The Need to Abolish the Prison System: An Ethical Indictment

Reviewed by Tammi

Steve Martinot, The Need to Abolish the Prison System: An Ethical Indictment (Smashwords, 2014), 96 pp., ebook $2.00. Paper copies available @ $4 from the author at PO Box 11842, Berkeley, CA  94712.

In The Need to Abolish the Prison System: An Ethical Indictment, Martinot sets out to show that prisons equate to systematic violence and that the innermost logic of imprisonment – the revenge ethic – is fundamentally opposed to social order. In so doing, he attempts to make the abolition of prisons “thinkable.”

Imprisonment, he argues, responds to one transgression by imposing another, thereby “adding to the sum of total criminality” in society. The notion that prisons are fundamentally criminal and imprisonment is a form of victimization by the state constitutes the core of Martinot’s indictment. Beyond this, though, he recognizes the specifically racialized nature of the US prison system, stating that racial disparities in rates of incarceration are the intentional result of policies manufactured by people in positions of power, who impose an “impermissible racialization” on society.

Central to Martinot’s argument is the idea that people generally accept the existence of the prison system, based on a revenge ethic. It is this ethic of vengeance that allows the state and people in general to make a moral distinction between the acts of violence or harm committed by individuals and those committed by the state in the name of ‘justice’. This ethic, he claims, “erases the difference between crime and punishment.” In calling for retribution in the name of the ‘victim’, the rights of the accused are essentially nullified, and the accused, through punishment, becomes a victim her/himself. Additionally, the revenge ethic serves the social function of excluding the accused from the category of ‘full human being’ deserving of human rights, thus consigning the accused to a type of exile or social death.

Martinot challenges us to consider the ‘structure’ of imprisonment as inherently criminal. He argues that the basic structure underlying imprisonment is the same as that of other crimes, specifically kidnapping and rape (though he does make clear it is the structure, rather than the specific acts, that shares the commonality). The commonality is that, as with kidnapping and rape, imprisonment involves a body “held by force” and a “loss of sovereignty through captivity” in which someone’s “humanity is reduced to insignificance.” He adds that the criminal justice system ‘steals’ a person’s life in the same way, structurally, that a thief steals property. Undoubtedly, some will take issue with his discussion of rape. Still, his point is that the ‘judicial machine’ (laws, courts, prisons, etc.) commits acts structurally similar to those it outlaws for individuals, and enjoins these actions by law.

The judicial machine, then, serves as a role model for members of society and, through its own crimes of imprisonment, as well as police violence, demonstrates that human rights are not inalienable and violence is not impermissible. If these acts (as committed by the state) have “moral legitimacy a priori, then there can be no justification for a moral distinction.” Acts of law-breaking and acts of law enforcement, then, are morally indistinguishable acts of criminality. Thus, punishment will never alleviate crime, since it actually adds to the total amount of crime in a society; and prisons, “despite being politically defined as a response to [crime],” have no justification.

To come to this place, Martinot argues that we must consider the structure of punishment and imprisonment apart from any political rhetoric and engage in “direct ethical interpretation.” He distinguishes between ‘ethical judgments’, which consider the structure of acts, and ‘political decisions’, which are merely the naming of acts by those in positions of power. When we use ethical judgment, we can understand events or practices from a human, rather than a structural, viewpoint, thus allowing us to see, for example, war as mass murder, capital punishment as pre-meditated murder, and imprisonment as kidnapping. In defining ‘crime’, the law differentiates between crimes committed by individuals and those committed by the state as punishment. Thus the “essential socio-political project” of defining crime is “state self-justification.” Rather than accept legal definitions of ‘crime’, we should instead think of crime as an act that harms another and causes suffering, regardless of who commits the act.

Next, Martinot outlines the foundations for what he calls a ‘criminal society’, holding that US society is, indeed, a criminal one. He claims there are three fundamental conditions that make a society ‘criminal’: authorities can commit acts legally specified as crimes with impunity; those who are harmed by authorities lack the recourse or ability to hold anyone accountable; and members of society, even when they do not participate in authorities’ criminal actions, nevertheless accept, acquiesce to, and identify with the institutions that perform the acts. He claims US society is “run on the basis of impunity, not of law or justice.”

If we are to build a just society, one in which we aim to eliminate crime (harm), Martinot suggests that we engage in a multi-stage process that ultimately leads to prison abolition. The first step is to eliminate ‘victimless crime laws’ (such as drug laws), which he considers a direct attempt by the state to make people suffer. He argues that it is through victimless crime laws that police are able to criminalize any person or community at will, and it is those who are punished because of victimless crime laws who are the true ‘victims’. After this, the next step would be to eliminate institutions such as prisons, and actions such as police brutality, that serve as the role models that make violence ‘not impermissible’. Finally, we must eliminate white supremacy, upon which social institutions are structured, given that the prison system is built upon and aims to perpetuate structures of racialization through the mass imprisonment of people of color.

Along with his prescription for eliminating crime, Martinot calls for a restorative justice approach to social harms. Martinot closes the book with a list of five steps he believes are essential to “gain the virtue of a democracy and the equality it depends on,” namely: 1) eliminate the criminal ‘role models’ provided by the government, including prisons; 2) bring to justice those who have committed crimes from within the judicial machine and other harmful institutions; 3) transform courts into spaces where people can openly discuss the harms they have suffered, whether the result of institutional or interpersonal violence; 4) fully adopt the philosophy of restorative justice; and 5) create possibilities for everyone who has been harmed within the criminal society to overcome their suffering by engaging in a “process of rehumanizing society itself.”

Martinot is clearly passionate about, as well as dedicated to the process of actualizing, prison abolition. His book is, indeed, an indictment. For this, he should be commended. His main arguments, summarized above, add to the many discussions of prison abolition taking place both outside of and within academia. That being said, the book itself is at times disorganized, making some of his arguments discontinuous and, at times, only partially formulated.

Reviewed by Tammi Arford University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth