Zusatzmaterial zum Schwerpunkt 1/2008 des Kriminologischen Journals
Bonus material for the issue 1/2008
In the course of
producing a special issue of this journal on the topic of prisons, we engaged a number of well-known
abolitionists of the first and second generation in a discussion on where
abolitionism stands today.
An essence of the
outcome is published in the above Journal. The total communication process is
documented here, since it includes many more aspects for which there is not enough
room within the journal.
Johannes Feest & Bettina Paul
Have a Future?
Documentation of an Email Exchange
Feest/Bettina Paul (29.08.2007)
Does abolitionism have a future?
We are about to edit a special issue
of the journal “Kriminologisches Journal” on the topic “Ist das Gefängnis noch
zu retten? Oder:
Gefängnisse- wie lange noch?” ("Is there a future for prisons?"). And we
have already found seven German authors to deal with these questions in a
This prompts us to also ask what
became of abolitionism as a movement and whether it is still valid as a
theoretical and/or strategic approach. Your opinion, as an early and/or
current exponent of prison abolition,
would be of great interest.
We would be
delighted, if we could start a little exchange of views, opionions, commentaries between you and your
colleagues to be put together and published within a short reach. The idea is to gather fresh ideas and
impulses to stimulate the abolitionist debate within todays
So please feel
free to express whatever comes to your mind with respect to the issue, as
we will pass it all back to you before it is being published. We will
publish the results in German, but we plan to quote you in whatever language
To start the
discussion, please answer directly to all addresses. Thanks and kind regards:
Comments by René van Swaaningen (30.08.2007)
Bettina and Johannes asked us to mail our comments to everybody addressed, I
think it is more useful to write in English here. I have a number of answers to
the question ‘what became of abolitionism as a movement and whether
it is still valid as a theoretical and/or strategic approach’.
First, I like to stress that abolitionism’s positive, reconstructive
message has been taken up by various other
perspectives. I see very clear traces of abolitionist thought in ‘restorative
justice’ (Braithwaite, etc.), peacemaking criminology (Pepinsky, etc.), the
‘social harm’ approach (Hillyard, etc.), constitutive criminology (Henry &
The ‘penal core’ of abolitionism has got under serious pressure in the
‘punitive turn’ in many Western countries, notably in the Netherlands; the
country with the largest increase in imprisonment in the whole world – albeit
we started at a very low level. In a climate where a punitive populism rules
traditional penal abolitionism is easily discarded as loony idealism. So, many
(previous) abolitionists have changed their focus a bit, by first arguing
against punitiveness as such. The literature on ‘the new punitiveness’ can be
seen as a reformulation of abolitionism’s negative critique.
As an academic perspective abolitionism was in a way ‘not good enough’:
it was often theoretically sloppy, there was little sound empirical research
done in the tradition and the moralistic undertone was often too dominant. At
least my students are no longer used
to normative, prescriptive discourse and even get irritated when ‘science’ is
mixed up with moralism; particularly Left
wing moralism. We can still get the abolitionist message across amongst the
present generation students, I think, but we have to use another tone than 25
years ago: less ‘standpoint criminology’, more practical, empirical arguments,
more connection with concrete policy debates and with different criminological
Abolitionism’s role as a social movement is again a different – although
not unrelated – story. We can observe the demise of many typical Leftish social movements – oriented at broad social
changes - since the mid 1980s. The new social movements are either oriented at
global themes – environment, bio-industry, anti-globalism, peace, etc. – or at
narrower themes, closer to ‘home’ – often consumption-related. The trick is, I
think, to introduce, or to fit, the penal question into the agenda of the new
These are, in a nutshell, my observations. Looking forward to seeing the
With the very best wishes,
3. Comments by Heinz Steinert (30.08. 2007)
abolition movement of the 1960/70s was a major historical success: During those
years the conviction was hegemonic that locking people up could only be
justified a/ as an „ultima ratio“ concession to helplessness and b/ on
condition that an environment could be provided inside the closed institution
that was up to the standards of contemporary civilization and that every effort
was expended to prepare the person for a more successful life afterwards. This
also had a strongly technocratic side: Prison is not effective and even to the
contrary and following folk-wisdom is the „university of crime“.
of such reasoning were not unambiguous: The resocialization ideal led to the
abolition of short prison sentences, often to be replaced by longer ones (as
Karl Schumann showed for juvenile justice). But it also did abolish closed
welfare institutions. And it paved the way for new mediation-type reactions
first in juvenile law, generalized from there. Not least it produced some reluctance
to incarcerate at all. Societies and states learned that conflicts and
difficulties can be handled by other means than authoritarian decision and
strict abolition perspective this may not look like much but during those years
the combined and summary effect was that hundreds of years of prison were
saved. It’s notoriously hard to assign historical causation, but we were part
of that effect and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
changed in the 1980s, but that doesn’t take away the prior success.
retrospect we know better than we did then that this type of „inclusionary“
reasoning was dependent on a Fordist mode of production and, more specifically,
on a favourable labour-market situation, i.e. high demand for labour. (Arno
Pilgram and I have co-authored a series of papers proposing this interpretation
as far back as 1975.) It was a historically unique situation – capital doesn’t
usually let this happen, and did answer first by importing foreign labour then
by exporting capital to wherever cheap labour can be found (an important part
of what came to be called „globalization“). Little surprise that this
transition to a new variant of capitalism – which we first knew no better than
to call „post-Fordism“ and for which the term „neo-liberalism“ seems to be
accepted today – changed the Fordist „inclusionary“ strategy to an
„exclusionary“ one. And this was not specific for the area of punishment, but
changed the whole of welfare thinking inside an even wider frame of a style of
politics for which Stuart Hall proposed the name „authoritarian populism“.
Do we need
to feel desperate and ashamed that we couldn’t stop such an encompassing change
using the tiny lever of critical thinking in the not very central area of
punishment that uses its „sensibility for what is possible“ (Möglichkeitssinn)?
At least we did not – as a lot of criminology did – provide justifications for
the new exclusionary regime. At least we insisted that there is no necessity
that demands more prisons and more incarceration. At least we can keep
interesting questions open, like for instance:
How can a
democratic state justify punishment, i.e. (in Nils Christie’s apt formulation)
the infliction of pain on its citizens?
against colleagues who found this a „dramatization“ we must insist that prison
is literally pain, often even torture, even under „normal“ conditions in
Germany and Austria, even more so in poorer and/or less controlled systems all
over the world, beginning in the USA and in Russia.)
needs to be expanded to questions of „pain infliction“, discrimination, in
general: damage done by the state.
imprisonment be reconciled with human rights?
Europe imprisonment and punishment is concentrated on „foreigners“, what is it
that makes the status of „foreigner“ so open to infringement of rights and fair
needs to be expanded to questions of citizenship and human rights in war and
Has one of
the technocratic arguments against imprisonment been refuted? If not, how come
we can – in a time of quality management and evaluation – afford such a
monstrous error? Is it because the fantasy is we can get rid of certain people
for good (by prison or by transportation)? Do societies and states foster eliminatory
fantasies again? If so, do we understand why there are no other ideas for
possible solutions of the problems brought about by the present mode of
production? Can we provide some?
needs to be expanded to questions of how this mode of production works.
