“This House Would Abolish Prisons.”

Image Credit: Niamh Jones

Co-authored by Freya Jones (Proposition) and Nidhi Bhaskar (Opposition)

Last week’s Union debate featured some eminent guest speakers, with compelling arguments and laughs which brought the house down. But the motion was more serious, examining whether prisons are truly the best way to deal with criminals and protect society. Read on for a summary of who-said-what and a chance to see our own views…

In favour of the proposition

Abolish prisons. I might not be popular saying it, but there wouldn’t have been a debate if there wasn’t a good case for the proposition.

For the sake of this argument, “prisons” will refer to institutions holding multiple sentenced criminals and remanded defendants in limited conditions. HMP Pentonville and HMP Wormwood Scrubs would be good examples. In my mind, such institutions have a questionable place in society and routinely do us more harm than good. 

Firstly, most offenders have not committed crimes so heinous as to make them irredeemable human beings, so it seems ridiculous to put them in a place which overwhelmingly discourages redemption. It is a fact that the majority of criminals reoffend within a year of release from prison. But this isn’t because of a rampant tendency towards natural recidivism. In most cases, criminals reoffend because they’ve been boxed away with other offenders, barred from all stimulus material which doesn’t fixate on crime or reinforce their insultingly degraded social status. After months or years in a grubby cell, with your bed next to an open toilet and minimal access to support systems, wouldn’t you want to reoffend?

What’s more, imprisoning multiple criminals together encourages them to learn from one another. Think of it like this: if a number of people are suffering from different illnesses and you shut them all in a room together, they’re going to infect each other sooner or later. As well as making each of them more unwell, you also run the risk of creating a new, collective disease – perhaps incurable. Well, this metaphor applies to prisons. There’s no situation in which a range of prisoners (violent and non-violent) from a range of different backgrounds should be locked up together. Such a thought surely can’t give the public “freedom from fear”. Likewise, rising crime rates show that prisons clearly aren’t the great deterrent some people think they are.

I’m not saying that criminals should simply be free to roam the streets, but prisons are not the best option. For the most violent or mentally unstable offenders, secure homes or hospital treatment would be a more effective way to protect the public. For other criminals, a wider use of community orders could be a good idea.

Nobody benefits from leaving prisoners to languish listlessly in cells, brewing bitterness ahead of release. Community orders, on the other hand, make it possible for criminals to begin requiting their wrongs during the punitive period, while also improving their chances of rehabilitation. At the same time, ordering criminals to do some restitutive work seems like a very conducive way to mitigate the massive drain which prisons have put on our economy.

So rather than spending money to maintain the barely-acceptable standards at your local HMP, we should fund the courts to review each criminal on a case-by-case basis, avoiding incarceration unless absolutely necessary. The out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach of prison is failing, stripping offenders of the potential to do anything besides swapping criminal stories. These unsuitable institutions should therefore be scrapped instanter, with fairer judicial reform and more effective punitive measures to follow accordingly.

Summary of Union Speakers

Darian Murray-Griffiths

Darian Murray-Griffiths noted that many criminals commit crimes due to mental health conditions, abuse, or social disadvantage. He argued that it is inhumane to punish people for these reasons and that a more sociable rehabilitative approach would be preferable to the inhumane conditions seen in prisons.

Professor Ryan Meade

Professor Ryan Meade argued that prisons do not fulfil the aims of punishment, as they create an environment which encourages recidivism while failing to give retribution to the actual victims of crime. He proposed secure homes as an alternative method of protection which wouldn’t strip criminals of social purpose.

Clive Stafford Smith OBE

Human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith argued that there would be no prisons in an ideal society and that it goes against our natural human instincts to lock each other up in poor conditions. Read his full Opinion in conversation with The Blue later this evening…

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji

The Union’s president-elect discussed the terrible conditions in prisons and rising levels of abuse towards vulnerable prisoners. He argued that there are more humane ways of containing criminals, pointing out that the current system allows criminal networks to continue flourishing behind bars.

