Flowers at the vigil for Sarah Everard

Putting women last

Anti-carceral activists want to shut prisons, but ignore sexual offenders

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

On 27 April, Julia James put on her wellington boots and went out to walk Toby, her Jack Russell dog. The 53-year-old did not come back; Toby was found sitting by her dead — presumed murdered — body. A few days later, around ten people gathered in Aylesham, including Julia James’s son, to light candles in her memory. Notable by their absence were the activist groups, which only months earlier had hit headlines following the heavy-handed policing at the vigil in remembrance of Sarah Everard.

The man charged with the murder of Sarah Everard was a police officer, a detail which chimed with the ideological approach of Sisters Uncut and Reclaim These Streets, two of the groups which publicised the vigil following her murder. Both are anti-carceral; they are part of a movement pushing for the break-up of the criminal justice system. Like the US-based organisation Black Lives Matter, who claim the “police were born out of slave patrols”, UK anti-carceral justice groups argue that resources must be reallocated to community-based preventative and restorative measures.

A leaflet handed out at the Sarah Everard vigil claimed she was “not the first woman to lose her life to state violence and negligence”. This sleight of blame, the reframing of a man’s murderous actions to fit a narrative of state brutality, supports Sisters Uncut’s aim to “abolish the prison industrial complex”. The killing of Julia James allowed no such opportunities; she had worked as a Police Community Support Officer, putting her on the wrong side of this political fault line. 

A Police reconstruction of Julia James’s last walk

Despite the opportunism of the most prominent anti-carceral activists, there is both credence and academic rigour underpinning the idea: attempts to find more just solutions than policing and imprisonment date back at least two centuries. Jo Phoenix, professor in Criminology at The Open University, explains that in Britain, “the movement grew out of a recognition of the use of prison to control and discipline on a class basis, especially in relation to unemployment during the Victorian times and more latterly.” This is an ocean apart from the United States, where the history of slavery means prison abolition is bound up with the politics of race.

In both the UK as in the US, the over-representation of black people, care leavers and working-class people in prison demonstrates that justice is neither colour-blind nor are her scales evenly weighted. And the facts are clear; at a cost of around £40,000 per place per year — and with nearly half of adults reconvicted within one year of release — locking people up is expensive and largely futile. No home secretary would admit it, but prison is as much an exercise in public relations as public safety. 

Nonetheless, it is naïve to imagine that Fred and Rose West would have stopped their offending after a stern talking to at community-led meeting. Seeking social solutions to sexual offending risks sacrificing the safety of women and children, who are overwhelmingly the victims of such crimes, to an otherwise progressive-sounding cause. Professor Phoenix readily concedes this, telling me, “we haven’t figured out what alternative forms of justice might look like.” 

The founding member of Lesbian Labour believes left-wing organisations routinely cover up wrongdoing

In the western world, the history of women’s slow trek to full legal personhood is inscribed on the statute. From the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, where American women took the first steps to enfranchisement, to today’s activists such as Gina Martin who pushed for upskirting to be made illegal in the UK, feminists have used the law to hold abusers to account. And yet this method has led some advocates of anti-carceral justice to complain that in collaborating with the state to make legislation, feminists are siding with the “oppressor”.

Colorado law school professor Aya Gruber is explicit about this, arguing in The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration that, “invoking ‘sexual predators,’ or even mentioning the name Harvey Weinstein or Brock Turner, stops conversations about eliminating pre-trial detention, lowering sentences and abolishing the inhumane sex offender register.”

There is a long history in the US of antagonism between the campaigns for black civil rights and feminism. The liberty of black men was historically at risk from the accusatory words of white women; and this has cast a long shadow. As Charles M. Blow wrote last year in the New York Times, “throughout history, white women have used the violence of white men and the institutions these men control as their own muscle.” Unsurprisingly, this tension has occupied black feminist academics and activists in the US for decades.

For the mainstream left in the UK, fighting racism has more social cachet than sexism. Divisive rhetoric pitting race against sex has been imported from the US. Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, is broadly critical of prisons, “racist policing and overcriminalisation” but he has concerns about the current anti-carceral rhetoric, arguing that “something is going wrong when social justice activism degenerates into denunciations of feminists who campaign for the justice system to take sexual violence seriously.” 