Comments by Thomas (aka Herman) Bianchi (31.08.2007)
During the first few decades after the 2nd
world war, the Netherlands had the reputation of having the lowest number of
imprisoned persons of the whole western world. The story went around that this had been caused by the after all not
unlucky fact that many powerful officials had been imprisoned themselves during
the war and knew what it means to be locked up. A wholesome narrative, whether
true or not. It changed rapidly after
1980, like everywhere else. Political
leaders and legal advisers then thought it necessary to join into world numbers
and quite many new prisons were built. Although criminologists continued to describe alternatives, like
restorative law, sanctuaries, the increase of imprisonment went on and on and
punitive reactions got stronger and stronger and press and media reproduction
of criminality more and more sensational.
What about the future of abolitionism? During
the period of 1960-1980, futurology had been a popular area of studies and
investigation. We were all informed about cultural waves: small waves of 15
years, larger of 30 years and impressive culture changes every 60 years. Look:
1520 the religious reformation and first attempts to come to general penal
legislation, 1580 religious wars, 1640 scientific and rationalist revolution
and more penal philosophy, 1700 the
enlightenment and more philosophical support for punishment, 1789 industrial and other
revolutions and complete disappearance restorative justice; 1848 more democracy and more penal
legislation, and rehabilitation attempts, 1900 modern technology and more massive prisons, 1960: cultural revolutions
and abolitionism, 2020: first results and return of abolitionism, 2080
abolitionism all over. Futurology is a
nice game. It is possible that around 2020 authorities come to their senses and
will make attempts to introduce abolitionist perspectives. This will most certainly be the case in
2080. So progressive criminologist:
keep the home fires burning.
5. Comments by
Marie André Bertrand (01.09.2007)
Abolitionism is an ideal and a program that seek to put a stop to
imprisonment, to even empty prisons, but it can also mean the will to replace
the criminal justice system by civil
For us, Canadians, abolitionism was and still
is a great idea and a necessary utopia; it is
deeply seeded. Quebec students, professors and professionals in
criminology have learned of its
desirability since the late 1970s.
Louk Hulsman’s Peines perdues,
(1984) has been compulsory reading for
thousands of undergraduates, graduates, researchers and teachers, in the
“ history of criminology”,
“penology” or “social reaction to crime” classes. Louk himself has spent
two to four weeks every other year from the late 1970s to the early 1990s in
Canada, between the Montreal School and the Ottawa Department of Criminology,
developing his theses and describing alternative policies. In English Canada, Nils Christie played a similar role
with a somewhat different content and regularity, at the Toronto Center of
Criminology, Osgoode Hall Faculty of
Law, and less regularly at Simon Fraser Department of Criminology, or
UBC Faculty of Law. Nils has also been the star of more than one congress of
the Canadian Association of Criminology and Criminal Justice in the last 30
Many Canadian academics and professionals have
nourished the utopia and worked at the transformation of penal institutions,
fully conscious that reform was not abolition, it may even work to the
opposite, but keeping the ideal in mind. Their good will was seconded at times
by ministers and prison commissioners; there were other favourable
‘circumstances’. First, the creation of a Strategic Penal Committee in 1980,
whose reports came out at the time the Canadian Constitution was amended and
the Canadian Charter of rights adopted, “sealing” the prisoners’ rights. A second factor had nothing to do with
government policies but everything to do with demographics: the ‘criminal age
cohort (18-30)’ started to decrease in the late 1980s rendering possible the
closing of a couple of short terms
prisons. Thirdly, pragmatism and the “economics” prevailed in the late 1980s,
“any thing but” (prison) became the rule, - fines, community surveillance with
or without bracelet, reparation, a perspective that we asked our Australian friends to teach us. Last but not least, the Criminal code was
amended to include remission (sursis) and a set of ‘principles for the determination of sentences’ in conformity
with the Charter.
Yet in the last five or six years, things have
not been that good. It is not immigrants as in some European countries that are
overrepresented in the prison population but Aboriginals whocount for 17% of
the prisoners while representing
2,5% of the Canadian population. First nation women are even more
overrepresented than men. And since
9/11, suspected terrorists are detained as prisoners but without rights …
- The idea and the dream are there. The policy is rather penal minimalism,
pragmatism and human rightism.
Further Comment from Heinz Steinert (01.09.2007)
(in reaction to comments that the
original claims of abolitionism were “seriously delusional”)
abolitionism have a past?
historical accounts I have read I have gathered the notion that there was a
movement for some specific treatment of juvenile offenders starting around 1900
and to particularly keep them out of merely punitive regimes and get them into
educational ones. It seems to me we still have a separate system of juvenile
justice that works pretty much along those lines. Or am I deluded in this?
remember a post-WWII movement to abolish the death penalty in western Europe.
My impression is it was quite successful there (not so in other parts of the
world, including North Korea, Iran and the USA). Am I deluded in this?
remember criminal law reforms in the 1960/70s that had the intention (it can be
debated how well this intention was realized) to reduce prison sentences
accompanied by prison reforms that aimed at making them a/ more
„rehabilitative“ and b/ conform to standards of civilized living and human
rights. Is this a delusion?
4/ I seem
to remember this was embedded in social initiatives to reduce imprisonment by
e.g. the Howard Society or the Religious Society of Friends, aka Quakers, and
many smaller ones with a shorter history. Some, like the prisoners’ movements
in Skandinavia, seem to have faded out. (I guess Thomas will tell us more about
them.) But many others, it seems to me, are still around. Am I deluded in this?
5/ I have a
memory that, starting in the 1960s, „mediation“ (in all kinds of variants) was
developed, debated and in the end taken up into law in practically all western
countries. Again, this had at least the intention of reducing prison sentences.
There is enough evidence that it did in fact do so (at least for a time). Is
this a delusion?
6/ I also
seem to remember that our Vienna Institute and even I personally had some part
in making lawyers and law-makers aware of such ideas and in making them
acceptable. I still understand this as a contribution to the historical
movement (even though, as I said in my first paper, it doesn’t make much sense
to try to isolate historical „causes“). I also remember that this was derived
from some theorizing that tried to re-conceptualize the legal category of
„crime“ in sociological terms like „damage“, „conflict“, „moral outrage“,
„scandal“ or „accusation“ and to derive forms of possible resolution from such
re-definitions. Such attempts to think through other possibilities („Denken als
Probehandeln“ and the cultivation of a „Möglichkeitssinn“), I always thought,
is the modest but valid core of abolitionism (as well as all reflexive social
science) as an intellectual undertaking. Am I deluded in any of this?
7/ As to
„horrendously offensive to the suffering and plight of the victims of any form
of slavery to whom abolitionism was originally applied”: I take it from
research in the USA that imprisonment and the death penalty have been and still
are massively related to race there. Is it really „offensive“ to criticize the
truly horrendous development of imprisonment that was started politically (and
supported by changes in legal and criminological thinking) in the 1980s and its
racist bias (in Europe against „foreigners“)?
by the way: the term „abolitionism“ was not invented by intellectuals or criminologists,
but by well-meaning bourgeois, early on mostly lady activists – against
slavery, against state regulation of prostitution, against the death penalty,
against life-sentences, against imprisonment, and probably a lot of other
causes that I’m not aware of. The connection is historical: imprisonment was
identified as „Strafknechtschaft“ – „punitive slavery“ –, probably derived from
„Schuldknechtschaft“ – „debt slavery“ –, by early 20th c. theorists, and that’s
not such an uninteresting line of conceptualizing.)
