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Is prison abolition possible?

Prisons, the police and the state aren’t age-old institutions. But winning a future without them will take revolutionary change, writes Judy Cox
A sign reads in a world without prisons there would be money for homes jobs education and housing illustrating an article on prison abolition

Prison abolitionists argue resources should be poured into dealing with the social roots of crime (Picture: Daniel Arauz/Flickr)

The US remains the world leader in mass incarceration. But Britain is not innocent—and it’s time we talked about prison abolition as the solution.

Britain’s prison population has nearly doubled in the last 30 years and will surpass 100,000 people in five years. But, for all the Tory scaremongering about law and order, the number of crimes committed has fallen by 63 percent since 1981 and the number of violent ones peaked in 1995.

The prison system doesn’t “rehabilitate” people and there is no proven link between rates of imprisonment and crime. But it does brutalise alienated, angry and sometimes violent people, and make it harder for them to escape crime once they’re released. If anyone thinks prison is a “deterrent” or “rehabilitates” people, how come almost 40 percent of people reoffend within the first 12 months and 75 percent within nine years? And the figures are higher in the US than Britain. 

Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, leading supporters of abolition in the US, argue that prison harms society, rather than protecting it. Mass incarceration, Davis writes, “devourers social wealth” and “reproduces the very conditions that lead people to prison.” The US penal system is full of black people who are overwhelmingly poor, ill, addicted and deprived.

Mass incarceration is not as advanced in Britain as the US, but its jails reflect and reinforce class inequality, racism and sexism. Black and minority ethnic people make up just 3 percent of Britain’s population—and 13 percent of the prison population. The likelihood that someone held on remand—jailed awaiting trial or sentencing—is black has shot up by 17 percent over six years. And, since the war on terror, the proportion of Muslim prisoners grew from 8 percent in 2002 to 18 percent in 2021.

Nearly 5,000 women were imprisoned in 2022—and most were victims of much more serious offences than those they are accused of committing. Over 50 percent had experienced physical or sexual abuse as children and over 60 percent had experienced domestic violence.

It’s no wonder that there is a growing audience for those demanding, not to humanise the cages but to tear them down. But is prison abolition really possible? Isn’t it more practical to reform the criminal justice system?

Capitalism, prisons and the police 

The state, the police and prisons are not age-old institutions—they grew with class society and capitalism. As Frederick Engels argued, the state developed as an instrument of coercive power for the rule of one class over another. “What does this power mainly consist of?” he asked. “Special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc., at their command.”

In previous class societies mass incarceration wasn’t part of the state’s armoury. In Ancient Rome, for example, people awaiting trial or a death sentence would be imprisoned and there were some private prisons to hold slaves and those who hadn’t honoured debts. But there weren’t vast public prisons and punitive prison sentences. In the Middle Ages imprisoning people as a punishment in a feudal society where the majority were never free made little sense. Though people could be kept in jails for a long time awaiting trial.

However, the growth of capitalism transformed the state and vastly increased the scale of criminal sanctions. Firstly, common land was “enclosed”, legally stolen from those who depended on it. As Marx wrote, peasants were “first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, then whipped, branded and tortured by grotesquely terroristic laws into accepting the discipline necessary for the system of wage labour”.

Secondly, as historian Peter Linebaugh explains, workers traditionally considered themselves masters of what they produced. It took a “judicial onslaught” in the late 18th century to convince them that what they produced belonged to the capitalists who owned the ships and the factories.

The development of capitalism pushed together large numbers of workers in towns and factories and began to forge the working class. The Black Act of 1723 created 200 new crimes punishable by death amid the social dislocation as the new system took hold. 

In the late 18th century the British ruling class pushed through a raft of legislation to discipline unruly workers. The punishment for illegal assembly was changed from branding to seven years of transportation. It responded to the French Revolution of 1789 with more repression. More people were executed in England between 1789 and 1805 than were killed in the “French Terror”. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1801 clamped down on political reform societies and workers groups’ wage demands with a three-month prison sentence.

