In November 2016, New Zealand’s prison population ticked over ten thousand. So in February, abolitionist organisation No Pride in Prisons lead a “10,000 Too Many” march, calling for decarceration and challenging government plans to expand New Zealand’s prison system. NPIP and its supporters say that instead of building more prisons when they are ineffective, inhumane and discriminatory – we should work toward prison abolition by addressing the root causes of violence.
To some women – women who walk home at night with keys between knuckles; women facing interrogation in court after reporting sexual abuse (only 13% of such cases in New Zealand result in a conviction); women who are trapped in homes with abusive men – the idea of unlocking all prison cells might come across as extreme. Over 85% of the ten thousand incarcerated New Zealanders are men, and sexual assault is one of the most common offences for which men are sentenced.
While prison abolitionists call to “rehabilitate, don’t incarcerate”, and to “prevent the implementation of any public sex offender register” – women in Stanford, for instance, must accept Brock Turner back in their midst, after he spent a mere three months in prison for violent sexual assault.
But of course, abolitionists are not calling for the instant release of every incarcerated person. They are not calling to place even more onus and accountability on women to maintain our own safety in the face of male violence. Abolitionists call for the release of those who are not guilty, for decolonisation, and for the development of a system of justice that addresses the root causes of male violence, and seeks proper rehabilitation.
Or, might I be wrong?
In New Zealand, Moana Jackson, like Angela Davis in the U.S., emphasises that the prison system does not work as an instrument of justice. Reoffending rates are high, and prisons are inherently violent institutions. Many prisoners in New Zealand have little privacy, poor access to healthcare and do not get daily access to fresh air. Jackson, a lawyer, has called for the Nordic Model of decarceration in New Zealand coupled with iwi-based programmes. Norway has a comparable population to New Zealand, but about four thousand incarcerated persons compared to our ten, and it is closing down prisons.
Jackson, alongside Labour MP Kelvin Davis, make clear that rather than being centres of rehabilitation, prisons have a destructive impact that is consistent with the colonial, capitalist states that run them. In her book Are Prisons Obsolete? Davis shows how the U.S. prison populations became overwhelmingly black after slavery abolition – and that convicts were also forced to provide free labour to companies through a lease system. Racist oppression through prisons and this lease system simply took the place of racist oppression through slavery; it was slavery by another name.
A major illustration of the criminal injustice of prisons, is that while violent crime is overwhelmingly committed by men, indigenous women are currently the fastest growing incarcerated group. That is true in Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, where women are being incarcerated for crimes associated with poverty, like welfare fraud. In New Zealand, Arohata Women’s Prison is overflowing, so that some women have been placed in a self-contained unit at a nearby men’s prison; the women’s prison in South Auckland is bursting to the point that plans are being made to sleep some prisoners in the District Court holding cells. In the States, women can be charged for self defense, miscarriage and abortion.
The prison system discriminates on the basis of gender, as well as race, in a way that is consistent with other aspects of white, patriarchal capitalism. This also means that while indigenous women are incarcerated at the highest rate, women’s prison environments are violently sexualised. As Angela Davis writes,
Studies on female prisons throughout the world indicate that sexual abuse is an abiding, though unacknowledged, form of punishment to which women, who have the misfortune of being sent to prison, are subjected.
Davis says that “sexual abuse is surreptitiously incorporated into one of the most habitual aspects of women’s imprisonment, the strip search.” New Zealand abolitionist activist Valerie Morse has described being strip searched up to seven times per day after being imprisoned for her activism. Inspectors at Arohata Prison in Wellington have found prison staff observing prisoners through camera footage using the toilet, in various stages of undress, or being strip-searched. In Australia, Amanda George has pointed out that “prison and police officers are vested with the power and responsibility to do acts which, if done outside work hours, would be crimes of sexual assault.”
