The release of the videos showing the abuse of children at the Don Dale Detention Centre thrust Australia’s justice system into the spotlight, both nationally and internationally. The images immediately resulted in a Royal Commission, followed by national protests and calls to sack the Northern Territory government. Others have demanded independent monitoring of our prisons, and even the shutting down of youth detention centres.
But I think what happened in Don Dale gives us the opportunity to talk about another solution: the abolition of prisons in their entirety.
The argument is based on a simple premise: as a system based largely on punishment rather than rehabilitation, prisons not only don’t work, but are places that perpetuate violence. In turn they further alienate and harm those most commonly incarcerated – the socially and economically disadvantaged.
While today we think of prisons as being the only way to deal with those who break the law, they have in fact only been the dominant form of our justice system for the past couple of hundred years. In his book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes the prison as part of the development of a larger ‘carceral system’, a vast network that includes schools, military institutions, hospitals, factories. This system creates what Foucault calls a panoptic society, based on the disciplinary power of surveillance, and the prison-industrial complex: ‘the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.’
Through a process of criminalising disadvantage prisons provide a space to lock up what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams call the surplus population; those who are unable or unwilling to fit in the norms of the capitalist economic system. Capitalism requires people to conform to particular social and economic roles, primarily participation within the labour market, as well as participation in particular social norms such as the nuclear family. However, not everyone is either able, or willing, to participate in this system, or agree to its rules. Prison – where people are locked away from society – is one means of controlling such groups.
Naturally those targeted by these social controls are those who are most marginalised in our community – Indigenous Australians, people of colour, the poor, those in ‘illegal’ professions (i.e. sex work) and LGBTIQ people, amongst others. It creates control through a process of systematic violence.
The most obvious example of this in Australia is the extraordinarily high levels of incarceration of Indigenous people. Indigenous Australians currently make up 27 per cent of Australia’s prison population, despite being only 2.5 per cent of the overall population. Despite a Royal Commission in 1991, Indigenous deaths in custody have remained extraordinarily high, with hundreds of people dying inside our prisons since the report was handed down.
These awful statistics are an example of the state engaging in a form of social control. In Money Shot, Jeff Sparrow describes how policies such as the Northern Territory Intervention were developed and designed as a way to force the incorporation of Indigenous people into Australia’s neoliberal capitalist system. The Australian state is engaging in an aggressive program to remove Indigenous communities from the status of a ‘surplus population’, and prison is a part of this. In effect the state has engaged in a process of criminalising indigeneity, punishing the community for its refusal to accept neoliberal capitalist norms.
Another way to emphasise how the prison system conducts this role is to look at the way it fails in what is supposed to be its main task: protecting us from crime. ‘Imprisonment is supposed to reduce crime in two ways ,’ journalist Allison Schrager writes, ‘it takes criminals off the street so they can’t commit new crimes (incapacitation) and it discourages would-be criminals from committing crime (deterrence).’ But prison fails on both fronts.
Research suggests that prison does not deter people from committing crimes, primarily because no criminal ever plans to get caught for their deed. Potential punishments seem far out on the horizon – a threat unlikely to ever occur. Therefore, no form of punishment, not even the death penalty, is a deterrent, as it is never expected.
More importantly, prison actually has a negative effect on rates of recidivism. While it is true that prisons incapacitate people so they are unable to commit new crimes, these fixes are only short term. Research out of New South Wales, for example, shows that nearly half of those who go to prison will be back within two years; this data is replicated across Australia and the globe. These levels of recidivism are significantly higher than those who are given other forms of sentences – fines, community service, rehabilitation etc.
What’s particularly worrying is that research finds that imprisonment turns people convicted of minor crimes into potential violent offenders later in life. Research out of the UK found that the incarceration of young people puts them ‘at risk of adult sexual offending because their attempts to form healthy relationships are being damaged by time spent in single-sex detention centres’. Prison doesn’t just increase recidivism, it makes crime worse. Being placed into a violent institution, added with a mixture of boredom, futility, and a lack of support services limits alternative and hinders growth and negatively impacts sociality.
While these statistics may be shocking, this failure is actually critical to the prison system. Foucault argues that the carceral system is designed so that it ‘cannot fail to produce delinquents’. Mass incarceration is designed to create a criminal class, which not only keeps members of the ‘surplus population’ locked behind bars and away from interrupting capitalism, but also sends a message to the rest of the population: participate or be punished. Moreover, high recidivism rates (facilitated by the system itself) allow capitalists to define certain subsets of the population as inherently delinquent. It creates space to demonise people as inherently violent or criminalistic, allowing for their continued oppression and therefore reinforcing the system.
So while we may see the violence at Don Dale as an awful aberration, it is actually part of a system of inherent violence conducted by the state. Rather than solving crime, the prison system perpetuates it, creating a permanent ‘criminal class’.
