The International Conference on Penal Abolition

«During my service I found nothing in the prison system to interest me, except as a gigantic irrelevance - a social curiosity. If the system had a good effect on any prisoner I failed to mark it. I have no shadow of doubt of its power to demoralise, or of its cruelty. It appears to me not to belong to this time or civilisation at all.»

Mary Gordon (1922), the first woman doctor and inspector of prisons

The International Conference on Penal Abolition, also known with the initials ICOPA, is the official forum for abolitionists. It was back in 1981 when the «Canadian Quaker Committee on Jails and Justice» planted the seed that grew to become ICOPA, and joined its forces with other abolitionist organisations and groups on prison abolition. The Committee recognised and stated that prison is clearly an archaic, barbaric and inhumane response to the social differences and problems. As Ruth Morris recently asserted (1997)

«The prison system is both a cause and a result of violence and social injustice. Throughout history, the majority of prisoners have been the powerless and the oppressed. We are increasingly clear that the imprisonment of human beings like their enslavement, is inherently immoral, and is as destructive to the cagers as to the caged».

The First International Conference on Prison Abolition took place in Toronto in 1983 and attracted 400 people from 15 different countries in North America, Europe and Australia. But, as it was mentioned above, ICOPA is first and foremost the forum of abolitionists. Therefore, it was agreed that the Conferences on Prison Abolition should provide the opportunity to the voice of Abolitionism to be heard and offer strategies for the future. It was intended not to provide a platform for governmental people to defend the system by asking or recommending «alternatives», that is to say add-ons, within the system. The International Conference on Prison Abolition established in order to spread the address of Abolitionism; an «amateurish» address which has not any intention to be imposed or to compete. More to the point, a new criminological paradigm was collectively under construction; therefore it was urgent to be protected. There was always the danger that the expansive character of the abolitionist movement could be «encircled» by forces outside itself and thereby made to shrink and wither (Mathiesen, 1983). As the abolitionist Nils Christie nicely has asserted, in relation with occasions like the above (1997: 17)

«If one happens to find something, a good idea, something that is not trivial and known by everybody, the task is to protect that idea, that new perspective, from fast destruction by the surroundings. A new idea, eventually a new finding is vulnerable. Scientific findings - also in the form of new perspectives - are transgressions of what up to now has been the established truth. Such findings might sound strange...»

In this respect, penal abolitionism as early as in its first international conference succeeded to avoid the neutralisation and absorption by the criminal justice systems and conventional criminology through the well known pitfall of the so-called process of reformation (Mathiesen, 1983). The inevitable suggestions for reforms, that means minor scale reforms for criminal law and criminal justice system had been avoided.
The Third Conference in Montreal (1987) brought a major change as it moved from prison to penal abolition. It was not - of course - an unimportant change because since 1987, ICOPA and abolitionists worldwide advocated penal abolition and rejected the punitive and retributive policy of criminal law and criminal justice system. Ruth Morris, a founding member of ICOPA explained the reason for this change (Morris, 1997);

«The seriousness and the correctness of this change have become increasingly clear. A court and policing system based on revenge would need something just like prisons or even worse, if we go rid of prisons. So it was logical to move to penal abolition: getting rid of revenge as the purpose of the whole system».

During the Sixth International Conference on Penal Abolition, abolitionists decided to establish the International Foundation for a Prisonless Society, a small foundation dedicated to supporting the conferences of abolitionists. And finally, the Eight and latest Conference on Penal Abolition was held in Auckland, New Zealand in February 1997, and produced 18 resolutions (see appendix), immediate steps towards penal abolition by people sharing the same dream. There were officials, agency workers, lawyers, community workers, former prisoners and victims of crime.
Thus, since 1982, eight international conferences have been held in all regions of the world and with the participation of many leading criminologists. The Department of Criminology will host the next International Conference on Penal Abolition, the ninth in a growing movement, in the University of Ottawa, Canada (May 10-13, 2000).


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