The Rebuilding Can Begin

Cradle Community, Brick by Brick: How We Build a World Without Prisons (Hajar Press, 2023 (2nd edition)). Reviewed by Beth Ansell.

The way we frame the questions we ask is important. Constructive, imaginative work most often comes from asking how something could be done rather than whether it should be done. Ask “should we abolish prisons?”, and the parameters are implied: here, and now, with society as it is, what would happen if there were no prisons? The answerer’s mind is awash with images of chaos. It seems like a nice idea, but an unrealistic one. The discussion is quickly shut down.

Cradle realise that change can only happen if we bypass these “should” questions and instead ask ourselves “how?”. In Brick by Brick, they dive headfirst into this thought experiment, peeling back the layers of our society to reveal the alarming reaches of the carceral system. A culture of policing, punishment, and surveillance runs through every vein of our collective existence. In housing, our obsession with private ownership leads to policing and surveillance of property, whilst homelessness is criminalised. In healthcare, police are called unnecessarily on those exhibiting mental distress, and basic care is denied to oppressed groups such as undocumented migrants and people in prison. People are forced to work when they can’t, denied the right to work because of their immigration status, and certain forms of work, such as sex work, are criminalised. Meanwhile, we are fed a steady stream of ‘copaganda’, with police dramas, and shows about traffic cops and border control inundating our TV screens. Cradle convincingly demonstrate that the carceral system is not just entrenched within society – it’s embedded in the very ways in which we think and react to the problems we see.

The pattern which emerges, and the point from which the “how” question can begin to be answered, is that time and time again, it is the most vulnerable and oppressed members of society who bear the brunt of our carceral state. Heavy policing hits people without homes, with poor mental and physical health, addiction, disability, and those failed by the education system. Racism compounds this, with Black members of these groups being disproportionately affected and targeted. We are policed and punished for acts of survival by a system focussed on reaction, not prevention. Once we recognise this, Cradle argue, the rebuilding can begin.

“Abolitionist work can and should resist every point at which the criminal justice system interlocks with our lives”, Cradle instruct. This might seem like an overwhelming demand, but Cradle prompt our imagination with numerous examples of effective abolitionist work already taking place. There is no shortage of suggestions in this book as to how we might create a society in which the most vulnerable are helped, not locked away. The common theme running through all of them is a call to care and community.

Book Cover

Capitalism and carceralism go hand in hand. From the use of policing and punishment as a tool for control and subjugation in order to expand historical empires, to the modern-day prison industrial complex where security and prison contracts are sold off to private companies and prisoners are working for a £4 a week minimum wage, Cradle adeptly demonstrate the interdependence of these two systems. We are made to see that each is indispensable to the other. The abolitionist project is therefore by necessity a socialist one. Abolition is a framework within which we can build a certain kind of socialist society; one which is safe, free, and just.

For a book on abolition, readers might be surprised to find only ten pages devoted to the practicalities of getting rid of prisons (Cradle advocate pressure group tactics to slow and prevent the building of new prisons, and connecting up support services for people inside to speed up the release process). But this would be to misunderstand their project. Cradle start with prisons and work backwards, asking which people we need to help, and which systems we need to dismantle, in order to render prisons unnecessary. Abolition which centres care, empathy and interconnectedness is the only way to create the fundamental restructuring of society necessary for a world without them.

In bypassing the “should” and getting straight into the “how”, Cradle have created an impressive and persuasive piece of work. They shine a spotlight on deep-reaching, murky carceralism, but provide us with the optimism and tools to do something about it.

Beth Ansell is a philosopher and a runner.