Debbie Kilroy: Why we must abolish the prison system

The new Serco-run Clarence Correctional Centre in NSW, which has 1700 beds. Photo: Serco

Debbie Kilroy is a long-term prison rights campaigner, particularly focused on protecting the rights of women and children. She helped establish Sisters Inside and is its CEO. She is a strong supporter of decarceration — to end the use of prisons and other systems of social control in response to crime and social issues. Below is an abridged transcript of Kilroy’s presentation to an online Green Left forum on June 28 where she spoke alongside Gumbaynggirr Dunghutti Bundjalung woman Elizabeth Jarrett and Mervyn Eades, a Menang/Wilaman man from the Noongar nation.

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First, the abolition of the prison industrial complex is our destination and decarceration is our journey. It’s not something I’m going to see in my life. But, right now, with a new movement on the streets there is a conversation around abolishing the prison industrial complex and decarceration strategies.

It’s really important to imagine a world without prisons and police and punishment. The models we know of now are killing First Nations people, black and brown people. I hope you all demand we defund police and abolish prisons: it’s now a global movement.

In Australia, we must demand divestment from police and punishment and prisons. This must include every entity that uses carceral mechanisms. By this, I include corporations and non-government organisations that are funded with taxpayers' money and use carceral mechanisms to control people that they are funded to support. They must be defunded.

We cannot continue to use carceral responses and think we are going to get something different than what we have today: the killings of First Nations people, black and brown people by police, prisons and other institutions. And, as Lizzie Jarrett said, the removal, the kidnapping of Aboriginal children is still a huge issue.

Until recently, society has not questioned whether policing and punishment and prisons should exist. It’s only now that a new generation of young people are thinking about the world and wanting a different one to this racial capitalist society.

Prisons have become part of the subconscious landscape in our mind. When we think of behaviour we don’t like, we think of calling cops and engaging courts and prisons to respond. This must end.

We can’t rely on the same structures to deal with cops within a system that doesn’t deal justice to anybody. We have to come up with other models of public safety and security.

It’s time. There are groups in our community that are working on these strategies. We know Aboriginal women will not go to the police for help around domestic and family violence because they’ll be arrested. We know that black trans women won’t call the police to deal with a violent interaction, whether it’s interpersonal or with the state, because they will also get violated and may be killed. Non-binary communities have other strategies to deal with the violence in their lives. We must start talking to these communities because they’re already doing it.

Women in prison today don’t rely on screws to deal with the violence in the prison system. They know that they will be violated even further. We take it into our own hands.

To say that we need prisons because of certain people that are violent just means that the violence will continue, because prisons are violent. To end violence, we need ways to deal with people in a way that’s respectful and dignified.

But, if someone is violating someone else, causing harm, how do we address that? It can’t be with police and punishment and prisons. We’ve got to stop thinking about punishment models. We’ve got to start thinking outside the bars. My sister in the United States Angela Davis says: “It’s as if prisons were an inevitable part or fact of life, like death and birth.” We can’t rely on prisons to be part of our lives, like life and death. They do not give us life. They kill us and we know more so for Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islander peoples and black and brown people around the world.

An important question today is about how to prevent the net widening? How do we prevent the further criminalisation and imprisonment of First Nations peoples and other disadvantaged peoples in our community here and around the world?

In Australia, we’re now having the conversation about defunding police and the abolition of prisons. We need to keep this conversation going. We cannot bolster the expansion of the prison industrial complex.

I don’t support justice reinvestment, because I don’t see any justice in the first instance. The reinvestment that’s usually made in those type of models are back to white academia, universities or researchers. The money is not given back to elders or to communities to distribute how they want.

Money saved in the government-funded justice reinvestment models is removed from the community and spent elsewhere. In New South Wales, a new 1700-cell prison, run by Serco, has just opened, something we’ve been fighting against for years. Justice reinvestment is only on the agenda because new prisons are opening their doors.

We must imagine and creatively explore new ideas of justice, new models of community safety and security. We can no longer rely on the racial, capitalist, punishment models and those institutions that it calls “justice”.

People call it the criminal justice system. I call it the criminal punishment system. That is the reality. There is no justice. We’ve got to take justice back and develop the models ourselves.

We must continue to expose racial capitalism and its punishment institutions.

We must declare, now, a moratorium on building any more prison cells — in whatever form. No more. Not even if the reform is to say, well, the children are cramped together or the prison is overcrowded. Well, release them!

During the coronavirus pandemic in Queensland, the watchhouse was not locking up women and more women were being released from prison; the numbers were coming down and more lawyers were taking action for women and girls and men.

The numbers came down because the watchhouse didn’t want people coming in under arrest in case they had the virus. Instead, they would give them a notice to appear in court on a certain date. So the watchhouses were cleaned out. Sisters Inside was going into the biggest watchhouse in this state, where usually about 30 women or more were being held and processed in a week, and it went down to four or five.

It’s only now that we’re seeing the restrictions ease that watchhouses have become active again.

We knew that the cops could do things differently. But now, because the watchhouse is open again, we’re seeing the numbers of people go up.

The time has come to push back on the cops.

Pam Palmater, my Indigenous activist sister from Canada said it so beautifully: we can and must stop taxpayers’ dollars — yours and mine — from continuing the oppression of First Nations peoples. “The time has come to defund the police, take the resources from them. The time has come to move funding from those organisations, whether they are non-government organisations or corporations or companies,” she said.

Funding must be removed from carceral mechanisms to control people, that carceral institutions are funded to support. Whether it’s housing, for example, and they want someone to move out, rather than call the cops and criminalise someone, they need to talk to the person to work out the issues.

The same goes for when they take a baby from mum, and mum's upset. They call the cops to come with the “child protection workers” to kidnap that Black baby. The baby is never returned home to its mother, its family and its community. This is the ongoing genocide happening to First Nations peoples in this country.

What Palmater says must happen for Canadian Aboriginal people is also what we must call for here: we’ve got to stop using taxpayers’ money to fund the oppression of First Nations peoples.

We must decarcerate and create a national plan about how are we going to do this together. We also need to stop criminalising people. We’ve got to repeal the laws that criminalise people.

Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, an activist, academic and prison abolitionist in the US, says three words, twice. I want to end by saying them too, because I really believe this: “Life is precious. Life is precious.”

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