Should Prisons Be Abolished?
“Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.” Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?1
When we think of prisons, we think of a cold, dinghy cell with bland white walls, unforgiving, gleaming iron bars, and a line of miserable prisoners in pressed monolithic uniforms. It is not a pretty picture. However, that is not all. Imprisonment also means rampant violence and chaos within the tall, stately prison walls. It means inmates emerging from prison desperate but unable to find work, being rejected again and again for being a “threat to society”. It means hundreds of thousands of children dreaming about their fathers, who they only see once a week in prison. Prisons have massive human costs not just to those trapped within them, but also to their families and communities.
In this essay, I will argue that the abolition of prisons is necessary to solve two inherent problems of incarceration - dehumanisation of prisoners, and the creation of more crime.
Prisons should be abolished because they are inherently dehumanising2 and deprive people of fundamental dignity3. People’s liberties are taken away and their lives stringently controlled. They are physically confined to small cages, and have their freedom of movement constrained to within their cells or limited prison grounds4. They also are forced to follow a strict timetable which gives them no freedom at all - waking at 6 in the morning, participating in tough physical exercise like marching, and having lights off at a predetermined time5. All their actions are also monitored by CCTV’s and prison guards, and any toe out of line will be severely reprimanded or punished. This all is incredibly dehumanising and reduces a person’s life to that of an animal - behind cages, fed and brought to exercise on a strict schedule. Another dehumanising aspect of prison is how it limits human contact. Visits by family members or friends are extremely limited and monitored. This means the most important people to these prisoners hardly spend any time with the convicts. One last dehumanising aspect of prison life is sexual deprivation6. Prisoners are not allowed to have sex, and as most prisons are segregated by sex and most prisoners are heterosexual, sexual relations rarely happen. This deprives humans of a basic biological need. This renders prison an extremely inhumane cage in which to lock people. As prisons principally deprive people of their dignity, they should be abolished.
Paradoxically, prisons have also been shown to generate more crime7. This happens both for ex-convicts and people from the prisoners’ communities. For the ex-convicts, imprisonment leads to economic hardship, which is a leading factor in creating crime8.
One reason for economic hardship is how prison makes it harder for them to gain meaningful employment. Lack of employment is first due to their removal from the job market. They have not had the time to move up the job ladder of a warehouse company, for example, and earn a higher wage than an employee just starting out at the company. In addition, this means they will have to compete with workers a few years their junior when re-entering the job market. When compared with fresh high school or university graduates who have more potential to work at a company, ex-convicts are unlikely to get hired.
Secondly, this is due to the social stigma ascribed to ex-convicts9. Employers have a warped view of criminals - not only because they broke the law, but mostly because of the aversion to someone who had been “behind bars”, someone who had been in the cold, harsh environment of a prison cell, someone who had mingled with evil murderers and rapists. Prison is hence a major factor contributing to the social stigma of convicts, making it difficult for them to be given second chances.
Because of these two reasons, they find it harder to get jobs, and hence their economic conditions deteriorate. Other than employment, another reason causing economic hardship is the lack of saving ability. A prisoner has no ability to earn a wage and save up, as he could not have earned any money within the prison complex. This means that he is almost penniless when exiting prison. It also means that the prisoner could not have saved up for important goods, such as for mortgage payments on a house, or his children’s college education. Inadvertently, this leads to problems like not owning a home and being a rent-seeking tenant with unstable shelter. Hence, imprisonment creates economic hardship by increasing the difficulty of employment and eliminating any saving capacity of ex-convicts. This greatly increases the chances of them reoffending again out of desperation.
The rampant violence and chaos within prisons also lead to high reoffending rates, especially for violent crimes10. Within prison, violence and sexual abuse are rampant. Convicts often have to use violence to prove themselves to other inmates in order to be accepted into their social circle. In some comparatively anarchist prisons, the prisons operate on the principle of “survival of the fittest”, and the prison degenerates into a Hobbesian state of nature, with constant violence and chaos. The common phrase within prison, “snitches need stitches”, demonstrates the violence committed towards inmates deemed traitors to their social group. All these mean that violence and fights within prison are commonplace. Inmates are socialised to view physical force and domination to be the way to solve problems, and to see human interactions as tribalistic and self-serving. Even for those who did not enter prison for crimes which caused bodily harm, they will learn to use violence as a self-defence mechanism. This internalised violence increases their chances of committing violent and impulsive crimes upon leaving prison.
