Prison abolition – part of creating a just, equal, peaceful society

Posted: October 21, 2014 by Admin in Uncategorized

Protest at Paremoremo in 2012 over what lawyer Peter Williams described as ‘inhumane’ conditions

by Val Morse

I want to acknowledge all the people who have done time inside, been arrested or assaulted by the police, whether here or elsewhere.

I want also to acknowledge all of the victims of crimes who have suffered at the hands of another person or institution.

Today we are here to talk about police brutality and the prison industrial complex.  We know that police and prisons are a tool of the elite in society to control those with less power and fewer resources – from the checkpoints in Palestine, to the private prisons of Pittsburgh, to the maximum security of Paremoremo, the story is much the same.

Private property

We have heard how the police are deployed to protect private property – the fundamental underlying principle of our modern capitalist state.  We have a system where a very few can have hundreds of thousands of acres of land and billions of dollars, while millions go landless and hungry, quickly being submerged under the rising tides of catastrophic climate change or murdered by a drone missile.

We have millions of refugees

fleeing the wars and environmental catastrophes created by the West under the lies and guise of ‘bringing democracy’ or ‘fighting terrorism’, only to arrive in the West and be put into detention centres and prison camps.

It only requires the most basic math to understand that we cannot all be rich under this system – in fact, most must be poor in order for this system to thrive.

Who goes to jail?

Our system criminalises being poor.  NZ prisons are full of poor people –increasingly full of poor women.  It is no surprise that the prisons are overwhelmingly full of Māori and Pacifica people – because it is those people who are so over-represented among the poor.

So what do we do?

We cannot fight these issues in isolation.  We cannot just say, let’s reform this about the police or change this about prisons.  We have got a world that is ready to explode from the rampant greed, exploitation and violence that permeates every corner of the globe.  We must dream big and demand freedom and liberation for all of us.  No person should be locked in a cage.  No one should be hungry.  No one should be locked into a life of slavery.  No one should be brutalised.

We must organize and work for deep and fundamental social change.  Our very survival depends upon it.  We have no time to waste and each and every one of us has a role to play.

And prison abolition must be an integral part of the agenda of freedom.

What does prison abolition look like? How would it work?

It is important that we look at the assumptions that we have about prisons and crime to begin with.

We assume that things that cause the worst harm to society are criminal.  Right?   We also assume that the people who are causing the greatest harms are being punished.

But are either of these true? In fact, they are not.

Who gets off

Look at Pike River.  Here’s a company and company director that murdered 29 men.  Now if 29 people were shot on the street, we would consider it a massacre of unimaginable proportions.  Yet, we excuse the management of Pike River Mine and declare it an ‘accident’.  It was not an accident – it was a deliberate act of the company director to wilfully ignore safety measures in favour of greater profits that would have meant these people were still alive.

Another example is the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that blew up in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.  Eleven people were murdered, millions of gallons of oil were spilled, people’s livelihood – their jobs, their economic future wiped out, whole ecosystems – were destroyed.  And yet were any of the people involved imprisoned?  No.

Society as a whole is forced to accept the risks and pay the bills for private profit and gain (caused by) these harms.

What prisons do

When we begin to question our assumptions about what is ‘criminal’ and who is in prison, we can see that prisons are a tool of social control used to maintain the status quo, where rich white people are in charge.

The other thing we must understand is that prisons do massive harm to the people inside.

You might say, who cares what happens to people who have committed crimes?

Well, the reality is that almost all people in prison will come out at some point – so inflicting a lot of harm on people while in prison is ultimately shooting ourselves in the foot.  We just have more damaged people who are trying to cope in the world.

We all know that prisons are deeply violent places.

On the outside, we try to teach our children to solve problems without using violence.  We insist that people do not use violence in their one-on-one relationships.  Yet, in prison, what you learn is that violence works.  It works to get you what you want from not only other prisoners, but from guards and the prison administration.

What prisons don’t do

The other thing is that having prisons does nothing to change the crime rate.  Most of us have little or no desire to hurt people or cause harm.  We don’t need laws and prisons to tell us that it is wrong.  Most people don’t sit and make a rational decision to commit a crime – and weigh up the punishment for it if they get caught.  Almost all things we call ‘crime’ in NZ are committed under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

In New Zealand, we’ve had a consistently falling crime rate since the late-1990s.  Yet the prison population has remained static.  This simple fact shows that the number of people in prison bears no relationship to the rate of crime.  And the idea that many people who have been to prison end up going back just illustrates what a total failure it is.

Fundamental change

Addressing the underlying issues that prompt people to commit crimes – particularly while under the influence of drugs and alcohol – is a far more effective strategy for stopping harm than locking them up in cages for years on end and teaching them how to be more violent and less empathetic.

Prison abolition is not some kind of naïve dream.  It is in fact part of the only realistic solution – a truly just and peaceful society.

The above is the text of the speech Val delivered at the October 18 rally in Wellington against prisons and police brutality, part of an international day of action

Further reading:
On the role of the police, see Cops and the capitalist state
On the interconnectedness of capital and the state, see Capital and the state
On the role of private property and wealth and the development of class society, see How capitalism works – and doesn’t work


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