A world without police and prisons?
A world without police and prisons?
Can we have a world where we don’t need police and prisons for justice? Amy Hall writes about the movement with different ideas for the future.
Making friends at the Bomana Prison, in Port Moresby City, Papua New Guinea in December 2017. MARC DOZIER/HEMIS/ALAMY
It was a very cold, grey October day in London. I could not feel my hands and feet but I was really interested in what I was hearing, I didn’t want to go home. It was 2018 and I went to London for the United Families and Friends Campaign demonstration for the first time. The demonstration was from Trafalgar Square to Downing Street, the home of the Prime Minister. Family and friends of people who died in state ‘care’ led the demonstration. State ‘care’ means police custody, prison, immigration detention, and psychiatric institutions. The families and friends all spoke. Every story was terrible. Some stories were about people who asked the state for help but in the end their loved ones died. So I wanted to learn more about the abolition movement to abolish prisons, police, and their systems. Mariame Kaba is writer and activist. She told the New York Times Magazine in 2019, ‘This work will take generations, and I will not be alive to see the changes… And I know that the people who came before us and were slaves did not imagine the changes we see today.’
The work for abolition has already started. Across the world people are working to get others out of prison and reduce the power of police. But they are also working to build communities that do not rely on law enforcement.
Chelsea is a member of Cradle Community in the UK. She says, ‘I needed abolition.’ When she learned how bad prisons, policing, and the system are, she felt hopeless. ‘Then I learned about all the people doing things about it… Abolition gave me something to be happy about, to be excited about, to look forward to.’
Abolition involves asking to reduce the power of prisons, police, and the surveillance state. But there is no one simple solution. Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba write, ‘There is no system for justice, because with this system, we never see justice. The system we have now has failed.’
Unequal in the law
Kelsey is also from Cradle Community. Her book Brick by Brick was published in 2021. She says, ‘Very often, a person is in prison because of who they are and not what they did. There are many people causing all kinds of problems but they never suffer from the system.’ The police kill more indigenous, racialized, and ethnic minority people across the world. In 2021, The Lancet medical journal said that police violence in the US is an ‘urgent public health problem’. Government data does not include more than 17,000 deaths and 60 per cent of these were Black people.
In Canada 30 per cent of prisoners are indigenous people, and they are just 4.9 per cent of the population. In Hungary, 40 per cent of prisoners are Roma and they are just 6 per cent of the population.
In the same way, criminal justice systems put into prison more LGBTQI+ people. At the end of 2020, 69 of 194 UN member states saw LGBTQI+ people as criminals. Life prison sentences or the death penalty are possible in some countries. When in prison, people face physical, sexual, and psychological violence.
Many countries have two criminal justice systems depending on wealth. David Cole is a legal professor. About the US, he says ‘... it seems that criminal law is colour-blind and class-blind. But this only makes the problem worse. The criminal justice system sends the message that our society protects everyone’s rights. But the rules make sure that the law is mostly against the rights of minorities and the poor.’
‘The work that capitalism, white supremacy, and imperialism do together is to create “criminals” – people who are not supposed to have human rights,’ says Chelsea. There are also too many disabled people in the criminal justice systems. In many countries police have the power to stop anyone they think is of ‘unsound mind’. In the US, up to 85 per cent of young people in prison are disabled – compared with 26 per cent of the population. In England and Wales, it’s over one-third of people in prison, compared with19 per cent in the population.
Police and prisons also make people disabled, for example, the police use of ‘lethal’ and ‘non-lethal’ weapons. In Palestine, the Israeli army shoot people in the legs. In France police have injured hundreds of ‘yellow vest’ protesters and some lost eyes and hands.
Protesters call for abolition of the police in New York, June 2020. KEVIN RC WILSON/ALAMY
Conditions in prisons
The conditions in many prisons don’t meet the minimum international standards. They are overcrowded in over 124 countries. The situation in prisons is worse because a lot of people are in prison without a trial for years.
Prisons can also be very violent places with poor healthcare or no basic food or sanitary provisions. In most countries, the rates of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are higher than in the rest of the population. Prisoners often face torture, and solitary confinement is used more and more across the world and for longer and longer periods of time.
Reports from Haiti say that people are in crowded cells without enough air or clean water, using buckets as toilets they do not empty, and with only one meal a day and very little or no healthcare. In South Sudan it is the same and prisoners often die of treatable illnesses, beatings, and heavy chains.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore is a writer, organizer, and geography professor. She says governments cut services such as social welfare but give more money for police and prisons. Gilmore says, ‘Real estate capital produces more and more luxury apartments but not affordable housing… or tourism capital that pushes people out of certain areas of the city and only welcomes them in if they work as workers in the service industry, delivering, serving, and cleaning.
If we want better prisons, we can’t move money from the police and prisons to schools and welfare provision. We need to look at how those systems work.
Kelsey talks about psychiatric institutions, ‘I know people who went from prison to psychiatric institutions and sometimes asked to leave the psychiatric institutions and go back into prison because they’re so bad. Of course this does not mean prisons are nice places.’
Flowers in memory of Sarah Everard, at Clapham Common, London. Police officer Wayne Couzens murdered her in March 2021. WALDEMAR SIKORA/ALAMY
Let’s look at the history of how modern policing and imprisonment began – and why. Alex Vitale is a sociologist and author of The End of Policing. He says, ‘Policing started mostly in the early 19th century as a result of modern capitalism and colonialism, slavery, and industrialization. In all of these there are people who resist and policing is the way to manage them.’