For ex-convicts, many social reasons also lead to high recidivism rates. One of these is the lack of support from family and friends11. Prison is an extremely isolating environment, with family and friends hardly able to visit or have intimate contact with the convicts12. This often leads to a fracturing of their relationships, so convicts leaving prison find themselves unfamiliar with or even ostracised from their previous friend group, and distant from their family. This leads to a support network that has been greatly damaged. For example, the ex-convict is less able to meet up with his old friends and discuss problems he might be having while receiving advice and solace. He might feel less able to bond with his children, who often give ex-convicts motivation to pick up their lives for their children. This means that ex-convicts are less able to rehabilitate because the most important support networks by the people around him have been destroyed by the isolating environment of prisons.
The second social reason leading to high recidivism rates is the societal stigma attached to prisoners13. When asked to imagine a prison, many people immediately picture a horrendous fighting scene within cell walls, prisoners clad in the same uniform following a strict routine mechanically, and a terrifying place where those who have committed the most heinous crimes rub off each other. In other words, it is not a pretty picture. Associating these images of prisons with ex-convicts naturally decreases the community’s support towards these people’s rehabilitation. Many people believe them to be inherently a threat to the community, and hence do all that they can to turn ex-convicts away, such as creating a hostile environment, avoiding them in the street and petitioning for local governments to decrease rehabilitative support. All these make the ex-convicts lives much harder, and may force them once again on the road to crime if they lack societal support in rehabilitative and employment opportunities. Hence, lack of support from family and friends together with societal stigma can cause re-offense by ex-convicts.
The above three reasons of economic deprivation, violence and social ostracisation cause more criminal tendencies for ex-convicts. Harsh economic conditions and unemployment often force people into committing crimes of necessity such as theft, or turning to the black market to earn an income, such as drug trafficking. Violence socialises ex-convicts into a fight-or-flight response, making it more likely that they get in trouble for pub brawls or street fights. Social ostracisation makes ex-convicts feel isolated and increases any deviant tendencies; stigma can also remove critical support infrastructure, such as drug rehabilitation centres, if there is little political will to support it. All these demonstrate how prisons can cause ex-convicts to reoffend, and generate more crime.
Prisons also generate more crime through the environment it creates for other people. One such environmental reason is absent parent for the prisoners’ children14. If a child’s father is behind bars, it has been statistically shown that the child is more likely to commit crimes. This is first due to material reasons. Imprisonment often means losing the breadwinner, who used to be the main income stream for the family. This translates into worse conditions for the children - such as having no money to take transportation to school and having to walk a few miles through wind and snow, and being unable to afford reading or writing materials or an extra set of clothes. The convict’s family might also have to move due to an inability to pay for rent, possibly leading to a cycle of moving and eviction, and causing the child to change schools multiple times. Having a single parent might also mean the oldest child has to take care of younger siblings, or spend time doing chores in his free time, leading to less time to devote to his studies. This economic deprivation creates significant obstacles to the child achieving well in school, which in turn makes it less likely that the child is able to find gainful employment and free himself from a poverty cycle that can lead into crime. The second reason why absent parents might create more crime is the lack of parental care and attention to children15. With an incarcerated parent, any attention and care to the child necessarily decreases. The parent at home, for example, might have to juggle a few jobs to continue providing for the family. This leads to less time spent caring for the child, such as paying less attention to their schoolwork, less monitoring of their after-school activities, and a decreased ability to listen to any struggles the child may be going through.
As a result, children might become more distant from their families and attempt to seek alternative support structures where they can feel a familial connection. This often looks like teenagers joining gangs, as they feel a strong sense of brotherhood, and feel like they are of value to other members of the gang. This is why the largest criminal gang in Mexico has the cruelly ironic name La Familia - it brands itself as a familial structure which will take care of and provide for you when your real family might be absent. Hence a lack of parental care might force children to fill the void by seeking out gangs16. A lack of parental attention could also trigger a child’s instinct to rebel. A child’s deviant activity is often a signal to parents that they want more attention, and to feel important in their parents’ lives. This can start off as rebelling in school - not handing in homework, picking fights, becoming a school bully - and as a consequence forcing their parent to speak to them and participate more in their lives. This craving for attention and validation which they cannot find from their parents might be satisfied through committing acts of crime and deviance17, and by proving themselves to their classmates. Hence, material deprivation and lack of parental attention from incarceration might cause children to stray into the path of crime.
