Abolishing prisons to disrupt a society built on inequality

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Abolishing prisons to disrupt a society built on inequality 

This article by Nayuka Gorrie and Witt Church focuses on a recent three day conference with the theme of abolishing prisons. The ninth biannual Sisters Inside conference “Imagining Abolition … A World Without Prisons” imagined a future without prisons. The conference attracted more than 300 people from Australia and abroad. The 300 was composed of women with prison experience, academics, government and community workers, politicians, lawyers and magistrates, and community members invested in creating a world without prisons.

At the heart of the three days of the conference were women who have experienced criminalisation and have been imprisoned, self-determination and the role of colonisation in the formation of the prison industrial complex.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people make up roughly 3% of the nation’s total population, 28% of the total prison population is Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people, with Indigenous women representing the fastest growing of these numbers.

Nationally, 70-90% of Aboriginal women incarcerated have experienced family violence and most Aboriginal women in prison have experienced sexual trauma. Many Aboriginal women incarcerated are there on charges of assault, in most cases related to family violence. Gorrie and Church argue that ‘now more than ever, we need new strategies to address harm and not systems founded on violence.’

Featuring prominently during the conference was the Grandmothers Against Removal. These women are Aboriginal grandmothers committed to fighting for the rights of children to remain with their families and not be stolen by the state. Their attendance and what they discussed drew clear the relationship between removing children from their families and the cycle of intergenerational trauma and incarceration.

The final day of the conference began with a panel of women who had been in prison. There were some clear themes amongst this panel – women being incarcerated for protecting themselves, crimes of poverty and experiences of trauma. Panelists spoke of charges related to homelessness and poverty, for example those sleeping rough and using drugs to stay awake to feel safe while on the streets.

Sisters Inside CEO Debbie Kilroy made clear the distinction between a prison reformist agenda and that of abolition. While reforms seek to make prisons nicer, they ultimately keep the prison industrial complex in place.

Abolition pushes us to envision ways of addressing violence and creating safer communities without using forms of harm to do so. In her keynote, US advocate Angela Davis said it takes courage to imagine this different future as we inevitably feel most comfortable in what we know. To build a world without prisons is to disrupt a society built on inequity, patriarchal violence and colonisation. Abolition work requires us all, from those in the academy, those in legal institutions, those in communities to chip away at the mechanisms that criminalise and incarcerate people in our communities.

Read the article here