WHAT ABOUT THE "WORST OF THE WORST"
By far, the most common question we get when we make our stance as Prison Abolitionists known is “What about the rapists? What about the murderers? What about the worst of the worst?”. Sometimes it is obvious that these questions are being presented in bad faith; used as a quick ‘gotcha’ moment. But often times it is asked by genuine people who agree that prisons are unjust to the core but just can’t quite work out what the alternatives could look like; especially for major violent harm like sexual violence and murder. This section of the guide is by no means comprehensive, nor is it meant to represent the full breadth of the diversity of opinions in the abolitionist movement. It is a combination of different parts of the hundreds of responses we have given to people from all of the world when we are asked “What about rapists and murderers?”. We hope it is helpful to you as you continue to learn more about abolition and the tangible pathways towards it.
Prisons are not keeping people safe from violence, including sexual violence; and the alternatives work better.
For some, it may be easy to justify the cruelty and violence of incarceration by believing that the prison industrial complex is actively protecting vulnerable people from violence. However, this is far from the truth. The truth is, prisons and policing don’t deter violence. A 10 year study in Michigan state found that “prison has no preventative effect on violence in the long term” and that any short term preventative benefit of an individual being “incapacitated” while in prison was far outweighed by the monetary cost of incarceration (tens of thousands of dollars per person per year), which would be much better spent on violence prevention and measures that are proven to reduce violence (such as access to mental health care and stable housing, both proven to have significant impacts on reducing violence in communities where implemented).
We invest hundreds of billions of dollars into policing, prosecuting, and caging human beings, even though there is little to no evidence that it actually increases public safety and reduces violence. Try and imagine what the world would look like if we shifted those billions into mental health, housing, and other initiatives that have a proven track record of reducing violence and keeping everyone safer.
The current system doesn’t work, we know that. Other initiatives do work, we also know that. Abolition is a move towards what we know keeps us safe, and away from what we know does not.
Violence and sexual violence are rampant within the 'justice' system itself.
Our culture likes to believe it stands against violence, but in reality it only opposes violence when it comes to those it deems deserving of living a life free from violence. We police our streets with military vehicles and arm cops with military grade weaponry to be dispensed in full force against those in the community deemed undeserving of humane treatment. Police kill over 3.5x more people per capita than Canada, 14.5x more people than the Netherlands, and 25.7x more people than Germany (Prison Policy).
Suffering from sexual violence in prison is such a problem that it has been slowly turned into the pop culture reference and joke, “don’t drop the soap”. The United States obviously has a problem with violence in its justice system. It is estimated that 200,000 incarcerated people are sexually abused annually. Sexual violence isn’t prevented by prison; it’s hidden. When it comes to physical violence, incarcerated people are subjected to danger and violence daily. 19% - 21% of incarcerated men report being physically assaulted either by another incarcerated person or by staff. However, this likely underrepresents the problem as many cases of violence go unreported due to fear of retaliation or added time to sentences.
People are incarcerated for everything from petty theft and drug crimes to more serious offenses, but none of that justifies being subjected to physical and sexual violence. If the goal is to truly reduce violence in the United States, we certainly cannot overlook the rampant harm that occurs inside prisons due to overcrowding, staff abuse, extended isolation, and mental illness.
What do abolitionists want to do about it?
Our current system is reactionary and driven by punishment and domination. Abolitionists seek to create a world where peoples material, emotional, and communal needs are fully met, eliminating the root causes of violence and harm. They also seek to pursue new ways of addressing harm when it happens that affirm the full dignity and humanity of all parties involved: those who have been harmed and those who have done harm.
A justice system that seeks to reduce violence and harm by committing violence and harm against those within its grasp is not an adequate form of justice, and as we have seen in the past sections, it doesn’t keep anyone safe.
One of the primary methods that abolitionists are pursuing is Transformative Justice. Transformative justice is a framework that looks at the micro and macro social structures surrounding the injustice in order to make sense of it, and to attempt to transform the person who has done harm, and the community for the better. It seeks to identify why the harm happened in the first place. What conditions empowered it? What circumstances surrounded it? Once the root causes of the harm have been determined, all efforts are directed towards transforming those root causes and as a result, the community and the harm-doer themselves; thereby reducing future harm. It also seeks to make reparations to the person harmed. What does the harmed person want/need as an outcome? What do they need to feel safe? How can we protect them from future harm? And how can we do all of this in a way that does not reduce anyone’s human dignity, autonomy, and spirit? These are the questions that Transformative Justice explores as it seeks to make sense of harm that has happened and reduce its potential for the future. While transformative justice specifically has yet to be fully fleshed out in a study of its efficacy, it’s close relative restorative justice has shown extremely promising results in justice outcomes (however it is important to note that restorative justice and transformative justice have key differences. This article by Olivia Pace details out those differences and how TJ goes even further than RJ to reduce harm. You can read it here.). Restorative justice processes result in lower reoffense rates in both adult and juvenile individuals; increasing public safety. On top of that, victims report higher satisfaction with RJ experiences than traditional justice procedures and there is early evidence that RJ can improve PTSD symptoms when compared to traditional justice processes.
As RJ and TJ are studied more, more evidence will be made available. But what we know now, at least initially is that Transformative Justice is an extremely promising alternative to our current system which dehumanizes all involved, has little to no effect on public safety, and which traps within it more human beings than any other prison system in the world.