An argument for the abolition of the prison system
As with borders, the prison system is an element of state structure deemed to be beyond question. Debate rages on whether it is “too soft” or “too tough,” on whether it needs reform, and on how it can be made to work better. However, the idea of its abolition remains unspeakable, indeed unthinkable.
There simply must be a prison system, the argument goes, or society would rapidly descend into chaos. Criminals would run rampant on the streets, anti-social behaviour would spiral out of control, and society would be gripped by a culture of fear and lawlessness.
In response, I argue that prisons do not serve justice but the dominance of established power. That all the claimed consequences of lacking prisons exist already precisely because of their existence. And that their abolition would pave the way for a system of popular justice that would allow communities to safeguard themselves against crime, violence, and coercion without the institutionalised servility to power that serves only to make victims out of the poor, minorities, and the marginalised.
Incarceration as a form of punishment and retribution is, in fact, a relatively new and revolutionary idea. Before Jeremy Bentham first developed the idea of the modern penal system in the 19th Century, prisons were usually used to detain criminals until trial or the administration of punishment. However, the idea that – in their modern format – they serve to reform criminals, deter crime, or offer reconciliation to the victims of crime can and must be challenged.
The idea that prisons serve to reform criminals is a nonsense. In Anarchism: its Philosophy and Ideal, Peter Kropotkin made the argument that the result was in fact the opposite;
And in our every-day relations with our fellow-citizens, do you think that it is really judges, gaolers, and police that hinder anti-social acts from multiplying? The judge, ever ferocious, because he is a maniac of law, the accuser, the informer, the police spy, all those interlopers that live from hand to mouth around the Law Courts, do they not scatter demoralization far and wide into society? Read the trials, glance behind the scenes, push your analysis further than the exterior facade of law courts, and you will come out sickened.
Have not prisons-which kill all will and force of character in man, which enclose within their walls more vices than are met with on any other spot of the globe-always been universities of crime? Is not the court of a tribunal a school of ferocity? And so on.
When we ask for the abolition of the State and its organs we are always told that we dream of a society composed of men better than they are in reality. But no; a thousand times, no. All we ask is that men should not be made worse than they are, by such institutions!
This critique was, of course, written in 1896, when society as a whole was arguably far more brutal than it is today. However, modern statistics do seem to confirm Kropotkin’s analysis from over a century ago. According to the Howard League for Penal Reform, “in the ten years to 2003, the [UK] prison population increased by 66%, in the case of women, 191%” whilst “Home Office data reveals that about 78% of people sentenced to immediate custody in 2003 had committed non-violent offences.” Moreover, in a penal system overwhelmingly populated by perpetrators of non-violent or marginal offences, the brutalisation evident is overwhelming. “During 2004, 95 people killed themselves in prison service care. This included 50 people on remand and 13 women. In addition, a 14 year old boy took his own life in a Secure Training Centre in 2004.” And “data shows that in 2003, 30% of women, 65% of females under 21 and 6% of men in prison harmed themselves.”
So, a century after Kropotkin wrote of prisons “which kill all will and force of character in man,” we still see an overwhelming brutalisation of human beings within their walls. And the result? “61% of all prisoners released in 2001 were reconvicted within two years” and “73% of young male offenders released 2001 were reconvicted within 2 years.”
The brutal conditions of incarceration offer up one reason why recidivism is so high in Britain, which serves as a typical example of Western justice systems (with the United States as an extreme which magnifies the problems a thousand-fold). The treatment of children is a particularly poignant example of this. Reporting to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Children’s Commissioner for England found that “the protection of children in custody remains a fundamental concern. There are high incidences of mental health problems, self-harm and bullying with a significant proportion of children feeling unsafe. There are high levels of intimidation, violence and abuse, not only from other prisoners but also from staff.” The Howard League, once again, draws the statistics on children together to paint a shocking picture;
Facts and figures on children in prison
- Since January 2002, 6 children have died in penal custody. This includes 4 children in prison and 2 children in secure training centres. The youngest child to die was 14 years old. One child died following restraint by staff
- Children in prison are 18 times more likely to commit suicide that their counterparts in the community (The Lancet, 15 Sept 2005)
- Restraint is widely used in prisons and secure training centres. Between 2004 and 2006, 27% of boys and 19% of girls in prison had been physically restrained by staff (Young People in Custody 2004-2006, HMIP and YJB 2006) The Howard League recently slammed a government decision to allow private security companies running child jails to continue using pain on children.
