For and against abolitionism

If prisons were completely useless, it would be hard to see how they had taken root and endured for so long. Yet it is difficult, when looking unblinkered at the actual record of prisons not to be left with a sense of intense futility. Besides, uses are selective: useful for whom, when, under what conditions?

Try to imagine a society with no need for confinement, with no one being locked up after a brutal act, and it is difficult not to feel one has lapsed into utopianism. Yet, try to determine what socially useful purpose prisons have fulfilled, sift through the wreckage looking for a residual ‘good’ prison system, and it is hard not to feel you’re wasting your time on a pointless abstraction.

In the arguments on the Left, reform wires into the former intuition, abolition into the latter. Roger Lancaster’s argument against abolitionism, in a recent Jacobin article, has a lot to say for its position. Lancaster is no apologist for mass incarceration. As the author of a very useful book on ‘sex panics’ and the punitive state, and a left-wing social-democrat, he favours drastic prison reform along Scandinavian lines. But he argues that abolitionism is based on flawed historical arguments, is unachievable, and is normatively unacceptable.

How you evaluate this depends on how you evaluate the US system of mass incarceration. The American prison system is unlike anything else in the world. In the 1980s, the Federal government and local states began an unprecedented prison construction programme. This wasn’t to house current criminals. The system was being built for the children of people who hadn’t even been born. As though to supply a malevolent proof for Say’s law – supply creates its own demand.

Why did this happen? A certain liberal telling of the tale has it that, beginning under Nixon, Republicans manufactured racist hysteria about crime. Exploiting fears of black political uprisings and riots, they began constructing a new carceral regime. This was part of a ‘Southern strategy’ aimed at picking up white-supremacist voters, and also part of a reconstitution of segregation through the institutional framework of criminal justice. 

Revisionist scholars like Naomi Murakawa argue against this chronology and explanation, rooting Nixon and Reagan-era policies in post-war liberal racial paternalism and modernisation policies, from Truman to Johnson. (For the British context, Paul Gilroy and Joe Simms produced the most detailed critique of social democracy and policing before Thatcherism.)

What one wants to ask is, granted either picture, what explains the specific, historically novel and politically uncertain path to the industrial manufacturing of prisons and prisoners? Even accepting Lancaster’s own view that there was a complex punitive shift beginning in 1973, wherein humanising reform was abruptly reversed into a phase of counter-reform, why should that necessitate mass incarceration?

Ruth Wilson Gilmore's key work on this, Golden Gulag, positions prisons as a spatial fix for capitalist crisis tendencies. Unprecedented prison construction, generously Federal funded and crystallising ideologically around the racially coded ‘war on drugs’, allowed local states to absorb surpluses in labour, land, state capacity and financial capital. The unemployed become prisoners or prison guards, unused land was built on, states had something to do, and investors had a blue-chip investment. All in a seemingly simple movement, turning spaces into cages. 

The elegance of this approach is that it segues into a practice – for Gilmore, an abolitionist practice. Gilmore's work with prison abolitionists involves not merely calling for these unnecessary prisons to be shut down, but – recognising that they have been used as a means of politically metabolising economic dysfunctions, organising with local communities to pressure for the resources to be re-deployed to something more useful, like a community college.

However, insofar as this work has abolition as its horizon, it depends on the idea that prison doesn’t perform a socially useful function. Lancaster’s critique – as he makes clear in responses to Nikhil Singh here – is that it does. There are, in addition to people locked up for bogus offences, rapists, robbers and murderers, and depriving them of their freedom for a while, in order that they have time to ‘think about what they have done’, is not the worst thing in the world. His attack on abolitionism is not primarily historical, but normative. 

After all, what is the alternative? Lancaster is sceptical about restorative justice based in communities. It is hard to disagree. What is a community? In America, it might be a group of people organised around the relative advantages of property and strategies for their conservation. It might be a neighbourhood with an armed neighbourhood watch brigade. It might be the kinds of people whom you would block on social media. Restorative justice in their hands could far too easily become a byword for revenge, sadism, social competition and racist harassment.

