Voices of Justice Now: Why is the search still on for “better” punishment?

alison headshor.jpg
Allison Forth, former client coordinator for Justice Now, just finished her Masters in Social Work at Hunter College of Social Work. Allison hopes to help create accountable and sustainable community interventions and programs that are not a part of the criminal legal system.
California is taking a fast turn down the wrong path by building “gender-responsive� prisons. Instead of getting caught up in the urgency of the prison crisis by attempting to create “better� punishment, we should say no to “Female Rehabilitative Community Correctional Centers� on the state and county levels.
Some critical questions we need to ask ourselves include: is it ethical or even possible to create comprehensive and effective treatment in a prison setting? Will “gender-responsive� prison expansion help stop the suffering caused by imprisonment, or is it a band-aid solution that will result in only more lives caught up in the criminal legal system? Will this “gender responsive� prison expansion help solidify the fact that prison is one of the only places female-bodied people and trans women from communities of color and poor communities can access often neglectful and abusive treatment, whether it be healthcare, mental health services or substance abuse treatment?
“Gender-responsive� prison expansion is unethical: it expands a prison system that tears
people and their families’ lives apart. It masks the realities of continued imprisonment with words by calling these mini prisons “community-based facilities� or “group homes�.
Instead of pushing for more prisons, let’s invest in genuine resources for our communities. The challenge has been put forth: as social workers and social service providers, will we take part in prison expansion that will continue to harm individuals and families or help to build better communities?

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19 Comments

  1. Matt
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    This is not so much a response to this particular post as to all of the Justice Now posters. I have a very basic question (and I ask it sincerely, not snydely or rhetorically). Without for a second disagreeing that the scope of the U.S. prison system, and the amount of people that we imprison, has reached absolutely absurd levels, and without discounting the numerous negative social effects that prisons have on certain segments of our society, what would you suggest as an alternative? From what I have read of these posts, and from what I can glean from the Justice Now website, this organization seeks to abolish prisons as an element of our justice system. What would we put in their place? No matter how many resources we put into improving our communities, there will always be SOME people who will commit truly heinous crimes (rape, aggrivated assault, murder, high-end theft, extreme corporate malfeasance etc.) many of whom would constitute a real danger to society. How would you solve the problem of protecting society at large from such people, as well as provide sufficient disincentive to commit serious crimes (I am generally of the opinion that social sanction alone is not enough to deter many people)? Prisons are a modern institution to be sure, but they tended to replace corporal punishment and execution on a large scale – something I imagine that the posters here would not be eager to return to (and rightfully so). These posts about the prison system have been very informative, but I have seen little positive suggestions beyond the most vague level. I’d be curious to hear what members of Justice Now have to say.

  2. Posted May 20, 2008 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I’m in agreement w/ Matt (oddly, also my name)–the articles are informative to an extent but seem to presume quite a lot. We’re supposed to be categorically opposed to the imprisonment of any women ever? That’s a pretty radical position to have received so little in the way of discussion here (unless I missed it, in which case, my bad).

  3. Alice
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Prisons are a modern institution to be sure, but they tended to replace corporal punishment and execution on a large scale – something I imagine that the posters here would not be eager to return to (and rightfully so).
    Although there are pragmatic objections to execution, I don’t see the problem with corporal punishment. It is surely far less cruel than even relatively short prison sentences. One could even serve one’s sentence without losing one’s job!
    How effective it is at preventing crime, I don’t know, but that could be researched, and would allow for punishment of some physical crimes without the loss of such long periods of one’s life.

