Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Against the prison system

I feel like there's a stumbling block with prisons, that makes it very difficult to write about. Possibly it's a lack of imagination so that imagining what a word without prisons could look like seems ludicrous. I know that it's only possible because of the lack of knowledge about the reality of prisons. But whenver I've written anthing on prisons, no matter what I thought I was saying, the main response I've gotten has been 'but what about the murderers?'.

So I feel that in order to begin the series, in order to lay the foundation for an argument about justice which rejects the possibility of prisons I have to go over the arguments against prison. I will not be going over them in particular detail, there are heaps of sources on anti-prison work. Personally I was converted to the anti-prison cause in my early twenties after reading Jessica Mitford's Kind and Usual Punishment. Since then my opinion has been informed and reinforced by writing around, by and about, Black Panthers who went to jail, particularly. Finally, my own experience of the prison system which I wrote about briefly, only reinforced my views. I really don't recommend having your friends be arrested as a way to learn about prisons, but do recommend the other two routes if you want more detail about the arguments I lay out here.

A prisoner is under the control of the prison system, and the entire purpose of the prison system is to have that level of control. To talk about prisons, and the role in prisons in society, it's important to have the control reality of prisons explicit.

Control isn't the stated role of the prison (although it's central to their functioning); there are, theoretically, three different roles of a prison system, deterrence, rehabilitation, and punishment. I want to briefly look at these in turn to make it clear why I don't think there is anything in prison

Prison has no rehabilitive functions - none. If dehabilitative was a word it would describe prisons. There are many reasons for that, some of which get quite a lot of play in mainstream media, the lack of treatment for those who want, prison as a school of crime, the isolation of prison making people more like to comit crim etc. The point I want to make is that rehabilitation is incompatible with control. If the state wants people to refrain from acting in certain ways (and that's something that I find problematic, but I'll take it as a given for this paragraph) then giving those people no choice about how they act for a period of time is unhelpful. Taking total control of people's lives for a certain period of time is not going to induce them to behave the way you want to when that control is relinquished.

Prison is not a particularly effective deterrance. It's more effective deterrance than it is at rehabilitation (although objectively prison is more effective at teaching advance cake decorating skills than it is at 'rehabilitation'). I'll talk about some specific failures of prison as deterrance later on, but here I want to point out that there are still people manufacturing, transporting, selling and consuming drugs that have been made illegal where I'm writing from when I'm writing and where you're reading when you're reading. The threat of the justice system may work as a deterrance on some things some of the time, but almost by definition the crimes that are most often committed are the ones that prison is not working as a deterrance for.

On a more philosophical level if you believe that a major factor that stops people from stealing, killing people, drink driving or smoking pot is the threat of jail, then that's a particular view of human nature. If you locate the cause of what we define as crime somewhere other than inherent evilness, then prison as a deterrance looks a lot less important.

That leaves punishment. Prison is a punishment; I will not deny that. In fact I find it hard to write this, because I just want to type prison is horrific over and over again. The control and the punish aspects of prison work in perfect harmony. Although the effect is up for debate.

But who does it punish? Because even if you believe that total control is a suitable form of punishment (and I didn't before my friend's had gone to prison, and I sure as hell don't now), we all know that who gets punished is very selective. Poor-men and non-white-men are criminalised.

And while that's partly because of access to resources and discrimination on a case by case level it is also because justice systems are very selective about what they consider a crime. The way poor people steal are much more harshly dealt with than the way rich people steal.

Lots of people, many feminists (I would hope most, but that's probably a wee bit optimistic), agree with these points, but instead of arguing for prison abolition they argue for reform. I would ask people who recognise the problem in prison to really think what it is about prisons that they want saving?

Because there are ways that you can improve prisons, but they don't necessarily reform them. My suggestions for New Zealand prison would start by actually following the Correction department policy and procedures manual. I laugh hollowly whenever I read the families section (yes I have read the families section of the Corrections Department policy and procedures manual more than once, I never denied I had issues). Then there are more than a few improvements that you could make to the visiting system (starting with the Auckland region's booking system which is based on people who want to visit having communication with prisoners - something which is sometimes a little difficult for people in prison).

But most of the little things I want to change, the things that tore me apart and could have been different, are caused by the nature of prison itself, by control.

We've all read about the degredation and abuse that happens when people are under institutional control, in hospitals and rest homes. And in those cases the control is (supposed to be) incidental to the function of the institution. The problems that arise from control are fundamental to prison structures, and can't be reformed away. The effect of a system that is based on control is that every reform that is made will be made part of the system of control (to get more on this read Jessica Mitford on prisons, she demonstrates systematically how prison reform efforts have not created more humane prisons, but just increased the system of control over prisoners).

And that's my once over lightly against prisons. There's a lot it doesn't cover, it doesn't cover the role of prisons in society, or much about 'crime'. I'll write more about prisons, of course, that's the whole purpose of this series. I'll also address the issue of prison and rapists, and prison and abusive men more directly. But this is the place to talk about 'so what about the murderers'.


  1. 'so what about the murderers'?
    I'd like to believe that a society that had radically changed its view of crime and punishment would also have a lesser (or no) need of prisons. There will always be some individuals that behave outside of the considered societal norms. Pre-colonialism this occurred, but there were also community based solutions in dealing with them. Collective responsibility.

    But this isn't just about the murderers. Within the activist scene there is a very clear distinction between 'political prisoners' and 'normal prisoners' let alone murderers. Those who deserve letters and support and those who don't - the common criminals. Being a child of the common criminal I draw no such distinction, but have been offended by supposedly on-to-it activists who do. This in itself is a mechanism of control, buying in to the idea of who is worthy and who isn't. Although it has been difficult times of late since Oct 15th, I hope that it has helped to break down some of these bullshit barriers.

  2. Red Rosa - Yeah I absolutely agree about the idea of the 'common criminal'. The point should be to stand in solidarity with epeople who are criminalised, not distance yourself from them. It's interesting there's quite a political tradition in Britain about activists taking action like hunger strikes in order to get themselves treated as political prisoners (I think both the Suffragettes and some people in the Irish struggle did it). I don't know much about it, but it's always seemed dodgy to me.