The case for the abolition of mass incarceration


Elena Papamichael makes the case for prison reform


The global campaign to end the death penalty is gaining momentum and in 2011 the vast majority of countries did not carry out a single execution. Only 21 in 198 countries performed executions, which is a steep decline of more than one third over the last decade. The support for the abolition of the death penalty is mounting, due to the degrading and discriminative nature of the punishment and its violation of the most basic human rights, as well as its blatant inefficacy of crime reduction.

However, it is apparent that a similar debate is not present on a wide scale surrounding the existence of prisons. Most people accept the prison system as the predominant mode of punishment as a permanent and unavoidable feature of our society. What cannot be ignored however is that the status of prisons in this country is now at crisis point. The current overcrowding of prisons has reached unprecedented numbers. With extremely high rates of recidivism and the exceptionally high amounts of marginalised people constituting those prison populations, we must ask ourselves why we are locking up a significant section of the population, including a very high proportion of vulnerable and mentally ill people?

The United States is widely criticised for its discriminatory, severe and inhumane penal system. I would argue that there are some very significant parallels to be drawn between our current system in the UK. Particularly with regards to the insidious links between prisons and corporations, and the overrepresentation of people of colour and disadvantaged backgrounds within the prison system.

I would propose that not only is prison abolition plausible, and its alternatives realistic but that it is a necessary and vital step towards democracy. I believe that the prison abolition movement should be a key goal in the fight against racism, capitalism and oppression.

In general, the prison is seen as a permanent and vital part of the landscape of our society. However this was not always the case, and until relatively recently prisons were not used as the main mode of punishment at all. Until the 18th century capital and corporal punishments were the main forms of punishment, with only 653 inmates in England and Wales, with only 16% of this number constituting criminals. With the rise of industrial capitalism the requirement for more severe control and surveillance of the population, and the need to develop a disciplined labour force lead to shift in penal policy from punishment of the body to a more pervasive system of control. This manifested in the growth of the prison as the principle machine of justice that we still have today.

The facts of imprisonment
In Britain the current prison population stands at an extraordinarily high 88,179, and this number is steadily increasing. We currently have one of the highest prison populations in Western Europe and an alarming proportion of these inmates are from ethnic minority groups. The numbers of mentally ill prisoners is a matter that needs to be addressed urgently. Around 70% of prisoners suffer from two or more mental disorders, compared to 2-5% of the general population. These inmates are much more susceptible to abuse within the prison system and clearly should be being supported and rehabilitated in other ways rather than incarceration.

Overwhelmingly, the statistics indicate that individuals from disadvantaged or unstable backgrounds are more likely to end up in prison. Arguably the failure of the state has contributed significantly to this outcome. Over 25% of prisoners were taken into care as children. 50% and 33% of men and women prisoners were excluded from school, and 60-82% of prisoners have literacy and numeracy skills below the level expected of an 11 year old. Clearly the onus is on the state to make more of an effort to protect people from disadvantaged backgrounds from ending up in correctional facilities.

The 2001 Halliday report revealed that sentencing has become much more severe; the average length of a custodial sentence has risen by 50% from 10 years ago and since 1997 Labour has enacted 23 criminal justice acts, and has created 3000 new criminal offences. This has had a massive impact on the populations of prisons. In 2003 around 3000 people were imprisoned for offenses such as shoplifting or bicycle theft even on first offence charges. Overcrowding means access to rehabilitative resources are scarce and has led to even higher reoffending rates. Two thirds of offenders reoffended within 2 years of release from prison in 2011.

The USA is often criticised for the racist nature of its justice system, and the links between slavery and prison are strong. After the abolition of slavery, the Slave Codes were altered and revised into Black Codes, with the aim of limiting the newly freed black population. The prison population at this time quickly morphed from one that was primarily white to one which was majority black, and black people became the main subjects of the developing convict lease system. Thus many black people found themselves drafted into forced labour after committing crimes that were only crimes if black people committed them, often onto the same plantations on which they had slaved before emancipation.

These days, the USA still has a very large proportion of black and ethnic minority inmates, at around four times more black prisoners than their population share. The exploitation of prison labour by corporations in the USA is widespread. Social historian Mike Davis coined the term ‘prison industrial complex’ to describe the relationship between private corporations and the rise of prison populations and the media. In the pamphlet ‘The prison industrial complex and the Global Economy’ Linda Evans and Eva Goldberg describe how ‘for private business, prison labour is like a pot of gold. No strikes, no union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation to pay…Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, and make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret, all at the fraction of the cost of free labour’.

While we are often quick to criticise the penal system in the USA, there is substantial evidence to suggest that our own is perhaps on a par, in terms of the level of injustice, and discrimination of the working class and of ethnic minorities as the United States.

High levels of racial discrimination involved in the practise of stop and search, where black people are around seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people in the UK. This systematic discrimination criminalises young black people, mainly men and boys. There is a large disproportion of black people in prisons, and the black population is actually higher, with seven times their share of the population, than in the United States. Black prisoners constitute 15% of the prison population, and only 2.2% of the general population, hence are extremely over represented in the penal institutions of Britain.

Although the courts can no longer sentence criminals to forced or hard labour, the 1952 Prison Act enabled ministers to introduce regulations without going through parliament, which made it illegal to refuse to work. In the UK the average wages of prisoners is around £10 a week, generating profit for some of Britain’s most established brands, such as Virgin Atlantic, Monarch Airlines, Travis Perkins, and more than one hundred other companies around the UK.

It is iterated again and again that prisons are essential to protect the public from rapists and murderers. However, with an ever growing prison market, and crime figures actually decreasing, we must look to the real reasons that our penal system is what it is today. The fact that England has the most privatised prison system in Europe and higher population in private prisons than the US means that it is in these companies’ interest to keep prisons as full as possible. Contracts with prisons and the almost free labour that they provides means the prison industry is a lucrative one for corporations and big businesses. We have developed into a nation where we imprison and exploit our marginalised civilians instead of supporting them and providing them with alternatives.

In order to eliminate, rather than try to reduce the injustices created and perpetuated by the prison system we must begin to have the conversation about prison abolition in the UK, and think about linking it to the global death penalty abolition movement. We must move towards a more equal society that does not need prisons. We must concentrate our efforts towards true reintegration and rehabilitation and move away from punitive sentencing and racist and classist ideology, as well as the pursuit for profit, which currently dictates our justice system. Decarceration should be a key aim for any country that seeks true democracy and efforts towards alternatives must be made. This includes better education, mental health systems and welfare, and a focus within the justice system towards reparation and reconciliation, rather than punishment and retribution, which helps no one. The prison system perpetuates the racialization of ethnic groups who are at a higher risk of imprisonment. The prison abolition movement seeks to ‘disarticulate crime and punishment, race and punishment, class and punishment and gender and punishment’ and to create a safer, more democratic and just society for all.


One Comment

  1. Natalie S
    May 22, 2012 at 10:30 pm · Reply

    This is a really interesting article – really agree with your points about the discriminatory nature of the prison system. It’s also worth adding that, although you’re not allowed to vote until age 18, children as young as 10 in England and Wales can be convicted of criminal offences. Apart from Scotland, where it is just 8, this is the lowest in the Western world. Prison is meant to be a last resort for young people convicted of a crime, but the practice is very different. The thousands of children in prison are generally from the poorest, most excluded backgrounds – about half have spent time in care or had social services involvement and many have serious mental health conditions. The experience of being in prison, combined with horrendously bad provision for young people when released from custody, tends to “cement” people into a vicious circle of offending.

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