‘The time to act is now’: Grass roots radical activism

David Scott calls for policy interventions to reduce prison populations alongside the fostering of community based social movements.

The mobilisation of grass roots activists is absolutely necessary for any sustained radical transformation of current penal and social realities.  In England and Wales the radical penal lobby over the last forty years has included a diverse range of organisations including, Radical Alternatives to Prison, Women In Prison, INQUEST and No More Prison. The publications and radical lobbying of INQUEST on deaths in custody and the campaigns by members of Women in Prison on the experiences of incarcerated women and girls in the United Kingdom have delivered clear and principled critiques of penal incarceration and helped facilitate progressive humanitarian change.

Radical Alternatives to Prison [RAP], which operated from 1970 until the mid-1980s, was unique in that it aimed to challenge both economic inequalities and penal excess.  Its key aim was to present a “fundamental critique of the existing economic and political order and the manner in which we chose to define and correct deviant behaviour”.   RAP both visualised and supported radical alternatives to handling social and individual problems, especially in its early days, and advocated concrete ‘negative reforms’ of penal incarceration grounded in the principles of human rights, especially in its later days.   The research, campaigns and activism of RAP members provided an essential challenge to the then government’s exclusive role in defining ‘penal truth’ and a vehicle for collective mobilisation.

Although in the last three decades anti-prison social movements in England and Wales have faltered, lessons can be learnt from the past and contemporary social movements like Critical Resistance in the USA.  Critical Resistance grounds its opposition to penal incarceration in coalition politics promoting anti-violence, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and black and women’s liberation.  Their activism and community interventions offer testimony of how global hyper-incarceration is not justified in their name.  Anti-prison social movements can help foster a politics of inclusion based on shared humanity and highlight the abnormality of prison and the dehumanising context of poverty and social inequalities.  Most significantly of all, it can lead to the creation of an alternative power base that can be utilised to challenge the role, function and legitimacy of unprecedented penal expansion and the increasingly unequal society it upholds.

What we need are direct policy interventions that can reduce prison populations alongside the fostering of community based social movements that can join forces in struggles for freedom and recognition of human dignity for all.  Anti-prison activists and theorists must continue to aspire to live in, and fight for, a world without prisons alongside advocating non-punitive interventions rooted in immanent possibilities.  In the long term, of course, the best way to protect and guarantee the safety and security of citizens is to ensure that there is a socially just, democratic and accountable distribution of the social product.  Though this seems some way off, the time to act is now.

Dr David Scott, University of Central Lancashire.

Reference: Ryan, M. (1978) The Acceptable Pressure Group: Inequality in the penal lobby- a case study of the Howard League and RAP Farnborough: Saxon House

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1 Response to ‘The time to act is now’: Grass roots radical activism

  1. Pingback: On the inside: Insider perspectives on prison reform « Downsizing Criminal Justice

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