Another environmental factor that creates more crime is the effects of incarceration on the community18. This argument relies on a small but sizeable proportion of the community being incarcerated, which is not uncommon in areas like Chicago, or East London. The first effect on the community is economic. A prisoner represents an economic asset that has been removed from his community and placed elsewhere. As an economic being, i.e. a consumer, the person would typically have spent money within his own community. Imprisonment displaces that economic activity, removing consumers and hence a stream of income for the community. For example, a local deli might have to shut down because it lost a few of its main customers. This in turn causes its suppliers to have to earn less income and contract due to less demand. This vicious cycle of a demand slump causes economic activity to contract if a sizeable amount of consumers within the community no longer consume.
In addition, it is overwhelmingly young men who are incarcerated when looking at prison demographics. This represents a notable decrease in the workforce, leading to less incentive for companies to invest in the area. Companies also become reluctant to invest due to the perception that this is a crime-ridden and hence high-risk community. Hence, this leads to less investment, fewer employment opportunities and the degradation of the entire community due to a missing workforce and a harmful perception. This economic harm to the community might lead to more citizens turning to semi-criminal activities and ultimately to crime. The second effect on the community is the lack of adults in the neighbourhood. There is huge surveillance value in having adults or guardians keep an eye on teenagers in the neighbourhood - for example, just having adults in a park or walking in the street who could report suspicious activity to the police might deter people from committing crime.
Social interaction within the neighbourhood, such as having a trusted adult living next door to you, or seeing the postman and milkman every morning on your way to school, can also decrease your chances of being deviant. Incarceration means many of these adults performing useful surveillance functions are “disappeared” off into prisons, and as a consequence remove significant barriers to committing crime. Hence, economic and social effects of incarceration on the community could lead to an increase in crime.
The above two arguments of long-lasting impacts to convicts’ children, and harms to the convicts’ community demonstrate how conditions for higher crime rates can be created through incarceration. Worse economic conditions for children mean they cannot fully reap the benefits of education, and an emotional void and lack of attention mean they might seek out criminal gangs or activities. Lack of demand and economic investment in the convicts’ communities as well as a lack of adult figures in the neighbourhood can lead to less opportunities and less vigilance, creating more crime. Hence, indirect harms to the community can increase crime rates significantly.
Up till now, arguments for how imprisonment is inherently dehumanising, and causes more crime in both direct and indirect ways, have hopefully been successfully established. However, why does this mean prisons should be abolished? If there is no palatable alternative, surely we would have to accept the possible shortcomings of prisons?
The alternative to prisons are threefold: community work, re-education programs, and restitution with victims19. These alternatives aim to rehabilitate the criminal and remove the most pernicious circumstances causing crime, and restore justice and compensation to the victim20.
Community work is able to increase the social utility of a convict’s punishment by improving lives within the neighbourhood, and by rehabilitating the convict21. Community work can look like volunteering at the local hospital or homeless shelter, or helping fill potholes in local roads. This is beneficial as it allows the convict to interact with the neighbourhood. It humanises the criminal, and breaks down the stigma towards them. Instead of being demonised by the media as an evil criminal, they are the friendly volunteers seen every day by people in hospitals, or people in the streets passing by soup kitchens. This might also mean more support for the convict, such as kind words from the homeless they meet in volunteering shelters. It is also beneficial to the convicts’ rehabilitation. They feel valued as a part of the community and feel that they are compensating the neighbourhood for the crime they have committed. Convicts might also feel joy at their ability to improve other people’s lives, pushing them to seek similar jobs or volunteering opportunities when they have finished their community work as part of their sentence. At the same time, the breaking down of social stigma towards convicts means they are more likely to receive employment opportunities after they have served their sentence. They are consequently less likely to turn to crime in the future. Hence, community work benefits the neighbourhood, humanises criminals, makes them more likely to find employment and evokes a sense of communal duty.