Naturally I am not advocating for a system that places communities and victims at risk from (further) violence. Prison abolition does not mean that people won’t be held to account. As the Prison Abolition Movement argues:
Abolition does not mean that we don’t hold people accountable for their actions. But punishment creates the opposite of accountability – a sense of social isolation instead of responsibility to others. If anything, punishment makes future harm more likely since it encourages people to lash out. People who have seriously harmed another need appropriate forms of support, supervision and social and economic resources.
Yet, the focus on violent criminals in many ways highlights the problem with the system in the first place. Whilst there is genuine risk of violent reoffending (see for example Adrian Bayley), the prison system perpetuates rather than diminishes this risk. These violent cases represent the failures of the system as it exists today – but also opens up our eyes to alternatives.
I’m not suggesting we abolish prisons tomorrow. The unfortunate reality is that our system, and our society, is not ready for that – but we should be working toward that as a long-term goal.
The starting point is to reframe how we think about our justice system, with the simple goal of eliminating the permanent criminal class. The rise of the prison, and the increase in mass incarceration over the past half-century, have seen what theorists call a ‘punitive turn’ in our justice system. Increasingly our system is focused on punishment over any other goals. This is the first thing we must change: we must focus more on rehabilitation and an end to crime.
Here we can reconnect with Foucault. If the prison is part of what Foucault described as the panoptic society, developing a class of delinquents, then our only solution is to break down the very structures of this system.
Obviously, it’s a big project, but when it comes to the justice system there is a lot more we could and should be talking about, such as reforming our legal system to end the ‘criminalisation of disadvantage’. This means, for example, removing criminal charges for offences for minor crimes that are often related to poverty – theft, for example – as well as abolishing measures such as three-strikes legislation, which are solely designed to lock away minor offenders. It also means legalising currently ‘illegal’ professions such as sex work, and eliminating drugs-based offences.
This solution must be matched with what some call justice reinvestment. Justice reinvestment is an approach that has that looks to community approaches, aiming to address fundamental issues that drive crime through adequate housing, education or employment, drug rehabilitation, and mental health care.
Such an approach sees that criminal behaviour is often connected to social situations, and works to alleviate those issues, making community investment to stop crimes before they happen. At the most basic level this means increasing support for homelessness, changing towards a more health-based approach to drugs, and targeting issues such as men’s violence against women in order to stop it from happening in the first place.
These are the long-term approaches, but we also need short-term solutions. We need to work fast to stop the massive increase in incarceration, and to get people who are currently in prison out.
We can start by eliminating prison sentences for all non-violent crimes, as well as for marginalised groups. Some have already called for example for the abolition of all youth detention centres; previously people have made the argument for closing women’s prisons. Reform moves in the United States have tried stopping prison offences for minor crimes such as drug-based offences. This could be furthered by releasing those who are in prison for similar crimes, and providing them with the necessary support to re-enter society.
Another option is restorative justice, which focuses on repairing the harm caused by crime. It’s a collaborative process that involves all stakeholders, bringing criminals and victims together to find solutions that meet the needs of the society as a whole. This could include offenders apologising for their crimes, returning stolen items or participating in community service. Presently restorative justice is mainly used for minor crimes, but there are examples of its success for more serious offences. The New York Times reported on the case of Conor McBride, who shot and murdered his girlfriend Ann Grosmaire. McBride went to prison for his crime, but he and Ann Grosmaire’s family engaged in an extensive process of restorative justice. Her family was able to confront McBride for his actions, he was given the opportunity to listen to the impact the crime had on them, and they were able to discuss his punishment and rehabilitation as a group. This not only involved the larger community in the justice process, but also provided a level of closure for the Grosmaire family.
Both of these measures should go a long way to both reducing our prison population and reducing levels of violence crime. Eliminating prison sentences for non-violent crimes would stop people from getting caught within the violence of the system, reducing recidivism rates and the permanent ‘criminal class’.
Restorative justice would not always, or even neccassrily, work for violent crimes, but there are other options. Many Scandinavian countries, for example, have ‘open prisons’, which operate fundamentally differently to our own, allowing inmates to roam freely, and to commute into town every day to engage in work or study (often with supervision). They provide a space in which criminals can be rehabilitated, even as they actively integrate themselves back into society.
There are many other alternatives available. What these systems have in common is an approach to justice that takes the focus away from punitive measures and looks towards solutions that benefit the majority. They are designed to stop recidivism, and in turn to stop people from becoming life-long criminals. They see crime in a different light – something caused by social situations and, therefore, as something that is the responsibility of society just as much as it is of the individual. Most importantly, they focus on the reduction of crime, both through removing some of the causes and through changing our very conception of such offences.
What happened at the Don Dale Detention Centre was – is – a national shame. It highlights what happens when people are given complete control over the lives of others who have been completely dehumanised. It reveals a carceral system that is not designed to reduce crime, but in fact use it as a form of social control.
The only solution is to strive for a system focused less on punitive measures and more on creating solutions that works for all of society.
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