„abolitionist movement“, then, is, in its application to punishment, a
historical line of development, certainly in Europe and perhaps most pronounced
in Skandinavia, consisting of a number of initiatives and „waves“ that can be
summarized under this name. As social scientists who work in the field we were
and are part of it one way or the other, with it or against it and with the
hard-to-pin-down effects of all scholarly and intellectual activity on
movement has been stopped and reversed in and by the shift to a neoliberal mode
of production and its political form of „authoritarian populism“ in the 1980s.
The question to discuss in this situation is the role of the intellectual
spin-off of that earlier movement: How do we react to a changed reality – what
are the practical, what the intellectual adaptations that are necessary – or is
it maybe our intellectual job not to
adapt too easily and insist on those criticisms of a form of domination that are
still valid, go on with research into other forms of resolving problems, even
if the powers that be will not listen? (Do we give them the right to determine
our research agenda?)
7. Further Comment from Thomas Bianchi
A) the abolition of prisons will come, as sure and
certain as the day follows the night, and as certain as the abolition of
slavery followed at a Godgiven time.
B) while awaiting the total abolition, progressive
criminologists should spend all their time not in struggle against the
stupidities of the prison system but in describing and and working out
effectfull alternatives of crime control.
8. A first attempt at summing up by Johannes Feest
Abolitionism broadly conceived can be seen as an effort to abolish patently
inhuman social institutions (slavery, capital punishment, prisons etc.). The term encompasses social movements
dedicated to such causes as well as theories (of the “abolishability” of such
institution), which underlie such movements.
We are here primarily concerned with prison abolition. Prison abolitionism is
usually distinguished from (but also bears some resemblance to) prison
reductionism, penal minimalism etc.
of prison abolition
Some theories of prison abolition start from the unethical, character of
punishment and suggest alternative ways of dealing with conflicts (Herman
Bianchi). Others focus on deficiencies of the purportedly rational justifications
of punishment (Thomas Mathiesen: “prison logic”). Still others start with deconstructing the concepts of “crime”
and “criminal” (Nils Christie, Louk Hulsman, Heinz Steinert).
Most abolitionists have some preferred alternatives to state organized punishment:
conflict solution and reconciliation (Bianchi), replacing criminal by civil
procedure (Hulsman), creating social conditions for pain reduction (Christie).
But some insist that only the abolition of institutions before creating
alternatives (“negative reforms”) can achieve the desired result (Mathiesen).
With respect to prison abolition mainly the famous Scandinavian movements
Krim/Krom/Krum come to mind. What happened to them?
On an international level, the International Conference for Prison Abolition
(ICOPA) is organizing conferences (since 1982) every few years. It is
financially supported by the International Fund for a Prisonless Society.
Related movements should be mentioned: the successful movement to abolish closed
psychiatric institutions in Italy (connected with the names of Franco and
Memorable abolitionist events:
- the closing of juvenile institutions in Massachussetts
- on a much scmaller basis: the closing of the only short-sharp-shock
institution (Jugendarrest-Anstalt) in Bremen
- as a related event: the abolition of closed juvenile care institutions
(Fürsorgeerziehungsheime) in Hamburg
To what extent was theoretical abolitionism the basis (handlungsleitende
Theorie) of instances of prison abolition? Surely, some of the smaller
abolitionist projects (Hamburg, Bremen) were directly influenced by the Oslo
school. But: was Jerry G. Miller in Massachussetts influenced by Thomas
On the other hand: maybe some remarkable penal reforms had nothing to do with
theoretical abolitionism (Haferkamp’s “realer Abolitionismus” = real existing
of prison-bashing in the 1970ies, we find today a veritable renaissance of
prison building and prison use. Was abolitionism only a short-lived error? Are prisons “here to stay”? And what does
the new punitivity mean for abolitionism?
some answers from our survey:
- While the short term situation is rather depressing, hope may be gained
by looking at the long waves (Bianchi)
idea and the dream are still alive, albeit under different names and guises
- “The literature on ‘the new punitiveness’ can be
seen as a reformulation of abolitionism’s negative critique” (van Swaaningen)
prison abolitionism as a social movement only lost touch and the penal question
needs to be re-connected to newer social movements? (van Swaaningen)
- Rather than abolishing it, abolitionism needs to be expanded: to
questions of „pain infliction“, discrimination, in general: damage done by the
state. It needs to be expanded to
questions of citizenship and human rights in war and peace. It even needs to be
expanded to questions of how the present mode of production works (Steinert).
9. Comments from
Nils Christie (04.09.2007 from Buenos Aires, where he attends a
conference on abolitionism, with Hulsman and Zaffaroni)
Reflections on abolitionism
never understood if I am a purified abolitionist, - or not. And I am not highly
interested in knowing. Abolitionism is to me a cluster of ideas I like. And
persons I like, much because they have these ideas. Now and then I disagree, -
think this goes too far. But these disagreements are as nothing compared to the
agreement has first and foremost to do with creating limits to pain. In my
simple world-view, an important goal in life is to attempt to reduce human
suffering, particularly suffering that is intended as suffering. I suppose that
relatively few among us would argue for the opposite principle; let us to the
best of our ability increase the level of suffering in society.
major institutions for the delivery of pain in our societies. They stand
therefore as a major target for abolitionistic activities.
I hear some
say it has not worked. While abolitionists talk or organize protests, the
prison population bulge. Try then to imagine how the situation had been if
abolitionists had not been there. Also: Should one stop fighting for important
values because so much in society work against these ideas. Abolish what
Gandhi, Jesus and Mandela stood and stand for, because it does not work?
are limits to my abolitionistic urge. Some people might be absolutely
impossible to prevent from burning Mosques or Synagogues or Churches, of from
beating their wives or parents. If we have tried all, from conversation to
mediation, we might as a last resort be forced to use physical restrictions. In
some of these cases, I think imprisonment gives better protection to the
wrongdoer than euphemistic terms like treatment or cure. If we overload the
system of mediation, we risk converting boards of mediation to penal courts in
So, may be
I am no abolitionist, only a minimalist in cooperation with all those others
who share the general goal of reducing intended delivery of pain in society.
Comments from Thomas Bianchi (05.09.2007)
Once more a few remarks. One gets the impression that many abolitionists to day are a bit disappointed about abolitional developments. The point is that too few have really come forwards with real alternatives to serious crimes. It sometimes reminds me of the abolition of slavery. Because the US government in 1865 did not or hardly come forward with the question what to offer to the liberated slaves, the racial suppression has lasted another century. If abolitionists offer no alternative to the question of crimes other than locking up the actors, they will fall into the same trap. It is a pity that too few made study of legal solutions in former historical periods of our culture or social anthropological studies of how other cultures handled the problem. Solutions like sanctuaries e.g. That's why it will take such a long time to realize fundamental change.
