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Arguments of the Abolitionist Movement of Imprisonment

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 5026 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Trace the abolitionist movement in relation to imprisonment and consider the main arguments put forward for prison abolition and the kind of obstacles such arguments encounter.

‘Abolitionism is a movement to end systematic violence, including the interpersonal vulnerabilities and displacements that keep the system going. The goal is to change how we interact with each other and the planet by putting people before profits, welfare before warfare and life over death’ (Berger, 2014, cited in, Delisle et al., 2015, p.1). Prison abolitionists believe that the incarnation of ‘criminals’ is unjust, their goal is to reform the criminal justice system (CJS) by offering alternatives. This paper will trace the prison abolitionist movement and imperative arguments they display. However, due to the limited scope of this essay, there will be a focus on three particularly vulnerable groups tormented by imprisonment; women; black and minority ethnic groups (BAME); and the elderly. It will include misconduct and faults in the system, and alternatives to incarnation. The third section will draw upon obstacles abolitionism encounters. Such as, the power of public opinion and evidence of effective penal reform. Outlining crucial sources of evidence, this paper seeks to explore vital controversies addressed by prison abolitionists.

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The prison abolition movement arguably emerged in the 1980’s following the War on Drugs (Smith, 2018). Abolitionists believe that prison is used as a discriminatory practice where pains and severity of punishment differ in terms of social divisions. Imprisonment inflicts unnecessary harms, it should only be about taking someone’s liberty. However, prison can be dehumanising for prisoners; upon entrance, prisoners are immediately deprived of previous support units, then ‘begin a series of abasement, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self’(Jewkes and Johnston, 2011, p.174). Social problems such as, poverty and mental illnesses are a consistent problem among offenders prior to and following imprisonment. ‘Many prisoners have experienced a lifetime of social exclusion. Prisoners are thirteen times more likely to have been in care as a child and be unemployed’(Jewkes and Johnston, 2011, p.229). Foucault argues; powerful groups in society are exercising power through disciplinary means such as, the use of prisons (O’Neil, 1986). The most disadvantaged groups are being imprisoned. Therefore, addressing these social problems would be a step towards reducing the prison population. This is supported by peace-making criminologists who state, ‘What is important in the study of crime is everything that happens before crime occurs …Crime is a reflection of something larger and deeper’(Quinney, R., 1995, p.147).

A statement argued by abolitionists is that prison is wrongly beneficial to capitalism. Crime is a social construction and abolitionists, criminologists believe that it is used to make prisons one of the series of institutions that the state uses to order and discipline certain groups(Ryan and Ward, 2013), which explains the disproportionately high levels of poor, BAME and people with mental illnesses in prison. Prisons are used for commodification; prisoners are forced to work for a poor wage for things sold on the everyday market. This neo-liberal growth benefits organisations such as Serco, G4S and Sodexo as they don’t have to provide sick pay, prisoners are punctual and huge profits are made, despite the high levels of exploitation. ‘The profit motive incentivises inappropriate and unethical practices. Including: neglecting vulnerable prisoners; running institutions at dangerously low costs to maximise profits; or failing to train and manage the workforce appropriately, leading to insufficient staff’(Tanner, 2013, p.4).

Despite attempts at penal reform, little improvement has been made and reforms only reproduce prison as a natural response to deviance. Prisons are disproportionally representative of vulnerable groups which reinforces inequalities. Therefore, abolitionists challenge us to reconsider the system, considering who creates the law and who benefits from prisons. ‘Prisons are failed institutions. They are places of pain and social control, abusive and damaging to everyone incarcerated. Prisons are fundamentally flawed and all attempts at reform have failed’(Codd and Scott, 2010, p.166). Prison abolitionists put the politics back into penal reform (Ryan and Ward, 2013), arguing that it is unacceptable to simply make prisons nicer, detaching them from prison reformists. Under the ‘new punitive’ system we are punishing more and understanding less. The new punitiveness can be defined as ‘forms of punishment that violate the productive, restrained and rationale tenets of modern disciplinary punishment and hark back, differently, to destructive themes of sovereign punishment’(Pratt et al, 2005, cited in, Carrier, 2010, p.10).This system emerged correspondingly to the new labour and encourages a ‘zero tolerance’ policing. Thus, the more punitive a society, the more likely it is that people will be imprisoned. There are currently 82,525 prisoners in England and Wales (GOV.UK, 2019). Going far beyond ‘just desserts’, this form of punishment is excessive, unnecessary and is dominated by severe and emotive forms of sanctioning.

