(CW: rape, murder, child abuse)

I was ambivalent before, mostly because of violent crimes like murder and rape. (Also, a lot of abolitionist writing is heavy-heavy-heavy on the jargon, which makes me grit my teeth even as I cheer the writers on.) But I’ve done more reading into what prison abolition actually means—it doesn’t just mean letting violent criminals walk around killing and assaulting people. It means providing the resources people need so that they never commit crimes in the first place. It’s a gradual process, not an immediate “let’s get rid of all the prisons” demand. It’s not incrementalist in the sense that it upholds current systems with piecemeal tweaks here and there; it’s a ground-up rethinking of how we prevent harm and move toward a better, safer society.

Abolition calls for accountability without using the prison system to punish and isolate, or simply “cancelling” or shunning the harm-doer. This isn’t to say that everyone needs to become BFFs with Bob the Axe Murderer (and especially not his victims’ relatives or friends). It means that you need a way to prevent Bob from becoming an axe murderer, or figuring out what he needs to put down the axe and become a functioning member of society again. And incarceration isn’t going to stop the violence; instead, it will just perpetuate the cycle.

I have read restorative- and transformative-justice stories about incestuous child molesters being rehabilitated. Hands-on parent–child sexual abuse is probably the most horrific thing I can think of—and I should know. I would be open to reconciling with my parents if they actually took responsibility for what they did. (I’ve never confronted them about the sexual abuse; I hadn’t contextualised the abuse when I was still in contact with them. But I knew about their emotional and physical abuse.) The problem is that they refuse to be accountable for their actions. Other survivors may not agree with me about reconciliation, and it’s not their job to. There’s a hotline, A Call for Change, designed to reach people either before or after they’ve abused their partners. ReSpec, operated by a former staff member at Feminist Frequency, is a monthly support and accountability group for people who have caused harm, whether that’s harassment, sexual assault, or something else. Circles of Support and Accountability surround recently released sex offenders and provide them with a community that makes them less likely to offend.There are organisations like Stop It Now! that provide confidential support to get people to stop using child sexual abuse material. These groups let people know what they’re doing is wrong before matters get worse, and there needs to be more of them.

People who cause harm may do so for complex reasons. Yes, even murderers, domestic abusers, and rapists. That doesn’t excuse their actions in the slightest; it just means that there are ways these crimes could have been intercepted without the involvement of police and prisons. We put a stop to rape when we teach people not to objectify each other and dispel the notion that people owe each other sex. We stop child abuse when we remind adults that kids are somebody and not something. We stop murder when we learn that we cannot take others’ lives to settle scores or remove obstacles. Prisons don’t teach any of those lessons, since policing and prisons themselves are violent. They lock people up, sometimes for life, instead of teaching them values.

I can understand the need for restorative justice in my own life. I’ve fucked up. I’ve never assaulted or murdered anyone. But I have said horrific, despicable, wildly out-of-character things I regret and can never take back because of untreated bipolar disorder (which can result in poor impulse control, grandiosity, and straight-up delusions and psychosis). These things haunt me to this very day, even though I don’t say anything destructive when I’m taking medication for my mood episodes. But even though I wasn’t in my right mind, the things I said still caused harm. They still ruptured relationships, either temporarily or permanently. They distorted the truth. They were cruel, distorted, vile. You could be possessed and swing around an axe without intending to hurt anyone, but an axe is still an axe. The blade still cuts.

Prison abolition teaches that “we are more than the worst things we’ve done.” And that’s why I’m an abolitionist.