Prison Abolition: Imagining a Future Without Prisons

By: Kriti Bisht 

“A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.”― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

The existence of prisons in our society has constantly been up for moral, philosophical and political debates. These are places where socio-economic inequalities are most apparent. The carceral state is not only an instrument for justice but it also defines ideas of criminality and security. Hence, holding it accountable and making observations through it means accounting for aspects not only encompassing prisons but also our society and morals.  

By breaking down some of the questions posed about the existence of prisons, let us try to understand their place in society. 

What Does the Existence of Prisons Mean to us?

It is difficult to imagine a society without prisons, but we think of them as the fate of the other, the “evildoers”. If it wouldn’t ideally be for prisons, who would protect the innocents from the criminals and deter the former from committing crimes in the first place. Deterrence is one of the biggest rationales behind the continuation of prisons.  

Through the theory of philosopher Michel Foucault, author of Discipline and Punish, who studies the manifestations of various power-relations in the societal structures, prisons are understood through the concept of ‘heterotopia’. A world within a world, dystopia within utopia, prisons are places for undesirable bodies that make the utopia outside possible. Prisons mirror yet upset what’s outside; making them both present and absent from our lives in this way. 

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Image source: Getty Images

What’s the State of Our Prisons Like?

The reality of prisons is far from its ideal goal. The fact that good legal defence is not affordable by many and the prevalent corruption and stereotypes at the hands of the justice system or written into the law leads to major discrepancies. The stereotypes of our society are strongly manifested in the prison. A higher number of poor and marginalised sections in the jails attests to this conflict. As per the NCRB data, Dalits, tribals and Muslims hold a higher share in prison than numbers outside.

  • Women in Prisons

According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, only 18% of female inmates in India live in exclusively female prisons. This tells the fact that prison systems are largely male gendered. The key findings of their 2018 Prison Report also points at the lack of female staff, doctors, officers etc. for female inmates. Physical and sexual violations at the hands of authorities and other prisoners are also common. Along with that there is a lack of proper nutrition needed for pregnant and lactating women. Many women in these prisons live with their children below the age of six and spending their formative years in prison could have a huge adverse impact on the children. The excerpts from the letters of Devangana Kalita, a student and activist imprisoned under UAPA, reveals some heart wrenching instances from the lives of children inside the prisons. 

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Image source: Getty Images

Furthermore, the Prison Report points out that re-integration in society is a challenge for many women prisoners. The stigmatisation that deems male criminality as somewhat more ‘normal’ than female criminality deprives women of moral rehabilitation and makes it difficult for them to reestablish family ties or seek employment.  

Conclusion: The Way Forward is Through

Considering this, it is safe to assume that only incapacitation and not rehabilitation is the main objective of the carceral state. The current penitentiary system segregates and confines the unwanted elements of our society avoiding the larger responsibility of tackling issues afflicting us that produce these bodies. Angela Davis in her book Are Prisons Obsolete? states that “The majority of people who are in prison are there because society has failed them.” We need to see how things like settling the public conscience by hanging rapists is only a quick solution that doesn’t achieve much for women’s safety. It is only when punishment won’t be the central concern in the making of justice, we will be able to head towards actual improvement in society. Detention Solidarity Network in India is doing some important work by taking up such conversations surrounding the Indian carceral state. 

The way towards a far fetched idea like prison abolition is only through prison reforms at present. It would be appropriate to conclude with Angela Davis’ statement that, “A major challenge of this movement is to do the work that will create more humane, habitable environments for people in prison without bolstering the permanence of the prison system.” 

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