Veganism and Prison Abolition

I've noticed that whenever people talk about "humane treatment" they're usually referring to either nonhuman animals or humans who are imprisoned or otherwise institutionally confined and controlled. I guess this makes sense since keeping people in cages and under complete control resembles how nonhuman animals are general treated in our society. Similarly, the term "cruelty" is usually applied to the treatment of nonhuman animals, human children, and human prisoners. In fact, "humane treatment" and "cruelty" are really paired terms, with the former suggested as the remedy to the latter.

I think this talk about "cruelty" and "humane treatment" is basically a way of depoliticizing oppression. While focusing on "reducing harm" or "reducing suffering," these terms fail to address the oppressive power relations under which harm and suffering occurs. These terms take the existence of human supremacy and the prison industrial complex as a given. That is, the domination of nonhuman animals and human prisoners respectively is deemed appropriate; efforts are directed to minimizing harm and suffering rather than abolishing the oppressive power relations.

Focusing on suffering and cruelty, and calling for humane treatment, doesn't address the structure of oppression. So I think it's important to recall that the vegan movement was founded on principles of opposing, and developing alternatives to, exploitation (particularly where humans exploit other animals). Unlike "cruelty," the term "exploitation" denotes a power relation between an exploiter group (e.g., humans) and the exploited group (e.g., nonhuman animals). Where as cruelty "can be regarded as a pattern of socially and culturally unacceptable behavior," exploitation marks "the material and psychological gains" that come to a more powerful group, "which are bolstered by an ideological support system" that forms the basis of what is socially and culturally acceptable.

Unlike "humane treatment," the vegan ideal of nonexploitation is linked to principles of anti-oppression. That is, veganism calls the "the material and psychological gains" of human privilege into question; its primary aim is to eliminate the system of human supremacy. In contrast, under the concept of "humane treatment," human privilege goes unquestioned; this concept only seeks to reduce harm or suffering that occurs under a system of human supremacy.

I find parallels here between veganism and prison abolition. Both call out the political relations of oppressions that are usually masked and depoliticized with similar terms. That is, both reject the calls for more "humane treatment" under the existing system.

Also, both prisons and the exploitation of nonhuman animals are often justified on the basis of "human nature." People who argue for the "humane treatment" of human prisoners or nonhuman animals usually can't conceive of a world where humans aren't imprisoned or without the exploitation of nonhuman animals. Or they simply refuse to believe that such a world is desirable. However, veganism and prison abolition both show that the society we live in determines whether these forms of oppressions exist, and they both work to present a vision of what the world would look like without these oppressive power relations.

In the spirit of honoring the efforts of all who are striving for the emancipation of humans and of other animals, it is important that vegans support prison abolition. The prison industrial complex and the exploitation of nonhuman animals are connected through a rhetoric of "cruelty" and "humane treatment," and veganism and prison abolition are connected by a commitment to anti-oppression. Moreover, there seems little sense in eliminating a system that imprisons and controls nonhuman animals without working to eliminate a system that similarly imprisons and controls human animals.

Re: Veganism and Prison Abolition

What do you suggest we humans do with other humans that severely abuse, rape, and/or murder humans or non-humans? There was a man who recently shot up and killed a man and his two sons with an AK because they cut him off in traffic (i.e.-for no reason). What do you think society should do with those kinds of people if there is no prison system of any kind?
I understand that our current system is out of control and corporate interests keep many non-violent offenders (many people of color)behind bars, but how can we be protected from actual violent criminals that endanger lives?

Prisons Aren't the Answer

HumanAnimal, the FAQ on the Critical Resistance Website offers a good start to answering your questions.

However, you seem to be assuming that prisons actually offer some protection from "violent criminals." As the Critical Resistance FAQ notes, only about 1% of those who are locked up are "violent criminals." How can the primary function of prisons be protection from these "violent criminals" if 99% of those who are incarcerated are "nonviolent criminals"? The CR FAQ goes on to note that most people don't believe prisons work to prevent nonviolent crime and asks why this would be any different from violent crime.

Specifically regarding women of color who experience "severe abuse, rape, and/or murder," INCITE and Critical Resistance have released a joint statement that debunks the assumption that prisons do, or can ever, offer true protection from violence. Consider these points: 1) Criminalization has not worked as a strategy to end violence against women; 2) The criminalization approach has actually brought harm to the women who experience violence; 3) Prisons have not made women any safer, or reduced their experiences of violence; 4) The support of criminalization/prisons undermines the advancement of social justice; and 5) Criminalization increases state power while disempowering the women who experience violence.

Prisons don't even come close to protection from "severe abuse, rape, and/or murder." In fact, these forms of violence are common inside prisons. Therefore, prisons subject all inmates, 99% of whom aren't even "violent criminals," to violence. That's not protection at all. So how can it be justifiable to continue with a system where this violence is rampant?

We're told, for instance, that the Guantanamo Bay prison exists to stop violent "terrorism," but we also know that detainees experience "severe abuse, rape, and/or murder" at the hands of agents of the United States at this and similar prisons (recall the rampant violence at the Abu Ghraib prison). What prisons like Guantanamo Bay do is distract attention from the "severe abuse, rape, and/or murder" that are an everyday part of the "war on terror" and the United State led invasion/occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, prisons failed to protect Pfc. LaVena Johnson, a woman of color, from severe abuse, rape, and murder. In fact, it seems Johnson's attacker(s) are being protected by the US government from any threat of prison or criminalization.

The idea that prisons offer protection is unfounded. Prisons are instrumental in state violence. They do not protect women, people of color, non-citizens, and the poor from violence. In fact, they they actually perpetuate violence against these groups.

With regard to nonhuman animals, the protections offered by prisons are just as dubious.

humananimal's comment

humananimal's comment reflects the concerns that a lot of people have about prison abolition.

As vegans, we are all familiar with how people react from within the status quo. We get asked things like, "what do vegans eat?" because many non-vegans only know about the way things currently are, not the way they can be. They ask, "won't the cows take over?" not realizing that in a vegan world we would not breed them and that humans have not always bred cows.

Similarly, when confronted with prison abolition, people often operate completely from within the framework that the prison industrial complex has helped to create. A world that criminalizes people. A world that thinks that prisons are a solution rather than a problem. A world in which prisons are inevitable rather than a recent creation. This view from within the status quo inhibits people from taking a broader view such as looking at how it is abused people who abuse, or seeing that prisons do nothing to end the systematic oppression of women/the feminine.

In response to humananimal's question, "what do you suggest," here are a few resources that I've found really helpful:

* Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
* The resources at Critical Resistance, a prison abolition organization
* Abolishing the Prison Industrial Complex Rachel Herzing in conversation with Trevor Paglen
* Slavery by Another Name (a short video interview with author Douglas Blackmon)