Re-education programs are an integral part to any alternative to imprisonment22. They tackle the root cause of most crimes, which is poor economic situations, whether that be a lack of employment opportunities, or economic desperation driving them into crimes of necessity23. The state can offer apprenticeships, vocational training, and even fast-track high school and college degrees for convicts24. This means that the convict can learn a soft skill in high demand, such as coding or using Microsoft Office, or do an apprenticeship in carpenting and essentially guarantee a job in the industry. If necessary, the state can mandate one of these programs as part of the sentence. These retraining opportunities opens doors for ex-convicts25 and allows them to have gainful employment and a steady income, removing one of the biggest contributing factors to crime.
Restitution with victims, or restorative justice, is a unique method able to provide a sense of closure to victims26. It means that the perpetrator and the victim meet up together in a carefully mediated environment, where a formal apology is given, and the victim and perpetrator come to a mutual understanding. Often, victims have a warped perception of the perpetrator and hardly interact with them after a crime has been committed, except in the hostile environment of a court. Imprisonment also often does not give a sense of closure to the victim - what victims want is mostly to understand how the crime has been committed, to be compensated for their crime, to receive a genuine apology, and to make sure the crime does not happen again in the future. Restitution with victims achieves all four of these objectives27.
First, the crime and the motivations of the perpetrator are discussed in the mediated meeting. This might look like a robber explaining his desperate economic situation to the victim, and the victim talking about his trauma and psychological harm caused by the crime. Through this, both the perpetrator and victim are humanised. The perpetrator understands the harm done to the victim and is likely to feel remorse, offer a sincere apology, and recognise the err of his ways, never committing the same crime again. The victim understands the situational reasons causing the perpetrator to commit the crime, feels like he has been listened to and has the harm caused to him recognised, and receives a genuine apology and a sense of closure from the perpetrator. Compensation for the victim is also decided upon through a process of negotiation, measuring the objective harm caused and the ability to compensate by the perpetrator. This often looks like a monetary payment to the victim, or the victim deciding they would like the perpetrator to do community service. This process of justice is restorative, and is likely to create a sense of goodwill between all the stakeholders involved.
Comparatively, prisons do not achieve any of these goals. There is no understanding of how the crime is committed, as the perpetrator is either immediately thrown into jail or had his motivations explained through extremely biased court proceedings. There is no apology made at any point during the process. There is no explicit compensation to the victim - for example, a victim of assault might not necessarily receive financial compensation. There is also no sense of closure for the victim, as vengeance is often not the end goal - the goal is often to come to a mutual understanding and to prevent the criminal from committing the same crime and creating another victim in the future. This is comparatively more secure in a mediated session of restitution. Hence, restitution with victims uniquely restores the relationship between victim and perpetrator, and leaves the victim with compensation, an apology and a sense of closure.
All these alternatives are not to say that prisons should be completely abolished. Prison abolition and prison reform are not mutually exclusive28. For the most heinous and threatening criminals, such as serial murderers and rapists, allowing them on the street even under supervision would be dangerous. However, they only constitute a small minority of offenders, so the vast majority of convicts would be able to benefit from any of the three alternatives. Serial offenders could also be sent to psychiatric hospitals instead of prison, as committing crimes is often the symptom of a larger problem of mental illnesses or compulsions. Also, the existing prisons could be improved to a large extent. Instead of horrendous dehumanising prisons like those in the United States, all prisons should emulate that of Scandinavian countries. In Scandinavian countries, the conventional view is that deprivation of liberty is punishment enough, and that conditions within prison do not have to be made unnecessarily worse for it to constitute “paying for your crimes”29. The prison cells do not have bars, and instead resemble rooms in a college dormitory. The convicts had a large degree of freedom of movement, and could walk around the site as they wished within limited constraints. There is no stringent schedule to stick to. Within prison, there should also be a larger focus on rehabilitation of criminals. This could be educating them about the law, and putting them on parole so they can experience supervised release.
“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. We abolished this archaic principle because we recognised that punishment for the sake of vengeance is never conducive to preventing the next victim. Similarly, we have to stop pretending that putting people behind bars is going to rehabilitate them. We have to accept that prisons cannot resolve thousands of disparate issues - from white-collar crime to domestic and sexual abuse to desperate acts of theft. Let us imagine a world where humans are no longer locked into cages - where we give deviants the dignity and respect they deserve. Let us imagine a world where criminals are reintegrated back into the community, where they are given a second chance, where their children do not have to grow up with an absent parent. Let us imagine a world where cold, unforgiving prisons no longer exist.
About the author
Sharon Chau, Kwok Scholar 2020, is a student at Westminster School, she will be reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford.
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