If Black Lives Matter, we must abolish prisons

A interior view of Chelmsford Prison.Picture: PA/ Andrew Parsons

A interior view of Chelmsford Prison.Picture: PA/ Andrew Parsons - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

We can't build a strong and supportive community for our young people of colour until we abolish the inhuman system of prison, argues Ashish Prashar

The impact of the Black Lives Matter movement is nowhere near close to fully surfacing. As the movement continues with protests across the world there is a wider social awakening to the issues faced by black people. This demands more from society than pulling old TV episodes from streaming platforms or black Instagram squares that are quickly relegated to the history of people's grid. This is an intersectional movement - one that makes room for feminism, LGBTQIA equality and for other marginalised groups across the world. This means that this is not a topic that is going to be quietly dropped. If we accept that the movement will continue until we achieve radical change, then it is now time to outline what that looks like.

A key focus point must be around ending the entrapment of our citizens into unending lives of crime and deprivation, which forces both dehumanisation and stigma onto its victims. I am, of course, talking about the justice system. The prison system is supposed to balance the repayment of debt to society by an individual with enabling that person to return to society as a law-abiding citizen. The proof of the efficacy of this system must be in the pudding: in the UK, 29% reoffend within the year and data suggests that 75% of ex-inmates reoffend within nine years of release.

Prisons criminalise: from the moment an incarcerated person sets foot in one, they are stripped of their possessions, clothes and dignity. Aggressive and volatile 'correctional' officers abuse inmates, encourage fights, over-use forceful tactics and isolate prisoners through 'solitary confinement', a commonly known torture method. Once out, prisoners are given virtually no support - financial, emotional or otherwise - and are sent back to the systems of deprivation that usually got them there. This time, though, they have few job prospects thanks to the stigma attached to a criminal record, they have spent time being treated as less than human and will have internalised some of that rhetoric - and their communities may now reject them as 'less than'.

This is disproportionately an issue for black and minority ethnic people. More than half of young people in jail are of BAME background, and 26% of the overall prison population, 22,683 people, are from a minority ethnic group. The Lammy report found that black people are 53% more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the Crown Court, while Asian people are 55% more likely and other ethnic groups 81%. The Prison Reform Trust estimates the economic cost of BAME over-representation in our prison system to be £234m a year.

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Instead of investing in an alternative, the government has pledged to spend £2.5bn on creating 10,000 additional prison places instead of social support and investment, when the UK already has the highest prison population in Europe. Pouring cash into four new prisons to embed even further a broken system which rarely has positive outcomes for society is a populist move designed to prove that Boris is tough on crime. Really, we should call this 'tough on the vulnerable' but 'supportive of and further encouraging' criminal activity.

Imagine a world without prisons: rather than pouring money into a broken system that is both ineffective and cruel, the £2.5bn committed to building four new prisons could be invested in people. If we divest resources from incarceration and work to change the justice system from the roots up, we can begin to address the inequalities rife in the system.

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Police, prosecution, sentencing and jailing practices have disproportionately criminalised black and brown communities, LGBTQIA people and disabled people. For example, in the UK, drug searches make up 60% of stop and searches - not ones looking for guns and knives, despite the claim that these are for the protection of others. These drug searches often identify petty amounts - serious drug-buster missions they are not. Black people are nine times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched. The inevitable conclusion here is that police are racist and target black people, who are then taken to racist courts to be handed down sentences by racist judges.

Divesting from these existing structures to fund new community safety programmes founded on empathy is crucial. This money can then go into people; into preventative social initiatives that help to build a strong and supportive community for our young people of colour in this country. Rather than building walls like Boris' counterpart in the US, he should be working out how to build up people and society at large. Only by abolishing the inhuman system of prison is this possible.

And we can't stop at the prison walls. We must reshape our society as a whole. We are not doing nearly enough to address the root causes of poverty, addiction, homelessness and mental-health crises. Criminalising poverty through harsh fines and debt regulation, criminalising addiction through drug laws, criminalising homelessness by conducting sweeps of people sleeping in parks and criminalising mental illness by turning prisons into de facto psychiatric hospitals are all treating the symptom instead of the disease. This is one of the key differences between reform and abolitionism: the former deals with pain management and the latter with the actual source of the pain.

Abolition is what we call for through Black Lives Matter - this is what must be delivered, or the system will continue to punish black and brown communities, LGBTQIA people and disabled people for the offense of their very existence.

Dominic Raab, whose views encapsulate the small-mindedness of his government as much as Boris' do, may dismissively compare taking a knee to something out of Game of Thrones, but he wilfully misunderstands that change is happening. The movement, one that calls out injustices in all walks of life, will not end until we have rebuilt society into one in which vital needs like housing, education, and health care are met, allowing people to live big, beautiful, fulfilled lives—with not a prison in sight - ultimately creating better conditions and improving the lives of all its citizens.

Ashish Prashar is a justice reform campaigner who sits on the board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Leap Confronting Conflict and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice

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