I would build… radical strategies for resisting the harms of reform

Bree Carlton
Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Abolitionism is a theory and method for dismantling prisons and criminal justice. It is above all concerned with strategising alternatives to imprisonment and, ultimately, in the long term, the eventual eradication of prisons.

Radical expressions of reform and decarceration can interlock to comprise abolitionist strategies of this long-term project. However, it is critical to distinguish between liberal reformism dedicated to improving the system's functionality and a radical agenda committed to dismantling.

The failings of the prison are documented through endless empirical studies. However, as Mike Fitzgerald and Joe Sim have pointed out, one basic function the prison constantly succeeds in is its own reproduction, ‘prison might beget criticism but it also begets prison’ and this essentially comes down to recurring cycles of liberal reform. One only need look back through history to view the ways that waves of reform have contributed to the proliferation of modern prisons as the dominant sanction of punishment in our times.

As a consequence abolitionists continue to challenge reform in spite of its perceived benevolence as a mark of progressive penal change. Is it possible for abolitionists to resist the harmful effects of reform as we campaign for and advocate for structural change and freedom from prisons and criminal justice?

Abolitionists necessarily engage with reform in the same way we do prisons because there are many people surviving and resisting cages. Listening and responding to these voices remains a vital starting point for building social movements to resist and dismantle criminal justice and transform structural oppressions. But irrespective of this we remain consigned to the fact that this work can deliver paradoxical and sometimes counter-productive outcomes. For this reason it can only ever comprise a short-term strategy.

While concerns about the place of reform in abolition politics are not new, over the past two decades, and correlating with mobilising critiques associated with the expansion of penal estates in the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, there has been a renewed rise of reformism manifested through correctional policies and practices designed to reduce the harms and (ironically) the use of imprisonment. This is arguably a new phase of reformism and hence the need for abolitionists to mobilise on this front.

It is inevitable that the critiques of prisons and penal excess has pre-empted a range of initiatives focused on reform and rehabilitation. These provide vehicles to legitimise, fortify and extend the system. Within this context we see corrections and criminal justice more broadly being re-framed and positioned as sites for social welfarism. The purpose of this is to effectively manage disadvantage, social unrest and disorder created by conditions of poverty. These trends have been strengthened by the revival of practitioner models framed in relation to individual pathways, needs and offender risk. These have in turn contributed to greater levels of intervention and control in the lives of individuals rather than redressing the structural conditions which give rise to criminalisation.

There have been numerous policies and strategies implemented across the criminal justice spectrum from entry level, in prison and post-release to address needs and vulnerabilities associated with disadvantage and difference. These have informed the development of therapeutic and diversionary correctional programs, bail support initiatives and special policies and programs developed for disadvantaged groups in prison and post-release. While these strategies have yielded vital opportunities for reform and ‘reduction’, critiques continue to report evidence of their expansionary effects.

Reform is designed to rationalise and improve prison systems. It is not a vehicle for transformative change. As long as we resist within a prison-reliant society, penal reform will be integral to that landscape. Abolitionists must therefore remain astutely clear about how we position our campaign goals and strategies in relation to reform. These processes must be subject to constant assessment. On this front one of the greatest challenges we face is how we best pool our collective intellectual and physical labours to resist system-sponsored attempts to neutralise, absorb and even co-opt our labours and critiques.

Previously we have been locked in debates amongst ourselves trying to ascertain our stance on what distinguishes ‘negative’ from ‘positive’ reforms (as described by Norweigen academic, Thomas Mathiesen). The debates are in many ways superfluous. In spite of its limitations, reform provides us with critical opportunities for sharpening radical critiques and resistance. The key is that abolition politics and campaigns need not be defined according to the intentions and indeed predicted outcomes of reform per se. Determining targets and strategies for change in any localised campaign context is a complex process that must be subject to frequent evaluation. 

Reform can be used as a short-term ‘emergency’ strategy to prevent harm and death in prisons. It can also be used for longer-term goals of dismantling. Dan Berger observes that taking stock of campaign and reform outcomes can help us to sort through and see where victories and defeats co-exist and how these may provide vital directions for campaigns. In this regard reform serves as a vehicle and opportunity for short-term and long-term changes. It should never be privileged in ways which absorb our energies and focus to the detriment of our vision for a future free of prisons.

To dismantle and transform structural injustice requires creativity and hard work to envision and implement, as Angela Davis has characterised, a constellation of alternatives. De-centring criminal justice from our imaginations, analyses and solutions in order to build true alternatives in our localised communities is the focal point for building campaigns not reformism.

Dr Bree Carlton is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Monash University, Australia. Her research has focused on documenting and redressing institutionally generated experiences of discrimination, harm and violence.