VANGUARD INCARCERATION PRESS: The Poverty of Prison Reform

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by Dymitri Harazewski

As an out-and-proud anarchist, I’m sometimes asked how I can favor abolishing prisons entirely over simply “reforming” them. The people who read my blog (betweenthebars.org/blogs/1660) or who find me through the websites of various activist groups tend to be genuinely interested in discussing these ideas, but when a prisoner asks, the question is invariably intended to just set up and demolish a straw man argument and flex his or her parole board brainwashing bona-fides. Without a doubt, this isn’t what I expected from my fellow captives when I first entered this system.

The reality, however, is that despite the abundance of circle-A tattoos, prisons are curiously conservative places, entirely dominated by system justifiers and authoritarian mentalities, and that’s just among the inmates–never mind the psychoses of the guards! American prisons, and California prisons especially since the “realignment” push of the mid-2010s, are places where critical thinking goes to die and where the caged learn to thoroughly internalize their oppression and identify with their badge-brandishing victimizers. One cannot judge the inmates too harshly for this though; after all, psychoanalysts from Freud to Wilhelm Reich and beyond have described the human tendency to conform our minds to those who give us the attention we crave, and “Stockholm Syndrome” is a well-recognized phenomenon among hostages of all sorts, from battered wives to political prisoners. Perhaps a future examination of the soul-wrecking Cognitive Behavioral Therapy schemes foisted on prisoners as “rehabilitation” is in order, but for now, let’s just consider prison abolition as a social and moral imperative.

The first thing most people ask when they hear that abolitionists categorically oppose human caging is, “But what will we do with all the Bad People?”  This question is often buttressed by the emotional appeal of a convicted ‘criminal’ adding, “…You know, with someone like me?”  Because no sincere abolitionist could possibly offer the satisfyingly simple answer that is being demanded. Reformist prison supporters next insist that trying to eliminate prisons is unrealistic and downright irresponsible in the absence of a clear plan for what we would “put in their place”; as though every removed thing must be replaced by something comparable. But what should we put back in the place of an excised tumor? The answer, of course, is “nothing”: Treat the wound, irradiate the surrounding tissue to prevent relapse, and try to remedy the conditions that caused the cancer to develop in the first place. Elimination of prisons is not so different.

Reactionary dismissals of abolitionism typically assume that abolitionists are just nihilists who want to demolish prisons (perhaps converting the rubble into something socially useful, like filler for potholes) while leaving intact the entire societal context in which those prisons grew and flourished. But abolitionists are not so naive, and prison abolitionism must not be understood as a merely negative enterprise. Rather, it is a fundamentally constructive one. Those of us who advocate eradicating the very concept of imprisonment also mean to radically reimagine and reconstruct the elements of society that made prisons seem necessary in the first place. Prison abolitionists may recoil at “prison reform,” but we aren’t militant anti-reformists either. We just want to focus on reforming the deeper roots of the discontent and dissociation that lead to most individual and collective harms.

Abolitionists don’t want to waste time tinkering with the destructive symptoms of dehumanizing systems like prisons, while those same systems actively shield themselves from criticism by ceaselessly squawking about distractions like “crime upticks” and glorifying the spectacle of state-imposed punishment. We must remember that reform implies a desire to improve something we wish to retain, and the last thing any humane society needs is “better,” more invisible warehouses for storing inconvenient human beings.

In her book, We Do This ’til We Free Us, Mariame Kaba argues that abolitionists do not bear the burden of presenting a fully-formed blueprint for precisely how prisons will end and what will be done about the “dangerous people” before we can condemn these obviously calamitous institutions. We regularly acknowledge the need to eliminate harmful things from our lives even before knowing exactly how to go about it or what all the ramifications will be. For example, we do not try to counteract every conceivable consequence before we yank our hands away from hot objects, though there may be unintended effects that could’ve been avoided with a bit more thought. And that’s precisely abolition’s point: if we squarely acknowledge the catastrophe of prisons, then we can—as we must—begin to think seriously about creating a society in which we need never again be burned by human caging, much less by the social and economic conditions that tricked us into thinking we had no alternative to inventing and embracing these dungeons, to begin with.

Incidentally, when inmates ask what my abolitionism says about how they should have been handled when they were in the depths of their addictions and antisocial destructiveness, I sometimes ask in response; “How long did prison exist before your personal reign of terror began? Because, if prisons are so effective and necessary for preventing ‘crime’, then why didn’t their existence stop you from hurting others in the first place?” Turns out, not many have asked themselves anything like that before.

The movement for prison abolition is practical and realistic, and now that we are finally asking these important questions, abolitionism challenges us to keep them at the forefront of our thinking about the presumed value of incarceration and what the alternatives to it may be.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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