Saturday, 19 June 2010

The abolitionist approach: a British perspective (Part Two of Two)


The theoretical debates outlined above were reflected in RAP's interventionist strategy in the 1980's. As in the previous decade, the organisation was involved in a series of campaigns, often with other mainstream groups, to lobby for "an agreed programme of reform' (Ryan and Ward, 1990, p. 9). This meant supporting those in the traditional lobby who argued for a reductionist strategy as a response to the prison crisis. At the same time, RAP also pointed to issues which until then had been neglected by traditional reformers. The scandal surrounding deaths in custody is a good example of this process. RAP was involved in the formation of the pressure group Inquest, established in 1980 to draw attention to those who had died 'suddenly, violently or inexplicably in police and prison custody' (Benn and Worpole, 1986, p. i). Twelve years on, the work of the group has become central to this debate. The issue has also become a cause for concern in the mainstream lobby and for the Chief Inspector of Prisons himself. It also inspired the formation of a similar group in Australia in 1984, which was concerned with the general question of deaths in custody and the disproportionate number of Aboriginal deaths in particular (Hogan, Brown and Hogg, 1988). Inquest's work extended across a range of areas throughout the igHos and can be seen as part of the hegemonic process mentioned earlier. Its members picketed police stations and coroner's courts, organised meetings, arranged legal support for the families of the deceased, who scandalously were and are denied legal aid, highlighted the unaccountable and often unacceptable practices of the coroner's courts and helped to sponsor a number of legislative changes, including the Administration of Justice Act 1982 and the Coroner's Juries Act 1983. This work also began to raise broader theoretical questions, particularly around the nature of state power and the processes of institutionalised violence (Sim, Scraton and Gordon, 1987, pp. 14-15). Both Inquest and RAP worked closely with a number of other radical prisoners' rights organisations, including Women in Prison, whose goal was 'to redress the injustices presently suffered bv Britain's hitherto neglected women prisoners'. In 1986 these organisations gave evidence to the House of Commons Social Services' Committee on the Prison Medical Service which was directly linked to the Committee's recommendation which 'called for the abolition and complete replacement of Hollo-way's C Wing' (Sim, Scraton and Gordon, 1987, pp. 15-16).

The ongoing campaign for the abolition of the Prison Medical Service (PMS) in England and Wales provides another example of this joint endeavour. As I noted above, it was RAP and the National Prisoners' Movement who, because of their close contact with the confined, first raised this issue in the 19705. Both groups pointed to the role of medicine inside, not as a neutral dispenser of medical care but as a set of interlocking, disciplinary discourses built on 'less eligibility', control and regulation (Sim, 1990). By the mid-ig8os the issues involved had become so contentious that they were taken up by a range of mainstream groups, including the Howard League for Penal Reform, The National Association for Mental Health, The Royal College of General Practitioners and The Royal College of Psychiatrists (Sim, 1990, pp. 122-3). ^n April 1991 the National Association of Probation Officers and Inquest introduced into the House of Commons the Health Care of Prisoners Bill, which contained provisions for the abolition of the PMS. As I have noted elsewhere, this Bill could be seen as a 'highly symbolic measure for achieving radical change . . . which if accepted will not solve all of the problems concerning the psychological and physical health of prisoners but is a realistic starting point for raising other, more fundamental questions regarding the treatment of the confined' (Sim, 1991, p. 38). Similar themes can be identified in relation to the campaign around the privatisation of prisons, where abolitionists have supported the moves by groups as diverse as The National Association of Probation Officers, The Civil and Public Servants' Association and The Prison Officers' Association to prevent further spread of the privatised network in Britain. The points raised by this campaign, which include the unethical nature of privatisation in relation to punishment and the non-accountability of those operating private prisons, directly parallel the issues raised by two of the leading members of the abolitionist movement in Britain in the book they published on the subject in 1989 (Ryan and Ward, 1989).

These campaigns, seen alongside those discussed earlier, indicate that abolitionism has not been the marginalised and irrelevant discourse claimed by its critics. Rather, it should be understood as a hegemonic force which has been generated by and responded to the 'contingent [and] fundamentally open-ended nature of polities'. In that sense it can be seen as part of the struggle to develop a radical discourse around penality, in Gramscian terms attempting to replace 'common sense' with 'good sense' in relation to crime and punishment (Hall, 1988, p. 109). In making this argument I am not positing a simple, uni-dimensional, causal relationship between abolitionist thinking and penal reform, particularly in terms of policy as 'the emergence of policy reforms from below (as with those from above) is the result of a complex and often fractious process' (Sim, 1991, p. 33). Nor am I idealising the impact of abolitionism on the increasing authoritarianism of state power. Rather I am pointing to the specificity of the abolitionist project in Britain, which in utilising a complex set of competing, contradictory and oppositional discourses, and providing support on the ground for the confined and their families, has challenged the hegemony around prison that historically and contemporaneously has united state servants, traditional referm groups and many academics on the same pragmatic and ideological terrain. In a nvimber of areas discussed in this paper, such as deaths in custody, prison conditions, medical power, visiting, censorship and sentencing, these groups have conceded key points in the abolitionist argument and have moved onto a more radical terrain where they too have contested the construction of state-defined truth around penal policy. What this process means for the future is the subject of the last section of this paper.