Herman Thomas Bianchi
from Johannes Feest to Thomas Bianchi (05.09.2007)
thank you again for sharing your thoughts with us. And for
reminding us that prisons are not the only solution for "serious
crimes". And to remind us of the sanctuary idea. I have just browsed in
your book (Gerechtigheid als vrijplaats, in the German version
"Alternativen zur Strafjustiz"). And I saw that you considered it
most difficult to convince people that "terrorists"
could be allowed to enter sanctuaries. But today it seems almost
as difficult to argue that a child molestor, especially a pedophile killer
should be allowed to go to a sanctuary rather than to a prison. By
the way: do you conceive of therapeutic sanctuaries?
I will now send your thoughts, together with these questions around
to the other participants in this discussion.
Kind regards: Johannes
12. Mail from Thomas Bianchi to Johannes Feest
You are right. But I have always argued that people who cause an
immediate danger to other people should be incarcerated. The idea of sanctuaries is to give actors AND victims with therapeutic help an opportunity to come to terms with one another; with good help it can be wholesom to both
actors and victims. That is the best way to help BOTH actors and victims. But these very dangerous criminals constitute not more than 8 or 9 % of the present prison population. And sancturies have been a substantial part of the legal system from the most ancient times until 1800 (some countries 1500 others 1800).
I have never imagined that at my 83 years of age I would again be somewhat enthousiactic about these topics.
(my present name is Thomas, I changed my first name when I was 65,
for Herman means warrior, "man in the army" in old germanic. And I am
such a peaceful person. When I retired at 65, I prayed the Dear Lord in Heaven to grant me the rest of my life a more peaceful existence).
Dear Johannes: one more remark. When I retired a text of Schiller came to my mind: "Gegen die Dummheit kampfen sogar die Gotter vergeblich". Unser
Strafrecht ist dumm.
Comments from Thomas Mathiesen (07.09.2007)
THE ABOLITIONIST STANCE
with Heinz Steinert that some very important abolitionist gains were made in
the 1960s and 1970s. This was indeed a period, as he puts it, of “major
historical success”. Partial abolitions of systems were carried out (in Norway,
the youth prison system, the forced labour system, causing a major drop in
incarceration in Norway). In several countries the number of inmates fell and
remained lower than earlier for quite some time. Secondly, I agree with Heinz
that we don’t need to feel desperate or
ashamed that we could not stop the strong wave towards increased punitive
populism, media panics and rising prison figures, and their societal and
political underpinnings, which were increasingly characteristic of the 1980s,
1990s and later. As he says, those of us who belong to the (admittedly vaguely
defined) “abolitionist movement” have at least not provided justifications for
“the new exclusionary regime”.
also more to be said. What does it mean to be an “abolitionist”? Why do I call
myself an “abolitionist”? Max Weber described the concept of the “ideal type”
by making clear what an ideal type is not. It is not an average, it is not an
hypothesis, and so on. So with “abolitionism”. An abolitionist, whether a
scientist, a teacher or a person practising his/her trade, is not a person who
is preoccupied with what I would call system justisfication. He/she is not a
person who is preoccupied with refining the existing.
But it is
possible also to define abolitionism is positive terms; not only in terms of
what it is not, but also in terms of what it is:
is a stance (Position). It is the attitude (Haltung) of saying “no”. This does
not mean that the “no” will be answered affirmatively in practice. A “no” to
prisons will not occur in our time. But as a stance it is viable and important. When I wrote The Politics of Abolition in 1974
(translated into German as Ûnderwindet
die Mauern in 1978), I was certainly preoccupied with strategies of
achieving concrete abolitions. But I was also preoccupied with fostering and
developing an abolitionist stance, a constant and deeply critical attitude to
prisons and penal systems as human (and inhumane) solutions.
possible to get closer to the core of this stance. It is a stance which goes
beyond the parameters or conditions of existing systems. Systems such as the
prison or the penal system are complex functionally interrelated systems.
Therefore, if you criticize one aspect of, say, the prison system, you are
immediately confronted with the “necessity” of that aspect. If you criticize
the security regime, you are immediately confronted by the necessity of
maintaining the regime in view of, say, public opinion. When something is said
to be “necessary”, you should beware:
Functionally interrelated systems are not inherently conservative, but
grow conservative by our succumbing to all of the parameters of the system. The
succumbing to the parameters is close the non-abolitionist stance. The
abolitionist stance goes beyond (some of) the parameters. For example, it says
“sorry, but public opinion is not my concern”, or perhaps better, “public
opinion can be changed, or contains other and quite different components” (more
about this below).
It is easy
to succumb to all of the parameters. Many forces work in this direction: Social
pressures at the work place (you have to cooperate with people, share secrets
with them, strike very informal, almost unnoticeable bargains with them, all of
which compromise you); hierarchical disciplinary pressures at the work place
(staying in line); simply fatigue from everyday chores. Imperceptibly your
stance is altered into something more or less different from saying “no” to
given arrangements. To be sure, we cannot, and perhaps should not, have an
abolitionist stance to everything in the world. But we should have an
abolitionist stance to things highly negative and vital politically speaking in
our professional lives, and perhaps in our lives as citizens.
abolitionism as a stance a movement? There are probably variations nationally
and internationally. In my country, Norway, I see at least rudiments of such a
movement, indeed despite the dark 1990s and early 2000s. There is wide concern
and worry in the professions and among segments of the population about “the
new exclusionary regime”, to use Steinert’s apt term. There is also, more
specifically, concern and worry about the use of prisons, perhaps especially
against younger delinquents. But the concern and worry, the abolitionist
stance, is not so apparent on the surface. The surface is covered by
frightening media stories about terrifying murders and rapes, and about people
being terrified by the stories. But under the surface layer there are more
nuances. We have recent and solid empirical grounds for saying that it is a
matter of distance and closeness. The closer you come to those who have
committed unwanted acts, the more nuanced you become. A large scale Danish
study, headed by the Danish criminologist Flemming Balvig, recently documented
this in detail (www.advokatsamfundet.dk,
unfortunately so far only in Danish). Though very important, this can probably
not be taken as a full scale proof of the existence of an abolitionist stance.
More important is perhaps the concern you sense at large meetings with a
critical focus, outside the realm of television. Through the years, and also
during the 2000s, I have attended or organized a very large number of open
meetings on criminal and social policy. The organization KROM still exists,
though the parallel Swedish organization vanished many years ago (to answer a
question raised by Johannes Feest – the disappearance of the Swedish
organization raises interesting sociological questions). KROM has organized
some of the meetings: During its 40 years existence, it has i.a. organized 38
large three day conferences on penal policy. They are held in a particular
mountain resort, giving historical continuity and a sense of belonging. Many
generations of professionals and others have been covered by these conferences
- inmates, ex-inmates, social workers,
lawyers, teachers, medical personnel,
prison officers, people from the ministries and what have you. As
opposed to most meetings of this kind, the conferences are cross-sectional,
covering a wide variety of trades. Those who disagree with us are also there:
In the 1960s and 70s, the Prison Department avoided us. Now they feel forced to
come. Debates are very heated. Networks are created and maintained.
conferences have always drawn a much larger crowd than first expected. And not
only at these conferences in Norway. This gives ground for optimism. A one-day
public meeting in Stockholm a few years ago on prisons is an example. The
organizers expected an audience of 100. 400 came, and the meeting was a
success. And the crowd in fact said “no!” to some important elements in the
development of Swedish prisons. An abolitionist stance surfaced.