Ziyanda Stuurman is the author of the book Can We Be Safe? about policing in South Africa. He says, ‘The police are there to remind the working class, and specifically Black people, of their place in South African society. That place is at the bottom and it puts class and capital interests at the top.’
The idea of the criminal is to say who is the ‘problem’ in society. But this idea always changes and is not the same everywhere. Naomi Murakawa says that in 1787 there were three federal crimes in the US; in 2015 there were more than 5,000 federal crimes. With the ‘dangerous’ people out of the way, we can believe we are safe. As Angela Y Davis wrote in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, ‘The prison is now a black hole, a place to put the rubbish left over from capitalism.’
‘Prisons do not make social problems disappear, they make people disappear,’ Davis said. Putting people in prison can also mean taking income away from families, taking parents away from children, and taking neighbours away from communities.
More people in prison does not affect crime rates and we are not safer. This situation is worst in El Salvador. It has one of the largest per capita prison populations, as well as the highest murder rate in the world.
‘Abolitionists seem to be the only people who think so deeply about violence, about how to stop violence, about what causes violence, about what to do about violence,’ says Chelsea.
Kelsey agrees, ‘Abolition has come from Black feminists and indigenous communities. They are always in danger in those communities. They face domestic and sexual violence from people who look like them. And they can’t go to the police because the police might assault them, too.’
She says that we need to think about what makes us safe. ‘Most of the time, the police are not going to help you. It’s not more laws we need but it’s safe housing, good jobs, chances to change things if you need to, and people to be there for you.’
When it comes to keeping people safe from gendered and sexual violence, the police have failed. Too often they do not believe survivors, or they make them feel they are the ones on trial.
Of course, some police also do sexual offences. That was clear in 2021 when police officer Wayne Couzens kidnapped, raped, and murdered 33-year-old Sarah Everard. In September 2021 more than 750 police and staff from London’s Metropolitan Police faced sexual offences since 2010 with 163 arrested for sexual offences.
‘I am not a very forgiving person,’ writes Lydia Caradonna, ‘I don’t want my rapists to go to prison. My idea is not about seeing the good in people, or letting go of what happened to me… I am against sending my rapists to prison because it comes from a place of pain. ‘Putting my rapists in prison won’t change the fact that I was raped. It won’t make me feel better… We’re supposed to believe that prisons take our rapists from society and stop more sexual violence. But prisons are also places of sexual violence. All we are doing is moving sexual violence onto people we think are “acceptable” victims.’
She says that she wants people around her to support her and believe her – and for rapists to own up to their actions. She also wants support for rapists in the process of ‘unlearning the violence that made them hurt me’.
Abolition is not about letting people go free. Criminal justice usually uses punishment, makes people suffer, and stops them from having the simple things which make life possible to live. Abolitionists believe in healing and restoring humanity.
Transformative justice aims to respond to harm without doing more harm. Transformative justice was created by peoples who have been using these kinds of practices for generations to reduce harm, including indigenous people and communities of colour. For example, the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective in California works with survivors, bystanders, and those who caused harm to build and support responses to sexual violence and child sexual abuse.
An international idea
In 2020 the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, followed by Black Lives Matter protests, brought us the phrase ‘defund the police’. But it didn’t come from nowhere, the call to defund came from abolitionist ideas.
Elizabeth Alexander wrote about the ‘Trayvon generation’, named after teenager Trayvon Martin. He was killed in 2012 as he walked home in Sanford, Florida. George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer, shot him. A lot of public pressure got Zimmerman charged with murder, but he was set free in court. The anger which followed inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. Kelsey says, ‘There was a time in the summer of 2020 when I saw how many people were out on the streets shouting “defund police” – not just “fuck the police”. But for some people that’s where it stopped. I think “defund the police” is one step in a bigger movement.’
‘It’s important to understand that the idea is not “throw the doors open in the prisons and let everyone do what they want”. I’m not saying that because all the people in prison will start doing lots of harm. It’s because we’re still not doing anything about the harm people in power are doing.’
Abolition is an internationalist idea, but many of the famous theorists come from the US. But, as Vitale says, people all over the world are talking about this, including in the Global South. ‘There’s already strong post-colonial thinking sceptical of state authority and colonialism and capitalism. These are the systems of inequality supported by policing.’ In Brazil, there’s a campaign to abolish military police and there is an increase in the numbers of people who are abolitionists. Cops not Flops is a South African group supporting prison abolition.
‘I always feel uncomfortable when people say abolition is an American idea,’ says Stuurman. ‘There are many South African civil society organizations doing abolitionist work. But they don’t always say they are abolitionists or that they are working for abolition.’ She says it is important to think about situations in different countries. ‘In South Africa people have real fears of what would happen and how we would organize society because there is so much violence. So much of our lives is about trying to be safe in an unsafe environment.’
Abolition offers us ideas for real justice. It goes deeper than prisons and the police; it’s about building a world where our starting point is care and not vengeance when dealing with problems. It’s about stopping harm happening in the first place. Chelsea’s advice is to keep looking for those abolitionist successes, ‘We are going to be free. We are free because we’re fighting.’
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(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)