The prison service claims to have four core aims; ‘retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation’(Kifer et al., 2003). However, when looking at trends and patterns, it’s noted that crime rates haven’t increased; it’s not possible to deter crimes that aren’t happening, people are being given harsher sentences and more laws are being enforced due to the punitive system, resulting in the rise of the prison population causing overcrowding. Reoffending rates are high, validating the claim that deterrence and rehabilitation/reform are ineffective. ‘A study revealed; at least 2,500 prisoners would benefit from therapy, however, there are less than 500 therapeutic communities within the entire system’(Sim, 2009, p.135). This demonstrates a lack of penal investment. Retributivism fails because, prisons are populated by the most deprived individuals and imprisonment only inflicts additional undeserved pains. Incapacitation is pain infliction to punish, suggesting that there is something wrong with offenders, that they need fixing. However, this is not true, society could be at blame for reasons such as poverty (DiMascio, 2009). The prison aims are not achieved; therefore, prison serves no purpose. Abolitionists wish to see the issues that prisons try to rectify addressed differently.

Abolitionists found the prison system to be a historically racist institution which traces back to the American Revolution. At this time a penitentiary prison was arguably enforced as a new way of controlling black people following the abolition of slavery. Davis (2003) makes links between prison and slavery, stating that racism is embedded in the prison system due to the disproportionately high levels of black people incarcerated. Race has always been central in ‘constructing presumptions of criminality’(Davis, 2003, p.28). There are many similarities between prison and slavery. For example, ‘crime is imputed to colour’ (Davis, 2003, p.30), and slavery punishments have become ‘incorporated into the penal system’(Davis, 2003, p.31). Therefore, it can be argued that prison is a continuation of slavery. Abolitionists want us to imagine a world without prisons, where these inequalities and social problems are addressed appropriately.

A large and growing body of literature are recognising and addressing the endless problems with the current penal system, which emphasises the desperate need for change. One of the most significant issues displayed by prison abolitionists is the over representation BAME. 26% of the prison population are BAME, if this figure was to reflect the overall population of England and Wales, there would be over 9,000 less people incarcerated (Prisonreformtrust.org.uk. 2019).Analysis conducted for the Lammy Review found a direct association between ethnic groups and the likelihood of receiving a custodial sentence, even when factoring in higher not-guilty plea rates (60%)’(Prisonreformtrust.org.uk. 2019, p.1). Most prisoners suffer from social problems prior to imprisonment; BAME groups are often socially disadvantaged in terms of education, housing and employment, factors which can be predictive of offending behaviour (Jones and singer, 2007). The way in which laws are currently enforced are likely to target the most disadvantaged groups in society, therefore, police discretion is not operated equally, resulting in BAME and poorer communities being more likely to face the prospect of criminalisation which reproduces domination over them. This is evident with the police use of discretion whilst carrying out stop/search events; BAME are 8.7 times more likely to be stopped and searched (Wylie, 2018). BAME also experience immense levels of discrimination during their incarceration. For example, they are more likely to have ‘force used against them and be on a basic regime’ (Edgar and Tsintsadze, 2017, p.9). Prison staff victimize BAME and fail to treat them with respect (Edgar and Tsintsadze, 2017). From all complaints in prison, 70% are from the prisoners themselves. ‘76% of staff reports of alleged discrimination by a prisoner were upheld, however, when a prisoner alleged discrimination by an officer, only 1% were upheld (Edgar and Tsintsadze, 2017, p.11).

