Late last year I attended an event in Sydney which had as its central focus ‘a prison abolitionist future where no one is left behind.’ There was a massive turnout – bodies spilling onto the floor and squeezing onto narrow stools – with the crowd eager to hear the panelists speak about prison abolition and transformative justice. Prior to the start of the event, comments were made by the panelists about the heartening number of attendees – a much larger group of people than they had seen at prison abolition events during the last few years. The turnout was surprising, they noted, given the general resistance to discussing handling crime without resorting to penal punishment.

When the concept of prison abolition is raised, questions about safety flow in response: but what would we do with the ‘bad’ people? How would we deal with violent people, like murderers and rapists? How would we feel protected in a world without prisons? What these questions fail to recognise is that prisons do not actually keep us ‘safe’ from harm – not everyone who harms another person or commits a crime ends up in prison. For example, of the 10,944 reports of sex offences in NSW in 2015, only 932 convictions were recorded. Nor could it be argued that prisons successfully ‘reform’ prisoners, given that fifty per cent of people convicted of an offence in NSW in 2004 were re-convicted within a decade.

But many types of structural violence – including settler colonialism, racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia and sexism – are perpetuated by the prison system, and the legal system more broadly. The current model of ‘justice’ – exiling, isolating and punishing the individual who has caused harm – impacts certain groups more than others, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people making up over a quarter of the Australian prison population, and at least half of the people detained in Australian prisons are dealing with a mental illness or the aftermath of trauma. More generally, the support of a community is vital to personal wellbeing and any form of social isolation can have a damaging effect. While research shows that being part of a social network may reduce the risk of personal violence, increase personal resilience, and protect against the after-effects of suffering trauma.

The combination of these factors mean that those detained within prisons are exposed to violence and trauma as part of their punishment, as has been exposed yet again by the Four Corners exposé of the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. These issues have been discussed in the wider public sphere since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991. But the recent media attention has meant that conversations about alternatives to prisons are being revived.

One such alternative is a transformative justice approach to dealing with violence and harm. Transformative justice acknowledges both the harm and violence caused by individuals upon one another, as well as the harm and violence inflicted upon individuals by prisons, and structural factors that can cause social isolation and may contribute to harmful behaviour. Rather than isolating and punishing the person who has caused harm, a transformative justice approach asks, on both an individual and structural level: Who was harmed? How can we facilitate healing? How can we prevent further harm in the future? The aim is to address these questions without turning to the legal system, and instead focus on creating and nurturing safe and healthy communities, where members are able to hold each other accountable for any harm that occurs.

These accountability processes ideally prioritise the wishes of the survivor of violence as to how the process will proceed, ensure the safety of this individual and the community, and respect the humanity of each person involved, including both the survivor and the person who has caused harm. A large, strong and complex community committed to ending individual and structural violence eases the burden on survivors of violence, as accountability processes can be initiated by and shared amongst people other than the person who has been harmed.

While we may recognise and accept that a punitive response to violence does not protect us from harm, and can in fact perpetuate further violence, the default response to dealing with harmful behaviour on an interpersonal level is still often based on punishment and isolation. The growth of the online ‘call out culture’ has lead to a tendency to address harmful behaviour in an endless cycle of tweets and statuses that aim to discipline the perpetrator, but tend to have no effect on their behaviour. We live in a world where men whose history of sexually harassing or assaulting women has been exposed still reach positions of great social and political power (see, for instance, the careers of Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten). The same patriarchal structures that influenced the behaviour in the first place allows these men to escape having to take responsibility for their actions.

Accountability seems so elusive, so it is understandable why we may respond to violent or harmful behaviour by attempting to punish, or cut contact with, the perpetrator. Calling out and exiling someone who has hurt you can seem like the only way to protect yourself and the people around you. Yet this default-mode response leaves undisturbed the structures that have influenced and endorsed the harmful behaviour to occur.

If we want to work towards ensuring that alternatives to punishment are possible, we can apply a transformative justice approach to our everyday lives and relationships. This means putting a large part of our efforts towards fostering communities that are responsive to both structural and interpersonal violences, that centre the experiences and perspectives of survivors of violence, and aim to make perpetrators of violence take responsibility for their actions and for their role in a process of healing. We can ‘struggle not so much to feel hurt, but to notice what causes hurt’, and we can attempt to eliminate the hierarchical structures and power imbalances that infiltrate all of our communities, and cause hurt. We can abandon models of self-care that tell us that we should be able to look after ourselves without any outside help, that tell us that anyone getting in the way of our ‘self-development’ should be left behind. We can spend time getting to know the people around us – in our neighbourhoods, our classes, our workplaces, our organising spaces – and build relationships based on the components of love as defined by bell hooks: ‘care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust’. We can spend our time and energy on building our communities up, rather than expending all of our resources attempting to reform or remove the systems designed to tear us down.

By applying transformative justice models to our personal lives, we may be able to, in time, transform our communities from responding to violence from a place of fear to responding from a place of love. I believe in our ability to heal the immediate harm that has been caused, whilst also working to address the structural causes of violence within our own communities, and on a broader scale, in order to prevent further harm. I have faith in our collective ability to treat each other in a way that ensures that no one is made disposable, that no one is left behind.


Image: O outono a chegar em força / intergalacticrobot

Ellen O'Brien

Ellen O’Brien is a writer, poet and law graduate living and working on Gadigal and Wangal land, with Guringai ancestry. She is interested in discussions about the meaning of home, community, and the healing power of love.

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