National Youth Disability Summit 2020 ran from the 29th of September to the 3rd of October . It was hosted by Children and Young People with Disability Australia and co-designed and co-run by a group of young disabled people. This talk was part of LivedX, an evening where young disabled people shared their stories or drew on their lived experience to talk about broader issues.
When I talk about the abuse I’ve faced as a mad queer crip Jew the responses run the gauntlet from kind and compassionate to I can relate to you deserved it.
When I told my then-girlfriend about the time I was assaulted for stimming in public she said “those people should be in prison.”
When I talked about the woman who followed me and another disabled friend down several streets to interrogate us about whether we were really disabled and how dare we use things that “real” disabled people might need another abled friend later said “If I were there, I would have called the cops.”
It’s meant to be a supportive response- I see your hurt, I understand your pain, that shouldn’t have happened to anyone, people shouldn’t be allowed to do that.
But it didn’t feel supportive because I know that the ideals and ideologies that create a society where ableism is normalised and disabled people are devalued and dismissed are intertwined with the ideas behind the system of prisons and police that we have today.
Prisons rely on the idea that some people are disposable. The image of The Criminal as someone who has forfeited their rights and deserves to suffer is a major part of modern prison discourse. But The Criminal as they appear in these conversations is not a coherent concept. Say this to an advocate for prisons, and they’ll protest. They mean people who break the law should face the consequences, and that’s all they mean by criminal- a person who breaks the law.
Have you ever pirated a movie? Crossed the road against a red light because it was late, and there are no cars anyway!
Then you have broken the law, and you are a criminal. So am I. So are the people who say that people who break the law should face the consequences because they’re criminals. Because they don’t really mean people who break the law. Everyone breaks some laws some time. They mean Criminals. Scary people. People you “wouldn’t want to be around”. Why? That depends who’s speaking. Often, it means Queer people. People of Colour, especially Black people. Disabled people, especially mentally ill people. Poor people. Immigrants. People who already exist on the margins of society.
But it doesn’t have to be. Those of us in progressive spaces can traffic in this ideology too. Our images of who is a threat will be different, but when Martin Shkreli (the man who increased the cost of vital medication from about US$13 per pill to US$750) was convicted and sentenced to prison, it’s harder for many of us to want to object. The system we have looks a little bit more more like it makes sense. But he was arrested for fraud, not for exploiting people who need medication, and the price of many medications, owned by many different companies, is still a burden that too many chronically ill people can’t bare.
Our current carceral system may occasionally provide the illusion of justice, but it does nothing to heal the harms caused, or address the root causes of those harms. In this, what it offers us is a safety net, not as a protection for society, but as a way to protect ourselves from having to deal with the difficult questions of how to ethically engage with people who have caused real harm in our communities.
But we cannot absolve ourselves of the consequences of a society that relies on prisons or of the harm they perpetrate. Prisons serve to isolate people from their communities and their support systems. Within prisons, many inmates face abuse from staff, and the power disparities leave them with little recourse. People in prisons are routinely exploited, forced to pay exorbitant prices for basic necessities and the means to contact friends and family outside the prison system.
They’re exploited through prison labour programs. In an article for The Guardian Kevin Rashid Johnson described his experience in prison, “Though I’ve always refused to engage in this modern slavery myself, I’ve witnessed plenty of examples of it. The most extreme were in Texas and Florida, where prisoners are forced to work in the fields for free, entirely unremunerated… Prisoners who do not agree to such abject slavery are put in solitary confinement.” (Source, archived source)
Disabled people are dramatically over-represented in prisons. In a Human Rights Watch Interview The Horror of Australia’s Prisons, researcher Kriti Sharma responds to the question How is it that 50 percent of Australia’s prison population has a disability?
“Eighteen percent of Australia’s general population has a disability. The most common type of disabilities found in prisons are mental health conditions. People with disabilities are not more criminal than anyone else, but the lack of comprehensive mental health and social services has created a pathway to prison for many people with disabilities. Many are Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders. Research shows that most of the offenses they committed are less serious than offenses committed by others – a failure to pay fines, traffic violations, or public order offenses.” (source, archived source)
Kriti Sharma also describes the abuse that disabled prisoners in Australia face: “Under international law, solitary confinement is being locked up in a room for 22 hours or more per day without meaningful social interaction. Across the prisons I visited you see people with disabilities – particularly mental health conditions — kept in solitary for days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years. When a prisoner goes into this unit, they have no one to talk to. Lights are on 24/7, making it hard to sleep. They have no mental health support. They have to wear a suicide-proof gown, they’re given finger food to eat – so no utensils. All this happens to them when they are having a crisis, when they’re crying out for help. And they experience this as punishment.” (source, archived source)
Prisons are not the only institutions where disabled people are abused and have our rights denied. Anti-prison activists and disabled activists are fighting many of the same battles. Disabled people can be confined in medical and psychiatric services, nursing homes, and group homes, without our consent far too often. Under compulsory treatment orders mentally ill people have many of our rights striped away, can be forced to stay in a hospital or mental health clinic without our consent, and have treatments and medication forced on us against our will. Mental health care is vital, but for that very reason turning it into a threat or a tool used against the person without respect for the person’s consent, human rights, or autonomy is reprehensible and erodes trust in mental health services, creating yet another barrier to accessing mental health care for multiply marginalised people.
