No Room for Reform
A case for abolition in the UK
It’s March 2021, and Britain is a powderkeg. The last three weeks have seen protests up and down the country in response to both the kidnapping and murder of a young woman, for which a serving police officer has been arrested, as well as the introduction of increasingly authoritarian criminal justice legislations through parliament. Coming at the tail end of an unprecedented pandemic year which has left both people and society frayed, and after a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, the British police, in particular its race relations, is now under the most intense public scrutiny since the days of the Stephen Lawrence murder. At the very heart of the uproar is the Policing, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, which, if passed through parliament, promises to alter the nature of the criminal justice system in Britain forever.
Not only does the bill seriously curtail the right to peaceful protest, by criminalising the very acts which make them effective, but it also poses a direct threat to the lifestyle of the Traveller community, makes it exponentially more difficult for those incarcerated to ever leave the system, and enacts far more, in a multi-pronged attack on fundamental civil liberties. When images of the Metropolitan Police brutally cracking down on a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard caused widespread outrage, the Home Office responded in kind by attempting to rush the PCSC Bill through parliament. It has now been delayed back to its original date in May due to the tireless campaigning by groups such as Sisters Uncut; however, with the current makeup of parliament, it is nearly impossible to envision it being stopped by parliamentary means.
The previous few weeks have seen the passing of various other draconian legislation that is at the centre of an expanding policing, surveillance and carceral state apparatus. The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act (also known as the Spycops Bill) grants advance immunity for all crimes committed by law enforcement officers while undercover. Parliament has also voted on an extension of COVID emergency powers for another six months, granting the police extended powers. Home Secretary Priti Patel has also announced new immigration legislation, promising to effectively close off all routes for asylum, and further militarise the border regime and the hostile environment which is already central to the British police state. Additionally, there have also been proposals of plain clothes police in bars and clubs as a safety measure for women in the wake of, in case it needs to be repeated, a serving police officer being arrested for kidnapping and murdering a woman.
In light of this rapid escalation of the powers of the state, there is growing public outrage at the systemic failings and abuses of the power within the British criminal justice system, from police to borders to prisons. However, it would also be safe to say that in comparison to the perhaps more overtly brutal nature of the US police and prison-industrial complex which has given rise to widespread public calls for defunding the police and prison abolition, those arguments are still far from entering the mainstream here in the UK.
‘Abolition’ itself can seem like a frightening concept to the uninitiated. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes instantly apparent that it is not some fantasist call to close all prisons and police forces overnight, but rather a holistic philosophy that recognises the way carcerality is woven into the very fabric of every aspect of our society and aims to work towards a world where that is no longer the case, through a very concrete set of policy proposals. Central to this is understanding that the very institutions of prisons and the police have always been born out of the need for the ruling classes to protect their power and capital, and therefore no meaningful reform can take place, since they are predicated on the maintenance and reproduction of the status quo.
Empire and Policing
It is not a new observation that Britain has fallen woefully short in reckoning with and interrogating its colonial past and the loss of its empire. Therefore, it is perhaps also not surprising that the reason why abolition remains a blind spot for the British public, and even large swathes of its left (eg. Labour promising 20,000 more police officers in the 2019 manifesto), is because Empire is at the heart of British policing.
Historically speaking, the police force is a relatively recent addition to British society. While a community-focused form of policing had existed previously, it wasn’t until the 19th century that formal police forces were established in Glasgow, then London. Wealth extorted from the colonies spurred on the Industrial Revolution, and peasants from the countryside flocked into the cities to work and live under squalid, unsafe conditions. When they fought for better working rights, they were met with threats of prison and hard labour. When they fought for the franchise, the army massacred them.
With their right to protest criminalised the dispossessed rural poor took to stealing from ships arriving from the colonies loaded with plundered goods. This displeased the colonial merchants, who privately funded the Thames Marine Force, now the Thames River Police, to tackle the looters. When we say that the police exist to defend capital, we mean it very literally.
In response to growing nationalist sentiments and rebellion in Ireland, Chief Secretary of Ireland Robert Peel established the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1822. The RIC infiltrated freedom movements and seized stock and produce from the population, slaughtering those who resisted. Peel brought his experience ruthlessly quashing uprisings in Ireland, as well as the tactics used by slavers in the Caribbean colonies and elsewhere in the Empire, to establish the Metropolitan Police.