The free market depended on the iron fist of the state. The first police force in London was not organised to defend citizens from crime. It was created by the slave-owning sugar merchants of the West Indies to stop dock workers dipping into their goods.

The London Metropolitan Police was set up in 1829 in response to the growth of the working class and struggle. Home secretary Robert Peel had already set up a colonial police force in Ireland, another reminder of how our criminal justice system is intimately linked to colonialism. The role of the police increased throughout the 19th century, partly in response to working class militancy. The “plague of blue locusts” which invaded the towns of the north that supported the Chartist movement in 1842 were sent to repress, not to protect.

Alongside the police, the prison system grew in the 19th century. By the 1830s around 5,000 prisoners, some as young as 10, were transported to penal colonies in Australia every year. Among the thousands transported were the Tolpuddle Martyrs who tried to form a union in 1834 and the Chartist leaders of the 1839 Newport Uprising who demanded the right to vote. 

The state expanded its remit during the late 19th century, intervening more in working class life, controlling and disciplining under the guise of reform. And new legislation led to the further criminalisation of poverty, the policing of women’s sexuality and the persecution of LGBT+ people.

The abolitionists’ alternative 

Abolitionists demand a moratorium on new prison building, the release of non-violent prisoners and long-term, radical social reforms to help people avoid prison. They are often accused of naivety, of ignoring the threat posed by hardened criminals. 

But what constitutes a crime is determined by the rich and powerful who rule and their crimes often go unpunished. The ruling class routinely commits what Engels called “social murder” when people die as a consequence of the drive for profits. Destroying the environment is not a crime. But protesting effectively against that destruction is.

When mainstream politicians posture over crime, they’re talking about those committed by ordinary people. But it’s their policies, their austerity, neoliberalism and privatisation that have exacerbated the social roots of crime. In the US Chicago spends $2,500,000 a year on addressing substance abuse. That equates to half a day of the city’s police budget. The best crime reduction scheme is welfare and jobs, not prison.

Oppression is integral to the violence of capitalism, and those at the top rely on pushing sexism, racism and LGBT+phobia to divide people. This boosts backward ideas in society and shapes the behaviour of individuals. In 1844 Engels wrote about how the brutality of capitalism produces crime and criminals. “Present day society, which breeds hostility between the individual and everyone else, produces a social war of all against all, which inevitably in individual cases assumes a brutal form—crime,” he said. 

This is why abolitionists point to longer term solutions based on radically reshaping society to address the root causes of crime. Angela Davis writes, “Abolitionist strategies are especially critical because they teach us that our visions of the future can radically depart from what exists in the present.” 

How can we take on the state? 

Abolitionists are well aware of the power of the capitalist state. In 1970 Angela Davis was charged with murder and kidnapping and spent over a year in prison before she was acquitted. Ruth Gilmore Wilson, author of the key abolitionist text Golden Gulag, was a radical student activist in 1968. Her cousin, Black Panther John Huggins, was murdered by the police.

Mariame Kaba is a well-known abolitionist blogger and author who describes herself not as a writer, but as an organiser who writes. She led a successful campaign for reparations for the victims of Jon Burge, the head of the California Police Department. He was found guilty of torturing 118 prisoners into making false confessions, over ten of whom were later reprieved from Death Row.

Abolitionist writings are exciting, anti-capitalist and ambitious, but they convey little sense that we will inevitably have to physically confront the state. Their strategies largely assume that growing support for abolitionist arguments, alliances between communities experiencing repression and campaigning organisations will somehow incrementally erode the state until it can be dismantled. 

The most radical abolitionists invoke an idea of revolutionary praxis in the tradition of prison activists George Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver and Malcom X. They organise practical campaigns against the harm done by the criminal justice system.

In the Routledge Handbook of Penal Abolition, Michael Coyle and David Scott argue, “The task of the penal abolitionist is thus to be a public intellectual deploying moral and political arguments to challenge hegemonic norms. Further, the task of the penal abolitionist is to be an activist working to awaken the mass populace to the abject failure of the penal system as a systematic response to transgression (“crime”)’.”  

