From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").
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In the weeks after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, people were asking, ‘What can be done with our criminal justice system?’ The reformers offered their two pence on the matter, about unconscious bias training and revising restraint laws. But those ideas seemed to dissolve in the moral disgust that many felt about Officer Chauvin and his uniform. The abolitionists had a philosophy bold enough to meet the huge public distress. For one of the first times, it was entertained as a serious proposition in the mainstream, with the BBC running a video to explain the idea. But many were left with questions, from the reactionary – ‘So we are just going to let the murders and rapists be set free? What will the streets be like then?!’ – to the more sophisticated – ‘What could we have instead of prisons? Is all crime caused by social injustice or would there still be murder and theft in a fair society? How else could we protect the public if not with jails? Could there be such thing as a non-dehumanising prison?’ Tommie Shelby’s latest book The Idea of Prison Abolition is a philosopher’s cool headed take on these hot political questions.
Shelby hopes that the tools of analytic philosophy can help cut through the sectarian thinking that happens too often when reformists and abolitionists debate one another.
Leading prison abolitionists like Angela Davis and Ruth Gilmore tend to distrust traditional philosophy and the social sciences because of their false neutrality. They suspect that these apparently disinterested forms of enquiry in fact come loaded with biases that serve ruling social groups (the history of philosophy has many examples of white men who have believed that women and non-Europeans cannot reach the same heights as them). Instead Davis and co. use critical theory, genealogical critique, and political autobiography to break free of establishment thinking. As the name suggests, The Idea of Prison Abolition isn’t so much driven by activism as by Shelby’s desire that the debate be had with intellectual integrity, through an investigation of the conceptual frameworks at play on both sides. Whilst Shelby believes there is a lot to appreciate in Angela Davis’ methodology, he’s also cautious about the hagiography that surrounds her that can make doubting her feel verboten. He hopes that the tools of analytic philosophy can help cut through the sectarian thinking that happens too often when reformists and abolitionists debate one another.
When I first picked up The Idea of Prison Abolition, a familiar doubt came into my mind: would reading analytic philosophy be the best use of my time? I first visited my brother in jail when I was six years old. The prison population has more than doubled in the 30 years since. That can make it hard to read an academic making a petty semantic clarification or a distinction about the different types of distinction. The stakes just feel too low. But Shelby is complex here. Whilst he stays faithful to the norms of disinterested analysis, it would be wrong to say that this is just an intellectual exercise for him. He also first visited a prison when he was six years old. He was visiting his mother’s partner, the man who would go on to become his legal father. Whilst Shelby has talked about this elsewhere, it isn’t something he mentions at all in the book. In an age where a personalised trauma plot is used to frame so many publications – from retellings of the Greek myths to cookbooks – Shelby is bold for not following the fashion. It seems he wants his arguments to stand or fall by their logic alone.
We learn early in the book that Shelby is more on the side of reform than abolition. He then picks apart abolitionist arguments and assumptions one by one, including Davis’ use of functional critique. In functional critique, prison is defined according to what it does. The state might claim that the goal of imprisonment is deterrence and rehabilitation. But Davis says that the true, albeit unsaid, function of prison is to uphold and develop new modes of racism and maintain systems of power and inequality. This explains why the government keeps prisons open even though they fail to deter and rehabilitate – because while they fail to perform their expressed function they are achieving their unexpressed goals. If the true function of prison is to uphold racism and we have a commitment to ending racism, then we should also have a commitment to ending prisons too. So goes the abolitionist’s logic.
If the true function of prison is to uphold racism and we have a commitment to ending racism, then we should also have a commitment to ending prisons too. So goes the abolitionist’s logic.
Shelby acknowledges that racial inequality is a consequence of mass incarceration in America, but he says that consequences are not the same as functions. Racist prisons are the outcome of our prisons being situated in a racist society. A non-racist society could have non-racist prisons. This is because he believes there are positive functions to imprisonment, such as deterrence and public protection. He makes an analogy with education. Schools have teaching practices or curriculum content that reinforce racism, but that doesn’t mean we should abolish schools, because they serve too many important positive functions. As we should reform and not abolish the education system, we should do the same with prisons.