Besides, Lancaster argues, a humane alternative is available: the Scandinavian system. It would still perform a necessary deterrent function, but it would be much smaller, much less punitive, and much more rehabilitative. Given the growing pressure in the US political class to do something about the dysfunctional, over-mighty prison system, the time is arguably ripe to push for radical reform.

As an intermediate goal, going Scandinavian in the US context seems hard to fault. In particular, following Finland by systematically reducing sentences, and reducing the number of imprisonable offences, would weaken the arsenals of class-repression and white-supremacy.

But I want to ask what it is we’re holding on to, what the ‘good’ and useful kernel of incarceration is here. Even if we can’t readily imagine the alternative, even if ‘abolitionism’ is not a popular political goal, what is it that binds us to the idea of keeping prisons in some form?  

Granted that some people harm their peers in serious ways, how does incarceration help with that? The evidence of the Scandinavian prison system is that the rate of imprisonment is not correlated to the crime rate. Intriguingly, the architects of the Finnish system seem not to have believed in any direct deterrent effect; rather, punishment had a "value-shaping effect". It would reinforce that the law frowns on certain behaviours, and seeks to reform those who engage in them. To the extent that this symbolic effect exists, it must be so diffuse as to evade empirical capture.

What, then, about rehabilitation? How would one go about showing that rehabilitation was brought about by imprisonment? What would the control sample be? It is trivially easy to show that Finnish prisoners show a much smaller rate of re-offending upon release than, say, British prisoners. The main reason for this is that Finnish prisons are more open, less confined, more integrated into normal everyday life – less like prisons in other words. 

This demonstrates that Finnish prisons, thanks to the official recognition that prison doesn’t work, are far less likely to produce permanently ‘criminalised’ people than their British counterparts. What one would need to know, to take the argument a bit further, is what their re-offending rate is, compared to the majority of law-breakers who are never apprehended by police, much less processed by the courts, or sentenced and jailed.

And finally, what about punishment? What are we doing when we punish? The idea of punishment unravels into several distinct ideas. It involves diminishing the status of the person who has transgressed -- that is, humiliating them. It aims to prevent others from transgressing in the same way -- that is, it makes an example of the offender. And it extracts a degree of suffering that is hoped to be in some way commensurate with the harm done through the offence -- that is, it enacts revenge. From a punitive point of view, a sentence can be considered overly lenient if the suffering inflicted is somehow judged less severe than that caused by the original transgression.

Prisons certainly can and do punish people. That is what they are good at. The Finnish prison system is, from this point of view, a bad system, because it under-punishes. It lets crooks off lightly. It doesn’t shame enough, it doesn’t humiliate enough, it doesn’t brutalise enough. Obviously, punishment has nothing in common with justice. Obviously, the idea of some sort of parity of suffering – an eye for an eye – is patently absurd. But this, far more than any supposed deterrent or rehabilitative effect, is what prisons are about.

Finally, it’s not clear that Lancaster isn’t conflating a number of issues here. Granted, any facile anti-statism isn’t going to work, and that restorative justice predicated on community action is implausible and potentially sinister. But it needn’t be left to ‘communities’. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a sentence that involves working to repair the damage done, rather than going away for ten or twenty years. 

And it isn’t as if the state doesn’t already avail itself of a range of non-carceral options, like community sentencing, fines, financial restitution and so on. It doesn’t seem altogether a stretch of the imagination to talk about expanding the range of non-carceral options for all crimes, including non-carceral forms of confinement for people who might be dangerous to others.

And if you’re going to aim for a Finnish system, which puts top-level drug dealers in open prisons, and pays for them to take university degree courses, that doesn’t seem much more realistic in the US political climate than simply working toward the ultimate abolition of prison.   

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