As an incarcerated penal abolitionist, I’m often asked by other prisoners: what do we do about murderers and rapists? When this happens, I acknowledge the fears that people convicted of these crimes might harm others, but I ask the questioner what their real concern is. Invariably and resoundingly, it’s safety—for themselves and their loved ones. They don’t want to be harmed. I ask if they believe the present system of policing and imprisonment make them, their families or their communities safer. Again, the answer is no. It’s at this point that I encourage the questioner to think about what they want, safety, and what they often get, security.
I remind them that as prisoners, we live in a very secure environment. But security doesn’t mean safety. There are barbed-wired fences, concrete walls, locked doors, cameras, gun towers and officers with riot gear, shock shields, tear gas and metal batons. But are we safe? This gets them thinking about what safety is and what it’s not. Being incarcerated, we know firsthand that policing and surveillance might create security, but they don’t create safety.
Once the distinction between safety and security has been made, I ask the questioner about what makes them feel safe. When and where do they feel safe? With whom? Why? Invariably, the answers center on times, places and people with whom they have good relationships. They feel safe in situations where they feel connected to and cared for by others. I ask if the police had anything to do with those situations. I ask if prisons had anything to do with those feelings. The answer is always no. It’s at this point that I ask: if policing and prisons don’t make us feel safe, why do we continue to look to them for solutions when harm occurs? Isn’t it time we try something different?
In conversations like these, I emphasize the point that safety from harm, including homicide and sexual violence, is achieved through right relations. Right relations lead to safe communities.
I remind them that it is broken relations that enable harm. I stress that creating and maintaining safety requires developing and sustaining right relations. Because policing and imprisonment are about caging and exiling people, making the creation, development and maintenance of right relations impossible, they can never effectuate safety. Disappearing people precludes safety.
If we want safe communities, we have to repair relationships that have been broken by harm. Where there is no relationship, we have to create one. In cases of serious harm, the formula doesn’t change. We think it does. The PIC lulls us into dichotomous thinking: worthy and unworthy; deserving and undeserving; valuable and disposable. The PIC wants us to believe there are some people not worthy of right relations. It’s not true. The only way to achieve safety is to repair harm as much as possible and working to ensure it doesn’t occur again. The answer to what we do about murderers and rapists is: practice transformative justice.
I convey to the questioner what Common Justice and the Vera Institute relate in their report “Accounting for Violence.” When harmed parties were asked what they wanted most essentially, they said, “they don’t want the person to hurt them or anyone else ever again.” The report goes on to state:
The fundamental need for safety should not be equated with an appetite for incarceration. Even though incarceration provides some people with a temporary sense of safety from the person whom harmed them or satisfies a desire to see someone punished for wrongdoing—or both—many victims find that incarceration of that person makes them feel less safe. For some, this is because they fear others in the community who may be angry with them for their role in securing the responsible person’s punishment. For others, it is because they know the person who harmed them will eventually come home and they do not believe that he or she will be better for having spent time in prison; to the contrary, they often believe that incarceration will make the person worse. [p. 13]
After sharing what harmed parties want most, I ask the questioner, who has the power to give them what they want most. Is it the police? Is it the prosecutor? Is it the courts? the prison administrators? the parole board? These figures become involved only after a harm has occurred and been reported. So who can give harmed parties what they want- safety? Who can really make sure the harm doesn’t happen again? We, those of us behind the walls, have the power to effectuate safety. We can make sure it doesn’t happen again. This ability lies within all of us, those convicted of homicide and sexual violence included. This work, learning to create strong, healthy relationships and repair broken ones, is the work we need to do right now to enable a better future for ourselves, our loved ones and our communities. This work is how safety is achieved.