perhaps say that meetings of this sort are only dramatized and executed by
fossiles from the 1960s. I think not –
there are too many young people about. An important sense of community
sometimes appears. Some people have said to me, “I thought I was alone with my
thoughts. But here are many others!” Isn’t this a sign of a movement?
want to idealize this. There are certainly obstacles. One obstacle, again, is
television, instigating and “sucking up” popular meetings, staging their own
“debates” as entertainment events. But we should not think of television and
other media as constituting the only public space. Public space is a much more complex phenomenon – there are many
alternative public spaces outside the realm of the mass media. The mass media,
incidentally, have their “mass” character as their Achilles’ heel, unorganized
and individualized as they are. Another obstacle is the everyday grind – you
grow up, you get married, you get children, you get divorced, you have to go to
work to earn a living and you dump down exhausted in front of the TV at the end
of the day. But the events I just mentioned, at least some of them, also create
vigour and life, also at least some surplus of energy. A third obstacle is the
neo-liberalism and market orientation of our time. But isn’t that in part what
we are struggling against?
word, it is not impossible to nurture an abolitionist stance, a stance of
saying no! And in the long run it makes a difference. It may contribute to turning points. The turning points of the
past - the abolition of slavery, the
abolition of the death penalty at least in some places, the abolition of the
youth prisons in Massachusetts, the abolition of forced labour, or what have
you - should be scrutinized as examples for the future. What fostered them,
what caused some of them to return under a different mantle? An abolitionist
stance of saying no! was certainly a part of their creation. It may be so
Comments by Sebastian Scheerer (09.09.2007)
first of all, I would like to thank Johannes and Bettina for their
initiative. It was a beautiful and very productive idea to start
this discussion. It's exactly what had been missing the last couple
of years or even decades, respectively.
I think a lot has been said already, and I only want to comment on two
questions: (1) can abolitionism deservedly claim victory in the cases
mentioned by Heinz Steinert and Thomas Mathiesen? (2) What can/should
university teachers do in relation to prison abolition?
(1) One important detail is that intricate question of causality. Does
abolitionism have the right to claim as its own victories events like the
abolition of workhouses, the closing of certain penal and mental
institutions and all (or any of) the other examples given by Heinz
Steinert and Thomas Mathiesen? It seems that - at least outside the
abolitionistic camp - some people have grave doubts about this. I
thank Johannes Feest for bringing the point up.
Sometimes things happen and you like the events because they seem to
realize some of your dreams and values, but that does not always mean they
happended because of your dreams, values, or speeches.
For instance, the institution of the "workhouse" (Arbeitshaus)
has been deleted from some countries' catalogue of penal sanctions, but only
sometimes there had been groups of people from the grass-roots and from the
universities who connected that demand with larger political and theoretical
ambitions. But maybe most of these innovations were reforms
that had been brought about by the dynamics of the prison system/the criminal
justice system itself and not by outside abolitionists.
I remember personally the innovative methadone treatment approach for
heroin users that had been introduced in Germany by the mid- and late 1980s.
Preceded by and accompanied by loud drug policy reform minded criminologists
(including myself), but certainly not because of their (our) clamour.
In the case of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, on the
other hand, it was a dozen (sic!) determined men who proved that moral
determination could overpower even the most "vital" economic
"necessities" embodied in the triangular (slave) trade of the
18th century. After only little more than a lifetime, an institution that
had seemed absolutely natural and unchangeable had been outlawed, stigmatized,
and soon effectively brought to an end.
It is good to have Heinz Steinert's list of (possible) successes of
the abolitionist movement. But was there a movement, really? And were these
events attributable to the abolitionist movement (if there was one)?
To me, these questions have been brought up - and I am thankful for this - but
they have not been answered in a conclusive, well-substantiated manner.
me, this is a research question: "Abolitionism and negative
reforms in the late 20th century: some problems of
causality". The burden of proof, I am afraid, should be ours. If we
are afraid or unwilling to shoulder this burden we will (continue to) attract
reproaches of wishful thinking and even self-delusion.
(2) René van
Swaaningen's experience is also mine: students today do not want to be taught
opinions of the 1960s and 1970s, but prefer evidence-based arguments and honest
discussions. And rightly so. The job of a teacher is not to teach opinions
and not even a general stance of saying no! - In the end, the students have to
make their own value judgements, and it is perfectly conceivable that their
values teach them to opt in favour of the prison system. All we can do is
(a) to show how one can think differently about the prison system, and how
different values would suggest a different praxis, and (b) challenge the
naturalistic view that everything that exists in society is there because it
must be there. This means we can justly refuse to take this kind of burden
of proof on our shoulders. It is the system that has to legitimize the
existence of punitive institutions and indeed of the very institution of the
penal law and punishment - it is not us who have to prove that one could also
do without it. Especially in the legal education, this kind of
not-taking-the-criminal -justice-system-for-granted would spark a revolution.
Academic abolitionism, as Louk Hulsman calls it, is a stance of being
deeply sceptical about the self-legitimation of the criminal justice system,
and especially concerning the "necessity" of the prison. This is
close to Thomas Mathiesen’s position, but not identical, since it does not
aspire to produce specific choices in the students.
Oh, and thirdly, I propose to distinguish between confinement and the
Confinement will always be necessary for a few people in very specific situations
- and it has been in existence long before the birth of the prison. But the
prison as an institution of punishment - that is neither necessary nor good in
itself, and probably the first society who gets rid of it will be admired and
envied by later generations and the states which follow suit.
It is getting late and I will go to bed soon and have a beautiful dream
about a society without prisons.
I always believed (with Theodor Adorno and others) that the object of
the social sciences is not to develop a future good world, but to point to the
bad aspects of reality, i.e. to speak out againt injustice, but not to design
blue-prints of how everything could be improved.
After having read Thomas (a.k.a. H.) Bianchi's appeal to design
positive alternatives to the prison system I would like to read what other
colleagues think of his idea ...
15. More comments by Sebastian Scheerer
Dear All, and especially dear Thomas:
how nice to get into this discussion.
Maybe I make it shorter and clearer what I wanted to communicate when I wrote the last parts of my statement (pleading for "less opinions and more evidence", much in line with René v.S.):
Pro-Abolition arguments could profit a lot if they took the adversaries of their position more serious. It is my impression that there are quite a few values and facts around that are a challenge to abolitionism. I really do not see that abolitionists search for these values and facts and try to cope with them sincerely and throughly. Most prefer to stay in their own camp. I loved to read Bianchi's aphorism about the stupidity of prisons.
But aphoristic wisdom is one thing, arguments are another.
16. More Comments from Thomas Mathiesen (11.09.2007)
Since Sebastian Scheerer touches on my contribution to the debate on abolitionism, I will take the opportunity to respond to him.
Sebastian Scheerer raises two questions:
(1) Can abolitionism deservedly claim victory in the cases mentioned in this debate? This is the question of causality. In my first contribution I mentioned turning points of the past - abolition of slavery, of the death penalty at least in some places, of youth prisons in Massachusetts, of forced labour (Norway), "or what have you". And I said: "An abolitionist stance of saying no! was certainly a part of their creation".