The debate about the future of the prisons and the criminal justice system in general is now dominated by the issue of state-inspired reforms. It is important to recognise, however, that the movement for reform has been generated not by state benevolence but by the demands made by prisoners in different demonstrations, by grassroots organisations unwilling to accept the 'truth' surrounding the appalling miscarriages of justice that have occurred in the last twenty years, and by pro-feminist organisations demanding changes in the definitions of- and responses to - male brutality towards women. In the light of the major disruption in the prisons during the igSos two significant reports have been published, Opportunity and Responsibility (Scottish Prison Service, 1990) and the Woolf Report (1991). These documents appear to herald a new beginning for prisons in this country. In recognising that change is needed if the deeply damaging events of the 19808 are to be avoided, they propose a number of reforms, including establishing a framework of justice for prisoners, improved conditions, increased contact with the outside, better staff training and, crucially, making the confined responsible for their behaviour through introducing prisoners' contracts. Both documents have been almost uncritically endorsed in the media, and by academics and politicians as the panacea for alleviating the crisis inside.

From an abolitionist perspective there are some serious theoretical and political problems in utilising these proposals as the basis for future penal arrangements. Space does not permit me to provide an in-depth analysis, although I have done this elsewhere (Sim, 1991; 1993). However, I want briefly to point to four distinct areas which would form part of an abolitionist critique of the rhetoric of reform contained in these reports.

First, both documents either marginalise or heavily qualify the experiences of the confined. This means that alternative definitions of penal reality remain hidden and subservient to orthodox and state definitions of events. This is important because it allows both reports to transform questions of power, domination and institutionalised intimidation, which have been central to the abolitionist position, into more benign problems of administrative malpractices or individual deviance. There is a classic passage in the Woolf report which illustrates this point. Woolf points out that after the demonstration in Pucklechurch Remand Centre (near Bristol) in April 1990, surrendering prisoners were told that their arms and legs would be broken. The report notes:
There is no doubt that at the time the inmates were very frightened (I use that word advisedly) and even if the remarks made to them when waiting on the lawn were made in jest, they could, and did, cause considerable fear to the inmates. When considering these criticisms the long hours that management and staff had been on duty should be taken into account. Each member of staff must have been extremely tired and . . . close to exhaustion.
(Woolf and Tumim, 1991, p. 271)
The second problem also relates to the politics of marginalisation, in this case the failure to deal with or respond to a number of key prison issues that have arisen in the last twenty years: the unfettered discretion of staff, prisoners' rights, the accountability of prisons within a liberal democracy, the financing and cost of the service, women in prison and the sentencing process. For both documents the alleviation of the crisis lies not in confronting these issues but in the development of the responsible prisoner/customer, tied to each establishment by an agreed individual contract. Through this construction the debate is shifted onto the narrow ledge of individualism and social administration and away from wider structural questions concerning power, collective rights and democratic control (Sim, 1993)

Third, the increasing emphasis on coercion and militarisation as strategies for maintaining order means that the proposed reforms, even if they are accepted on their own terms, are unlikely to marginalise the ideological and material support within the state for these strategies. Prisoners will now receive an extra ten years for what is quaintly described as 'prison mutiny'. As Kenneth Baker has maintained, they must learn that rioting is not a 'cost-free option' (cited in Sim, 1993).

Finally, current reformist rhetoric misses a central issue raised by abolitionists and others in the last two decades, namely that unconditional support for limited change mystifies broader structural questions around the prevailing definitions of criminality that operate in this society, and vvno is punished as a result of these definitions. The first national survey published by the Prison Reform Trust in December 10,0,1 showed that unemployment, homelessness, lack of education and psychiatric disorders were prevalent in the prison population, that prisoners were overwhelmingly males aged 17?40, that 16 per cent of males and 26 per cent of females came from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, and that this group was serving substantially longer sentences than white prisoners, in the case of the women over twice as long. The report concluded that imprisonment 'exacerbates those very disadvantages which . . . led the person into crime in the first ' place' (Prison Reform Trust, 1991, p. 6).

