As a department Criminology has pushed the envelope in promoting discussions around the key disciplinary debates. @franbitalo and myself co-ordinated a conversation where the main focus was to imagine “a world without prisons”. The conversation was very interesting, and we decided to post parts of it as a legacy of the social debates we engage in. The discussion is captured as a series of comments made by the students with some prompts in bold.
The original question stands, can you imagine a world without prisons? First thing first, there is a feeling that prisons will always exist as mechanisms to control our society. Mainly because our society is too punitive and focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation. We live in a society that ideologically sees the prison as the representation of being hard on crime. Further to this point we may never be able to abolish the prison, so it can always remain as the last resort of what to do with those who have harm others. Especially for those in our society who deserve to be punished because of what they did. Perhaps we could reform it or extend the use of the probation service dealing with crime.
In an ideal world prisons should not exist especially because the system seems to target particular groups, namely minorities and people from specific background. It important to note that it does stop people seeking or taking justice into their hands and deflecting any need for vengeance “eye for an eye”. Prison is a punishment done in the name of society, but it does carry political overtones. There are parts of political ideology that support the idea that punishment is meant to make an example of those breaking the law. This approach is deeply rooted, and is impervious to reform or change. Which can become one of the biggest issues regarding prisons.
Then there is the public’s view on prisons. When people hear that prisons will go they will be very unhappy and even frightened. They will feel that without prisons people will go crazy and commit crimes without any consequences. Society, people feel, will go into a state of anarchy where vigilantism will become the acceptable course of action. This approach becomes more urgent when considering particular types of criminals, like sex offenders and in particular, paedophiles. Regardless of the intention of the act, these types of crime cause serious harm that the victim carries for the rest of their lives. The violation of trust and the lack of consent makes these crimes particularly repulsive and prison worthy. How about child abduction? Not sure if we should make prison crime specific. That will not serve its purpose, instead it will make it the dumping ground for some crime categories, sending a message that only some people will go to prison.
Will that be the only crime category worthy of prison? In an ideal world, those who commit serious financial crimes should be going to prison, if such a prison existed. Again, here if we are considering harm as the reason to keep prisons open these types of crime cause maximum harm. The implication of white-collar crime, serious fraud and tax evasion deprive our society of taxes and income that is desperately needed in social infrastructure, services and social support. Financial crime flaunts the social contract and weakens society. Perhaps those involved should be made to contribute reparations. The prison question raises another issue to consider especially with all the things said before! Who “deserves” to go to prison. Who gets to go and who is given an alternative sentence is based on established views on crime. There are a lot of concerns on the way crime is prioritised and understood because these prioritisations do not reflect the reality of social disorder. Prison is an institution that scapegoats the working classes. Systematically the system imprisons the poor because class is an imprisonable factor; the others being gender and race.
If we keep only certain serious crimes on the books, we are looking at a massive reduction in prison numbers. Is that the way to abolitionism? The prison plays too much of a role in the Criminal Justice System to be discounted. The Industrial Prison Complex as a criminological concept indicates the strengths of an institution that despite its failings, hasn’t lost its prominence. On the side of the State, the establishment is a barrier to any reform or changes to this institution. Changes are not only needed for prison, but also for the way the system responds to the victims of crime as well. Victims are going through a process of re-victimisation and re-harming them. This is because the system is using the victims as part of the process, in giving evidence. If there is concern for those harmed by crime, that is not demonstrated by the strictness of the prison.
As a society currently we may not be able to abolish prisons but we ought to reduce the harm punishment has onto people. In order to abolish prisons, the system will have to be ready to allow for the change to happen. In the meantime, alternative justice systems have not delivered anything different from what we currently have. One of the reasons is that as a society we have the need to see justice being served. A change so drastic as this will definitely require a change in politics, a change in ideology and a change in the way we view crime as a society in order to succeed. The conversation continues…
Thank you to all the participating students: Katja, Aimee, Alice, Zoe, Laura, Amanda, Kayleigh, Chrissy, Meg, and Ellie also thank you to my “partner in crime” @franbitalo.