Decades of conditioning has made one believe that retribution at the hands of the criminal justice system equates to justice. Incarceration has especially been resorted to by the state to prosecute gendered violence, while carelessly disregarding the causes of the violence itself. Sreeram VG writes about the logics of policing and prisons, and how systemic causes and roots of violence ought to be tackled, to truly achieve the ideals of feminism and liberty.
It is a cause for solemn reflection that in the middle of a global pandemic, police brutality has reared its ugly head and found itself in renewed focus in our political and cultural lives. While it is undeniable that systemic racism and casteism and their heinous manifestations will exist on either side of the murders of George Floyd, Jayaraj and Fenix, there is something to be said about the previously unencountered appearance of the abolition movement in the Overton window.
As Amna Akbar puts it, describing the movement of the Black Lives Matter towards an abolitionist stance, “abolitiondoes not call for outright abolition of prisons and police, its demands aim to shrink the carceral state and deny its legitimacy as a purported guarantor of public safety.” Abolition seeks to refocus our public safety aspirations away from policing institutions and towards public health, education and community service. In other words, abolition seeks to move away from the “carceral” state.
The carceral state is one that places the phenomenon of incarceration and its allied institutions (the police, the judiciary, and prisons) at the centre of the citizen experience. As scholars have argued, it almost entirely substitutes the state in the performance of its constitutional obligations. So, we live in a state where issues of mental health, wealth inequality, resource allocation and corporate greed have all been converted into issues of “law and order.” This conversion has meant that the shadow of the carceral state and carceral institutions have, almost indelibly, grown in our daily lives. This conversion has been accompanied with the withdrawal of the welfare state and the neo-liberalization of our lived experiences. As the state has withdrawn itself to give space to corporations and private actors to replace it, it has legitimized this withdrawal by using carceral institutions.
Thus, it is our belief that the experience of the carceral state is the experience of the privatization of blameworthiness. As sociologists have been pointing out for decades, a large part of our understanding of crime requires us to use the lens of “intention” and “guilt” and “punishment” which entirely detaches the social nature of crimes. Our understanding of criminality is one that mandates that we dispense with the systemic realities that continually “produce” crimes and instead find all of the blame on the individual actions and their actors. Such an agential focus neglects the structural background conditions that produce and perpetuate unjust actions and outcomes.
As Iris Young points out, we operate within a complex and interdependent fabric of cooperation and competition. The carceral state discounts this social connection that forms the structural underpinnings of individual actions. This cultivates the view that injustice is a combination of disconnected harmful instances that are macro, covert and easily assigned to specific perpetrators with malicious intent. Viewing them as a singularity, or worse, as an aberration marks individuals worthy of blame as opposed to viewing harm as a community failure. It does not account for the collective significance of harm and as a result, deters any recourse to community accountability.
This reality of the carceral experience and its presently re-energized critique requires an urgent conversation with India’s feminist movement. While it is always true that the feminist movement is not one singular and linear movement, we argue that it needs a conversation on critically rethinking the place of incarceration within its politics. That it must have a vision to engage with the basic role of prisons and the larger ideology of policing for it to claim genuine intersectionality and anti-oppressiveness.
Carceral feminism is politically inadequate. Feminism needs to be informed by transformative and radical politics that aims to end all forms of oppression. As the work of Prabha Kotiswaran has uncovered, feminist engagement with the criminal justice system in India has largely been dominated with viewing criminal justice as an ally to women’s rights and as an effective, and even necessary, solution to issues of sexual violence in India. The narrative around the criminal justice system has been dominated by the demands to improve its performance, to increase its scope and effect and to push harder on its stated normative ideals. There has been a steady increase in the maximum and minimum punishments for sexual violence offences in India’s criminal legislations, including the introduction of the death penalty for certain sexual offences. This has been accompanied with, and certainly even fueled by, a general and loud demand for heavier criminal sanction for sexual offences by a large part of the society.
It is this phenomenon that converts issues of situational delinquency, inequality and the failure of the state to provide a safe and dignified existence to vast portions of society into breaches of a moral code that need to be beaten out and punished. Modern criminal justice attempts to enforce a moral code that is debated and deliberated with no real, effective and honest representation from those it seeks to most heavily regulate. And it does this to the exclusion of a duty to create the conditions that dramatically reduce incidences of criminal violence. The feminist-abolitionist stance does not deny the role of the individual actor in the commission of crimes but it certainly de-emphasizes it.
As Angela Davis tells us, “Feminism must involve a consciousness of capitalism. It must involve a consciousness of racism, colonialism, post colonialism, genders, sexualities and ability. Feminism insists on methods of thought and action that urge us to think about things together that appear to be separate, and to disaggregate things that naturally appear to belong together.” Carceral feminism and its adherents posit the binary of punitive sentencing and policing as solutions to violence against women. It fails to engage with the colonial and capitalist rise of policing and incarceration as sites of violence, exploitation and oppression themselves. As a result, it assumes the natural aggregation of crime and punishment as beneficial to the survivor, when in fact; it allows the carceral machinery of the state to legitimatelypersecute minorities. It ignores the intersectional and structural features that make some people more vulnerable to enduring and perpetuating harm.
The casting of police and prisons as substantial measures for community safety grossly misallocates funds and legitimizes the defunding of welfare programs. This prohibits survivors’ access to safe housing, healthcare, counseling and other such resources that are crucial to healing and feeling a sense of security. Shifting responsibility to the specific actions of the perpetrator neglects the need for long term and sustainable intervention in processes of socialization and cultural imagery that create conditions of harm.
The issue with carceral feminism is its distance from an understanding of structural injustice. It aligns itself with punitive forms of justice partly because of buying into the agential narrative of criminality produced by the carceral state. It fails to engage with intersectional politics by neglecting the role that caste, class, gender, trauma, sexuality and ability play in understanding and administering claims of justice. The carceral logic of the present system centers punishment and blame over accountability and collective responsibility. By conflating justice with incarceration, it recycles the same oppressive ideology that motivates harmful actions. Prisons are not spaces of rehabilitation or remorse. Instead, they dehumanize and detach perpetrators from the human impact of their actions, inflicting the same trauma by making them endure the violence of confinement.
Abolitionists have long argued for the need for transformative and restorative forms of justice that center the needs and experiences of the survivor. These alternatives are operative against the backdrop of structural injustice, implying that they assess the intersections of caste, class, gender, trauma, sexuality and ability in their attempt to move towards justice. As Mia Mingus argues -- their philosophical motivation lies in asking “what would it take to not only respond to rape, but to end rape?”
Criminal justice places violence at its center in a way that is at odds with what we argue represents feminist ideals. Violence as a virtue of dominance is at the heart of the patriarchy and it is exactly what the criminal justice system, as it stands, represents. It aims to humiliate and civilize (in an extremely colonial and capitalist manner) its participants by isolating them and using them for unpaid labour. That is what creates an institution that is able to morally support the death penalty, solitary confinement and extra judicial violence.
The collective imagination of justice, as it currently stands, is very divorced from the abolitionist movement and is entirely informed by an uncritical acceptance of prison and police institutions. Punishment and prisons and the death sentence are key axes in what our conception of justice has been for a long while, and for the first time in a long while, it seems malleable. This is a moment in time where we can (and we should), without being shunned outright, talk about realigning our moral virtues of love, forgiveness and our reformative aspirations with the reality of the systemic reproduction of violence and inequality and how present carceral institutions fail to address them in any meaningful manner.