The racialist, anti-poor, ideology remains central to the practice of policing and prisons in the United Kingdom. Police were exempted from the Race Relations Act until the publishing of the Macpherson Report. Black men are 26% more likely to be remanded in custody and 60% more likely to plead not guilty. Ethnic minorities make up 13% of the general population and 26% of the prison population. 41% of the youth prison population is BAME. The othering and sorting of children into criminal and not criminal starts early — 42% of prisoners had been excluded from school and 50% of prisoners are functionally illiterate. In 2019 the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that “all schools in areas with an above-average risk of serious youth violence” have a police presence, raising the number of police in schools from 280 to 600 in London alone. 55% of referrals to Prevent are children and teenagers.
Specifically, in the context of Britain, the border regime and hostile environment policy are also central to the encroachment of the police state in everyday life, having already effectively turned all employers, landlords and bank clerks into border guards. In conjunction with the latest proposals for closing off all routes for asylum, the Home Office has also announced an expansion of both deportation flights and detention centres. Similarly to how the origins of Britain’s police forces can be traced back to techniques learned in its treatment of colonial subjects, it is vital for people to recognise the way in which the increasingly authoritarian policing measures we are seeing today have already been ‘trialled’ on designated outsider groups (in this case migrants) for many years before being deployed on the general populace.
Prisons and Profit
Prisons are an industry in themselves; they contract in all the various services that are needed to sustain human life, from meals to healthcare to waste disposal. Lawyers, probation workers and prison officers all have a symbiotic relationship with the Prison Industrial Complex. There are 14 private prisons in the United Kingdom; run by Serco, G4S and Sodexo. We have already discussed G4S in our border episode. Serco has engaged in an extensive cover-up of sexual abuse at Yarls Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Sodexo is responsible for a chain of neglect-related deaths, including of a baby whose mother was left to give birth alone in her cell, also using solitary confinement as a punishment; leaving at least one prisoner alone in a dirty, squalid cell for five years.
It’s easy, as prison reform activists who reject wholesale abolition do, to make a distinction between state-run and private prisons as redeemable and irredeemable; however, both are cruel and inhumane and destructive in their very conception, with a human being’s confinement being at the behest of both state control and corporate profit.
Indeterminate Sentences For Public Protection, introduced by New Labour, trap prisoners into serving unending prison time as the conditions of release rely on rehabilitation or mental health services provided by the prisons that are either unavailable or wholly inadequate. There is a suicide every four days in prisons; 29% of those had already had their mental health needs identified to or by prison staff and not acted on.
This last year has further alienated those othered by the carceral system; Stay At Home Orders have left young people living in violent households with a choice of remaining in close quarters with their abusers or breaking the law by seeking distance. Kids who are already being frozen out of education are withdrawing even more, and the homeless, disabled people and others existing on the margins are being outright excluded from the government’s limited offers of assistance. Repressive laws enacted under the guise of public health give law enforcement near-unlimited access and scope to enact the racist, classist harassment they were designed for.
Prisoners are facing dual confinement; locked within their cells for 22 and a half hours per day, having to choose between being able to shower and seeing daylight, the already pitiful mental health services available for prisoners cannot handle the strain. Family visits and educational classes have been suspended. Prison debt is still being accrued. When lockdown eased for us last summer and autumn, there was no such reprieve for those incarcerated. COVID has proven that prisons are not self-contained vacuums where you simply dispose of undesirables. While prisoners are isolated within the walls, they still exist in the same space as wider communities. The five areas with the highest infection rates in England last month house seven prisons, five of which have recorded outbreaks in the weeks prior. An outbreak in HMP Sudbury caused cases in the Derbyshire Dales to nearly treble, and likewise in Peterborough. Similarly, half of the cases in Rutland came from HMP Stockten.
Another distinction prison reform activists make to preserve prisons is between that of violent and non-violent offenders. ‘What about the rapists?’ defenders of the current system, where only 1.4% of those reported for rape even see the inside of a court, ask. What we are seeing is the political clamber to use the murder of a woman, allegedly at the hands of a police officer, to enact even more punitive measures on the population with the protection of the female body used as justification. Economic violence enacted disproportionately on women during a decade of austerity is considered irrelevant compared to interpersonal violence that’s often facilitated by the state’s threat of destitution if women trapped in abusive relationships opt to leave their partners.