The authors of Feminism. Abolition. Now, Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners and Beth Richie, describe an “abolition feminist ecosystem” of scattered campaigns, study and action groups, clusters of militant pickets which energises a wider change in consciousness. Their strategies assume that alliances between victimised communities and campaigning organisations will create alternative forms of justice. And that these will be more effective than the state in preventing crime, and such examples will undermine the authority and power of the state. 

But can ecosystems and imaginings effectively challenge the power of state institutions? The state’s class nature, particularly in liberal democracies, is disguised by the idea that it’s a neutral body that stands above class divisions. But whenever our rulers face resistance from below, the forces of the state unleash repression against ordinary people. All you have to do is look at France. President Emmanuel Macron has pushed through a pension reform without even a parliamentary vote using a power in the republic’s “democratic” constitution. The police riot against protesters. And the state has moved to ban the Uprisings of the Earth climate group. In Britain, too, we can see an authoritarian hardening with measures such as the police and public order bills that give more power to the cops and crack down on protesters. 

We can win reforms within capitalism through strikes, protests and campaigning, and revolts can shake the state and leave the ruling class running scared. Socialists support demands to redirect funds away from police departments, jails, prisons, and immigrant detention facilities toward the public good. We too want the police out of schools, prisoners freed, police defunded and abolished, and we too raise questions about the reorganisation of society.

However, we can’t use the existing state to change the system. No capitalist state has ever conceded its power to persuasive argument or mass campaigning. And, despite over a century of parliamentary democracy in many countries, no capitalist state has ever used its coercive power to dispossess the wealthy minority and meet the needs of the majority. 

We have to ask, what is the social force that has the power not just to shake the state, but to smash it. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels advanced a bold vision of abolitionism. Engels said a communist society would “reorganise production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers and will put the whole machinery of state where it will then belong: into a museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning-wheel and the bronze axe”.

For Marx and Engels, the working class was key to winning this vision. It’s not because workers are automatically socialist or progressive. It’s because of their objective social position. As workers’ labour is the source of capitalist profits, they have a unique power to bring the system grinding to a halt and to uproot exploitation and oppression. There’s nothing automatic about that and socialists have to win arguments within the working class. 

But we’ve seen that potential before. Over the last two hundred or so years there have been repeated attempts to launch insurrections against the institutions of the state. Kings have been executed, Tsars and Kaisers forced to abdicate. Some revolts have succeeded in driving the army and the police out of spaces controlled by workers. 

The testimony of those involved in revolutionary movements demonstrates that, when the repressive institutions of the capitalist state are driven out, society does not descend into chaos. On the contrary, working class people develop new grassroots institutions which respond to the democratic will and address the needs of the population. 

Revolutionary upheavals show glimpses of the potential to undermine the violence endemic to capitalism and to challenge oppressive ideas and behaviour. Rosa Vega lived in Barcelona when workers revolted against General Franco’s fascist coup and took over their city in 1936. “It was so dark that I often bumped into people in the streets,” she wrote. “But never once was I molested or made aware that I was a woman. Before the war there would have been remarks of one kind or another – now that was entirely gone. Women were no longer objects, they were human beings on the same level as men.” 

Some 75 years later, Engy Ghozlan described a similar experience in Tahrir Square, Egypt. She recalled, “I smoked in Tahrir and it was fine and remember thinking, I’m smoking in Tahrir and no one is looking or saying anything to me’. And I was never sexually harassed there either.”

Such moments of revolution give us a glimpse of how the state can be pushed back and different relationships can be generated. But they cannot co-exist with the forces of the state which will inevitably use their batons and tear gas and their jails to crush any challenge to the rule of capital.

Abolishing the state depends on spreading and deepening the revolutionary process and preparing to contest for power. The criminal injustice system is part of a capitalist state that cannot be reformed or peacefully dismantled. It will not concede power to abolitionist argument or organising, however powerful and effective. It must be smashed and replaced through working class people setting up their own democratic institutions in a revolution and taking power. How that might take shape will be the subject of another article.

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