The politics of prison abolition in the UK and Ireland

Originally published at: The politics of prison abolition in the UK and Ireland | Boing Boing

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Ireland is not a NATO member.


The UK has been following the USA down the path of increasingly punitive sentencing for some time. It doesn’t work, of course. In fact, it stokes the problems because overcrowded prisons with crappy rehabilitation do nothing to prepare offenders for a return to an increasingly hard to navigate society, so they are led to reoffend.


I think that there’s probably wide agreement among folks on this BBS that the existing prison industrial complex is a system that’s broken on all levels and needs serious, systematic reforms. However, maybe it’s just my lack of imagination, but I just can’t picture what a world would look like if we got rid of prisons entirely, and that Abolitionist Futures group doesn’t do an especially good job of spelling that out or answering some of the obvious questions that such a proposal raises.

If we assume that it’s not within our ability to reform society to the point where we prevent all serious, violent crimes, then what is to be done with the worst, repeat offenders that present a clear and present physical threat to others? Involuntary commitment to a mental facility? (Some would consider that to be prison by another name.)

Of course right now we’re so far on the other end of the spectrum that just moving in the direction of reducing the number of incarcerated people is a good thing to do even if realistically we’ll probably never get that number to zero.


The prison industry appeals to the capitalist in the US for a number of reasons:

They don’t have to produce anything of value. Or anything, really.
They are not measured by any credible metrics.
They are not required to rehabilitate anyone, just keep them locked up for a time.
They criminalise people, ensuring there is a steady flow of people to lock up.
They provide horrible, cheap environments because those outside think that prisoners get what they deserve, no matter how bad.

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What is American exceptionalism? Is it having the American experience and point of view so central in our thoughts, that in an article nominally about the UK and Ireland, we get halfway through the text before we stop talking about America.


I’m not sure that’s entirely true - What has been happening is very vocal and splashy headlines in the Daily M**l following some new crime with bonkers maximum tariffs (Maximum 10 years for Criminal Damage of a Monument for example) - But the sentencing guidelines have stayed much the same, with immediate custody a relatively high bar to cross.


However the prison population has increased significantly (both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of population) and is projected to increase further, according to this paper:


A good starting point is ‘what is life actually like in a UK prison?’, and for that I’d recommend Chris Atkins’ book A Bit of a Stretch:

As far as the article goes, they’re proposing closing prisons and using the money saved to fund “youth centres, mental health provisions [etc]”. I’d argue that the practical thing to do would be to fund all those things first, which would (hopefully) reduce the number of people ending up in prison, which in turn would mean there was more resources available in the prisons for existing prisoners. Basically, reduce prison populations by reducing the number of people going to prison.


I feel there’s always going to be some people who will need to be kept apart from society for their or our protection, and the question is more how do we minimise that number and how do we ensure they they’re kept safe and comfortable, given the opportunity to change while not endangering anyone else. This solution might end up being permanent incarceration, but it shouldn’t resemble what we think of today as prison.

Very true - One hypothesis, with some merit (well, at least I can attest to this anecdotally) is that for each 100 mental health beds closed, 36 more male and 3 more female prisoners will be seen in 10 years.

From 1960 to 2019 Psychiatric beds fell from 200,000 to 20,000, with learning disability places falling by 97% and mental illness beds by 87%.

It’s a very high bar to send someone to a secure mental health facility, and community options like Mental Health Treatment requirements have really patchy provisions -for example, If a defendant has a case listed in one of the courts I sit I cannot use it, but I can in the other - They are 25 miles apart.

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