openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Why feminists should support the struggle for prison and police abolition

Prisons and police don’t protect women – particularly women of colour – from male violence. In fact they expose them to it. We need to support alternatives.

Amrit Wilson
22 July 2020
Black Lives Matter protesters, London, July 2020
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SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

George Floyd’s murder has led to an unstoppable movement. Black Lives Matter UK is a growing force – rooted in the UK, as in the US, in years of work by groups like United Friends and Families Campaign resisting racism and deaths in custody.

Inextricable from BLM’s demands are demands to defund the police, and the wider ‘carceral state’. Such questioning goes to the heart of liberal assumptions about the role of the police, prisons and other carcerative institutions. Liberals ask, ‘who will protect the community’? Liberal feminists ask, ‘who will protect women and girls from male violence’?

At such a time it’s critical to review the abolition feminism envisioned by Angela Davis, and to ask ‘who do you mean by the community?’, and ‘what do you mean by protection?’.

For many of us, feminist activists of colour, these discussions feel intensely personal. Although relatively few of us have used the term ‘abolition feminism’, its ideas bring together and consolidate what we, collectively, have already been seeking for decades - an end to the carceral state.

Davis – a consistent advocate of prison abolition for decades - urges us to “question whether incarcerating individual perpetrators does anything more than reproduce the very violence the perpetrators have allegedly committed”.

The carceral state hasn’t protected women and girls from male violence. And it especially hasn’t protected women of colour. They have been exposed to immigration laws and ‘hostile environment’ policies. To surveillance systems which have seeped into social services in the guise of ‘safeguarding’ us from ‘radicalisation’. And to a system of benefits cuts and exclusions that strip away their chances of financial independence and escape from abusive domestic situations. Even as violence against women and girls has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 lockdown, the latest legal reforms left a “gaping hole” which consolidated the exclusion of many migrant women facing domestic violence from refuge or housing support. If they report abuse to the police, they will be questioned about their immigration status and may well be detained.

People of colour, including many survivors of violence, are also subjected to patriarchal and racist neoliberalism which has increasingly reshaped Britain’s police, prisons and detention centres as part of global capital. G4S and Serco each currently run several prisons in the UK as well as a range of immigration enforcement activities. Angolan asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga died after being forcibly restrained by G4S guards during deportation from Britain. Serco’s guards have been recorded using vicious verbal abuse against women of colour detained at Yarls Wood immigration detention centre. Both these companies have also won contracts in recent years to run sexual assault referral centres to provide forensic medical examinations and other services to survivors.

Decades of struggle

Many feminists of colour involved in the struggle to end violence against women and girls (VAWG) have spent decades building our own spaces for healing and recovery – the very spaces now threatened by austerity – whilst also consistently demanding the abolition of the carceral state.

In the late 70s Awaz, UK’s first South Asian women’s activist group, which I was part of, exposed and protested against the first detention centre in Harmondsworth with its ‘punishment room’, notorious ‘virginity tests’ and the stereotypes of people of colour as ‘unreliable witnesses’ and therefore ‘undeserving’ (which are still being used in the Windrush exclusions) and the violence embedded in the Immigration system. Together with OWAAD (Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent) and the Indian Workers’ Association, we demanded an end, not only to these degrading conditions, but to both immigration detention and immigration control. We knew that the colonial devastation of our countries of origin and its ongoing impacts meant that immigration control in the UK could never be anything other than racist.

From the late seventies on radical women of colour, lesbians, migrant, refugee, disabled, queer and trans women have been involved in setting up a diversity of services which served their needs, including spaces free of racism, where traumatised women and their children, fleeing violence could recover. They believed passionately, as Camille Kumar has noted, that by healing and strengthening themselves the oppressed can not only change their own lives but help transform the structures of the community. They questioned who counts as ‘the community’ and who defines it, highlighting the fact that it was the state which in the 80s and 90s had established and empowered patriarchal leaders within communities of colour.

As more and more women accessed these projects, they required funding – and funding brought with it competition, different degrees of surveillance and dependence on the local authorities. But after prolonged austerity, many organisations built through decades of tireless work by feminists of colour have been ‘decommissioned’ or merged with large generic ‘lower cost’ organisations.

Through these years of struggle, “in contrast to many organisations in the end VAWG movement who have tended to campaign for more laws, more involvement by the criminal justice system, we have often found ourselves in direct opposition to many laws and processes of the state and situations where the welfare state morphs seamlessly into the carceral state,” says Sumanta Roy of Imkaan, a national network of Black and other minoritised women’s refuges and services.

Exoticising violence against women and girls

Roy points to the increasingly strong links between immigration policies and violence against women, highlighting the legislation to criminalise forced marriage which was presented as the British state’s concern to ‘protect’ South Asian, particularly Muslim women. Many organisations of women of colour raised objections at the time. They pointed out that adequate legislation already existed to deal with forced marriage, that forced marriage is and must be seen as a form of domestic abuse and dealt with as such – not exoticised by linking it to culture and religion, nor separately criminalised. Such approaches, they stated, increase Islamophobia, deter women from seeking legal redress, and leave them and their families exposed to the racist carcerative system. As far back as 2006 CPS officials were asserting, without evidence, that terrorism, forced marriage and extremism were all inextricably linked. A similar approach has led, in the case of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), to the normalisation of the racial profiling and invasive questioning of African and South Asian women at airports, as Camille Kumar has recently argued, through mandatory ‘safeguarding’ and reporting policies. But the hollowness of the government’s ‘concern’ is evident – the Home Secretary is currently fighting for the right to be able to deport young girls who have been ruled to be at extremely high risk of this crime.

Rape and abuse survivors can find themselves arrested and even imprisoned for wasting police time and perjury if they withdraw cases. They can find themselves arrested for contravention of immigration laws. As the organisation Sisters Uncut puts it, the punitive system can leave women “locked up in prison, locked out of refuges, and locked into violent relationships”.

A survivor may also be referred, if she is considered a ‘high risk case’, to a police-led Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference where the key agencies of the state, police, probation, immigration education, health, housing and the voluntary sector, pool information about her, and make decisions about her future, while she herself is prevented from attending. In other words, the survivor who had fled the patriarchal violence of the family is now confronted with the state’s impersonal, controlling, carceral patriarchy.

And during the COVID-19 crisis, the absence of the support women really need has become more acute. Baljit Banga, Director of Imkaan, tells me, “At the start of the Covid-19 emergency measures the minoritised women and girls sector was underfunded by 39%... There is now only one bed space for approximately 6-7 women in need of accommodation. 40% of women accessing services fall into the category of destitute – women with no recourse to public funds, insecure immigration status, migrant women and women working in the insecure jobs… many of them, disabled women, for example, have already been disproportionately and selectively targeted by policies like the bedroom tax”. This is a crisis of racist and misogynistic state violence and exclusion.

Abolition feminism points us to a horizon. To move towards it we must try and imagine a world without the oppressive carceral structures we have grown used to. We must refuse “to treat violence as if it were inevitable…as if it can only be approached after the fact, instead of thinking about what makes the condition of violence possible”, as Lola Olufemi puts it.

And as Angela Davis says, “People who are working at the frontline of the struggle against violence against women should also be on the frontline of abolitionist struggles. And people opposed to police crimes should also be opposed to domestic – what is construed as domestic – violence. We should understand the connections between public and private, or privatised violence.”

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