  4. Posted May 20, 2008 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Matt and Rocket,
    A prison abolitionist myself, I am constantly getting this question from people. Given that rates of violent crime vary enormously from culture to culture and class to class and given the number of violent criminals with histories of childhood abuse, it is safe to say that many many people could have been prevented from sociopathy (which is what you are referring to when you talk about people who continuously commit heinous crimes) by having had less shitty childhoods and access to services, to a degree that our pouring of resources into prisons when we could be using the money to provide those services and make kids’ lives better is something each American should be ashamed of. By spending money on prisons instead of social welfare, we are choosing an outcome in which more violent crimes occur. By punishing rapists when we could be dismantling the patriarchy that teaches boys from a young age that rape is okay, we are inadequately addressing the problem of rape. I would love to see all the money from every prison in my state put into antiviolent and antisexist education for kids because I know that this would be more effective at making our society a safer place than prisons have ever been.
    Second, demolishing every prison tomorrow would make very little difference in dealing with sociopaths because most of them don’t end up in prison and the ones that do are rarely there for life. In effect, even “bad people” are let out eventually, usually with pent-up anger and aggression from their time in jail.
    Punishment in general is not very effective at reducing crime. The book ‘Instead of Prisons’ discusses this. If anything, incarceration would appear to increase aggression in individual cases due to anger at what the individual endured in prison and make very little difference in any direction as a deterrent.
    Finally, most prison abolitionists would agree with you that some small portion of the population needs at some time in their life to be kept away from other human beings, to whom they pose a danger. I, and most other prison abolitionists, would rather this be done in their own community rather than three states over, that they be given quantifiable goals they can try to attain in order to be released rather than put in a cage indefinitely, that intensive study be done on them in order to determine how one might set about treating them psychologically, that they have access to psychiatric care, that they not be put in isolation from other human beings or denied visitors, that they be allowed to vote, that they be watched over by people from within their own community, that independent panels constantly evaluate their care and provide them with a means of redress if they are abused, and that they never be obligated to perform the slave labor we currently extract from our prisoners in this country.
    Sociopaths are actually a very very small percentage of the current prison population, so this would mean getting rid of all prisons as they stand and replacing them with much much smaller institutions. In addition, the enormous number of changes I just described would render the new structures unlike anything we currently think of as a prison.
    I hope all that was helpful.
    Alice, see what I said above about the efficacy of punishment.

  5. Posted May 20, 2008 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Here’s the online version of the book. Thanks Samhita, for constantly bringing up the issue of prison abolition despite the very chilly reception it’s sometimes gotten from Feministing readers. I had a horrible reaction the first time I heard about it too, but I think anybody who manages to do some serious research will realize that their questions have all been addressed at some point by the abolitionist movement.
    http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/instead_of_prisons/

  6. Farhat
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    It gets a chilly reception because the only way it could happen is through more executions. Sociopaths are not a very, very small percentage of population, they are a decent minority. When you can show a large enough heterogeneous community (I’d say at least a few million) in which these ideas have worked, we can talk about implementing it on a larger scale.

  7. Alice
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Also, I need to ask if Justice Now has any official opinion on private firearm ownership, and the proliferation there of.

  8. Posted May 20, 2008 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    I think anybody who manages to do some serious research will realize that their questions have all been addressed at some point by the abolitionist movement.
    Obviously “been addressed by” doesn’t mean “been well addressed,” or “been adequately supported,” etc. And of course the abolitionist movement is fairly widespread as are most movements, so it is not necessarily accurate (or fair) to claim that the “movement” has answered questions, unless you want to sign on to all political views of people in the “movement”, of all stripes.
    I despise prisons. Really despise them. So in one respect I should support JN, right? Yet I find JN frustrating, largely because posts like this one seem to present so few solutions.

  9. moriath
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    Sailorman-I think “frustration” perfectly sums up how I feel about this series. The posts are too short to allow us to engage in a real dialog and have yet to present ways that they can accomplish their goal, let alone proof that abolishing prisons is in fact going to solve anything (it seems to me that abolishing prisons would have to be the by-product of doing lots of other things. Perhaps eliminating injustice for various groups should be the goal with the ultimate benefit being that we won’t need prisons any more. Of course, that wouldn’t get nearly as much attention since eliminating injustice is what everyone here at Feministing is about)