I don't know enough about the abolition of slavery to be sure that an abolitionist stance was a part of its "creation". But from what I
have read, the actions of right-minded people do seem to have been a part of it (though i.a. economic forces probably also contributed). The same holds for the abolition of the death penality. The notion that a stance of saying no! was "a part of" it to me seems plausible. I know more about the abolition of the youth prisons in Massachusetts. The recent story of the youth prisons in Massachusetts has been scrutinized carefully , and it seems more than just plausible that central people who turned abolitionist (as far as the youth prisons went), were "a part of" what took place.
I know still more about the abolition of forced labour in Norway, and also about the abolition of the youth prison system in Norway, because I took a direct and active part in the struggles. It seems inescapable to me to conclude that a stance of saying no! was "a part of" the causal chain. There is neither time nor space to relate these stories in detail here, but, in the case of forced labour, remember how we lobbied parliament members, divided the country between us and wrote newspaper articles all over, communicated with forced labour inmates and got their stories out, how we also got the forced labour inmates themselves out to give public talks and lectures, how we got one of our central lawyers to become secretary of the justice committee in Parliament, how he, as secretary, used our manuscripts as drafts when writing the central opinion of the justice committee, how that central opinion and the committee in turn influenced Parliament as a whole to a animous vote to abolish forced labour in Norway. And much more. All of this is in my mind a telling story of how the system was brought down. In a similar vein you might go into the story of the sbolition of the youth prison system in Norway, where, incidentally, the head of the youth prison turned abolitionist (as far as his own prison went), and played a part in bringing that system down - much like his counterpart in Massachusetts. To be sure, the heads of the systems in Norway and Massachusetts had roles inside the systems in question, but at least as far as the Norwegian situation goes, I dare say that the head would not have acted in the same way if he had had no ties to and support from the outside.
I don't know what your similar concrete experiences with abolitionist movements are, Sebastian. In any case, remember that I have been careful all the time to say that abolitionism has been "a part of" these results. No sociologist in his right mind would venture a simplistic cause-effect chain from abolitionism to abolition. The movement favouring abolition of forced labour in Norway in 1970 was fairly broad, containing religious groups, various political and social groups as well as academics writing reports on the situation, and certainly also containing "internal dynamics" of the penal system, which you refer
to (whatever "internal dynamics" are - the term is both catch-all and vague). Internally, there were increasing doubts and conflicts. These various forces interacted with each other in various ways. Internal doubts and conflicts inter alia fed on the activism of outside groups. But if a stance of saying no! had not existed before and during the time span in question, it seems likely to me that it would at least have taken much longer to have forced labour abolished, and possibly it would have been abolished only with "alternative" camps or institutions in
Through a large part of the later 1970s there was an ongoing struggle to avoid such camps and institutions. In these very concrete struggles earlier forced labourers played a significant part. They formed an "Action group for vagrants", and said no! to new camps, with a fairly broad public hearing. The avoidance of the of new camps (and "a key to our own door!")was to a large extent successful. This is also a long and fascinating story which time and space prevents me from relating here (for those few who read Norwegian, see my "Løsgjengerkrigen" (The Vagrants' War), 1975). But it would probably be worth writing these various experiences up in German or English before it is too late.
(2) What can/should university teachers do in relation to prison
abolition? I will be briefer about this. You seem to be presupposing, Sebastian, that a stance of saying no! should be the only stance we present when we teach. Of course, as a university teacher I attempt to spell out the various alternative ways of looking at the matter. I spell out the "no!" arguments, but also the opposite arguments. This is an obvious a part of my teaching role, which you seem to ignore or twist. You seem to assume that a teacher who is also an abolitionist, is onesided in his teaching. I don't know where you have this assumption from. Also, my experience is that students of today like arguments pro and con. I present my arguments, but I take care also to present the arguments of others. Maybe I am not always successful in this. But neither are those who typically argue from the other side. All we can do, is to do our very best in this matter.
When I in writing present the "no!" arguments, I try very hard to do
so on the basis of very concrete evidence emanating from research (Prison on Trial, 2006 ed.). You make the following statement: "Students today do not want to be taught opinions of the 1960s
and 1970s, but prefer evidence-based arguments and honest discussions. And rightly
Leaving aside your implicit and just slightly insulting assumption of a major difference between the mere "opinions" of the 60s and 70s as opposed to the evidence-based arguments and honesty of today, my point is that the critiques of prisons which you find in writing are in fact solidly evidence-based. I am coming to the end. Thanks to Sebastian Scheerer for having contributed to an interesting debate.
17. More Comments by Heinz Steinert
(12.09.2007)Dear Sebastian, dear colleagues and friends,
maybe what you gave us below, Sebastian, is a bit too short and not clear enough: Could we name some of those "quite a few values and facts
around" and discuss them in detail?
I guess one of the "values" (wouldn't "aims" be the better
word?) is "victim protection": But isn't it abolitionism that thinks in terms of a social relation like "conflict", "damage inflicted" or
"provocation escalated" etc. and has, therefore, in its very concepts included what traditional criminology (TradCrim) treats as separate? And do I need to mention particularly that TradCrim has, by inventing a new speciality: Victimology, even cemented that separation? - with the practical consequence of playing the two, victim and perpetrator, against each other, instead of looking for reconciliation and compensation at least in those interpersonal situations (shall we call them "social crimes"?) where this is possible. There is another category of "damage" that cannot be resolved interpersonally - shall we call them "crimes of domination"? - where
we need something like "compensatory empowerment". (Many of these crimes of domination, by the way, depend on and exploit state regulations - e.g. trafficking in drugs or in humans - or at least "official"
e.g. most hate crimes. Solutions, therefore, would have to be sought in the domain of "official" domination.) Perhaps these are the two
dimensions that can be used to analyse most "crimes" and to develop proper solutions
- instead of the "stupid" pseudo-solutions offered by punishment.
I guess another such value is "prevention": But again, there
abolitionism offers the advice to use as much situational prevention as possible and neuro-bio indicators, of course).
In both examples mentioned so far, abolitionism simply opts for better, "less stupid" solutions for the problems that are mis-constructed by TradCrim.
I guess another value might be "order": Insofar as there is an
opposition of order and liberation (which can be debated in general and detailed for particular situations), abolitionism will be on the side of liberation and
of an order that can be negotiated by those immediately concerned. So in many instances there is no such opposition. There is nothing liberating in mutual neglect and reckless use of the social infrastructure, if that's what you mean.
Abolitionism will also be on the side of more democracy. We could probably do more to spell out the theory of democracy implied and its relation to the mode of production and its change from Fordism to Neoliberalism. But I don't see there is much neglect of what the other side, including TradCrim, says, does and theorises, just a well-founded difference.
Please give more examples, especially if these should not be the ones you had in mind.
