Prison Abolition is a Queer Issue
Luce Howell reflects on their personal experience of being a filmmaker centering their work around sexual violence, and begins to build the case for why prison abolition should be at the centre of radical queer activism.
Advocating Zealously is my first independent film; it also started my journey toward abolition. The film details accounts of the various procedures and mechanisms that are undertaken by survivors of rape and sexual violence after formally reporting. From descriptions of restless waiting rooms to the negligence of lawyers, three different perspectives guide the audience through a conversation around how, ultimately, the justice system is systematically failing. Prison abolition seeks to reduce or eliminate the incarceration system as a response to societal harm. It is a movement that I believe is in total symbiosis with survivors of sexual violence, and one that ensures queer liberation for all, not just for some.
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, physical assault and domestic violence. I grew up in a household where addiction, poverty and mental health issues were present – this means I have had multiple encounters with police interventions throughout my life. My experiences lead to me quickly learning how the police and state are instruments of violence, despite being recognised as the protectors of society. When I was physically assaulted at age eleven, I vaguely remember a conversation with a social worker who was involved in working with me and the perpetrator directly, urging my mother and I not to pursue a charge that would end in a prison sentence. As an eleven-year-old, my understanding of the criminal justice system is not the one I harbour now, but I still whole-heartedly agreed. I wrote in my victim statement that I forgave him and was sent a list of community organisations and programmes where my perpetrator would subsequently be sent to work after our court hearing – and was told to pick one. I never thought too much about it, but I remember the way the social worker said I had no idea how much I had saved this young person’s life. Now I understand why they told me this. The prison system and punitive, carceral thinking, are both forms of severe violence that seek to further cycles of harm, rather than eliminate it.
Jails and prisons are often traumatising, dangerous places and this is especially true for LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people. Being LGBTQ and in jail or prison can lead to so many human rights violations: daily humiliation, physical and sexual abuse, the fear that it will only get worse if you complain to the staff in these institutions, or the harsh reality that the staff are the ones enacting this abuse. Many LGBTQ people are placed in solitary confinement for months or years, simply for their queer and trans identities. Despite being disproportionately overrepresented within the criminal justice system, LGBTQ prisoners and their physical, psychological and social health needs continue to be ‘hidden’ and ‘overlooked’.
“Despite being disproportionately overrepresented within the criminal justice system, LGBTQ prisoners and their physical, psychological and social health needs continue to be ‘hidden’ and ‘overlooked’.”
Many people who believe in prison abolition will tell you that their most asked question is ‘’What about the rapists?’’. It is a fair question to ask, how we respond to those who have committed sexual violence, but it is also imperative to know that the current system is not currently doing that. Research by the ministry of justice found an average of 473,000 men and women are victims of sexual offences, including flashing and groping, each year. But only 54,000 cases are reported to police and from that pool, a mere 5,620 offenders are convicted. The rates for conviction are staggeringly low. The experience of the court for those who have reported, can be just as traumatising as the initial events.
Growing up, I made a promise to myself I would take what happened to me to the grave. I didn’t believe there was a viable form of justice and feared what so many CSA survivors fear: not being believed. When I attended court for the second time at age nineteen, the fear that was so poignant in my early childhood was not only confirmed, but threatening to my wellbeing. Before I was escorted to the stand, I was told ‘’It will be just like going to the dentist: you know, uncomfortable, but it won’t last long’’. It was not like a dental check-up. It was like feeling all your teeth being pulled from your mouth individually. I was questioned aggressively and called a liar. The defence barrister took pauses in between his statements and stared at me. I was briefed beforehand that this would happen, as a purposeful act to try and confuse me. I would later learn that this is called advocating zealously. Zealous advocacy is supposedly doing everything reasonable, within a lawyer’s means, to help a client achieve their goals. This comes at the legal ability to re-traumatise and terrorise survivors of abuse who take to the stand.
Growing up, I didn’t believe in possible forms of justice. For a long time in my early adult life I still didn’t. Now, I do. I believe a better world is possible. This can be created by defunding police forces and focusing and reinvesting the money into community lead initiatives such as youth services, mental health and social care, education, jobs and housing. These are key services which are dedicated to supporting the most vulnerable before they encounter the criminal justice system. This would mean not just dealing with the symptoms of crime in areas, but dealing with the causes. It may not be a solution to how we end cycles of harm, but it’s at least a start.