- Between January 2005 and October 2006, restraint was used on 676 occassions on boys at Huntercombe prison. On 134 occassions it resulted in injuries to the child (HC deb, Col 416W, 27 Nov 2006)
- A survey by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of Prisons and the Youth Justice Board found that 31% of the boys in prison had been insulted or assaulted by other young people. 22% had been insulted or assaulted by a member of staff (Young People in Custody 2004-2006, HMIP and YJB 2006)
- The strip searching of children is routinely carried out on all children in prisons on reception and frequently before and after visits. Between January 2005 and October 2006 a total of 6,832 strip searches were carried out on boys at Huntercombe prison (HC deb, Col 416W-417W, 27 Nov 2006)
- Between January 2005 and October 2006, 100 boys were forcibly strip searched in 5 prisons. (HL deb, WA56, Jan 8 2007 and HL deb, WA 108, Jan 10 2007)
- Children in prison are being held for days and even weeks at a time in segregation. Between January 2004 and January 2007, 276 children had been held in the segregation unit for more than 7 days and 21 children had been held there for more than 28 days at the privately run Ashfield prison (HC deb, Col 1684W, 23 Jan 2007)
And, as the Howard League states, “the treatment of children experienced by children in prisons would in any other setting, be considered abusive and trigger a child protection investigation.” Clearly, such a system is nothing short of barbaric, and still “it is ineffective in terms of reducing offending.” This makes a nonsense of the argument, often found shrouded in overly-emotive language in tabloid newspapers, that the reason crime and anti-social behaviour is so high is because we are “too soft.”
An approach that favours violent coercion over rehabilitation isn’t the only reason for high recidivism, however. Another important one is that what is on offer to convicts once they leave prison, even after brutalisation, can often be much worse. An overwhelming amount of prisoners, upon release, face homelessness, illiteracy and lacking education, mental health problems, and addiction.
Clearly, then, the prison system does nothing to reduce recidivism in ex-offenders and in fact exacerbates matters in most cases. Further to which, I would argue, prison as an institution is part of a much wider societal malady which increases and encourages crime overall – the state-corporate structure. As the Anarchist Black Cross, a major anarchist abolition movement, explain;
We live in a society where a tiny minority own the wealth, the land, run the big companies and live in luxury on the backs of the working people who produce everything. They try to control our lives and keep us in line by every means possible – schools, the media, the DSS, drugs, Disneyland. If we obey orders, work hard, don’t answer back, we can live a reasonable life – until the next recession. We can help our bosses keep others down, like the police or bailiffs do, and get our rewards: power, wealth, security.
But for those of us not willing to work to keep our rulers in luxury, or those who try to take back any of the wealth that we have made, there is the justice system. Strike for a decent wage, steal to stay alive, resist the control and abuse in our lives, or break the bosses’ laws in any way and we face police, courts, prison. Prison is the bottom line in control – their ultimate weapon. Prison means isolation, bloody punishments, divided families. It drives people to despair and suicide. The whole system is to split us up and isolate people who could set an example to the rest of our class. Likewise, if we step outside so-called normal behaviour, such as women who refuse to accept the role of wife and mother, anyone whose sexuality is so-called deviant, we may be stigmatised, tranquillised and ultimately imprisoned.
On the outside, fear of prison is built up to stop us from fighting back against the injustice in our lives and myths are created about prisoners to divide us from them. Most people are inside for trying to survive. In Britain, 94% of recorded crimes are against property. About one third are inside for non-payment of fines or taxes. Thousands are on remand. Many others are guilty of nothing more than being working class, irish, black, framed by the police. Full prisons give us the impression that the police are ‘cracking crime’ and reminds us who is in control. Most prisoners are working class people, just like the rest of us. They are not all the mad beasts the papers would have us believe.
The press hype up stories of ‘violent crime’ to give the existence of prison some justification and to divide us from prisoners. But the fact is that only a tiny percentage of crimes are violent or anti-social. It is also true that such crime is not prevented by prisons. The system we live in encourages competition, power relationships and self-interest. This system is also anti-social; while it remains intact there will always be violence. Calling the shoplifter, the person on the picket line and the rapist all criminals as if there were no difference between them, uses most people’s horror of anti-social violence against the vast majority whose offences are to do with property and resistance.
