By Jasmine Ahmed
A society that is ready to perceive you as a criminal does not so easily see you as a victim. While liberal feminists celebrate new legislation relating to up-skirting and misogyny as a hate crime, many marginalised people remain not just unsupported against violence in their homes and on the street but also vulnerable to state violence in the form of police brutality, imprisonment and immigration detention.
Abusive people target those who they perceive as powerless and so does the state. Black and brown people, women, trans and non-binary people and disabled people are more likely to experience abuse, and then not be supported by the police and court systems. They can be more vulnerable to homelessness and poverty, and to being trapped in abusive situations because they cannot afford to leave. On top of the physical and psychological violence experienced during imprisonment, over half of the people held in women’s prisons are survivors of domestic abuse and more than 80% are serving time for non-violent crimes such as theft and drug-related offences. Those who are imprisoned for violent behaviour are often being punished for defending themselves against someone who had been abusive, mentally or physically, towards them for a long time. Many of the migrants held in Yarl’s Wood detention centre have experienced abuse in their past, and those not in detention but with insecure immigration status are frequently targeted by abusive people who know they are unlikely to be reported to the police due to the survivor’s fear of detention and deportation.
To keep any human in a cage is an inhumane and ineffective way to address harmful behaviours. More often than not, society deems you harmful enough to be imprisoned not due to your actions but due to your social identity. Put plainly, our criminal justice system does not act as a deterrent to violent people but instead it sends the message that you can do anything you like as long as you’re rich and you target those who are, whether due to gender, class, race or disability, less powerful than you.
We cannot rely on the law as a reflection of right and wrong. When we conflate law with ethics, we neglect something critical: empathy. If we focus on punishment rather than focus on healing the pain and harm that has been caused, we let the law tell us whose pain matters. We cannot depend on a system that we know exclusively targets people due to their social identities and not their actions. The criminal justice system does not exist for our protection but to punish and control already marginalised people. Everyone is capable of causing harm, but not everyone will be held accountable.
In the UK, most prisoners are poor, working class people, and over a quarter of the prison population is Black, Asian or another ethnic minority, despite making up only 10% of the UK’s overall population. 29% identified as having a learning difficulty or disability, and literacy rates are much lower than in the general population. Injustice prevails: the conviction rate for rape cases remains around 6%, we still see no charges for those responsible for the Grenfell Tower fire, and heads of state cut welfare services while spending billions on weapons of mass destruction.
As a feminist and anti-racist organiser, prison abolition is a goal that encompasses a holistic redressing of our society’s approach to harm, healing and justice. My comrades and I support campaigns to resist the prison industrial complex and build towards a world without cages and state control, while trying to support those affected by violence.
Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) is a network of groups fighting the expansion of the prison industrial complex in the UK. In 2016 the government announced plans to build six new super prisons for men and five prisons for women. There are also plans to build new detention centres and children’s prisons. A step towards abolishing the prison system is to resist the expansion of that system, so local groups have been opposing these new projects through grassroots campaigns. The proposed plans for a prison in Port Talbot, South Wales, have been rejected by the Welsh government, which is a huge success. While some of the other prison construction plans have been delayed, construction is beginning to go ahead at the sites of HMP Wellingborough and Glen Parva. A month of action against prisons has been called for March 2019 and the fight continues.
The campaigns for more specific laws around sexual and domestic violence show that the narrative around these issues is changing. While it may seem as if these issues are being taken more seriously, further legislation strengthening police powers and increasing punitive responses rather than tackling gendered violence at its root, the misogynistic culture that allows this violence to happen in the first place, will not change the reality of everyday life for most women or gender non-binary people. Community-led organisations who support survivors to find safe housing and support them, through the process of leaving violent relationships and living circumstances, desperately need funding. Sisters Uncut, a feminist direct action group, has spotlighted ways the criminal justice system and the state perpetrates violence against survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Their campaigns demand the redistribution of funding away from the criminal justice system and into communities.
Bystander intervention approaches encourage us to speak up in safe, non-escalating ways when we witness harassment or assault. It empowers us to consider the simple ways we can support those experiencing violence and disrupt a culture that normalises violent behaviour by so often remaining silent. Hollaback London promotes bystander intervention as one of the ways to support those experiencing gendered and racist violence, instead of criminal justice responses.
Detainee support groups work with people held in detention centres on their immigration cases and provide much-needed emotional support. Groups organising against detention and deportation are playing a crucial role in disrupting an increasingly hostile environment, such as the Anti-Raids Network resisting immigration raids or the Stansted 15, a group of activists who took direct action to stop the deportation of 60 people on a charter flight.
Education-focused campaigns are another important aspect of preventing violence and building a less punitive society. A holistic approach to education is needed to teach young people about consent and boundaries, about power, control and coercion, and the true history and impact of patriarchy and colonialism. Activists are also working with young people to help them gain skills in movement building, community organising and resistance.
This is just some of the work being done by abolitionists in the UK, and there is much more to be done. We continue to work to build our movement, to resist the state’s violence and oppression. If we really want safety and liberation for our communities, we must reconsider our perception of who the real ‘criminals’ are.
Jasmine Ahmed is a prison abolitionist and intersectional feminist writer and activist fighting the expansion of the prison industrial complex in the UK.
Artwork by Cat Sims.
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