In Freedom for Some is Not Freedom for All disability activist Alice Wong wrote “Congregant settings do not ensure safety or care. By design, institutions do not allow us to know about the conditions of the people incarcerated inside. They are allowed to operate without transparency and accountability. They render people as less than human, subject to exploitation, abuse, and neglect. The systems that exist now don’t have to remain the same. We must dismantle the nursing home industry that places profits over lives as they endanger their workers and operate with inadequate oversight and regulation. And we must work toward decarceration and deinstitutionalization because these systems are dangerous, inhumane, and unjust.” (Source, archived source)
Confining people in prisons and confining disabled people in so-called “care” institutions are painfully similar approaches: they treat some people as disposable and isolate us because separating us from the rest of society seems like an easier default than providing genuine and appropriate care to everyone who needs it.
We are part of societies that built these institutions, or committed other wrongs, and continue to oppress disabled people. We are also part of societies that said no, we will not allow this to continue anymore.
We bare responsibility for what is happening around us, but we also have the option to draw strength from the incredible activist movements that happen around us.
Transformative justice is not a simple solution. It invites us to imagine a world without prisons and from that starting point to look beyond punitive systems and create many alternatives that support and empower a wide range of different people in a wide range of different communities. In transformative justice we create space for victims to decide for themselves what they need to heal, for communities to recognise their obligations in providing support and in holding others to account, and we create opportunities for perpetrators to understand and address the harm they caused and do what they can to make things better. It’s an intentionally flexible process that recognises that what works in one situation may not, will not, work in another.
Transformative justice looks at the systems and communities we live in and asks “what are the conditions that allowed harm to occur? What conditions that would need to exist to have prevented this harm from occuring in the first place?”
These questions mean that transformative justice approaches are able to achieve systemic change by recognising that while the perpetrator is absolutely responsible for what they did, the community is responsible for systemic changes and creating societies in which the conditions that led to this harm don’t arise as often, or ideally again.
It means investing our resources in education, in welfare, in health care- not in the exact forms they’re in today, but as ways of giving everyone access to learning and knowledge, to material support, and to medical health care, including mental health care, with asking them to submit themselves to a degrading or dehumanising system.
Transformative justice can involve formal or informal mediation between people. It can mean supporting the victim to talk to the person or people who harmed them, it can mean supporting them to be in their communities or alone in their own space without having to engage with whoever harmed them if that’s the route they choose to take.
It might involve the perpetrator doing very concrete work to directly repair the harm that they caused, or helping the victim directly, or doing other work to help other people. It might be that they, with other people to support them and keep them accountable, learn better coping skills, or work on themselves to make sure they won’t repeat the harm. It might mean that they, temporarily or permanently, remove themselves from specific groups or community spaces that the victim is also part of if the victim wants access to those spaces without having to interact with the perpetrator. It’s a form of taking responsibility and ownership for the consequences of the harm they caused.
It means recognising that the person who caused harm often needs to heal too, and recognising that that is not a burden or responsibility to place on the victim.
Transformative justice is far from perfect. Many approaches assume that people have a community that they are connected with, or assume that the community they’re connected with is in the same physical space as they are. Both of these things are not true for a lot of us. Some advocates for transformative justice lack knowledge of disability justice and the issues that disabled people face and because of that can rely on or recommend approaches that rely on social workers or counsellors or psychologists without awareness of how those systems have a lot to make up for and a history and current practice of perpetrating harm and abuse against mentally ill people.
For disabled people who have been let down again and again, judged as “too hard” to support or alienated from communities that refuse to address their own ableism, the idea of a system that doesn’t make many concrete guarantees and relies a lot on community support can quite reasonably raise a lot of scepticism.
But mainstream systems keep letting us down too. They don’t work, and they don’t provide any image of a path towards working. In The Prison Paradox: More Incarceration Will Not Make Us Safer Don Stemen, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Loyola University Chicago wrote “Despite two decades of declining crime rates and a decade of efforts to reduce mass incarceration, some policymakers continue to call for tougher sentences and greater use of incarceration to reduce crime. It may seem intuitive that increasing incarceration would further reduce crime: incarceration not only prevents future crimes by taking people who commit crime “out of circulation” (incapacitation), but it also may dissuade people from committing future crimes out of fear of punishment (deterrence). In reality, however, increasing incarceration rates has a minimal impact on reducing crime and entails significant costs.
Increases in incarceration rates have a small impact on crime rates and each additional increase in incarceration rates has a smaller impact on crime rates than previous increases. Any crime reduction benefits of incarceration are limited to property crime. Research consistently shows that higher incarceration rates are not associated with lower violent crime rates. Incarceration may increase crime in certain circumstances. In states with high incarceration rates and neighbourhoods with concentrated incarceration, the increased use of incarceration may be associated with increased crime.” (source, archived source)
Transformative justice is hard, and it is still being written. The moral arc of the universe is long, but we can drag it a few degrees in the right direction. Transformative justice is an opportunity to see that, while we don’t have all the answers yet, we can create something much better than the systems we currently have. It’s an obligation and an incredible opportunity to imagine better.