An abolitionist’s guide to the prison-industrial complex

You are currently viewing An abolitionist’s guide to the prison-industrial complex

[Written by Tom Hall]

[Image Credits: Isabelle Hunt-Deol]

Content Warning: Contains discussion of police violence, physical and sexual abuse, and systemic racism, sexism, and classism.

The criminal justice system in Great Britain and Northern Ireland is designed to maximise suffering and profit, damage communities and families, and benefit the world’s élite.

In September, it failed to find justice for 19-year-old Harry Dunn killed in a hit-and-run outside the US military base RAF Croughtan.  The perpetrator, the wife of a US diplomat, is yet to be brought to justice and, whilst Prime Minister Johnson has expressed outrage, evidence of talks supporting the Dunn family’s case is yet to materialise. At the same time, both partially and fully privatised UK prisons are exploiting free or almost free labour from their inmates (tantamount to slavery), thousands of teenagers are incarcerated, and transgender [1] and minority ethnic prisoners [2] are physically and sexually abused by guards and inmates alike without protections, all whilst large corporations such as Timpson’s and DHL [3] increase their profits.

Why do we accept this?

Not everyone is created equal when it comes to the prison-industrial complex. For minority ethnic and the poorest in society, police violence, mass incarceration, and a biased legal system pose serious existential threats. This is particularly important not only due to the over-representation of poor and minority ethnic people [4] amongst the prison population but also because of its anti-democratic, anti-migrant, and colonial history. It is significant to note that the modern prison as well as a static police force were created largely to punish debtors [5], subjugate colonised populations (the British Empire used large prisons to silence political dissent up until the 1950s across its colonies [6][7][8]), and break up organised labour [9]. This legacy is continued to this day with police violence being primarily directed at people of colour [10][11], protesters, and the poorest in society [12]. This violence is accompanied by several discrepancies and inequalities in the prison system – for example, the fact that law enforcement turn a blind eye to wealthy class A drug users – not to mention the migrant detention centres and chartered deportations which are in clear violation of human rights and international law [13].

We should always bear in mind who is legislating, what kind of non-violent actions are considered “unlawful”, what kind of violent actions are lawful and who benefits from them. Even though individuals elect legislators in Britain, they are not directly accountable to their constituents and do not represent their views in legislature. In fact, a 2014 study of US democracy by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy…while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination… but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy” [14]. This is where we live: a country where you can be put in prison to work if you cannot pay minor debts[15] but if you cause a financial crash, avoid your taxes, or abuse your workers in the name of profit, you’ll most likely be let off the hook and you may even be awarded a knighthood [16].

At this point most reasonable readers will be thinking that despite its drawbacks and crimes against humanity, we need prisons to keep us safe, to vindicate the law and deter others from breaking it. It may not be perfect but it’s a necessary evil, right? This seems perfectly reasonable, I’m sure everyone would agree to the principles of vindication, protection, reparation, and rehabilitation. The problem is not the theoretical aims of the justice system, but the reality of punishment’s aims (both historically and today): the system fails on every one of its own criteria and ultimately cannot be reformed.

Q: Do prisons reduce crime?

A: No, empirical studies from countries worldwide have shown repeatedly that the advent of prisons, higher prison populations, and tougher sentencing fails to reduce crime and often has the opposite effect [17].

Q: Do prisons rehabilitate inmates?

A: No, in fact almost half of adult offenders and almost three quarters of juvenile offenders reoffend within one year [18].

Q: Well, surely prisons protect inmates from themselves – how can you use drugs or self-harm when someone is always watching you, especially in these new big prisons designed to have no dark and secluded spaces.

A: Even in this case, the prison-industrial complex falls short. Despite Michael Gove’s posturing about new prison architecture, new prisons have higher levels of drug use, self-harm, fighting, and rioting [19]. Take the recent Bedford Prison riots from 2016: 200 prisoners were able to stage a political protest due what an independent monitoring board declared inhumane treatment [20] – prisoners claimed it was easier to access drugs than simple amenities, such as bedding and clothes [21].

Q: What about the victims, don’t they feel safer knowing that whoever wronged them is locked up?

A: Reports have consistently shown that victims of crimes are generally left dissatisfied at every stage of the judicial process. [22]

To put it more clearly, prisons everywhere seem to exist to benefit the ruling class – whether it be through providing large profits for private capitalists or by controlling the bodies of the poor and disenfranchised to increase the scope and power of the state. This is shown very well in the most privatised and densely populated prison system in the EU — our own. Prisons are not for the good of the prisoner, they inflict psychological and physical harm onto inmates, providing what amounts to slave labour as a singular retreat. Victims are left dissatisfied and traumatised by the bureaucracy and lack of restorative justice. Communities and families are torn apart by mass incarceration and systemic racism and classism. They drain our public funds away from welfare, education, and healthcare (sectors which, when invested on, actually and not so coincidentally prevent crime) so that the state can control our bodies and private interests can increase their profits.

Let’s hope we can look back on prisons one day as yet another Great British atrocity.

Further Reading:

Peter Kropotkin – Prisons: Universities of Crime, Are Prisons Necessary

Peter Gelderloos – The Function of Prison

Angela Y. Davis – Are Prisons obsolete?

Peter Gelderloos – The Justice Trap: Law and the Disempowerment of Society 

Alfredo Bonanno – Locked Up (Chiusi e chiave)

The Lockdown – A world without prisons

Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee –

[1] “Perhaps most alarming is the level of harassment, assault and abuse that transgender people can face in prison. While such abuses are more widely documented in other jurisdictions (particularly in the US, see Stop Prisoner Rape and American Civil Liberties Union, 2005; Sylvia Rivera Law Project, 2007; Arkles, 2009), evidence from individual prisoners, prison inspectorate reports and advocacy groups suggest that the problem is also acute in British prisons”























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