Can we abolish prisons? If they served no useful purpose at all, it is unlikely that they would have survived for so long. To conjure a society without dangerous, antisocial people needing to be physically confined, can only sound like hopeless utopianism or sinister social perfectionism.
Yet it is difficult, when looking un-blinkered at the actual record of prisons, not to be left with a sense of intense futility. Sifting through the wreckage, looking for a ‘good’ prison system, can only appear as an exercise in pointless abstraction. Besides, uses are selective: useful for whom, when, under what conditions?
In the United States, abolitionists say that prisons have been useful mainly to white-supremacy, the conservative political coalitions organised by it, and businesses who benefit from forced labour. Angela Davis has made the case that prisons are intrinsically tied up in US history with the practices of race-making, from slavery, to Black Laws, to Jim Crow, to the mass incarceration of today. And just as race should be fading into obsolescence, so should prisons.
There is a lot to this argument, which helps to account for the sheer vindictive violence of the Usonian carceral system. Yet, perhaps the United States prison system is not the best exemplar for analysis. As Davis points out, its massive scale makes it a global anomaly. “The U.S. population in general,” she points out, “is less than five percent of the world’s total, whereas more than twenty percent of the world’s combined prison population can be claimed by the United States.”
In 2016, 2.2 million Americans were incarcerated, with another 4.5 million on probation or parole. About a fifth of these are in prison for non-violent drug offences, as a result of the continuing ‘war on drugs’, with the biggest concentration of them in federal prisons. Most of the young prison population is in for non-violent offences. Forty percent of the US prison population is black, even though they are thirteen percent of the population, indicating the scale on which race operates through the carceral system. Indeed, it is worth seriously considering Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s suggestion that as race-making techniques and their associated perceptual regimes evolve, prisoners themselves might become a new race. The scale of land and infrastructural investment is also indicated by the sheer number of jails: a total of six thousand federal, state and local facilities, more than the number of college campuses. Finally, there’s the scale of forced labour, worth a total of $1bn as of 2017, according to The Economist.
Indeed, there are many things about the organisation of political power in the United States that seem anomalous in a global context. In Foucauldian terms, one is struck not just by the size of the penal system, but the persistence of a racialized form of sovereignty predicated on the sovereign’s right to end life (as locally embodied in the murdering police officer). Even as disciplinary and biopolitical modes of power are ascendant, and increasing in their sophistication, the rate at which the police murder citizens reached a twenty year record in 2016. And one is entitled to wonder whether the unusual scale and violence of the US prison system is itself unusually imbricated with this form of sovereign power, rather than being a pure case of Foucauldian disciplinary power: prison deaths are also rising year-on-year, prisons are themselves the context for cruel and inhumane corporal punishments and torture, and the US uses the death penalty more than any other country. So that when Davis cites Foucault’s argument to the effect that prison reform is a tautology, that reform is part of the prison programme, one wonders if this applies with the same force to the US prisons system today.
Writing in Jacobin, the left-wing US social-democrat Roger Lancaster, himself the author of an invaluable book about sex panics and the carceral state, takes issue with Davis’s analysis. In short, he argues that the historical analysis supporting abolitionism is flawed, that it is politically unrealistic, and normatively undesirable. For Lancaster, the first major problem is that neither a study of America’s racial past, nor Foucault’s analysis of the emerging disciplinary order, could not have anticipated the extraordinary punitive turn of American politics in the 1980s, since which the prison population has reached proportions never seen before, neither during slavery nor Jim Crow. The critique of incarceration as a new Jim Crow, he argues, is not wrong about the grossly racist burden of the system, but the analysis has “downplayed” the effect on non-black populations of mass incarceration, as well as obviating the class distinctions among African Americans, which are a factor in prisons as they were not under Jim Crow.