  10. Mina
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    “it is safe to say that many many people could have been prevented from sociopathy (which is what you are referring to when you talk about people who continuously commit heinous crimes) by having had less shitty childhoods and access to services”
    OTOH, how many other violent attackers had childhoods more privileged than shitty and perpetrate abuse they didn’t suffer themselves? For example, I wouldn’t be surprised if some men who pamper their sons and abuse their daughters were pampered sons themselves.
    “By punishing rapists when we could be dismantling the patriarchy that teaches boys from a young age that rape is okay,”
    Wait a minute, I thought it was very patriarchial to not punish male rapists and teach boys from a young age that they’ll never be jailed for rape.
    “Given that rates of violent crime vary enormously from culture to culture and class to class”
    Don’t definitions of “violent crime” vary from culture to culture too? For example, a society can have a lower “violent crime” rate if it calls the marital rapes in it “legal” than if it calls those “violent crime”…
    “it seems to me that abolishing prisons would have to be the by-product of doing lots of other things. Perhaps eliminating injustice for various groups should be the goal with the ultimate benefit being that we won’t need prisons any more.”
    I totally agree!

  11. Posted May 20, 2008 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Farhat, the only literature I’ve ever read suggesting that sociopathy is that widespread was intentionally panic-spreading drivel in which the authors tried to market themselves as saviors of the virtuous few caught in a sea of evil in order to promote their book. There really aren’t all that many people who are all bad.
    Also, I find your demand that something be proven to have worked already before you’re willing to try it sort of ridiculous.
    Sailorman,
    Most of the questions that people ask are things which most abolitionists have considered and answered. Most abolitionists have similar opinions about the answers, or they wouldn’t be abolitionists. I stand by that statement and encourage you to read.
    Mina, you are right to a degree. I failed to mention that there are a lot of people who commit violent and dehumanizing crimes at some point due to the fact that they are so privileged that they fail to see those they lord over as worthy of the right not to be violated. I think this fairly perfectly sums up the idea of patriarchy and explains a lot of rape. However, I really believe that eliminating privilege would solve this problem more effectively than sending rich rapists to jail, particularly since our country already fails to send rich rapists to jail.
    There are lower rates of murder, which most societies define as murder, culture to culture. It is not just a problem of definition of the crime. America certainly does not have an abnormally high violent crime rate because we recognize more violent crimes, for example.
    Finally, it is actually extremely patriarchal to teach boys that they shouldn’t rape because it will get them punished. It is feminist to teach boys that they shouldn’t rape because it’s wrong.

  12. Posted May 20, 2008 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Finally, Mina. You realize that paragraph you agreed with is exactly what I’ve been trying to say all along, right?
    I live in the murder center of my city and I’m fairly sure that if prisons were eliminated tomorrow and the money from them was poured into social welfare programs instead, I wouldn’t notice much difference at first and would be less afraid in the long run. That said, I’m not advocating for immediate abolition.

  13. Farhat
    Posted May 21, 2008 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Also, I find your demand that something be proven to have worked already before you’re willing to try it sort of ridiculous.
    I do that for medicines I take, I see no reason not to do that for social programs.
    America certainly does not have an abnormally high violent crime rate because we recognize more violent crimes, for example.
    This shows a lack of knowledge. US actually has a lower violent crime rate than many comparable nations except for gun violence (a lot of which is inter and intra-gang). For example, Toronto has three times the rape rate of New York City.

  14. Farhat
    Posted May 21, 2008 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    Farhat, the only literature I’ve ever read suggesting that sociopathy is that widespread was intentionally panic-spreading drivel in which the authors tried to market themselves as saviors of the virtuous few caught in a sea of evil in order to promote their book. There really aren’t all that many people who are all bad.
    I think you misunderstood. I didn’t say it was widespread. I said it was a decent enough minority. Even if say, 0.1% of people were sociopaths, we still would have 150,000 adults to worry about. Do you see my point?

  15. keshmeshi
    Posted May 21, 2008 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    OTOH, how many other violent attackers had childhoods more privileged than shitty and perpetrate abuse they didn’t suffer themselves?

    Well, for one thing, serial killers tend to be white, male, and middle class. How much more pampered and privileged can you get?

    Also, I find your demand that something be proven to have worked already before you’re willing to try it sort of ridiculous.

    Not unless you’re advocating letting all violent offenders out of prison. If you’re advocating that, you better be able to prove that it works, otherwise you’re the one making ridiculous suggestions.

