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What will it take to heal?

Nicole Vosper looks at how we can design for alternatives to prison.

Working for a society where prisons are made redundant is without a doubt a long term goal, but what can be we do now to create safer communities and reduce harm?

It is clear that design plays a role in creating permanent cultures with the premises of:

  • Commitment to meeting basic needs of our community, beyond institutions based on power and control, such as the NHS, state schools and so forth. The intersections between the ‘welfare’ system and the prison system cannot be ignored. The state does not meet community needs and we cannot wait for them to do so. It is up to us to organise to meet needs as a community, through design, to make the state redundant, otherwise those in the welfare system will continuously be channelled towards the prison system.
  • Safety for queer communities, who are also disproportionately encaged in our society. This means solidarity with LGBTQ projects and embracing diversity in all aspects of our work.
  • Access to healthcare – prisons get in the way of supporting health, perpetuating health inequalities. To design safe communities we need a truly nourishing, holistic, community based model of healthcare and above all, healthy environments.
  • Mental health support – the proportions of those in prison experiencing mental health challenges is massive. If we are to reduce the interfaces with the prison system, community-based approaches to mental health need to be supported. It is clear that this culture that we live in is insane, embracing cultures of healing may be the only way we can defeat the prison system.
  • School systems – discipline policies push people out of school. Intersections of poverty and a culture of violence do not appear when accounting for ‘anti-social’ or ‘disruptive behaviour’. Pushed to the margins of society, prison is a step away. Many people organise in the alternative education movements, alternatives to the increasingly prison-like school system, and they need support and to be valued in creating safe communities.
  • Military alternatives – and this is where abolition links to industrial civilisation. Abolitionists can challenge the idea that using military ideas and equipment builds safe communities. The amount of ex-servicemen in prison is testament to this fact and it is clear that the military industrial complex is partner and perpetuator of the prison industrial complex. With nation states the default model of society, there will always be war. Only with the collapse of industrial civilisation and the rebirth of community based horticultural societies can we hope to reduce the harm these industries inflict.
  • Alternatives to policing – now I know this is an emotive topic. A lot of readers will have had an experience where a copper has helped them rescue a kitten/support them after a car crash/visit them after a burglary and so on and so on, but really as a model of community safety, does policing work? It is clear that police inflict harm and remove people from their communities to deal with social problems. Police use force – arrest or threat of arrest and physical harm – to make people act in certain ways and be in certain places. I don’t know about anyone else, but coercion from police play no role in my vision of a permanent culture.

What will it take to heal?

When taking the first steps to re-learn ‘crime’ as harm, its context changes. Harm is not only caused by ‘criminals’ but by the state, the prison industrial complex, industrial agriculture and more. Recognising this changes everything.

“Greatly reducing rates of particular kinds of harm depends upon our ability to change the social and economic conditions in which they take place,” says Critical Resistance. For me the power of changing these conditions comes with design. “Harm intervention at its heart is renewal,” says Steve Peace. “A capacity of commitment to restoring what can be restored, mourning what has been lost, engaging what is at stake… all in spite of harm.” (Peace, 2010)

Permaculturalists all work in spite of harm, whether it’s personal harm to themselves or the witnessing of harm to others and the land. How we cope with this harm, ultimately how we heal, can no longer be thought of as an individual pursuit.

“Harm is not just violence or consequence of oppression, but it’s also a political act, and healing therefore is political resistance”, says Steve Peace. “We intervene so that we can live.”

For me, healing means the abolition of the prison system, a goal I ache for as much as I ache for a world without pesticides poisoning our soils. And so I ask others: How can we design to reduce harm? How can you design for safety and self-determination in your community? What will it take to heal?

Nicole Vosper is an ex-prisoner anarchist community organiser and pemaculture practitioner based on Somerset. This is an edited version of a blog published on the Permaculture Research Institute website. 

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