For Lancaster, the decisive punitive turn that began to take place in the Seventies was not just a neoliberal turn, nor a reconstitution of race-making practices in sites of state power, but a comprehensive cultural turn toward punishment and social control, the agents of which took hold of existing forms of class and racial power and connected them through a landslide of legislation in a new apparatus of state violence. To this extent, Lancaster takes issue with historians like Naomi Murakawa who trace the origins of the punitive turn to post-war liberal racial paternalism, and policies pursued by Truman and Johnson to modernise and upgrade the central state. The thrust of Murakawa’s account is to undercut liberal explanations which root mass incarceration narrowly in Republican politics, and Nixon’s turn to race-baiting under the rubric of the ‘Southern strategy’. Thus, serving white racist client-voters, Republicans began reconstituting segregation and set the agenda for the next few decades. In this respect, Murakawa’s critique can be compared to Paul Gilroy and Joe Simms’ forensic and devastating critique of the postwar ‘golden days’ mythology that arose on the social-democratic Left in the Thatcher era. However, Lancaster argues that Murakawa is unable thereby to explain the mountainous shift in the terrain that began in the Seventies.
Still, whence the cultural shift that Lancaster describes? How much can changing values explain, as opposed to demanding explanation? 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 (of prisons) creates its own demand (for prisoners). So 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. This elegant marxist analysis has the virtue of explaining what Lancaster’s account doesn’t, to wit the fact that a cultural premium on punishment was translated into industrial-scale incarceration.
Gilmore’s analysis also segues into a specific abolitionist strategy. Rather than simply calling for this glut of useless prisons to be shut down, she joins with campaigners in calling for their re-deployment to meet local needs – for example, a community college. Recognising that prisons have been used as a means for the state to metabolise economic dysfunctions, she suggests that activists can build a positive case for the better use of resources. In this respect, abolition is not an immediate tactical demand, but the strategic horizon guiding practical interventions. The question of whether this is, or can be, a successful strategy is another matter.
There are, at least, some signs of incremental gains in the culture wars in recent years. The New York Times reports that the prison population has begun to decline as states have relaxed drug laws with popular support, and implemented measures to reduce the prison population. In California, for example, Proposition 47 reduced a range of drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanours. There are growing signs that far-sighted elements in the state would like to streamline a costly bureaucracy. Yet the drop in the prison population is thus far incremental, falling by only tens of thousands, and could be seen in the broader trajectory as a flatlining rather than a significant fall. What is more, it takes place in the context of two decades of falling crime rates. The sources of this overdeveloped carceral state are obviously deeply rooted. Indeed, if Gilmore is correct to situate mass incarceration as a response by local sites of state power to the dysfunctions of capital accumulation, disposing of various surpluses along lines validated by racism and class fear, there is little evidence of these dysfunctions attenuating, or a radical new accumulation strategy emerging from within the US ruling class. This suggests that abolition can only really make sense as part of a broader strategy to overthrow capitalism.
Is it, however, even worth abolishing all prisons, even if we could? For Lancaster, abolitionism is not only unrealisable utopia, but undesirable. There are, as he elsewhere explained, plenty of rapists, robbers and murderers for whom a period without freedom, in order that they may ‘think about what they have done’ would be condign. And, he argues, the non-carceral alternatives are often not particularly appealing. Much anti-carceral discourse in the US is focused on restorative justice based in communities. Such fantasies cannot but awaken the latent ‘Afro-pessimist’ in anyone. What is a ‘community’ in this context? In the United States, where state-monopolised physical violence has often been delegated to citizen bodies, from Pinkertons to Klans, it might be an armed neighbourhood watch, a vigilante group, or a lynch mob. Frank Wilderson III suggests, in his critique of the Gramscian valorisation of civil society: “Black death is the modern bourgeois-state’s recreational pastime, but the hunting season is not confined to the time (and place) of political society; blacks are fair game as a result of a progressively expanding civil society as well.” In the predicament of being caught between state and civil society, no simple anti-statism will suffice; one is up against a wall wherever one turns.
