The case for prison abolition: How COVID-19 is an opportunity to rebuild a society without prisons

By Sara Chitseko:

In March, 4FRONT joined INQUEST, Women In Prison and a powerful coalition of signatories in an open letter calling for the government to immediately reduce the number of people in detention settings. We have since continued to apply pressure using other online means. This is in response to the catastrophic impact that COVID-19 is having across the prison estate and society more widely. As a result of public pressure, on Friday 3rd April, the Ministry of Justice announced that the government would release up to 4000 inmates in England and Wales in an effort to control the spread of coronavirus.

Coronavirus has created an unprecedented situation where decision makers who we'd usually expect to take a staunchly punitive approach to justice, are having to release people from detention settings, or face being complicit in many preventable deaths. As Abolitionists, we must ensure that the action taken now contributes to building the strong foundations of a more just and fair society once this crisis passes. The impact of coronavirus on our communities has already been devastating, but we also have an opportunity - to rebuild a society which is not reliant on incarceration and punishment.

Last Tuesday 14th April, the Ministry of Justice announced that hundreds of 'low risk' prisoners would be freed by the end of the week - with 14 pregnant prisoners and mothers with babies among those identified. However, the initiative has since been suspended due to six inmates being released in an 'administrative error'. After they were released, a statement was issued saying, "The men were released too early but were otherwise eligible under the scheme, and returned compliantly to prison when asked to do so."

The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust are pursuing legal action against Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, over his handling of the coronavirus outbreak in prisons. CEO of The Howard League, Frances Crook, said Mr Buckland had "accepted publicly that the number of people in prison must be reduced significantly in order to save lives," but that, "The rate of infection is accelerating, and the window of opportunity to protect people is vanishing." Suspending the early release initiative will have grave consequences and the government must take immediate action to rectify their errors so that people may be released, including ensuring all who are released have access to emergency accommodation, finance and support from charities where necessary.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, calls to release people from prison would often be met with hostility and disregard. Many would find the idea of a world without prisons ideological or a threat to communal safety. But now thousands of people are being considered for early release, as a society we must question, why so many people were in prison in the first place? This is especially true, given that we know prisons are overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe and that the UK has the highest prison population in Western Europe. INQUEST’s recent report described current prison conditions as a ‘national scandal,’ revealing long standing failures across the prison estate and historically high levels of deaths in custody. Ministry of Justice figuresshow that in the 12 months to December 2019, there were a total of 300 deaths in prison. If swift action is not taken, prisons are likely to become the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, causing irreparable harm.

Punishing and removing people from society is not only a dangerous responses to crime that threatens people's lives and wellbeing, it's 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 should 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 appropriate care and concern.

At its core, Abolitionists do not simply believe that all prisons should be shut down overnight. We believe that we must work collectively to create new models for living. Imagining a future based on abolition means totally shifting how we think about living with each other. We believe we must create stable communities for people to come home to, as we work to release people from prisons. This means creating environments that provide the necessities people need to live healthy, happy lives, including safe and steady housing; sufficient food; access to health care; access to information and tools with which to process information; resources to participate in the economy; a way to express opinions, interests or concerns and freedom from physical and psychological harm, both from individuals and the state. COVID-19 has demonstrated how important a strong social safety net is and we now have a window of opportunity to ensure communities have their needs met as we look towards the future.

It is vital to recognise that as Abolitionist, we believe that everyone has a right to freedom. We must therefore advocate for the release of allincarcerated people. Coronavirus cases have already been confirmed in more than half the prisons in England and Wales. A total of 278 inmatestested positive and 13 inmates have already died. As a result, many charities, community groups and public defenders have demanded the release of 'low-risk' inmates, or the release of those who've been charged with non-violent offenses. While these calls are well-intended, they perpetuate the idea that there are some people that are deserving of criminalisation and incarceration and others that aren't. We also know that historically, it is Black communities who are disproportionately punished and imprisoned. Ruth Wilson Gilmore eloquently explains,

"The way the system works is to move the line of what counts as criminal to encompass and engulf more and more people into the territory of prison eligibility…So the problem, then, is not to figure out how to determine or prove the innocence of certain individuals or certain classes of people, but to attack the general system through which criminalisation proceeds."

Moving forward, where releasing people from prison is now on the government's agenda, we must do more than only demand the release of those that are deemed 'low-risk.' Otherwise, we risk legitimising incarceration for one group, while advocating against it for another.

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