Photo courtesy of The Base

Abolition is not a delusional cry for social chaos. It goes beyond the momentary, deconstructive approach of eliminating the police. Abolition calls for the active reimagining and recreation of a society in which police are made obsolete – for the abolition of the systems that make policing necessary.

Rather than writing off prison abolition as a whimsical socialist dream, it is crucial to consider abolitionist stances as a foundation for a more equitable, transformative justice system. I am under no false pretense that we are a long way from an abolition movement in Sri Lanka. Nonetheless, abolitionist discourse offers a crucial framework for rethinking our justice system beyond – and without – the limits of its current structural failings. To abolish is to deconstruct our common misconceptions that the police are perpetual and integral to social functioning, to recognize that colonization and corruption are the foundations of our legal system and to look toward new, nuanced and better equipped avenues for justice.

The need for abolitionist justice

The prison abolition movement takes a step beyond merely reforming the justice system. Instead, abolitionists recognize that our carceral system is beyond the point of reform, especially when underlying structures of corruption, elitism and cronyism continue to exist. The objective is therefore not to scrappily piece together bits of a broken system but to lay the foundations of a new system entirely.

It is common to hear abolition being denounced as a form of political anarchy, although both anarchy and abolition are widely misunderstood concepts. Contrary to plunging society into a state of chaos, both abolition and anarchy call for the dismantling of hierarchies that produce and reproduce power over individuals. When the first modern police were established in London in 1829, their primary mandate was not the detention of murderers and rapists but the criminalization of poor people under anti-vagrancy, anti-prostitution and anti-panhandling laws. The object of policing was not a utilitarian ambition but a desire to exercise power over the working classes and force them into labor in English workhouses as punishment.

It is therefore unsurprising that in Sri Lanka, where our police are a vestige of colonialism, inherited entirely from and replicating the 1829 London Metropolitan Police, that our judicial and carceral system feels so outdated.

Bringing the abolitionist movement to Sri Lanka in the wake of the recent Mahara Prison resistance is not only timely but absolutely necessary. The tragic deaths of 11 people were negatively framed as a riot and attack, failing to grapple with the Mahara Prison incident as a moment of resistance. Incarcerated people, deprived of basic human rights conditions and neglected in the face of a raging pandemic, were consequently demonized for exercising their civil right to demand water and better treatment in the Mahara facility. The disproportionate and excessive use of state force is a testament to the crippling power relation between state agents and civilians.

The recent protest at Jaffna University against the destruction of the Mullivaikkal memorial was also met with excessive state force with the deployment of both the police and the Special Task Force. Again, a carceral response to the civil right to peacefully protest and express dissent followed. It therefore appears that our policing institutions are not equipped nor geared towards responding to violent and harmful crime but instead undertake a foremost role in preventing resistance to hegemonic state power – a power that seeks to tame civilian dissent, expression and democratic rights while upholding orders of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy, wealth inequality and an increasingly authoritarian government.

As COVID-19 unraveled, we witnessed a totally warped carceral state. The implementation of the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance (QPDO), a law introduced by the British to Sri Lanka in 1897, highlights the obsolete colonial framework upon which the pandemic response has been structured. The implementation of curfews, quarantining and isolation of whole “diseased localities”, the arrest of approximately 30,000 civilians on the basis of a curfew violation, random stop-and-frisk tactics to conduct randomized temperature checks and the handling of COVID-19 under the regulations of the NCOPCO Task Force, all point to a carceral and punitive approach to a public health crisis.

Recognizing that our current carceral system operates little on protecting its citizens and more so on controlling, dominating and containing civilians, is a critical aspect of abolitionist thinking.

Why “reform” is not enough

A traditional reformist might suggest that defunding the police is a critical step towards reducing the carceral capacity of the state. But defunding state police institutions would simply produce adverse effects for salaried officers and not challenge the structural failings of a corrupt police force. The Sri Lanka security sector, although boasting the highest percentage of GDP and absolute spending of any government institution, does not spend its money on equipment, training and other expansive capital (unlike a country such as the United States, for example). Rather, the high budget allocation goes toward salaries for army and police personnel.

Moreover, further defunding our prison complexes will not lead to lower rates of incarceration but simply deteriorate the already abysmal prison standards. Clearly, institutional deadlock prevents defunding or reform from making any tangible change in Sri Lanka.

Another reformist standpoint may be to simply improve the standards of prisons in Sri Lanka, following the Scandinavian model of “humane prisons” (a paradox, to say the least). But it is naive to think that a country like Sri Lanka, with an already abysmal GDP and failing economy, will someday allocate its funds to beautify its prisons. Even if government funds were to be better allocated to public institutions, why would we want it to go towards our prisons and not towards better welfare programs, a stronger public health infrastructure, funding for schools and an improvement of living standards? Naturally, this would also see a decline in “crimes” committed out of poverty and desperation, another key aspect of abolitionist justice that seeks to better distribute resources to low income and vulnerable populations.