That this precise scale of black death is not inevitably and everywhere the case, that the survival and even expansion of the Usonian model of racial sovereignty is so particularly monstrous, is indeed part of the problem with abolitionist cases predicated on the analysis of white-supremacy. It is obvious that carceral regimes in all white-supremacist societies are involved in violence against black, Muslim and migrant populations. In France, where the neoliberal turn was inaugurated with a conspicuous racialisation of Islam, the sociologist Farhad Khosrokovar estimates that up to half of the prison population is Muslim, though Muslims represent 8-10 per cent of the population. In Britain, 10 per cent of the prison population is black, while only 2.8 per cent of the population is. Prisons in each of these societies have been condemned for cruel and inhumane treatment of inmates. In France, the European Court of Human Rights has attacked the French prisons system, singling out Fresnes for its inhuman and degrading treatment of inmates, and for maintaining a constant atmosphere of tension. (International headlines tend to focus on the contribution that this violence might be making toward the ‘radicalisation’ of jihadists, which is at least a tacit, partial, imperialism-blind acknowledgment that white-supremacist violence bears some primary responsibility for the spiral of global violence.) In the UK, a string of riots has broken out in overpopulated and overstretched prisons, wherein the guards have dealt with accumulating difficulties of governance by escalating violence against inmates. Nonetheless, the scale doesn’t approach that of the United States prison system.
And perhaps because of this, as reformers like Lancaster argue, some European prison systems might offer humane alternative carceral models. For Lancaster, the goal is a Scandinavian system in the United States: far smaller, far less punitive, more rehabilitative, but still performing a necessary deterrent function. Indeed, while abolition seems difficult to conceptualise without lapsing into a romantic and unavailing form of anti-statism, the existence of concrete, successful, realisable alternatives adds to pressure on the US political class to do something about the dysfunctional, over-mighty prison system. If reform hasn’t been the programme in the US, the time is arguably long over-ripe. And the net gain of such an approach is hard to dispute. If the US followed Finland in systematically reducing sentences, and reducing the number of imprisonable offences, this would seriously weaken the arsenals of class-repression, white-supremacy, and gendered violence.
Nonetheless, if the case against abolition is partly normative, it is worth asking what it is we’re really holding onto – what is the ‘good’ and useful kernel of incarceration? Even if we can’t readily imagine the alternative, and even if ‘abolitionism’ seems a completely implausible goal, what is it that binds us to the idea of keeping prisons in some form? The answer, clearly, is that it’s difficult to imagine what else to do with people who rape, murder, batter and exploit their peers, especially those who are more vulnerable. Even situating this within a class analysis, beginning with the fact that we are embedded in violent and exploitative capitalist social relations, that prisons are themselves a major apparatus of this violence, the fact is that if you are rape or subject to a racist assault, it is no mitigation that your attacker is also oppressed and exploited like you. But how does incarceration help with this?
The evidence, not only in Scandinavia but globally, is that the rate of imprisonment is in no way correlated to the crime rate. In both the United States and United Kingdom, the prison population has grown significantly during the last two decades, even as the crime rate continuously plummeted. Meanwhile in Finland and Japan, incarceration rates plummeted without any corresponding increase in the crime rate. Intriguingly, the architects of the Finnish system that Lancaster admires seem not to have believed in any direct deterrent effect when they decided to keep forms of incarceration; 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.
It is also more difficult than supporters suggest to prove and measure rehabilitation in the Finnish prison system. After all, there is no control sample. What is trivially easy to demonstrate is that Finnish prisoners show a much smaller rate of re-offending upon release than, for example, their British counterparts. This is good, but it is not clear what it means to attribute it to rehabilitation. The original idea of the penitentiary, is that through confinement and time to ponder one’s actions, one can become penitent, and reform. But even sceptical conservatives today acknowledge that prison is often a way of ‘making bad people worse’. By separating them from normal life and family, reducing their chances of employment and advancement upon release and integrating them with others who have learned to survive by criminal means, they are more likely to re-offend. A major study of prisoners in the United States found that of a sample of 275,000 prisoners, 67.5% re-offended within three years, and over half were back in prison. Another study tracking prisoners released in 2005 found that over three quarters ended up back in prison within five years. In Finland, with a much smaller prison population, and greatly reduced sentences, rates of recidivism have tended to be smaller. In 2014, 36.2% re-offended within three years, and just over half were back in prison within five years. This is still a significant rate of criminalisation, but arguably it is lower because Finnish prisons are more open, less confined, and more integrated into normal everyday life. They are, in other words, less like prisons.