Historically and contemporaneously, the prison has overwhelmingly contained the detritus generated by this society's hierarchical arrangements. In making this point T am not denying the impact that crimes committed by many of the imprisoned can have, nor am I positing a model of behaviour in which human beings are propelled in a positivist sense by forces outside of their control. Clearly, there are important philosophical and social psychological questions to be discussed concerning free will, responsibility and personal accountability, although given the abject recidivism rate in prisons the institution's supporters can hardly defend its track record in encouraging responsible behaviour in the confined. Having said that, I do want to make the point that today's age of penal improvement is simply reinforcing conventional definitions of criminality, and that the prison of the twenty-first century is likely to operate at an ideological and symbolic level in the active construction and reconstruction of very precise and narrow definitions of criminality and social harm. As abolitionists like Mathiesen have maintained, the prison has to be understood both as a material place of confinement and as an ideological signifier. Not only does the institution encourage and reinforce bifurcation, powerlessness and stigmatisation, but it also establishes 'a structure which places members of one class in such a situation that the attention we might pay to the members of another is diverted' (Mathiesen 1990, p. 138). Distracting attention away from crimes of the powerful and aclively constructing particular images of criminality, however fragmentary and contradictor that process might be is, in Mathiesen's view, central to the continuation of the prison and to the reinforcement of a 'pervasive ideological mystification' around crime (Mathiesen, 1990, p. 141). This argument is particularly relevant to the debates around dangerousness. One of the most depressing elements in recent academic debates in criminology, which in my view can be directly linked to the reformist rhetoric of the state, is that in the rush to take crime seriously and to rediscover aetiology, the symbolic place of institutions like prisons as cultural signifiers has been neglected. This continually allows the debate on dangerousness (and crime in general) to take place on a conventional terrain clearly marked out in the discourses of state servants, government ministers, most media personnel and in the common sense of popular consciousness. Consider the brief passages below, describing two events separated by only eighteen months that occurred in the late 1960's

Tex's final thrusts were suddenly interrupted by a frantic shout from Katie. While Tex and Sadie had been focusing their attention on Frykow-ski, Folger had freed herself from the noose and was making an effort to escape. Katie caught her, but was losing the battle until Tex got there. He clubbed Folger with the pistol and then stabbed her until he thought she was dead. Between his dash from Frykowski to Katie, Tex saw Sebring moving, and paused long enough to make several knife thrusts into Sebring's body. Once Folger was down and apparently dead, Tex returned to finish the job on Frykowski. (Emmons, 1988, pp. 244-5)
When children came running to them for sweets, they scythed them down with automatic fire. They herded mothers and babies into bunkers and threw grenades in after them. They raped and sodomised Vietnamese girls and then sliced open their vaginas with bayonet or knife. They scalped old men and women, beheaded others, slit throats, cut out tongues, sliced off ears, and hacked off limbs . . . Some wanted the dubious honour of being a 'double veteran' -American army slang for raping a woman and then murdering her. (Knightley, 1992, p. 40)
The first passage describes the murders committed by the Manson family, the second those committed at My Lai in March 1968. Despite the appalling brutality of both actions, the response to them was (and is) very different: Charles Manson is still serving a life sentence, William Callcy, one of 'C' company's officers, served four-and-a-half months. There are a number of significant sociological questions to be raised here, not least of which relates to the culture of masculinity within which these actions can be contextualised and perhaps understood. For the purpose of my argument it is important to recognise that twenty years on, the Manson case reverberates symbolically as a chilling example of how serious crime and dangerousness continue to be denned in conventional and narrow positivist terms, while the Calley case is effectively closed. As Barbara Hudson has noted, 'serious crimes and crimes which are taken seriously are not necessarily the same . . . seriousness of law enforcement. . . does not relate to seriousness of crime if the latter is to be judged by any rational calculus of harm as suggested by the more liberal justice model theorists' (Hudson, 1987, p. 126). This argument can clearly be extended to other activities that remain effectively unpoliced and unpunished: large-stale commercial fraud (Levi, 1987), the criminality of the state in terms of espionage, assassination and conspiracy (Barak, 1991; Gill, 1994); and at more micro levels, violent male behaviour underpinned by power, militarisation and the culture of masculinity (Tift and Mark-ham, 1991). Even when fraud cases are prosecuted, poorer and powerless offenders 'are more likely to be imprisoned, pound for pound stolen, than is a fraudster' (Levi, 1989, p. 107).