This analysis all makes clear that prisons perpetuate violence by functioning within systems of power based on sex, race and class. Since decarceration is about addressing the root causes of practices like the (taped) sexualised punishment of women, or the sexual violence many men are in for – we would expect abolitionists to invite discussion of how to dismantle other institutions supporting sexualised violence.
Feminists have been pointing out for some time how pornography and prostitution institutionalise and legitimise such sexual violence. During the Stanford trial of Brock Turner, feminists pointed out the significance of Turner’s filming of his attack, and the influence of pornography on him, his peers, and as a driver of male violence at large. Indeed, before being executed for the rape and murder of over thirty women and girls in 1989, Ted Bundy gave a final interview about his own pornography addiction. “I’ve lived in prison for a long time now,” he said,
and I’ve met a lot of men who were motivated to commit violence just like me. And without exception, every one of them… was deeply involved in pornography. Without question, without exception. Deeply influenced and consumed by an addiction to pornography…. The FBI’s own study on serial homicide shows that the most common interest among serial killers is pornography. And pornography can reach out and snatch a kid out of any house today.
Indeed, Gail Dines has pointed out that the average age that boys begin to watch pornography is eleven years old – and New Zealand is high on list of porn watchers, with a number five world ranking. Anecdotal evidence of teenage girls at New Zealand high schools, being pressured to have sex on film by male peers, is heart wrenching.
It would seem a no-brainer then, that a call for the Nordic model for prison abolition would mean we also discuss the Nordic model for prostitution abolition, which seeks accountability for male violence and sets up exit services for women, and that we also discuss the abolition of pornography as industrialised, sexualised violence.
Yet according to many prison abolitionists, women aren’t allowed to so much as raise these topics. In fact, I have been told by several prison abolitionists that women are “being violent” when we critique prostitution – one Wellington-based abolitionist went as far as to tell me that critiquing prostitution makes me “worse than a serial rapist”. The “logic” is that in voicing critiques of prostitution, women produce the stigma supposedly underlying sexual violence epidemics. So, women critical of prostitution should be silenced and ostracised for inciting “violence” – but men in prison for sexual violence need allies and pen pals.
This is a gross double standard consistent with the overall gendered nature of crime and punishment in our patriarchal system: a system that forces women to accept the principle of male sexual entitlement, even in activism. This double standard is also in keeping with a pattern of misogyny that inevitably places responsibility for male violence on women. We are the mothers who nurtured it, the victims who provoked it, the feminists who made it real by saying its name.
We live in a culture where even those working in the so-called justice system are more likely to sympathise with the Brock Turners or the Roastbusters of this world than girls and women who are made victims of sexual violence. It is women who are questioned, women tasked with having to manage male violence through relentless scrutiny of our dress, manner and speech, perhaps with the aid of pathetic measures like pepper spray, whistles, and running shoes.
Yet, rather than developing a culture of supporting girls and critiquing rape culture, some liberal supporters of prison abolition are helping to drive anti-feminist narratives that position girls and women as more dangerous than Ted Bundy. This makes prison abolition look like men’s rights activism – a mission for manarchy. It makes decarceration look like a fight for the rights of men to abuse women with impunity.
Davis says that in fighting for decarceration, “a vast range of alternative strategies of minimizing violence against women – within intimate relationships and within relationships to the state – should be the focus of our concern.” She says,
rather than try to imagine one single alternative to the existing system of incarceration, we might envision an array of alternatives that will require radical transformation of society. Alternatives that fail to address racism, male dominance, homophobia, class bias, and other structures of domination will not, in the final analysis, lead to decarceration and will not advance the goal of abolition.
So, fighting for prison abolition means addressing male dominance and fighting for a radical transformation of rape culture. This means addressing the male sexual entitlement institutionalised in prostitution, and porn. This means that to be a prison abolitionist, and not a ‘manarchist’ – is to be a prostitution abolitionist too.
With thanks to Fern Eyles for her research into the high incarceration rates of indigenous women in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.