What one would need to know, to take the argument a bit further, is what is the rate of re-offending among all prisoner cohorts compared to the majority of law-breakers who are never apprehended by police, processed by the courts, sentenced and jailed? But if those figures are not availing, there are at least a range of studies comparing custodial with non-custodial sentences. A meta-analysis of these studies was published in the Probation Journal in 2009. It noted that the hypothesis that incarceration was an effective means of reducing reoffending had to be “generally rejected” and that “prison increases reoffending when compared to a range of alternative sentences”. There is some evidence for an “incapacitation effect”, meaning that if you lock up enough people they are less able to commit crimes. But this is clearly not to do with rehabilitation, and the scale of incarceration required, and the rate of recidivism, makes it a wildly inefficient use of resources.
And finally, what about punishment? This is one thing that prisons do very well, and it’s part of a popular idea of justice – an eye for an eye, as it were. But what are we doing when we punish? The idea of punishment unravels into several distinct ideas. First, it involves diminishing the status of the person who has transgressed: humiliation. This is one of the ways in which prison is a highly apt site for new race-making practices, through ascriptive abjection. Second, it aims to prevent others from transgressing in the same way: deterrence by making an example of the offender. And finally, it extracts a degree of suffering that is hoped to be in some way commensurate with the harm done through the offence: 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, if there isn’t adequate humiliation, and if the example made of the convict is not sufficiently brutal. 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, and it doesn’t brutalise enough. This is one, highly problematic, idea of justice. It rests on the totally unproductive fantasy that there can be some sort of parity of suffering (blood for blood). The impossibility of this fantasy means that the desire for punishment can never be fully satisfied. No one can really suffer enough for what we go through in this life. And yet this is far more plausibly what prisons are for, than any supposed deterrent or rehabilitative effect. This is surely the unpleasant desire that lies behind strikingly bland, anodyne formulations about ‘value-shaping’ punishment.
There are alternatives to prison, and the state already avails itself of a range of them, from community sentences to fines, financial restitution, and various forms of work. These should not be assumed to be necessarily humane. A United Nations report published in 2007, evaluating the alternatives to prison noted that among the non-carceral sentences were “status penalties”. These, in the form of public shamings, are used quite freely by US judges, to humiliate people who have committed minor offences, a practice that has historical roots in Puritan New England. Nonetheless, it is not beyond the imagination to envision the extension and elaboration of various non-custodial ‘sentences’ which involve intensive reparation for damage done, rather than humiliation or separation from one’s family, friends and employment. This doesn’t seem, in principle, less realistic than advocating for a Finnish system in the United States, so that top drug dealers will be put in open prisons and paid to take university courses.
It may be that the reform-abolition dichotomy is an unavailing one. The question is, what is the political framework in which one seeks either objective? It is, after all, not inconceivable that Finland is closer to the future than the United States and that, over time, capitalism will evolve new technologies of governmentality, new regimes of biopolitical power, which really do render prisons obsolete as a means of regulating social conflict. We often hear that neoliberalism is over – with all the incipient challenges, it may still be that it is only just beginning, and that a new model capitalism, rebuilt around the format of the computer and the network, shedding the integument of older models of authority, will transform the very nature of crime and deviance. It may be that market- and labour-based penalties will constitute new articulations of punishment and exploitation. By replacing costly systems of incarceration, alternatives like tagging could be used to spread the net of discipline and social regulation, while evading/reinforcing underlying structures of inequality.
In this sense, the gradual obsolescence of a crude, dysfunctional carceral system could be commensurate with the arrival of more sophisticated mechanisms of violence. We should be alert, therefore, to the ways in which even the most radically emancipatory ideologies can, if they become conservative and fixated on a particular historical experience, potentially be absorbed into projects for more effectual social control. Isn’t this often the history of class struggle?