Abolitionists believe that whenever we reform the system the house always wins. For example, we have left behind the guillotine for the lethal injection. And while the latter may seem more humane, there are actually far more botched executions today. Rather than throw people in a cell, the judge might tell you to serve your sentence in your own home, wearing an electronic tag. But is e-carceration really a step forward? Consider the effects this practice has on a person’s sense of home as well as its impact on black neighbourhoods where people are disproportionally criminalised compared to white areas. Housing estates effectively become prisons. So, by the abolitionist story, the reformer might make some progress, but at the end of the day the master is still the master and the slave is still the slave. Racism is a homeostatic system. No matter what superficial improvements are made to prisons, they adjust to fit their function, e.g. upholding racism.
Presented with this thesis, Shelby turns Davis’ own logic against her. He says that if the homeostatic nature of racism is bound to corrupt our attempts at reform, then why would it not also corrupt our attempts at abolition? Shelby’s point here is precise, but at this juncture I expect the abolitionist would say that homeostatic systems are such because they are built with the master’s tools. If we instead used the revolutionary’s tools – e.g. radical epistemology, community, transformative justice – we would break out of the homeostatic system. Shelby doesn’t anticipate this response during the chapter on functional critique, but he does say elsewhere in the book that he doesn’t wish to get drawn into the abolitionists’ untestable claims, e.g. the claim that if society were radically different then there would be no need for prisons. He would say that we cannot easily make firm or grounded claims about what the world would be like after the imagined revolution.
Whilst Shelby recognises that the house has often won in the past, that doesn’t mean it will always win in the future. To argue this he uses the abolitionist’s own root philosophy (socialism) as an analogy, pointing out that the most significant manifestations of socialist societies have been oppressive and tyrannical. Yet abolitionists do not take this to mean that socialism is inherently oppressive. They still pursue a socialist vision by being abolitionists. Likewise, just because some manifestations of reform have upheld racism yesterday, doesn’t mean that tomorrow’s reforms are guaranteed to do the same. He thinks we ought to appreciate how extremely difficult it is to reform prisons, but that we should not be so absolute as to think that we have reason to believe that prisons can never be reformed at all.
The abolitionist is calling for such a radical reform of the structure of society that we actually don’t know how humans will behave in that new future.
Furthermore, he says there are a number of dangers to the utopian thinking that drives Davis’ vision. It often puts the moral imagination in competition with social science when they should be working together. It supposes all wrongful aggression is the consequence of social injustice, imperialism, and mental illness. Yet violence existed before imperialism. He notes that ordinary human vices such as greed, jealousy, and wrath have a long history and so we can expect them to have a long future – even in a socially just world. The abolitionist is calling for such a radical reform of the structure of society that we actually don’t know how humans will behave in that new future. He calls for humility when predicting the future, as it is possible that we could build a world in which we think that prisons aren’t necessary only to find that they still are.
In terms of Shelby’s positive position, he finds a lot more areas of agreement with Angela Davis. For example, he rejects retributivism and agrees that many prisons are dehumanising. There are key differences though. Shelby argues that if imprisonment was intrinsically and necessarily dehumanising then it would be always immoral, as the abolitionists say. But he says that if the dehumanization aspect of prison was extrinsic and contingent, then prison wouldn’t always be immoral. As a reformist, he thinks it is conceivable that we could build a non-dehumanising prison that could protect the public from harm. Such a prison would not be immoral. It would in fact be positively ethical if it deterred crime. He believes that rational people fear prison, unless their social circumstances or mental health make that otherwise.
