World without prisons?
Prof. Liat Ben-Moshe teaches disability studies at the University of Toledo. (photo from Liat Ben-Moshe)
University of Toledo assistant professor Liat Ben-Moshe moved to the United States in 2002 to do her doctorate in disability studies at Syracuse University, as the field was not offered in Israel at the time.
Ben-Moshe describes the field as one “that looks at disability as an identity and a culture.”
“So,” she said, “we read things about mad culture – ‘mad’ as in ‘crazy’ – deaf culture and a variety of disability histories, disability laws and social movements related to disabilities … as well as representation [of] people with disabilities and disability, in general, in films and in literature.”
Ben-Moshe is a member of and has been a leading voice in the disability community. She works to educate anyone who will listen about disability rights, to change the outlook.
“We are not asking for charity,” said Ben-Moshe. “We are asking for what is rightfully ours, like an increase in disability stipends and things of that nature. At that time, there was also no kind of formulated disability law.” Now, there is, and there are both similarities and differences between such laws in Canada, the United States and Israel, she said, noting, “They are all rights-based laws, discrimination-based laws.”
As Ben-Moshe was developing her understanding of disability law and how society began looking differently at people with disability, she started seeing correlations between how people with disabilities were being treated in institutions and how prisoners were being treated.
Society has dismantled many large institutions for people with mental and intellectual disabilities. “People don’t really understand how massive these institutions were,” said Ben-Moshe. “Some of them housed 3,000 people with intellectual disabilities in the heyday.
“Closures of these facilities came out of a desire to really change the way that we understand what disability means and how to react to it on a social level,” she explained. “We don’t need to be segregated in order for the civility to be viable in our communities. And the reason I’m connecting it to the prison arena is because there has been – and, today, for sure – a vibrant, although quite small, social movement that advocates for the closure of prisons…. By that, I mean prison abolition.”
Ben-Moshe contends that people should not be locked away as punishment.
“It’s really a radical framework – to understand how we can react to each other differently and how we can respond to harm that’s done to us differently … without segregation, without locking people away,” she said. “When you take this [locking up] idea of out of sight, out of mind, [something] that only exacerbates the root of the harm, you can see a lot of connections between this [non-segregating] framework and the framework of deinstitutionalization.”
Just as some people thought that deinstitutionalization could not work, there are those who don’t believe that decarceration is achievable. But Ben-Moshe said we can learn from how deinstitutionalization took place in most American states and in Canada, and how well it has worked, in general.
“How do we learn from it, as a historical precedence?” she said. “A lot of my work is about bridging those two ideas – frameworks and social movements.”
Ben-Moshe mentioned the 128-page ebook called Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis (Penguin Random House, 2003). In it, says the description online, Davis argues that “American life is replete with abolition movements and, when they were engaged in these struggles, their chances of success seemed almost unthinkable. For generations of Americans, the abolition of slavery was sheerest illusion. Similarly, the entrenched system of racial segregation seemed to last forever, and generations lived in the midst of the practice, with few predicting its passage from custom…. Davis expertly argues how social movements transformed these social, political and cultural institutions, and made such practices untenable.”
There is no short answer to the question of how to abolish prisons. But, according to Ben-Moshe, the answer has to come from communities. The prison abolition movement in the United States, she said, is led by the black feminist movement and, in Canada, it is led by indigenous groups, as these communities are most impacted by the prison system.
Insofar as the movement’s success in both countries, Ben-Moshe said, “I’d say, definitely, there is, in Canada, a pretty vibrant prison abolition movement. As it is in the U.S., it’s pretty varied. Some of it does come from the indigenous perspective. For example, the idea of sentencing circles.
“In many indigenous communities, there has never been a prison. So, we don’t necessarily need to go back in time to see what it means to live in a world without a prison. We can talk to the indigenous people who have never bonded to this idea of prison. Not to romanticize it. I mean, harm has been done in those communities, but how did they deal with it? That’s definitely something that’s going on in Canada, as well.”
Ben-Moshe pointed to the somewhat new concept of using ankle bracelets, as opposed to imprisonment, as a misguided move. The way she sees it, by doing this, instead of reducing incarceration, the prison walls become endless.
“These are for-profit things that people who are incarcerated have to pay for,” said Ben-Moshe. “And what we see is that people who would have not even been incarcerated before now get ankle bracelets.”
In the same way that disability can’t exist in a place with no barriers, prisons can cease to exist if people are taught how to better work within society’s limits.
“If everyone spoke sign language, those who are deaf wouldn’t even be categorized as disabled, because they would just be a linguistic minority,” said Ben-Moshe. “Disability is not something in people. It’s something in the interaction between people and their environment.
“In disability studies, we talk about ‘ablism’ (able-ism), which is oppression that people with disabilities face. But, I also connect that to racism, sexism and other forms of oppression, to say that we’re always living simultaneous forms of privilege and oppression.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.