We live in a system of entrenched privilege and injustice fostered by the marriage of state and private power and the insitutions of private property. Immense wealth and immense poverty often exist side by side, further illustrating the divide that exists in our society. Within such a system, crime is almost inevitable as a result, as Emma Goldman noted in Anarchism: What it really stands for;
The most absurd apology for authority and law is that they serve to diminish crime. Aside from the fact that the State is itself the greatest criminal, breaking every written and natural law, stealing in the form of taxes, killing in the form of war and capital punishment, it has come to an absolute standstill in coping with crime. It has failed utterly to destroy or even minimize the horrible scourge of its own creation.
Crime is naught but misdirected energy. So long as every institution of today, economic, political, social, and moral, conspires to misdirect human energy into wrong channels; so long as most people are out of place doing the things they hate to do, living a life they loathe to live, crime will be inevitable, and all the laws on the statutes can only increase, but never do away with, crime. What does society, as it exists today, know of the process of despair, the poverty, the horrors, the fearful struggle the human soul must pass on its way to crime and degradation. Who that knows this terrible process can fail to see the truth in these words of Peter Kropotkin:
“Those who will hold the balance between the benefits thus attributed to law and punishment and the degrading effect of the latter on humanity; those who will estimate the torrent of depravity poured abroad in human society by the informer, favored by the Judge even, and paid for in clinking cash by governments, under the pretext of aiding to unmask crime; those who will go within prison walls and there see what human beings become when deprived of liberty, when subjected to the care of brutal keepers, to coarse, cruel words, to a thousand stinging, piercing humiliations, will agree with us that the entire apparatus of prison and punishment is an abomination which ought to be brought to an end.”
The deterrent influence of law on the lazy man is too absurd to merit consideration. If society were only relieved of the waste and expense of keeping a lazy class, and the equally great expense of the paraphernalia of protection this lazy class requires, the social tables would contain an abundance for all, including even the occasional lazy individual. Besides, it is well to consider that laziness results either from special privileges, or physical and mental abnormalities. Our present insane system of production fosters both, and the most astounding phenomenon is that people should want to work at all now.
The link between poverty and crime should be no mystery to anyone who has witnessed the increase of crime in this or any prior recession. The Thatcher era in Britain also saw this link demonstrated beyond doubt. As the number of jobless rose to 3.6 million by 1983, and homelessness increased from around 57,000 households in 1979 to around 127,000 in 1989, crime rose by about 124%.
The connection between poverty and crime is even more stark when you consider the fact that we live in a society that perpetuates and entrenches both extreme poverty and extreme wealth. A report by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) tells us that “intergenerational income mobility” saw a “sharp decline” for “for children born in 1970” and reaching employment age under Margaret Thatcher “compared with those born in 1958” which has “stabilised,” or remained constant, “for children born in the period 1970-2000.” The birth of the neo-liberal economics that today dominate the globe, then, saw social mobility grind to a halt.
There are a multitude of reasons for this. One is education. The Ofsted report, Educational inequality: mapping race, class, and gender shows that “there is a strong direct association between social class background and success in education: put simply, the higher a child’s social class, the greater are their attainments on average.” Moreover, “there is evidence that the inequality of attainment between social classes has grown since the late 1980s. For example, in relation to the five higher grade benchmark, between 1988 and 1997, the gap between children from ‘managerial/professional’ backgrounds and ‘unskilled manual’ groups grew from 40 to 49 percentage points.”
At the same time, educational inequalities also exist on an ethnic basis whereby “inequalities of attainment in GCSE examinations place African-
Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils in a disadvantaged position in the youth education, labour, and training markets, and increase the likelihood of social and economic exclusion in later life.” And there is no evidence whatever to suggest that ethnic minorities or poorer people are naturally less intelligent or capable. Rather, the imbalance is systemic;
Research in both the United States and Britain overwhelmingly concludes that Black pupils and their working class white peers are likely to be over-represented in lower-ranked teaching groups, for example, where schools adopt ‘setting by ability’ or other forms of selective grouping. Their disproportionate concentration can be mapped by tracing the process of selection inside schools. Research has documented how these processes are significantly influenced by differential teacher expectations, which tend to be markedly lower for these groups of pupils. The pupils’ subsequent placement in lower ranked teaching groups, in both primary and secondary schools, institutionalises these differences and can create additional barriers to achievement. Even in schools that do not embrace setting, some form of selection is increasingly common. The structure of the GCSE examination itself now requires most subject areas to enter pupils for one of two different ‘tiers’ of exam, where the highest grades are only available to pupils in the top tier.
