Serunkuma-Barnes’s killer have a common theme: access to life-saving resources. While Woodward could pay for rehab and medical care, had a supportive family and attended a top university, the now imprisoned 15-year-old lost his father to the UK’s border regime, was denied mental health treatment and excluded from school. Prison abolition is often assumed to be primarily about dismantling the institution of the prison and the systems surrounding it, but even more important to abolitionists is building and transforming. Building networks, systems and institutions that prevent harm and support people, and transforming the structures that drive people into the criminal justice system.

This means huge investment in education, healthcare, social work and welfare. But it also means transforming these institutions and systems, which too often replicate the punitive logic of the criminal justice system and funnel people into it. Schools should be equipped to understand the behavioural impact of trauma and to operate on anti-racist principles to ensure that no child is excluded. Mental healthcare must be universally accessible to everyone and based on a holistic understanding of well-being, rather than an instrumental drive to make people ‘functional’. Most importantly, we need to transform our economic system so that no one is made disposable and everyone is able to thrive.

All conversations about prison abolition eventually come to the question of sexual violence. Not locking up rapists is generally an unpalatable idea across the political spectrum; the argument goes that this is essential to keeping women safe and to deterring future rapists. One problem with this approach is that it is entirely retributive and therefore retrospective. Far from keeping people safe, this method of relying on imprisonment waits until the harm has already been done. As Joshua Briond recently wrote in an article about being an abolitionist survivor of sexual violence,

“At what point do we address the fact that our advocating for the imprisonment of, or death sentence for, all abusers actually acknowledges that we know and accept that these atrocities will continue to happen, and that we’re fine with it as long as they’re being punished in the end?”

The retributive approach to sexual violence reveals the contradictory position that this form of harm occupies in our society. Symbolically, it is the most monstrous form of violence, supposedly committed only by the most deviant and deranged people. In reality, it is condoned and encouraged by a rigid system of hierarchical gender norms and a culture of romance rooted in control and restriction. In our daily lives, real experiences of sexual violence – the complex tangles of intimacy, loyalty, love, guilt, shame and power that form the day to day details of patriarchy  – bump up uncomfortably against society’s image of ‘the rapist’. Similarly, the diversity of those who experience sexual violence complicates our idea of ‘the rape victim’. The further away you are from the image of the victim, the less likely to are to be believed, and the further away from the image of ‘the monster’ you are, the less likely you are to be punished. While we are starting to see a shift in the demographics of those punished by the criminal justice system for sexual violence, the fact remains that the  majority of those imprisoned for sexual offences are from poorer or traumatic backgrounds and are black and minority ethnic. Of course, as 2017’s tidal wave of #MeToo stories made abundantly clear, this does not reflect the demographics of perpetrators, it’s just that some perpetrators get to go to a sex addiction clinic instead of prison (and some get to continue to live their lives being lauded by Hollywood as geniuses).

This approach allows sexual violence to continue to play a useful dual role for those in power. The reality of coercion and fear that structures the lives of those most at risk of sexual violence helps those in powerful positions (mainly men and mainly white) to maintain the hierarchies that benefit them. At the same time, the symbolic tool of the ‘rapist monster’ allows those at the bottom of these hierarchies – poor and BME people – to be portrayed as the cause of sexual violence, further demonising these communities and legitimising their place in society. By acting only when harm has already been done, imprisonment reinforces the useful symbolic role of sexual violence while allowing the useful reality of sexual violence to continue.

An abolitionist approach to sexual violence refuses to allow the powerful to appropriate the pain of survivors for their own ends. It rejects the simplistic notion of rapists as monsters and turns the spotlight to the structures and cultures that cause, condone and benefit from sexual violence. The point of this approach is to prevent harm wherever possible and, where harm has been done, to offer healing and transformation.

In many places all over the world, people have developed community accountability processes to try to make this a reality. Pioneered by survivors from marginalised groups unwilling to put themselves in danger by engaging with the police or to risk increased criminalisation of their communities, these processes can take a number of forms depending on the context of the harm done. They can provide survivors with support to find ways to recover from the harm done to them, they can support perpetrators to understand the causes and consequences of their actions and to make amends, they can support groups and organisations to transform cultures and structures that cause or enable harm. While there is still a huge amount of work to do to tackle difficult questions such as how to respond to repeat perpetrators, whether it is ethical to exclude a perpetrator from a community and how to deal with the possibility of false allegations, these processes offer a glimpse of how we could do things differently. Indeed, many of the problems experienced by participants in accountability processes are a consequence of a lack of economic and cultural resources to support this kind of work. Imagine what we could do with genuine society-wide investment in preventing sexual harm and supporting survivors; imagine creating a world where developing an informed understanding of sexual violence and the skills to prevent it wasn’t just left to those who experience it. As Rebecca Farr of Communities Against Rape and Abuse says,

“I am proposing that we create a world where so many people are walking around with the skills and knowledge to support someone that there is no longer a need for anonymous hotlines.”

I’ve taken sexual violence as an example here in order to address the inevitable ‘what about the rapists?’ question, but of course this is relevant to many other kinds of harm. It means doing the work to understand with both victims and perpetrators (bearing in mind almost everyone fits into both categories in some way) to understand why people harm, the ways in which society is complicit and how we can collectively become accountable for producing cultures and structures that prevent harm.

This potentially means a transformation of our definition of justice. Justice, as enacted by our criminal justice system, means reducing our understanding of conflict and harm to an analysis of individual character defects and attempting to solve social problems by punishing individuals. We have to ask ourselves what we – as a society, a community, a group of friends, a family, a couple etc.  – want to achieve in our responses to harm. Do we genuinely want to prevent violence and trauma? Do we want to open ourselves up to hearing and validating the pain of others, even when we may be complicit in the causes? Or do we only want the catharsis of retribution, even when this replicates or intensifies the very harm we’re responding to? If it is to lead to a better society, ‘justice’ cannot mean individual retribution. It must be a process of transforming the structures of society as well as our relationships with each other. We must be willing to practice interpretive generosity in our everyday lives.

With the prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour government around the corner, the left is having big conversations at the moment. We’re talking about universal basic income, huge projects of nationalisation, fully automated luxury communism. Why is it that when we discuss ideas of collective accountability and proactive harm prevention, these are often dismissed as too complicated and labour intensive to implement on a wider scale? If we can seriously discuss the potential benefits of asteroid mining, why can’t we consider the possibility of a national (or international) project of equipping everyone with the necessary skills to care for each other and hold each other accountable? Without a recognition that a justice system built to maintain inequalities and inflict pain can never be reformed to do the opposite, the real work of preventing and redressing harm will continue to be left to the victims of it.


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