Hate crime legislation, ‘misogynistic crimes’ as they’re now to be recorded, is in practice an afterthought of no real value when the nature of violence towards women from the state — from the treatment of women in Yarls Wood to the women caught up in the Iraq War, to women losing their homes to climate disaster, or strapping their children into life jackets to sail dinghies across the Channel in hope of a better life — is not interrogated. It’s often remarked that abolition would leave us in a world that looks like the film The Purge when in reality the greatest, and most catastrophic, violations of human dignity and life are not only already decriminalised but actively sanctioned by the state.
The United Kingdom has a recidivism rate of 46%. The stated aims of our prison system — punishment and rehabilitation of the prisoner, and safety of the public — are a failure in practice. Justice operates on two tiers, where access to expensive lawyers who aren’t chronically overworked is a better indication of whether a defendant will see the inside of a prison than if they committed the crime or the mitigating factors that led them there. Criticism of this fundamental disparity has been largely dictated by a crabs-in-a-bucket mentality, where rage over affluent defendants “getting away” with crimes is more of a concern to the public than the lack of recourse for the defendants who aren’t as fortunate. Abolition recognises that this system — born from the subjugation of the shackled and the suffering — cannot be reformed and that it permeates and informs the circumstances it supposedly fixes.
“Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings”
“[Abolition] is the idea that you can imagine a world without prisons, and then you work to try to build that world,” says James Forman Jr., legal scholar and Pulitzer-winning author. Drawing its intellectual and political heritage from the movement for the abolition of slavery, the modern abolitionist movement can largely be ascribed to the leadership of Black feminist thinkers from the US such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Mariame Kaba. Abolition comes about as a natural conclusion to the understanding that throughout history the institutions of policing and prisons have only ever existed to uphold the triple intersection of capitalism, white supremacy and a heteronormative patriarchy, and that as such any reformist approach will always ultimately fall short.
If one can understand the Harm Reduction principles behind decriminalising drugs and prostitution, and that the death penalty is neither a deterrent nor a suitable response to crime, then abolitionism is the next logical step. The Prison Industrial Complex reaches further than just the interior and exterior of prisons themselves; carcerality is entrenched into all arms of the state; from healthcare to housing, to borders and education. To liberate ourselves from the structures in place that enforce the incorrect notion that human life is disposable, we need to be brave, creative and caring. The sheer breadth of the carcerality within arms of governance means that there are plenty of funds to be redirected into meaningfully preventing crime in the first place through actively nurturing the people around us, and making sure all of our needs are met, instead of funnelling funds into the fear and coercion that is patently not working.
It costs an average of £44,600 to imprison someone for a year. £2.5 billion is currently being spent by our government to create 10,000 new prison places. All of this, alongside the £18.54 billion spent yearly on policing, and vast sums on surveillance elsewhere, can be redirected into education, housing, meaningful forms of safeguarding, adequate mental health and drug treatment, and — importantly — creating community-led restitution frameworks. Abolition is a process, and in doing so we need to resist not only the expansion of punitive measures — like the PCSC Bill — but attempts of reform, such as ‘community policing’ and ‘diversion programmes’, that simply redirect funds away from social care and into the police, and treat them as benign helpers instead of instruments of harm themselves. Current abolitionist demands include the removal of deadly tools and tactics from police, such as guns, tasers and spit hoods, resisting the police widening their scope with bills like the one currently being pushed through parliament, decriminalising modes of survival — be that drug use, prostitution, migration or homelessness, and getting rid of precriminalising orders that allow police to exercise racist and classist powers.
When asking oneself how to be an abolitionist in the UK in 2021, the good news is, due to the holistic and all-encompassing nature of abolitionism, there are many ways to do so. It begins with a fundamental understanding that life itself has intrinsic value and that it deserves the conditions to be nurtured so that it can thrive instead of being locked away and disposed of. Due to the presence of the carceral state in so many different facets of everyday life, it is possible to bring an abolitionist perspective to everything from tenancy and housing unions and migrant rights activism to education and social work. We are at a crucial juncture where the future of not just our civil liberties, but also the basic human rights of those incarcerated or being processed through the immigration system, hang in the balance. Therefore it is more important than ever for us to embrace an abolitionist worldview in every aspect of our politics because not doing so will undoubtedly leave the door open to further violence and tyranny.
“Where life is precious, life is precious”
- Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Davis
- NINE PERSPECTIVES FOR PRISON ABOLITIONISTS
- Alternatives to Calling the Police