The inevitable result, then, is that working class and ethnic minority children are overwhelmingly less likely to receive the education necessary for them to do better by themselves. This increases the chances of living in poverty, or at least at the tail end of the economic spectrum, and thus of constantly struggling and scraping to get by.
There are those who would argue that the real root cause of these problems is the breakdown of the family unit. One such person is Norman Dennis in Rising Crime and the Dismembered Family, replete with suitably clichéd tabloid-conservative rhetoric. The arguments, however, are nothing more than the author falsely equation correlation with causality. I would argue, to the contrary, that family breakdown (as in single-parent families, since I do not buy the doctrinaire hatred of non-married and homosexual couplings) is another symptom adding to the problems presented by neo-liberal capitalism.
There are those who will say that trying to examine the causes of crime with all of the above is merely “passing the buck,” the dismissal of personal responsibility by blaming society. This is a falsehood. People are indeed responsible for their own actions, but the options open to them are determined by the environment they are raised in, the people who surround them, the education they receive, and a whole host of other social and economic factors. As Mikhail Bakunin said in a lecture to Swiss members of the International Working Men’s Association;
Even from the standpoint of nature, talents and shortcomings pretty much balance out in everyone, so that persons are nearly equal. There are only two exceptions to this law of natural equality: geniuses and idiots. But exceptions are not the rule, and in general it may be said that one human being is as worthy as another; and if in the present day enormous differences exist between individuals, their origin is not nature but the monstrous inequality in upbringing and education.
This is why those born in despairing poverty on sink estates often die in the same situation, why social mobility has ground to a halt, and why a rich idiot is more likely to succeed than the poor genius. To dismiss any and every attempt to examine the failings of the socio-economic system as “passing the buck” is, in effect, to do the same thing as an apologist for power.
If we accept, then, that prisons are merely another facet of the state-corporate system and serve not to punish or diminish crime but to remove those who do not serve the interests of power from society, what do we put in its place?
In a world of anarchy, where poverty and inequality are removed through the abolition of private property and the control of capital by labour, crime will be greatly reduced. People will not be forced to turn to theft, prostitution, or racketeering in order to make ends meet. Local communities organised on the basis of mutual aid will resist organised crime as readily as the domination and coercion of the state or capital. Such as drug use will be seen, properly, as a social problem rather than a crime, with addicts treated and rehabilitated, and farmers free and organised so that they do not have to grow illicit crops in order to make a living. Dissent and independence will be encouraged rather than criminalised, and the crimes of war and state will be eradicated. But there will still be crime.
Anarchists do not envision a utopia. We do not imagine human beings more perfect than they are, merely recognise the dramatic negative effects of violence, coercion, and hierarchy upon society and the increase in disorder that results from our atomisation in the name of profit. No, though it will be greatly reduced, there will still be crime in anarchy. The question is, if the prison system is such a brutalising instrument of state, how do we deal with it?
The answer to this question – as well as useful summation of the argument for the abolition of the prison and state-justice system – is offered up by the authors of An Anarchist FAQ. As such, it is worth quoting at length;
We are not saying, however, that anarchists reject the concept of individual responsibility. While recognising that rape, for example, is the result of a social system which represses sexuality and is based on patriarchy (i.e. rape has more to do with power than sex), anarchists do not “sit back” and say “it’s society’s fault.” Individuals have to take responsibility for their own actions and recognise that consequences of those actions. Part of the current problem with “law codes” is that individuals have been deprived of the responsibility for developing their own ethical code, and so are less likely to develop “civilised” social standards (see section I.7.3).
Therefore, while anarchists reject the ideas of law and a specialised justice system, they are not blind to the fact that anti-social action may not totally disappear in a free society. Therefore, some sort of “court” system would still be necessary to deal with the remaining crimes and to adjudicate disputes between citizens.
