During the last week, I have been hearing reflections in the media and at community events about the Iraq war as we mark its 10th anniversary. For ten years, we have been witnessing devastation from US military intervention that has included enormous death and destruction, blatant and outrageous war profiteering and torture, and we have lived with the sobering reality that the war was not prevented or stopped by the exposure that it was based on lies or the outpouring of protest by people around the world.
One theme that has emerged in the week’s commentary about the war has been the assertion that George W. Bush and various members of his administration should face criminal prosecution. The call to put Bush and others in prison provides an interesting moment for reflection for those of us who want to abolish prisons. No doubt, these people’s actions and motivations are reprehensible, and they are responsible for the deaths of, by some counts, more than a million people and outrageous destruction in Iraq. However, there are several realities about criminalization and prison that expose the limitations of calling for their prosecutions.
First, the fact that these people have not been prosecuted, and won’t be, is an argument for prison abolition. The big lie of the criminal punishment system is that it puts dangerous people away to make us all safer. The reality is that the system targets people of color, poor people, youth, immigrants, people with disabilities and queer and trans people and locks them up for just being. The system is based on policing that profiles marginalized people and ensures they get arrested for being outside, because cops subjectively experience them as “suspicious” and because laws exist to make them easy to arrest. Laws that criminalize sleeping outside, sitting/lying on sidewalks, engaging in sex work, “loitering,” panhandling, and possessing drugs funnel people who the cops already want to harass into jails and prisons. Those people get the least advocacy in the court system, the worst sentences, the least access to alternatives to imprisonment, the worst treatment inside prisons, and end up with further marginalized by the collateral consequences of imprisonment like exclusion from public housing programs. This is what criminalization and prisons are designed to do.
Meanwhile, the most dangerous people, the people responsible for stealing the most and for killing the most, will never end up in prison. Those people are the elected officials, the people running banks, the people running prisons and police forces, the people wearing police and military uniforms. Everything about the systems of criminalization and imprisonment ensure that these people will continue to harm. In fact, some of their most effective tools of control, harm and violence are the criminal punishment system and the immigration enforcement system. Once in a long while, one person like a cop who has killed or a soldier who has been involved in torture or massacre will be tried and convicted. Mostly they aren’t no matter how egregious and well-documented their actions, but once in a while one of those people will be put on trial. This will have virtually no effect on the systems themselves—it will make them look a little more legitimate for a minute, meanwhile business as usual continues.
For these reasons, the call to imprison Bush Administration officials is unsatisfying to me. Imprisoning them would do nothing for those who have been killed in the wars, and making the call, to me, suggests that we believe the criminal punishment system is an apparatus for dealing with dangerous people and seeking justice, which is not true. I would rather we put our energies into fighting for things we actually think can ameliorate the harm that has been done and prevent it from continuing. There are countless ideas being generated by activists that could fit that criteria, including ending the sanctions on Iran, preventing war with Iran, providing reparations for Iraq, ending US military aid to Israel, drastically reforming campaign finance in the US, stopping drone warfare, closing Guantanamo and all prisons, and so much more.
Organizations like SRLP oppose prisons because we see how policing and prisons harm our communities every day, and we understand that proposals to reform prisons are often used to grow and expand imprisonment. Our prison abolition approach guides our strategies for addressing the violence of policing and imprisonment that plagues trans and gender non-conforming populations, reminding us that our goal is to get our people out of prisons, not just to get prisons to write policies about gender. Our understanding of prisons as institutions of violence, rather than as solutions to violence, can also help us assess moments when we’re told that the solution to state violence is to call for the imprisonment of someone. Whether its about killer cops, banking executives or war profiteering elected officials, the solutions to our problems will never come from putting someone in prison and prison systems will never be about solving our problems.