Recent literature investigates elderly prisoners, predominantly concluding that imprisonment inflicts further, unnecessary pains upon them. Many elderly prisoners have experienced chronic health problems prior to, or during, incarceration as a result of ‘substance abuse, mental health issues, homelessness, and poverty’(Zinger and Landry, 2019), which are all key issues in predicting offending, further adding to the need for addressing these problems to decrease imprisonment. Older prisoners possess a physiological age approximately ten years in excess of their chronological age. The psychological strains of imprisonment accelerate the ageing process (Zinger and Landry, 2019). Older prisoners are the fastest growing group within the prison population, they are being convicted and ‘sentenced to custody at an older age, including for historic offences’ (Mesurier, 2011). ‘The growth of the older prison population and the severity of their needs, warrant a national strategy to provide for them effectively… It is inconsistent for the Ministry of Justice to recognize these issues and not articulate a strategy to account for this’(Parliament.uk, 2013, p.56). People are serving longer sentences, meaning that they are either dying or spending significant amounts of time aging in the CJS, making it increasingly difficult for them to reintegrate into society. Prisons claim to rehabilitate individuals; rehabilitation programmes focus on the young, which adds to the numerous reasons to why imprisonment isn’t effective for the elderly. Prisons are primarily built for young and able-bodied prisoners. Currently, there is ‘no specific national strategy for older prisoners’(Parliament.uk, 2013, p.79).

Furthermore, it was discovered that two elderly, ‘severely disabled men were stuck in their cell for 23.5 hours a day. Due to incapability of showering themselves, they had not showered for months and relied on other prisoners for help meeting simple tasks such as collecting meals. Wing staff claimed to be unaware of this’(Parliament.uk, 2013, p.16). This from of treatment is inhumane and thoroughly avoidable. Older prisoners often lose touch with family and friends, thus, become depressed and suffer from mental health illnesses on top of the boundless problems already faced. Another horrifying example of the elderly ordeal of imprisonment is an Alzheimer’s sufferer who, ‘neither knew where he was, how long he had been there or what he was there for’(Crawley and Sparks, 2006, p.71). This example verifies how incompetent imprisoning vulnerable, elderly individuals is. ‘These intractable problems of imprisonment point us ultimately in one direction only– towards abolition’(Codd and Scott, 2010, p.168).

Women often serve sentences for non-violent offences, such as, low-level shop lifting, often for food for their families, or non-payment of TV licences. Thus, ‘Prison is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with many women offenders who don’t pose harm to public safety’(Parliament.uk, 2013). More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18; Almeda (2005) stated that children who live in prisons with their mothers reside in the same conditions as if they were incarcerated themselves. Alternatively, they are placed into care, which can be described as ‘institutionalised child abuse’(Liebling and Maruna, 2005, p.17). ‘In 2011, there were 8811 recorded incidents of self-injury in women’s prisons. Approximately 1 in 5 female prisoners self-harms during her incarceration; 30 times higher than rates of self-harm outside prison’ (Chamberlen, 2016, p.207). A woman continued to open wounds to self-harm, another set herself on fire (Corston, 2007). This shows the distressing effects prison has on women and the extent of mental health illnesses predominant in prisons.

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The Corston report, (2007) revealed; women enter labour knowing the Social Services will take the baby shortly after labour. Women may also be shackled during labour as well as on hospital visits (Ginn, S., 2013, p.2). These inhumane levels of abuse show the harrowing forms of mistreatment occurring. Prison is ineffective because 45% of women are reconvicted within one year of release (Prisonreformtrust.org.uk, 2016). Women released from prison are more likely to reoffend, and reoffend sooner, than those serving community sentences (Kubrin and Stewart, 2006). The treatment women receive is below acceptable standards and release plans of all prisoners are poor. Therefore, many find it extremely difficult to enter back into society effectively, resulting in them reoffending. Thus, ‘restorative and social justice are more appropriate responses to women. Self-help programmes help women move on from lives characterized by poverty, ill health, and violence’(Codd and Scott, 2010, p.169). Confinement is not effective because women find that the pains of their incarceration linger far beyond their release from within the prison walls.

The abolition goal isn’t to decamp police and prisons immediately, the goal is to first create safe and empowered communities. For this reason, bystander intervention, self-defence, transformative justice, and conflict resolution must be prioritized in any movement for radical change. Instead of more police and jails, we need strong and healthy communities. Police don’t make communities strong, healthy or reduce harm, they re-create and redistribute it. Community organising, community accountability and transformative justice are essential in creating a society less reliant on prisons. Community accountability is ‘a community-based strategy, rather than police/prison-based, which addresses violence within communities. It is a process where a group such as neighbourhoods work together to; create and affirm values and practices that resist abuse and oppression and encourage safety, support, and accountability. It also, develops sustainable strategies to address community members’ abusive behaviour, creating a process for them to account for their actions and transform their behaviour. Transformative justice uses the principles of restorative justice but beyond and outside the CJS. It is a liberator approach to violence which seeks safety and accountability without relying on alienation, punishment, or State, systemic violence, including incarceration’(Transformativejustice.eu, 2007).