    I live in the murder center of my city and I’m fairly sure that if prisons were eliminated tomorrow and the money from them was poured into social welfare programs instead, I wouldn’t notice much difference at first and would be less afraid in the long run.

    Do you have family, friends, or acquaintances who are violent and could attack you? If not, then of course you wouldn’t notice any difference, but those people who suffer from that garbage on a regular basis most certainly would notice a difference.
    And what happens to victims of sex crimes who know their attackers when those attackers never get punished for what they’ve done? What happens to battered women or molested children when they have to see their attackers day by day? What happens if those women and children, for various reasons, have to allow their attackers back into their lives and risk being attacked again? Often times, sending a domestic abuser to prison is the only thing that allows his victim to be able to escape him. What happens to her under your utopian fantasy?

    US actually has a lower violent crime rate than many comparable nations except for gun violence.

    Excuse me, but where are you getting this information? What’s comparable? Because the U.S. has one of the highest rape rates among developed countries. Four times greater than Germany (even though the Germans are almost as violent and crazy as we are), more than ten times greater than Great Britain and France, and about twenty times greater than Japan. If, however, you consider developing nations to be comparable, then, sure, we have one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world. Although considering the issues those countries have with patriarchy, poverty, and the like, I do not consider them comparable.

  16. keshmeshi
    Posted May 21, 2008 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    California is taking a fast turn down the wrong path by building “gender-responsive� prisons. Instead of getting caught up in the urgency of the prison crisis by attempting to create “better� punishment, we should say no to “Female Rehabilitative Community Correctional Centers� on the state and county levels.

    I don’t even know what to say to this. It’s better to leave female prisoners in shitty situations because they shouldn’t be in prison in the first place? What utter nonsense. Prison abolition, if it happens at all, will take a long time to implement. How about improving the prison situation now, and increasing its potential for rehabilitation. This crap reminds me of the socialists I ran with in college. They opposed any and all social welfare because it merely placated the masses and held off the socialist revolution they wanted so badly. It’s an unbelievably privileged position. Women in prison need services now. Poor people need help now. And shame on anyone who opposes it because it’s not the perfect fairyland that they’re hoping for.

  17. Posted May 21, 2008 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    keshmeshi,
    i agree that people in women’s prisons need help now. immediately. pronto. and i agree that prison abolition is a long-term goal.
    but there are a vast variety of ways to support people in women’s prisons without expanding them. in the past, all efforts to ‘improve the conditions of women’s prisons’ have actually just led to more of the same abuse and neglect, when much cheaper, more effective and human alternatives were available. in fact, last year, justice now was received over 3,000 signatures from people inside women’s prisons asking that the state NOT spend more money on ‘improving’ its prisons, but instead create alternatives to incarceration.
    in california, a number of these alternatives are currently before the legislature and the courts. one bill calls for the early release of elderly prisoners. another bill calls for parole and sentencing reform. a ballot initiative is also seeking drug treatment to replace incarceration.
    all of these are alternatives that are happening right now, that could be implemented right now, and help people in women’s prisons right now.

  18. Posted May 21, 2008 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    It is also important to note that two of ‘Voices Of…’ posts this week were written by people currently imprisoned in California, and one of the posts was from a formerly incarcerated person. Moreover, most of Justice Now’s Board Members are people in women’s prisons.
    Justice Now is firmly committed to partnering with people inside women’s prisons rather than speaking on behalf of people inside.

  19. Mina
    Posted May 21, 2008 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    “Finally, it is actually extremely patriarchal to teach boys that they shouldn’t rape because it will get them punished.”
    Doing the right thing for the “wrong reason” is still doing the right thing.
    Do you think that it’s better if a man doesn’t rape than if he does, or that him not raping is only better if he has the “right reasons” for not raping?
    “Well, for one thing, serial killers tend to be white, male, and middle class. How much more pampered and privileged can you get?”
    nitpick: white, male, and upper class?
    “Justice Now is firmly committed to partnering with people inside women’s prisons rather than speaking on behalf of people inside.”
    Cool, and a good approach for NGOs on other issues too.

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