Critics of this position will no doubt say (as they always do) that even if the definition of crimes of the powerful is extended and recognised, abolitionists and other radical critics still fail to confront the fact that there are some dangerous individuals, overwhelmingly men, who in the conventional sense need to be confined. This view can be challenged at two levels. First, as I have already noted, many of those involved in the abolitionist movement in Britain have been confronting the issue of violence at least since the early ig8os and have been pointing to the problems that those defined as conventionally dangerous, for example, male rapists, have brought to the lives of particular groups. Second, British abolitionists have never advocated simply 'tearing down the walls' of the penitentiary Rather they have maintained that incapacitating conventionally dangerous individuals such as rapists through detention does not necessarily guarantee an alleviation of violence, either at an individual or collective level. Imprisoned rapists are likely to be confronted by a prison culture which will do little to change their behaviour, heighten their consciousness or the consciousness of those in the wider society concerning the 'intimate intrusions' which face women on a daily basis (Stanko, 1985). The first major study of imprisoned rapists in the UK supports this argument. Tt showed that only 32 out of 142 men believed that raped women had been harmed, while less than half displayed any compassion for their victims (The Guardian, 5 March 1991). While some exemplary work has been done with sex offenders in institutions such as Grendon Underwood and Wormwood Scrubs, supported by individually well-motivated prison officers, which perhaps will be consolidated by the newly formed national system for the treatment of sex offenders, it could be argued that there is a danager that at an ideological level this work and reform simply reassert the 'therapeutic discourse', which conceptualises 'male violence as an irrational act of emotional ventilation' rather than as behaviour based on intentional motivation and the will to dominate (Dobash and Dobash, 1992, p. 248). A similar point has been made in relation to the most recent proposals for reforming police practices concerning domestic violence, which are based on the reassertion of traditional family values (Radford and Stanko, 1991).

My scepticism towards these reforms does not mean resorting to incarcerating the powerful as a way forward. Clearly that would defeat the politics and the objectives of abolitionism by implying that the phenomenon of a 'fair incarceration rate' exists (Thomas and Boehle-feld, 1991, p. 249). It does mean, however, recognising that the oper-adonalisation of power, its interpersonal and structural abuse and its mediation by social class, gender, race and sexuality needs to be responded to; it is how we respond that remains the key question for abolitionism. I believe that current reformist proposals, because of their marginalisation of the issue of power, do not come close to addressing the philosophical, sociological, psychological and political nuances generated by this question.


This paper has quite deliberately covered a lot of sociological ground, because I wanted to illustrate the importance of abolitionist thought in this country and the diverse range of concerns of its supporters. I do not therefore take the pessimistic view that abolitionism has offered nothing or continues to offer nothing towards the prison debate. As Jim Thomas and Sharon Boehlefeld have noted: 'struggle is as long as history . . . the outcomes of our resistance to unjust forms of social control are rarely immediately visible' (Thomas and Boehlefeld, 1991, p. 249). Indeed, the abolitionist argument remains a powerful one, as Willem de Haan's critical dissection of traditional forms of punishment has indicated (dc Haan, 1990). Similarly, Pat Carlen's cogent argument for the abolition of women's prisons as 'one small step towards giving the criminal justice and penal systems the thorough shake up they so desperately need' also provides a clear theoretical and pragmatic view of the way forward in this still neglected area (Carlen, 1990, p. 125). As Thomas and Boehlefeld point out, a theoretically refined abolitionism can offer a new way of thinking about the world and a vision of the future which contrasts sharply with traditional methods of penality based on incapacitation, deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation. It directly confronts the 'cynicism and anomie' of postmodernism, it reaffirms the argument that prisons don't work 'either as punishment or as a means of ensuring the safety and stability of the commonweal' and it recognises that predatory behaviour needs to be responded to and dealt with within the structural and interpersonal contexts of power and politics (Thomas and Bochlefeld, 1991, pp. 246-49). That vision can be compared with the present situation here and elsewhere, which is evoked in the words of George Jackson: 'The ultimate expression of law is not order - it's prison. There are hundreds upon hundreds of prisons, and thousands upon thousands of laws, yet there is no social order, no social peace' (Jackson, 1975, p95). Jackson's posthumous thoughts provide a fitting description of both the politics of British prisons and the increasingly factious and divided nation they help to legitimate and sustain in the late twentieth century.

Thanks to Anette Rallinger, Dave Brown, Jenny Rurke, Russell Dobash, Paul Gilroy, Paddy Hillyard, Tony Jefferson, Mirk Ryan and Tony Ward for discussing different aspects of this paper with me.

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