The police placebo

Perhaps the greatest anti-Abolitionist stance is that police offer an integral service: protection against crime. But although the police offer some promise of protection – albeit ineffectively and altogether quite badly – crime is not their foremost mandate. Fearmongering, prevention of resistance as witnessed in the cases of Mahara and Mullivaikkal and enforcing a strict power relation all appear higher priorities for the police state.

What is crime, anyway? Of course, crime encompasses illegal activities such as rape and murder and these offenses are harmful and violent. But the way in which we punish such acts gives little to no consideration for the victims. Instances of sexual assault are rarely taken seriously. No tangible aid is provided to survivors, nor are future acts of violence prevented or reduced in the future. The legal system often fails to redress acts of homicide perpetrated by state officials, elites and racketeer groups. Mental and financial resources for victim’s families are rarely provided. I do not claim to have the answers for effectively remedying violent crimes  but what I do know is that the entire premise of punitive action is reactionary and that the idea of deterrence alone has not worked, for murder and assault continue to occur every day.

But crime also includes an extensive list of victimless activities deemed socially unacceptable. Acts such as panhandling, sleeping in public places, indecent exposure, public displays of affection, or minor possession of low-grade drugs such as marijuana, represent low level quality-of-life offenses, and not violent or harmful crimes — but are nonetheless subject to policing in Sri Lanka. Non-hetero and non-cisgender relationships remain criminalizable offenses, as does a woman seeking abortion healthcare services.

Crime cannot be understood along the binary of legal-illegal when many illegal activities are never criminalized. White collar crime, racketeering – indeed, crime that takes place in higher income, elite communities – are rarely policed or criminalized. Petty theft can get you five years in prison but robbing an entire nation can give you the presidency. Inciting ethnic violence can award you a presidential pardon but suffering from a substance addiction can afford you the death penalty. It is glaringly obvious how criminality only touches the poor and vulnerable. To the question of “but where will all the criminals go?” if we abolish the police, it is absolutely crucial to recognize that the major “criminals” of Sri Lanka are not sitting in Welikada or Mahara but are in fact are parliamentarians, businessmen and run the country.

Toward abolitionist solutions

Abolitionist justice appears to come far closer to real justice than any legal system, courtroom or punitive action. Existing legal regimes simply reproduce violence, rather than delivering justice and equality.

While criminal justice takes place in the aftermath of harm, abolitionist justice calls for a preemptive, holistic approach to reducing harmful activity. In many cases of sexual assault, the long and arduous process of a criminal court case rarely materializes into a conviction and instead amplifies victim blaming, silencing and trauma. The judicial process alone is a deterrent for many survivors seeking restorative justice. Instead, abolitionist justice offers a nuanced alternative in the precursory stages of harm reduction. Take, for instance, the Detroit Women Against Rape (WAR), a community-led initiative that organizes street patrols and escort programs to assist women in reaching their destinations and intervening in street violence or harassment when they see it. Imagine such solutions in Sri Lanka where women, queer and trans people are incessantly harassed when navigating public spaces. Such initiatives would not simply wait for vulnerable communities to be assaulted and then proceed to never deliver justice or healing processes for victims. Rather, assault and harassment would be actively prevented.

Secondly, abolitionist justice accounts for the specific contexts that require redress and does not simply operate on abstract or obscure legal terms. Anyone who has tried to decipher legal text is aware of the major accessibility issues behind traditional legal justice. Hence, consider a real case of abolitionist justice in apartheid South Africa where the judicial needs of the black community were never met by the apartheid government. Street Committees were established as community-led forums for delivering restorative – rather than punitive – justice and healing to community members. These committees did not operate on convoluted legal terms but instead provided immediate, grassroots solutions to community members. Street Committees worked to directly engage and address communal and interpersonal conflicts and could actively provide resources to members within the community with an understanding of their specific circumstances. Today, over 400 Street Committees continue to operate in low income neighborhoods as a primary method of conflict resolution.

Realizing abolition

The carceral state is not reformable within its current legal, structural standing. A policeless society is seemingly unthinkable. But like most institutions within our current social order, the police have not existed in perpetuity; 1829 is alarmingly infant, let alone the fact that our police are totally modelled on an outdated colonial regime. In the same way that our current system was imagined, a new one can also be created.

As I am writing this, the verdict of the Ranjan Ramanayake case has just been released. With four years of rigorous imprisonment for contempt of court, it is clear that the carceral state is not concerned with harmful crime insomuch as it is an embodiment of the power relation that suppresses any challenge to state hegemony.

I employ abolitionist discourse to consider how we can better invest in community-led initiatives, which in turn can detract power from an ever-increasing authoritarian, centralized state and actively strengthen civil society. To this point, I add cynical support of a cultural Darwinist argument that stipulates Sri Lankans as “unable” to function in a society without draconian law and order enforcement is an insult to our cultural and human integrity.

Abolitionist justice is not perfect; indeed, no system can be. But the concern is not a perfect system, only a better one. It is a question of whether we uphold our justice system as vengeful and punitive, or look towards a world that prioritizes justice, reconciliation and healing.