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"Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings"

Picture credit: @sebbarros

By Sara Chitseko:

In April, in order to limit the spread of coronavirus, the Ministry of Justice announced that up to 4000 people would be released from prison, including pregnant women. However, recent data shows only 81 people have been released so far. Last week, we tragically learnt that a baby died during childbirth in HMP Styal in Cheshire. This is the second death of a baby in prison in the space of nine months. The woman complained of severe stomach pains over several days, but was only given paracetamol.

In recent weeks, there have rightly been calls to defund the police. As we work to make this a reality, we must also work to release people from prisons and ultimately shut them down. Prisons, policing and wider criminal justice apparatus is inherently violent and inherently racist. Why was the woman whose baby died at HMP Styal not provided with healthcare when she first complained of pain? How many needless deaths at the hands of the police before the government take responsibility? Why is the government spending £2.5 billion on creating 10,000 new prison spaces when we already have the largest prison population in western Europe? Policing and prisons are intrinsically connected and both inflict extreme harm on marginalised communities. These institutions must be abolished.

A key reason why it is so hard to imagine a world without prisons, is because they are so deeply embedded in our understanding of how society functions. Punishment, in the form of incarcerating huge swathes of the population is taken for granted and viewed as necessary. Running parallel to this, is a collective reluctance by those who are not at risk of over-policing and criminalisation, to think about or address the unbearable conditions within prisons. Many think of imprisonment as a fate reserved for others. In this way, prisons are both present and absent in their lives.

The narrative pushed by the government and media about crime and punishment has created an image in the public imagination of a "criminal," "gang member," "thug" and "offender." This image is both racialised and poor. Rather than meaningfully engaging with the the social issues which affect communities that are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system; prisons relieve the wider population and decision makers from responsibility of addressing social issues which are a product of institutional racism and global capitalism.

Care leavers are estimated to represent between 24% and 27% of the adult prison population. 28% of young people in custody are Black - a figure that has more than doubled since March 2006 and a figure which rises to 51% when you include other racialised young people. Over half the population of women in prison have suffered domestic violence, with 53% having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. In 2019, no mental health referrals were made in 29% of self-inflicted deaths where mental health needs had already been identified.

We must heed the words of Angela Davis when she said, "Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings." Prisons are not only a dangerous responses to crime that threatens people's lives and wellbeing, they're also an irrational response to crime. The desire to punish is driven by feelings of anger and the desire to imprison, by feelings of fear. Instead, we must foster awareness of the conditions and experiences of the person who has been harmed, the person who committed the act of harm, the surrounding community and the whole of society. When we become more aware, we usually find that more than one person needs to be held accountable. People who commit acts of harm and crime often have been harmed themselves. As a result, they also need care and concern.

As we stand on the precipice of so much potential change, there’s an understandable impulse to reach for “replacements” - institutions and technologies that fill in for policing and prisons. We must be wary of the ways in which abolitionist language may be co-opted and harmful tools and tactics simply repackaged. When we say that we are committed to re-imagining societal structures from the ground up - we mean it!

Coercive drug and alcohol programmes, mandatory psychiatric treatment, and compulsory "gang" intervention programmes may seem like better alternatives to our current system, but they still disproportionately target Black, racialised and other marginalised communities. We must ensure that as and when incarcerated populations are released; that they are not then subjected to imprisonment in their homes through mass surveillance technology including GPS monitoring and reporting. Policing and prisons are some of the most violent expressions of structural racism in society and they are expanding. Our duty is to be responsive, rather than reactive to this rapidly changing environment.

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