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What happened to abolitionism? An investigation of a paradigm and social movement. Rebecca Roberts, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies ICOPA Conference,

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Presentation on theme: "What happened to abolitionism? An investigation of a paradigm and social movement. Rebecca Roberts, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies ICOPA Conference,"— Presentation transcript:

1 What happened to abolitionism? An investigation of a paradigm and social movement. Rebecca Roberts, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies ICOPA Conference, London July 2008

2 Why study abolitionism? ‘Abolitionists are now regarded as sociological dinosaurs, unreconstituted hangovers from the profound but doomed schisms of the late 1960s, who are marginal to the ‘real’ intellectual questions of the 1990s… Abolitionism, it seems, has failed to impact upon the direction of penal policy about crime and punishment.’ (Sim, 1994)

3 What I’m going to do….  Methodology  Explore abolitionism: How people became abolitionists What abolitionism is An assessment of abolitionism Reflections on the future  What happened to abolitionism?

4 Methodology  Literature review  Ten unstructured interviews  Purposive sampling (interview people who are relevant to the research questions) Nine men Nine professors Activist / Academics UK, Norway, Holland  Face to face interviews

5 Exploring abolitionism 1. ‘The moment of abolition’ 2. What is abolitionism? 3. Assessing abolitionism

6 1. ‘The moment of abolition’ – Becoming an abolitionist The smell of the prison. The taste of the prison. Every time I went home after being in prison I had to wash all my clothes and have a shower. I felt – the smell of it, the feel of it – completely dominated. I think I just knew intuitively from that experience that there was no way a society that considered itself to be based on humane principles could in any way keep people in these situations. So I think it was an intuitive feeling, it was an emotion, it was a response to being in a place that was so debilitating just to visit.’ PS

7 2. What is abolitionism? What kind of activity? Way of thinking Critique Alternative discourse Trajectory or period of transition Hegemonic project Political device Activism What is to be tackled? (The focal point) Concept of ‘crime’ Punishment Prisons What is to be done? Reconceptualise or redefine Reduce Abolish

8 3. Assessing abolitionism (successes) ‘Because if there’s a state servant somewhere in a prison and that state servant who may in the past have slammed the door and walked away and they know about the prisoners…. They… say to themselves… I’ll get a tough time if something happens to this prisoner here…. If they go back to check… then abolitionism has done its job… I know that sounds like an odd answer, but I think it’s an important element. In a sense, that kind of work and impact of that work can be defined and quantified in some respects but in some other times, it can’t’. JS

9 3. Assessing abolitionism (successes)  Hegemonic project  Challenged ‘reformism’  Dragged penal lobby and political debate onto more radical terrain  Contributed to a ‘slowness’ of the system

10 3. Assessing abolitionism (failings)  ‘The failure in a way is glaringly obvious. Look at the people in prison. Abolitionism wasn’t exactly an unqualified success’ TW  ‘I think we’ve lost – we’ve lost so much ground in terms of the abolitionist debate’ PS

11 3. Assessing abolitionism  ‘If you say you’re an abolitionist, you might as well say you are a murderer or something like that. Because, the way they’ve set it up is in such a way that you are just regarded as crazy or… not in touch with the real people.’ JS  You have to talk in a different way. It ends at the same point... You need to be much more pragmatic and you have to do a step back to argue for a moratorium on prisons in an era when the whole reductionist agenda is being discredited – I found it pointless to start at that point but I keep it in my mind and it’s still my end goal but I have to approach it from a different way.’ RS

12 The future  ‘It doesn’t feel, in terms of the response, that it’s time has come. But, at some stage, it may well come. Those sorts of things are difficult to predict. We are right so we might as well continue to be there for when people wish to flock in our direction… ‘I personally think that abolitionism has lost confidence… I think we need to begin to regain confidence in it.’ JM

13 The future  ‘I see it’s future, now, in the short term, as one of containing the system. Where it’s a kind of defensive attitude. And ‘no more of this’… So, it’s a matter of containment in the short run’ TM  Keep the prison reform lobby on its toes.  Goal of abolition of imprisonment for children or women – realisable?

14 Bringing back in the ‘social’  ‘The political climate has changed – and how do you formulate an abolitionist perspective? How should people reflect on wider social currents?... The strategic vision would need to be different.’ MR

15 What happened to abolitionism? 1. On the defensive 2. Reform vs revolution is unresolved 3. Becoming more ‘realistic’ 4. Focus on radical reductionism

16 1. Abolitionism is now on the defensive  Containing the system.  Focus on imprisonment.  Offensive abolitionist action seems far from current agendas.

17 2. The question of reform vs abolition is unresolved  Not fully addressed tensions between revolution and reform.  Limited in scope to be a genuinely ‘revolutionary’ movement.

18 3. Abolitionism has become more ‘realistic’  Has abolitionism been drawn onto more central ground?  Shift from ‘political’ to moral and pragmatic arguments against imprisonment?

19 4. Abolitionism now focuses primarily on radical reductionism  Narrowing of focus  Rooted in critical and radical history.  Critical of reformism.

20 Final points….  Should not be too gloomy or pessimistic.  What is possible within current political and economic contexts?  How wary should we be of reform?

21 A continuum of alternatives? We would not be looking for prison like substitutes for the prison, such as house arrest safeguarded by electronic surveillance bracelets. Rather, positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment – demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.’ (Davis, 2003)

22 We should certainly not think that criminal justice could not be abolished.. ‘You see, if I look at my own experience …., because I live for more or less a century. I am 84 now… It’s very interesting when you have such a large space to see all the things… all the things you have seen change… You know that things can change very fast... I am firmly convinced that nobody knows about the future… We should certainly not think that criminal justice could not be abolished.’ LH


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