Despite providing alternatives, displaying the numerous harms of imprisonment and proof of the prison purpose failing, there is still large public concern regarding abolition. This could be a result of the lassi-fare government supporting imprisonment over rehabilitation sending out misleading messages to the public. One of the main arguments put forward by anti-abolitionists is the need for justice. Victims want justice, therefore, the public and the media wouldn’t be satisfied with abolition, they want the offender to be punished due to being a punitive society. The power of public opinion results in the government concluding the abolitionist approach as utopia which could lead to ruin. The public fear society being unsafe without prisons, they don’t want a society in which murderers and rapists are free to walk the streets. However, this is not the goal of abolitionists, the most severe cases would be held in secure institutions providing the correct and most effective support possible from qualified, highly trained experts. Moreover, murderers and paedophiles etc only account for an extremely small proportion of the prison population and we shouldn’t have a system built around the minority severe cases.

Another obstacle in which abolitionists may encounter is the idea that the CJS acts as a deterrent. Fewer crimes are committed subsequently to an arrest, consistent with deterrence theory’(Lochner, 2007). The fear of going to prison may stop someone from committing a crime. Deterrence is taught in prison; prisoners can be watched at any time from the central reservation tower because of the panoptic design. Therefore, prisoners restrain form acting deviant. As argued by Foucault, it is about punishment of the mind instead of the body allowing for the modification of behaviour (O’Neill, 1986). Prisoners are disciplining themselves whilst incarcerated subsequently to fear of surveillance. Thus, prisoner behaviour is modified upon release, preventing them from offending. However, reoffending rates disprove all these claims.

Finally, another argument portrayed by anti-abolitionists is the demonstration of reform from selective prisons such as Norway. It has policies and investments into prisons. Although they still use prisons, they provide a more communitive approach, providing offenders with better support and resources. ‘Norwegian prisons focus on teaching responsibility and creating “good neighbours”, so that once released, they stop offending and contribute to society’ (Richards, 2017). This approach is evidently effective; 20% of prisoners are reconvicted within two years (Pakes and Holt, 2017), less than half the rate of the UK (Justice, 2018). Norway adopts a less punitive approach in which prisoners are treated with respect, when inmates are treated humanely recidivism rates fall, ‘”cognitive-behavioural programs rooted in social learning theory” are most effective at keeping ex-cons out of jail’ (Sterbenz, 2014). Evidence shows that Norway’s CJS is exceptional in comparison to many others. This is because Norway prioritizes rehabilitation; by using restorative justice the yfocus more on repairing damage caused by crime than punishing the perpetrator (Sterbenz, 2014). Key issues discussed by abolitionists could partially be achieved through reforms as demonstrated by Norwegian prisons.

In conclusion, controversies raised of prison abolition are exposed to much debate. The most disadvantaged individuals are dominating the prison population. Thus, we are in desperate need to act on this by addressing social issues such as poverty and mental health in order to prevent imprisonment which in turn, only exacerbates them. Abolitionists display numerous sources of evidence showing the boundless issues and failings of prisons, never mind the further inhumane and distressing examples of abuse and discrimination occurring. This alone should be enough reason for a dramatic change in the system. This essay has made valid points to suggest that something more sinister is affecting how prisons operate. The prison aims are not fulfilled. For example, this is evident through reoffending rates, meaning that prison serves no purpose other than for commodification and exploitation. BAME are significantly over represented in the penal system, thus, it can be argued that imprisonment emerged to replace slavery (Alexander, 2011), due to the evident increase of BAME groups being incarcerated following the decline of slavery. Although abolitionists provide alternatives, the current penal system has created a punitive society in which people want punishment; prisons reinforce dominant ideological constructions of crime, dislocating societies attention from crimes of the powerful (McLaughlin and Muncie, 2006). The public therefore predominantly fear abolition as they’ve been forced to believe prison is a natural response to crime. Furthermore, it has been proven by Norwegian prisons that significant reforms are possible, thus, the public are more likely to favour reform over abolition. However, it is important to question why we continue to justify an institution that reinforces racial and class inequalities. With the majority of the evidence confirming the extensive harms and ineffectiveness of imprisonment, there is an urgent need for immediate action.


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