(I also strongly disagree with your and René's equation of abolitionism with "moralism", mere "opinion" or, as you say below, just
"aphoristic wisdom" and no arguments, whereas TradCrim and dominant thinking and politics had the "honest arguments" and the evidence. I always thought we had the
better, the reflexive arguments, even if they lack the benefit of going along with the dominant ideology and conventional wisdom. But that's the point of a reflexive social science. We also have a lot of the empirical evidence needed, certainly not less than TradCrim (not least because we can use a lot of their empirical findings). You may remember my old article on Quinney's "radical rhetoric and sloppy data", but such criticism is standard scholarly procedure - and how many more such articles could we have written (and did we write) on the data and rhetoric of TradCrim? I can't see how you have come to believe that TradCrim has the better evidence and the "honest arguments". Please explain what is not so honest about the abolitionist arguments. And would you say TradCrim has a pronounced tendency to leave "their own camp" and to "sincerely and thoroughly" seek for
approaches that challenge them? (As the dominant ideology they have much less need to do so
than a minority position does.) I guess what you mean is that there was a time when the conventional wisdom was sort of abolitionist, whereas now it is punitive and exclusionary. That may have been the case in the university, and even there ... just remember the problems we had with the "authoritarian left" at the time - but
outside of that institution there never was such a situation in which abolitionist arguments would pass unchallenged.)
And just a P.S. to the question of historical influence:
I strongly propose to distinguish between:
- a historical tendency all through the era of Fordism to abolish and at least diminish punishment and exclusion as a form of domination - with an extreme counter-movement that became dominant in fascism and Stalinism; - the individual movements that organised around single issues in this over-all development;- the scholarly orientation towards and theoretical interest in both these processes and in thinking through their radical consequences and the conceptual foundations that can be imputed. It is impossible to say in a general way what influence the third process had on the first, probably none. It is not quite so hard to say what influence what measures had in the struggles around specific issues of the second kind, sometimes a lot, sometimes little, but that can be determined empirically. Political science does it all the time.
Unless we use a Hegelian model we will also have to assume that the historical process consisted of the single-issue movements (on the basis of the demands and conditions provided by the mode of production). And if some part of theory is the preservation and systematic analysis of a historical tradition then theory also has a part in all of this. There is no good reason for grandiose self-enlargement, but we also need not hide what we contributed as much as legislators, administrators, journalists, traditional criminologists, ex-prisoners and their relatives and many others did to these struggles.
18. More Comments by Sebastian
Dear Heinz and Thomas, dear All:
thank you for your - very thoughtful and largely convincing - arguments.
Thomas made a very forceful point about the relevance of KROM's movement for the abolition of repressive institutions in Norway.
But: weren't the same institutions (workhouse ...) abolished in other countries as well - and without such a big movement? How was it in Denmark and Sweden? I remember that the "Zuchthaus" was abolished in Germany
in 1969. There was no movement at all and no abolitionsits who claimed to have had anything to do with it. Still, it was a nice thing to see the Zuchthaus go away.
People who like to see it go away may have been "part of it all", but
as long as they did not exert an "influence", that would not be enough
to claim participation in the "victory". If not "causality", one
should at least strive for "influence" in the process.
With the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade things had been different. The abolitionists of those days were not content to have been "part of a process that ended in the abolition of slave trade", but
been the conditio sine qua non. They had been the cause of slave trade abolition.
They did not even have the mode of production on their side. Much to the contrary. They stood up against vital economic interests (almost: economic laws). And won. I mean that is quite something else. Where did this movementhave its strength from? 1787-1833: a provisional answer would be: they were powered merely by the ideals of (Christian and enlightenment) philanthropy. And maybe they falsified some later marxian assumptions about the relationship between the subjective factor and economic conditions. Some hypotheses to be worked on by us today would possibly include: The mode of production can be changed by ideas. And the mode of production allows for awide array of means of social control: the same mode of production can
function with a repressive and a liberal regime.
As long as we cannot argue convincingly that the prison system (or the criminal justice system) are political "sins" just like slave trade
and slavery used to be, we shall have a hard time convincing anybody.
So much for the movement aspects.
Now another question or two concening the theoretical aspects.
What does abolitionism offer in terms of deterrence? And: What does abolitionism have to
offer in terms of justice? In stranger-to-stranger-crimes the victim has a right to be left alone. He or she usually does not want to engage in victim-offender-mediation. And I do not think we have a right to force the victim to engage in such an alternative conflict resolution. Normally, one would not even consider this a conflict. So why not have the state punish the perpetrator? That sends out a good message: a person has been wronged, another person has committed an unjustified aggression. This has to be made clear - that is norm-affirmation
and -clarification needed in order to prevent norm erosion. Who else could do it? How else could it be done if not by way of criminal justice?
Of course one could propose a family group conference. But wouldn't that seem a little odd in such cases?
Please excuse the fragmentary nature of these associations ... hopefully it inspires you all to more responses
Email from Harold Pepinsky (17.09.2007)
I read this discussion
with interest. I'll attach page proofs of a book
that later came out last fall, explaining my opposition to punishment and
making a conscious attempt to "do" justice (which will be an author
meets critics book at the Amer. Soc. of Crim. in Atlanta this Nov.). I'm
glad this conversation continues. As the book indicates, I certainly
learned a lot from my times in Norway. love and peace--hal
by Stephan Quensel (24.09.2007)
colleagues, I miss in your commentaries some broader ‚Foucaultian’ aspects.
practically engaged but really sceptical ‘minimalist’ (in the sense of my old
friend Derek McClintock) I am convinced, that our prison-system, surviving the
last 450 years (not to mention the older medieval inquisitorial prison system)
will vanish during this century – like the other medieval signs of State power
– pillory, gallows, the galleys, death-cruelties. Maybe this will happen
earlier in our ‘Old Europe’ than in those insecure democratic States who have
openly to demonstrate their monopoly of power yet; caused through our increasing anti-violence-efforts (best seen in the individual body-count during
our preventative wars) and our increasingly economic thinking stretching now
from social work to its final prison-product.
the same state-induced harm won’t really vanish, but change into more indirect,
technically more refined, less visible, better legitimated and deeper reaching
harms - psychiatry, preventative
exclusion, implanted chips etc.- as long, as the state and his professional
gardeners (in the sense of Bauman) need the dangerous Other to demonstrate to
an as yet not well informed society their existential security spending
heretics and than witches peopled this ‘inquisitorial model’. Today all forms
of drug addicts, who are overcrowding our prisons, fulfill the same function
together with those ‘dangerous foreigners’ (or blacks) as products of our
school systems, some terrorists as consequences of our foreign policy, and –
really yes – some really dangerous people coming from an excluded ‘underclass’,
who give the existing prison system the needed official authorization.
If it were
possible – and some commitments of
democratic states and social movements give hope (The Hague or some courageous state
attorneys) – to send some of the really
big criminals behind bars, I could possibly change into an anti-abolitionistic
mood. But, never give up hope and let us further fight for abolitionism, that
Johannes Feest (26.
While our exchange is nearing its end, let me
add that Hal Pepinsky made me realize the importance of Faye Honey Knopp
(Instead of Prisons, 1976), early abolitionist and important influence in
ICOPA, is completely unknown in German criminologal writings. Is that
true also in other parts of the world?
Thomas Bianchi (26.
Dear Johannes Feest,
When you speak of Honey Knopp I get tears in my eyes.
How I have known her. I stayed many times in her house upstate Vermont. She has
been one of the greatest women I have ever known, she took part in
many Vietnam demonstrations and she was the type that would go to a prison and
if she noticed a prisoner maltreated she said to the warden: "Open
that door". She was the Mother Teresa among abolitionists. If she
had been Roman-Catholic I would propose her beatification. When she died
her husband wrote to me: "Honey loved you".