In favour of the opposition

While it is undeniable that the justice system needs change, the abolition of prisons is a misstep in the process of reform. Prisons are an incredibly necessary part of society and serve to uphold law-abidance and public safety by deterring and containing the most dangerous criminals. The justice system relies heavily on prisons to serve as beacons of consequences that prevent criminal behaviour, and abolition would not only displace and release those who choose such behaviour but also would pose a threat to the very provision of safety within the public sphere.

According to the social contract between governments and those they govern, legal systems work to ensure the protection of their citizens from both internal and external threats. In the case of dangerous criminals, prisons act as an intermediate step to better contain the most dangerous members of society during the rehabilitation process. Re-offense of dangerous crimes poses a significant threat, particularly towards vulnerable communities, and the prison system works to protect these communities from further harm. Furthermore, in the case of repeat offenders and those who are unable to be rehabilitated, the capabilities of prisons to limit rights and freedoms acts as a measure of containment and deterrence.

The process of containment and separation can also aid in disrupting the social networks and destructive patterns of behaviour for those who are at risk for re-offence. Individuals within a civilized society must be expected to abide by the law and not endanger their fellow citizens. The presence of prison systems as a standing form of punishment for those who fail to abide by the law is a necessity to uphold the social contract between individuals.

Early intervention and social support services are valuable solutions to decreasing the population of individuals contained within prison systems and for mitigating the pipelines of socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals into prison systems. Furthermore, the threshold for prison entry must be raised. Those who commit minor transgressions can be provided alternate modes of rehabilitation, rather than being sent to carceral institutions, thereby decreasing the problem of “frequent fliers” within prisons. However, despite the best efforts that can be made, there always remains the potential for a small subset of people to choose actions that can pose dangerous, if not lethal threats to those around them. For these subsects, the knowledge of punishment can serve as a critical preventative measure that promotes the safety of themselves and those around them through deterrence and contains them if they still choose to pursue malignant actions.

While retribution measures for those who commit dangerous crimes must be focused on finding avenues of healing, for the victims of a crime, justice also encompasses the incapacitation and punishment of the offender for their actions. The freedom from fear for the greatest number of people is a fundamental human right that most governing bodies are ardently pursuing, and to uphold this freedom from fear, the justice system must work to contain and restrict the most dangerous offenders of peace and human safety from enjoying the same treatment as their civilian counterparts. While prison systems are not perfect, they pose an avenue of deterrence through the threat of punishment and remain a necessary aspect of society that open opportunities for reform.

Summary of Union Speakers

Spencer Shia

Spencer Shia argued that prisons should be reformed rather than abolished. He believes that they are an inescapably necessary part of civilised society, and although some aspects of infrastructure could be improved, this is not a sufficient reason to abolish them entirely. 

Judge Thomas Griffith

Judge Thomas Griffith argued that the public has a right to “freedom from fear” and prisons are essential in providing this by containing criminals. He also stated that gun laws in America mean that prisons are one of the only realistic forms of deterrence.

Natasha Porter

Natasha Porter spoke about her work improving prison conditions in the United Kingdom. She believes that prisons can facilitate sound rehabilitation programmes and achieve positive outcomes for prisoners.

Leroy Logan MBE

Metropolitan Police Officer Leroy Logan argued that prisons do act as an effective deterrent for many members of society. He believes that we shouldn’t abolish a fundamental part of the country’s infrastructure just because it requires reform and that doing so would risk the displacement of hundreds of prisoners.

Freya Jones

Freya Jones is a Senior News Editor at The Oxford Blue. She enjoys intrigue and is always on the hunt for a good story... When she isn't writing, she studies German at Oriel College.

Nidhi Bhaskar

Nidhi Bhaskar is the Editor in Chief of the Oxford Blue. She is currently reading for an MSc in Medical Anthropology at St. Cross College. An American transplant to the UK, she is passionate about camels, frozen blueberries, and Aldous Huxley novels. Spreadsheets are her love language.