How can we make prisons obsolete?

Abigail Amey
Friday, 24 April 2015

On 21 April, I attended an event run by the Centre and the University of Liverpool to discuss the alternatives to prison, as part of the ongoing Justice Matters project.

The event began with introductions from three speakers:

  • Rebecca Roberts, from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, who focused on non criminal justice interventions
  • Dr John Moore, from University of the West of England, who highlighted the need to create a more just society, rather than focus on individuals
  • Dr Deborah Drake, from The Open University, who talked about the legitimised nature of the prison as a key part of the state

Following this, attendees engaged in a lively debate around how we could make prisons obsolete, without using other criminal justice responses.

Many in the room expressed a need to build a fairer society; one in which wealth is distributed more equally and where class is not such an influential driver of life trajectory. Others focused on a more individual level, talking about people they had worked with to help avoid the criminal justice system and embark on a more positive life course.

Those expressing different viewpoints left the room facing the question of how we can bridge the gap between individuals and society; after all, we are talking about those who are being sent to prison by the state, because of the effects of wider social factors. One pertinent remark on this topic was the idea that, if individuals do not experience a fair and just society in their community, how can the state expect compliance with criminal justice? When people see so much injustice in their own lives, the state has little right to impose its version of justice on the community. This convinced me that change must happen on a broader level, not just from individual interventions.

Another interesting suggestion was change at community level. For example, the simple act of communal gardening was suggested by an attendee, who spoke of how it had transformed his street. The levels of vandalism to property in the area had decreased rapidly after a small group of young residents had decided to take pride in their street by tending to the plant life. Through this creativity they had put a stop to the vandalism that had been carried out by some residents, just by setting an example. Crucially, this transformation had taken place with no police or criminal justice intervention. It was simply due to effective community action.

There was a clear desire in the room to 'take back responsibility for our communities' from the police and criminal justice system – we should be bolder in acting and intervening to create a better society. To me, this is the way we can transform our society and make sure there is no need for prison. 

Further information: 

  • Watch the presentations from the introductory speakers on Vimeo: Rebecca Roberts, Dr John Moore, Dr Deborah Drake
  • Check out #prisonalternatives to track the twitter conversation from the event.
  • As part of our Justice Matters project, we have invited people to submit their ideas on what criminal justice policy or practice could be abolished and what could be built instead. You can read some of the responses online here. If you have an idea about what you would build in place of criminal justice then email us.
  • Sign up to receive regular Justice Matters updates.