What is Abolitionist Feminism, and why does it matter?
An insight into why we might privilege social justice, over criminal justice
Prison does not only impact and harm those who are directly locked up; prisons affect all of us. Yet many of us don’t really consider the wider harms of prison. By relying on prisons, we are effectively abandoning our most vulnerable and challenged people, people who we struggle to include, and people who struggle to belong. But we cannot solve problems of connection by placing people behind walls, away from our communities. By continuing to rely unthinkingly on prison and punishment as responses to social problems, we are missing vital opportunities and resources - time, energy, money and attention - to build stronger communities of connection, to heal the harms caused by imprisonment, and to address the issues that led to it in the first place.
Prison is rarely the beginning of the harm, neglect and failures prisoners have experienced. For most of them, sadly this neglect and abandonment began early in their lives, in their homes, by their families, by their schools, by the care system, by the mental health system, by the state. Long before prison. So while prisons are ineffective, harmful institutions that cause considerable suffering for those held there, their families and friends and even the people who work there, prisons can also be a place of safety and support. For some, whose lives were so harsh and whose experiences so damaging, being held within concrete walls in some ways felt safer, felt more normal, felt containing. It might have been the first place they were listened to, or offered support. Prisons are complex places, where power and security are balanced with support and sometimes if people are lucky, therapy. That prisons can be places of relative safety for some, however, does not mean we should rely on them. People shouldn’t have to go to prison to get their basic needs met.
Abolitionist Feminism invites us to consider the world we want, and how to organise to build it. Seeking a world beyond prisons, Abolitionist Feminism focuses our attention on developing stronger communities and bringing about gender, race and economic justice. It encourages us to consider our approach to problems from a social justice rather than criminal justice perspective; systemically rather than individually. When tackling gender based violence, for example, more conventional approaches focus energy and attention towards finding solutions within the criminal justice system or the carceral state. Yet we need to consider the wider harms this approach causes for marginalised communities especially, who are already over-criminalised. Abolitionist Feminism asks us to consider the violence and harm caused by the state, as well as inter-personally, and seek alternative strategies for addressing these harms.
I came to Abolitionist Feminism through working directly with women who were in and leaving prison while I was a staff member of Women in Prison. This charity was founded as an abolitionist organisation in 1983 by Chris Tchaikovsky, former prisoner of HMP Holloway, and Pat Carlen, Critical Criminologist. It supports women directly, and campaigns for the radical downsizing of the women’s prison population. Through this work, I experienced the difficulties of trying to change or reform the system. Designing and running projects providing ‘change innovation’ from the voluntary sector in relation to the state, I began to realise that on a fundamental level, the current system is resistant to change and will consciously or unconsciously continuously place barrier upon barrier to defend itself against change. I now advocate we move away from ‘reform’ of the problem and towards building solutions outside of it.
Speaking about prison abolition to women who have been in prison requires empathy and understanding of the levels of trauma and pain they experienced in their lives prior to prison. It is not about simply shouting ‘shut down prisons’. I had been entrusted with story after story from women about how they came to be imprisoned, their experiences of incarceration and their struggles to find stability and connection in the community. Feminist abolitionists validate the nuanced role prison has held in their lives, while reassuring people that it is about building solutions not tearing down walls and leaving nothing in its place.
Abolitionist Feminism might seem like a pie in the sky thought exercise; however, it is put into action in many different community projects. In London, with the closure of Holloway, there is a real opportunity to practically implement Feminist Abolitionist principles. The government took a decision in November 2015 to close the prison and disperse the 500 + women held there to prisons further out of London. The Ministry of Justice is now selling the 8-10 acres of public land -- land that has held a connection to women and resistance for over 100 years -- to fund the building of more prisons, further away from their families, and leading to worse outcomes. We know prisons do not make our communities safer, or ‘rehabilitate’ people. In fact, building a new prison has already been tried at Holloway. Since it was re-built in the late 70’s – early 80’s, the populations of prisons for women has quadrupled.
Following the privatisation of part of the probation service, and the introduction of new supervision orders, the number of women recalled to custody whilst under supervision after their release has doubled since the end of 2014. Since the closure of Holloway, the number of deaths in prisons for women is at record levels, which Her Majesties Inspectorate of Prisons has connected to the closure. A new report by Inquest also highlights the lack of progress made on women’s prison deaths, and calls for the abolition of prisons for women.
What we have now is an opportunity to use the land where Holloway Prison stood, and the resources to build solutions, support, and housing that would mean less women are sent to prison.
Reclaim Holloway, a grassroots campaign run on feminist-abolitionist principles, is calling for a Women’s Building on the Holloway land, that both honours the women held there through history and inspires change. A beacon of hope, the plan offers a place for all women but particularly centres those people who have been previously held in Holloway. Working towards inclusion, connection and belonging as our primary goal, we seek to build solutions that are not reliant on our current systems of criminal justice funding and support. We build other ways of caring for each other. We imagine a world without prison, we work towards that as our goal, and one day we will get there.
Maureen Mansfield has worked in the women’s voluntary sector supporting those in the mental health and criminal justice system for over a decade and is a campaigner with Reclaim Holloway. She is part of the organising committee for Abolitionist Futures: International Conference on Penal Abolition. She tweets @carceralcollapz
To find out more about Abolitionist Feminism and Reclaim Holloway, attend an event or get involved online:
- June 20 Dr Beth Ritchie makes a the case for Feminist Abolition Politics at Birkbeck, University of London
- June 15 - 18 Abolitionist Futures - International Conference on Penal Abolition in London
- Join Women in Prisons call to downsize the population of prisons for women by 2020 by 2020
- Join Reclaim Justice Networks call for a moratorium on prison building.
- Get involved in Reclaim Holloway - an Abolitionist, Anti Carceral Campaign group calling for the redevelopment of the Holloway site to imagine a world where we do not need prisons.
- Come to Voices of Dissent: Visioning a World Without Prisons at Unity Chapel in Islington , London to hear more about Holloway, Abolition & A Vision for a Women’s Building at Holloway.