These courts would function in one of two ways. One possibility is that the parties involved agree to hand their case to a third party. Then the “court” in question would be the arrangements made by those parties. The second possibility is when the parties cannot not agree (or if the victim was dead). Then the issue could be raised at a communal assembly and a “court” appointed to look into the issue. These “courts” would be independent from the commune, their independence strengthened by popular election instead of executive appointment of judges, by protecting the jury system of selection of random citizens by lot, and by informing jurors of their right to judge the law itself, according to their conscience, as well as the facts of a case. As Malatesta pointed out, “when differences were to arise between men [sic!], would not arbitration voluntarily accepted, or pressure of public opinion, be perhaps more likely to establish where the right lies than through an irresponsible magistrate which has the right to adjudicate on everything and everybody and is inevitably incompetent and therefore unjust?” [Anarchy, p. 43]
In the case of a “police force,” this would not exist either as a public or private specialised body or company. If a local community did consider that public safety required a body of people who could be called upon for help, we imagine that a new system would be created. Such a system would “not be entrusted to, as it is today, to a special, official body: all able-bodied inhabitants [of a commune] will be called upon to take turns in the security measures instituted by the commune.” [James Guillaume, Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 371] This system would be based around a voluntary militia system, in which all members of the community could serve if they so desired. Those who served would not constitute a professional body; instead the service would be made up of local people who would join for short periods of time and be replaced if they abused their position. Hence the likelihood that a communal militia would become corrupted by power, like the current police force or a private security firm exercising a policing function, would be vastly reduced. Moreover, by accustoming a population to intervene in anti-social as part of the militia, they would be empowered to do so when not an active part of it, so reducing the need for its services even more.
Such a body would not have a monopoly on protecting others, but would simply be on call if others required it. It would no more be a monopoly of defence (i.e. a “police force”) than the current fire service is a monopoly. Individuals are not banned from putting out fires today because the fire service exists, similarly individuals will be free to help stop anti-social crime by themselves, or in association with others, in an anarchist society.
Of course there are anti-social acts which occur without witnesses and so the “guilty” party cannot be readily identified. If such acts did occur we can imagine an anarchist community taking two courses of action. The injured party may look into the facts themselves or appoint an agent to do so or, more likely, an ad hoc group would be elected at a community assembly to investigate specific crimes of this sort. Such a group would be given the necessary “authority” to investigate the crime and be subject to recall by the community if they start trying to abuse whatever authority they had. Once the investigating body thought it had enough evidence it would inform the community as well as the affected parties and then organise a court. Of course, a free society will produce different solutions to such problems, solutions no-one has considered yet and so these suggestions are just that, suggestions.
As is often stated, prevention is better than cure. This is as true of crime as of disease. In other words, crime is best fought by rooting out its causes as opposed to punishing those who act in response to these causes. For example, it is hardly surprising that a culture that promotes individual profit and consumerism would produce individuals who do not respect other people (or themselves) and see them as purely means to an end (usually increased consumption). And, like everything else in a capitalist system, such as honour and pride, conscience is also available at the right price — hardly an environment which encourages consideration for others, or even for oneself.
…Therefore, by reorganising society so that it empowers everyone and actively encourages the use of all our intellectual, emotional and sensuous abilities, crime would soon cease to be the huge problem that it is now. As for the anti-social behaviour or clashes between individuals that might still exist in such a society, it would be dealt with in a system based on respect for the individual and a recognition of the social roots of the problem. Restraint would be kept to a minimum.
Anarchists think that public opinion and social pressure would be the main means of preventing anti-social acts in an anarchist society, with such actions as boycotting and ostracising used as powerful sanctions to convince those attempting them of the errors of their way. Extensive non-co-operation by neighbours, friends and work mates would be the best means of stopping acts which harmed others.
An anarchist system of justice, we should note, would have a lot to learn from aboriginal societies simply because they are examples of social order without the state. Indeed many of the ideas we consider as essential to justice today can be found in such societies. As Kropotkin argued, “when we imagine that we have made great advances in introducing, for instance, the jury, all we have done is to return to the institutions of the so-called ‘barbarians’ after having changed it to the advantage of the ruling classes.” [The State: Its Historic Role, p. 18]
…However, there are psychopaths and other people in any society who are too dangerous to be allowed to walk freely. Restraint in this case would be the only option and such people may have to be isolated from others for their own, and others, safety. Perhaps mental hospitals would be used, or an area quarantined for their use created (perhaps an island, for example). However, such cases (we hope) would be rare.
So instead of prisons and a legal code based on the concept of punishment and revenge, anarchists support the use of pubic opinion and pressure to stop anti-social acts and the need to therapeutically rehabilitate those who commit anti-social acts. As Kropotkin argued, “liberty, equality, and practical human sympathy are the most effective barriers we can oppose to the anti-social instinct of certain among us” and not a parasitic legal system. [The Anarchist Reader, p. 117]