He believes that “low prosecution rates for rape and sexual assault are a sign of a society marked by ingrained misogyny. No one seriously thinks that more prosecutions will, of itself, overturn centuries of misogyny. But nor is it an optional extra.”

Jen Izaakson has witnessed the failure of alternative justice firsthand. The founding member of Lesbian Labour believes left-wing organisations routinely cover up wrongdoing “in their desperation to protect male comradeship”.

 “The unfortunate reality is rapists and domestic abusers are not considered a problem. Victims and whistle-blowers are seen as the problem,” says Izaakson. “There is never any support or encouragement for victims to go to the police, they don’t contact safeguarding authorities about things like grooming, instead conducting their own pseudo-investigations that are about exonerating misogynistic and sexually violent men. 

 “It is quite ironic that the same groups who believe they have a superior politics of justice than our bourgeois legal system are often more complicit with rape and sexual assault, actively colluding with abusive men to escape accountability.”

The removal of criminal sanctions for pimps, brothel-keepers and punters is central to US-style anti-carceral justice

Whilst in Britain anti-carceral justice is likely to be shrugged off as the student cause de jour, there is evidence that US-style anti-carceral values are being imposed by woke NGOs in the developing world. The full decriminalisation of prostitution has been enthusiastically taken up by many working in international development; this approach reframes what feminists have traditionally seen as commercial sexual exploitation as instead empowered individuals exercising their agency. The removal of criminal sanctions for pimps, brothel-keepers and punters is central to US-style anti-carceral justice. 

In 2018, international and domestic NGOs collaborated to prevent the passing of the Trafficking of Persons Bill in India. This was heralded as a victory by the Netherlands-based Mama Cash, which claimed the bill, “conflated trafficking with sex work, which would have increased stigma, discrimination and violence against sex workers, reduced their autonomy and agency, and threatened their human rights”. 

The campaign, part funded by Mama Cash, undermined the work of grassroots feminist activists in India like Vaishnavi Sundar. After years of working to stop the sex trade, Sundar, a documentary film-maker and activist based in Chennai, sees the halting of the anti-trafficking bill as a form of ideological imperialism:

“In a country that is known for its ineffectual jurisprudence where women fight for three or four decades for any legal recourse, it is disquieting to see Western organisations like Mama Cash siding with groups that further amplify women’s sexual exploitation. While ‘sex work’ may benefit a minority group, to halt a bill that could potentially save thousands of children over semantics is cruel and anti-women.”

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even UNAIDS also support the full decriminalisation of prostitution, focusing as per the rationale of US anti-carceral justice, on “community empowerment services” and “reducing stigma”. Given the Panglossian belief in the virtues of community and human nature, many of those pushing for anti-carceral justice in the UK are surprisingly pessimistic about the possibility of change.

The idea that violent and sexual offenders deserve protection from state sanction is an insult to their victims

And yet, the approach of the British police to male homosexuality is a textbook example of how social change has transformed law enforcement. Throughout the 1980s, attractive young male police officers would entrap gay men in pubs and cottaging sites and arrest them in so-called “pretty policing”. Today the police participate in Pride marches and take action against those thought to be promoting homophobic hatred. This rapid volte-face shows just how reactive our institutions can be. This is at odds with the gloomy narrative of the far left, which almost gleefully predicts an inevitable descent into fascism.

Petulant and infantile, the drive to dismantle the criminal justice system will do no more to end racism than the toppling of “problematic” statues. The efforts of groups like Sisters Uncut and Reclaim These Streets are an adolescent rebellion against the generations of feminists who strove (in the words of Emmeline Pankhurst) to become law-makers not law-breakers. 

More worryingly still, the anti-carceral justice movement has become a Trojan Horse through which dangerous ideas, such as the full decriminalisation of the sex industry, are exported across the world.

Imprisonment cannot bring back the lives of women like Julia James and Sarah Everard, nor those of the two to three women killed by men in the UK each week. Yet, the idea that violent and sexual offenders deserve protection from state sanction is an insult to their victims, and a risk to society. The criminal justice system is flawed and in need of reform. But a little like democracy itself, it remains our “least worst option”.

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