Yes tears in my eyes. It is very good that you take
her out of oblivion
Comments from Gerlinda Smaus (02.10.2007)
Abolitionism, to my mind, is the
visible tip of a movement which struggles against the exclusion
of human beings from civil rights and human rights. Before people were sent to prison they have been
excluded from the society by way of primary and secondary criminalization.
Therefore it seems important to have some preventive abolitonism which would
struggle against the introduction of new clauses in the penal law and against
the net widening of social control. Nowadays we witness strong attempts to
curtail the civil rights, in order to prevent terrorism, as it it said. It
seems to me that the freedom of opinion and the sanctity of the private sphere
are endangered in the first place. Besides these legal ways of
exclusion attention should be paid to
rather administrative ways of either exlucion or not admittance of people to
civil societies in which they seek the fulfilment of their human rights. I
refere here to refugees of different
origin who are „processed“ in
procedures not open to the puclic and in a de-humanising way (as the German
term Abschiebung = pushing things away) reveals. I my opinion, the abolitionist
movemevent has to consider these executive detention camps as seriously as the
As far as the unity of the
movement, its basis of solidarity is concerned, we can not count on any
kind of group solidarity any more (to which Matthiesen referred in the 1980s).
The prevailing official ideology is a neo-liberal one and as Ulrich Beck says,
an individualization process is going on. In this situation a new call can be
heard, that is a rather metaphysical call of the right of each individuals as a single “face“, in the sense of
Lévinas (as cited by Baumann). That is: unqualified, innate rights of a
human being, his countenance. Axel Honneths’s concept of
"recognition" goes in the same direction. Human rights consider
the situation of individuals who suffer under compulsive group solidarity which
denies the freedom and a “real” recognition of its members (see Redistribution or recognition? A philosophical exchange Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth.
London : Verso, 2003).
As sociologists we may doubt the „prehuman“ foundation of the value of each individual in this kind of religious ethics. But in our abolitionist practice we apply similar values to every member of societies without
caring much about their origins. The
concern of abolitionism needs to be reformulated in line with such new
discourses of social philosophy which are sensitive to new conditions of
History often proved that precisely idealistic concepts did yield a
liberation in situations, which in from realistic point of view would appear as
24. Another Comment from Sebastian Scheerer
(in going over his earlier comments, Sebastian has amended or revised
some of them. We have indicated that in the above footnotes; with respect to
the future of abolitionism, he has added the following new thought)
extent that the human species wants to free itself from ignorance, injustice
and repression there will be a bright future for abolitionism. Obstacles on
this way are the misery of the global masses on the one hand and the enormous
manipulative strength of hegemonic ideologies in the industrialized countries
on the other hand. What these forces risk to bury is not only the future of
abolitionism, but rather of the future of the human species’ existence on this
Sebastian has added here
The word “to abolish” means “to do away with wholly, completely”. To me that
implies “total” abolition, be it of the death penalty, be it of slavery, be it
of the prison. If you think that an institution (like slavery) is utterly
unjust, then it would also lack any logic to argue for only a partial reform.
Can one limit the fight against slavery to the aim of liberating only children
or women, and not men? Can one limit the fight to ending slavery in Europe, but
not in Asia or the Americas? The same holds true for all abolitionist
movements, including that against prisons. – Clear as this seems, the
“totality” of the abolitionist project has always been subject to
misunderstandings. To abolish prisons as institutions of punishment does not
mean to do away with all kinds of confinement. To deprive a person of his or
her liberty for reasons of public health (quarantine; suicide or homicide
prevention in cases of mental illness and the like) will always be necessary in
specific situations. Abolitionism aims at the “total” abolition of the prison
system and of confinement as punishment (including those cases where punishment
is euphemistically concealed as benign protection). Abolitionism does not aim
at the total abolition of all kinds and justifications of confinement as
I always believed (with Theodor Adorno
and others) that the object of research and knowledge cannot and should not be
“What is Good”, but rather “What is Bad”. The challenge is not to construct a
better world (that would be presumptuous), but to criticize the conditions of
inequality and injustice in our present world and to strive to abolish them –
both in their manifestations and their root causes. We can identify injustice,
but we are not clever enough to design blueprints for a better world …. Having
read Thomas Bianchi’s forceful exhortation to spend more energy in designing
alternatives to prisons I begin to doubt the wisdom of negative critique and
would like to read what other colleagues think of his idea….
These are legitimate albeit uncomfortable
questions. To demystify the status quo and to face up to uncomfortable facts –
uncomfortable to ourselves and our own preferences – has been and still is the
most difficult, but noble task.
Harold Pepinsky: PEACEMAKING. Reflections of a Radical Criminologist,
University of Ottawa Press 2006
started our survey, we found out that a parallel effort had already been made
by Rebecca Roberts for her MSc Thesis in Criminal Justice Policy (London School
of Economics and Political Science). She had contacted and interviewed the following
abolitionist scholars and activists: Pat Carlen, Nils Christie, Louk Hulsman,
Thomas Mathiesen, John Moore, Mick Ryan, Phil Scraton, Joe Sim, René van
Swaaningen and Tony Ward, We would like to thank her for gracefully sharing
with us her yet unpublished thesis “What Happened to Abolitionism? An
Investigation of a Paradigm and a Social Movement” (Supervisor: Prof. Tim
in our email survey
Bertrand, Marie-André, 1925 Prof. em., Université
de Montreal, Canada. Publications on drug policy, female criminality,
women’s prisons and feminist theory.
Bianchi, Herman (Thomas), 1924, Prof. em., Criminology, Vrije Universiteit. Amsterdam. Publications
on abolitionim and on historical alternatives to criminal justice.
Christie, Nils, 1928, Prof. em. of Criminology, Universitet i Oslo. Most recent
book publication in English: A Suitable Amount of Crime. London 2004.
Louk Hulsman, 1923,
Prof. em., Penal Law and Criminology, Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam.
Publications in several languages on the concept of crime and the need for
Mathiesen, Thomas, 1933, Prof. em., Sociology
of Law, Universitet i Oslo.
Publications on sociology of law, criminology, media sociology and political
Pepinsky, Harold, 1945, Prof., Criminal Justice
and Eastern Asian languages, University of Indiana. Most recent publication:
Peacemaking. Reflections of a Radical Criminologist, Ottawa 2006.
Quensel, Stephan, 1936, Prof. em.,
Bremen, Co-Director Bremer Institut für Drogenforschung (BISDRO),
Publications mainly on drugs and the (foolishness of) prevention.
Scheerer, Sebastian, 1950, Prof., Criminology. Institut für kriminologische Sozialforschung,
Universität Hamburg. Publications centering on the
purpose of punishment, drug prohibition and the paradoxies of the fight against
Smaus, Gerlinda, 1940, Teacher and Researcher (Privatdozentin) in Criminology, Universität Saarbrücken. Publications on
Criminology and the sociology of penal law.
Steinert, Heinz, 1942, Prof. em., Sociology
(Deviancy and Social Exclusion), Universität Frankfurt. Longtime head of the Institut
für Recht und Kriminalsoziologie in Vienna (Austria).
van Swaaningen, René, 1962, Prof., International and Comparative Criminology,
Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam.
Publications on criminological and criminal policy topics.