In the very word ‘abolition’ is the evocation of slavery. Many abolitionists argue that the penitentiary movement in America is the continuation of chattel slavery in some political or material sense. If this is true it would make for a compelling pro-abolitionist argument. If imprisonment is necessarily slavery and we have a commitment to abolishing slavery, then we must also abolish prisons. But Shelby says that prison labour is very different to slave labour when used as a deterrent against crime or as a punishment for something like murder. Work is part of slavery and part of prison, but that doesn’t make them the same thing. Similarly, for Marx, labour-saving technologies and efficient ways of organising work that have been developed under capitalism will be of use in the communist utopia – and yet the communist society is not the same as the capitalist one. To claim it was would be to commit the genealogical fallacy.
Shelby says that work could in fact be a useful way for prisoners to repay their debt to society. By this he doesn’t mean prisoners doing surplus labour, like making goods for high street shops. Instead he means the necessary labour that helps to run the prison. Indeed, work can be a route to skills, confidence, and empowerment, but here Shelby’s assertion would benefit from being more grounded in the complex psychological dynamics that occur when the jailer tells the inmate to better himself. My mind went to Alan Sillitoe’s short story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” in which the governor demands that an especially athletic inmate, Colin, races against the local private school for a sports day. On race day Colin is miles ahead, but before crossing the finishing line stops and stares at the governor as he lets the others racers pass him. Losing was how Colin won. The story is a powerful illustration of the perverse methods needed to reclaim autonomy whilst living under an authoritarian regime.
Shelby’s case for prison labour as positive may have been stronger if he had grounded it in concrete stories like this, rather than relying so much on top-down analysis. Towards the end of the book he anticipates that such a criticism might come his way. He is used to being described as an ideal theorist. His hypothesising about how it is logically possible to reform prisons abstracts away from the complex lived reality of prison. In response, Shelby rejects the belief that thinkers must choose between either high theorizing or gritty experience when making their arguments. He says that even Marx did both in outlining what capitalism was and his vision for how to bring it down.
Shelby rejects the belief that thinkers must choose between either high theorizing or gritty experience when making their arguments.
Davis wants to build a future in which prisons have become obsolete. By contrast, Shelby’s priority is to abolish the racial and economic inequality that means that some groups are both more criminalised and in more criminogenic conditions than others. Nevertheless, Shelby believes that as a reformer he can actively support Davis’ four alternatives to imprisonment:
1. Take care of untreated mental illness.
2. Create access to affordable treatment for drug addiction and substance abuse.
3. Make more efforts towards rehabilitation of people who commit harm.
4. Employ restorative justice, alternative methods of accountability, and repair for harm done to victims.
So despite their differences, Davis and Shelby still share a significant amount of moral ground.
As I mentioned above, I first visited family in prison when I was young. The most significant things I learned from that didn’t happen during the visits but in the weeks and months that followed. I saw that most people either thought that prisons were good or they didn’t really think about them at all. It is only since going to university that I have discovered that reformers and abolitionists exist. When I see them arguing with one another, I’m reminded of Monty Pyhton’s The Life of Brian, in which The Judean People’s Front have a feud with The People’s Front of Judea. Both are attempting to resist the tyranny of the Romans, yet the narcissism of small differences means they put more energy into fighting each other than they do fighting their oppressors. Both sides score points against one another, but when the sun goes down the Romans still run the city – the house always wins. Before we split too many hairs about the differences between reformist and abolitionist philosophies, we should look outside to notice how most people are either retributivists or cheerfully indifferent to prisons and the harms they perpetrate. The Idea of Prison Abolition makes a good intellectual case against abolitionism, but we must remember that we will need all the moral energy we can get if we are to defeat the Romans.
The Idea of Prison Abolition by Tommie Shelby is published by Princeton University Press.
Andy West is the author of The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family and Philosophy (Picador, 2022). He has written for The Guardian, Aeon, 3AM Magazine, Huck, The Big Issue, Open Democracy, The Lead, and The Times Education Supplement. He is philosopher in residence at HMP Brixton. Twitter: @AndyWPhilosophy
From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").
We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.