Why I Believe Prison Abolition is A Muslim Issue

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a Black woman prison scholar who laid the rich groundwork for abolitionist politics, has defined racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death”. This implies that minoritised people, people of colour or people from minority ethnic background get exposed to earlier deaths because of racist structural systems within the state and society. For example, children of minority backgrounds in poor neighbourhoods are prone to respiratory illnesses such as asthma amongst others, due to environmental racism leading to their neighbourhoods having higher levels of pollution. These poor neighbourhoods inhabited by poor minorities are highly likely to have insufficient infrastructural inspection and upkeep. Poor people of colour face more health risks because of institutionalised racism.

So now, what does it mean when we speak of ‘abolition’ or someone who holds ‘abolitionist politics’? Abolition implies getting rid of the capitalist, oppressive structures. It’s the total and utter dismantling of these violent structures, and that includes prisons. Prison, more than anything, is a racialised space where human rights and humanity are suspended. To have a racialised space is to also have a form of containment that subordinates racial minorities, and the ways said minorities cope and resist with spatial containment.

As an abolitionist Muslim, I believe that anti-oppression and abolition are deeply intertwined in the struggles for justice. Abolition implies that human lives are not disposable or negligible: We humanise, contextualise, and look with compassion and mercy as per Islamic teachings, to our loved ones who had committed harm in the past and we should try to extend the same to strangers. Muslims, especially Black Muslims, are sentenced longer than any other faith groups. Most of these crimes are not even “violent” crimes. More so in light of the current pandemic, incarcerated people are five times more likely to get infected with Covid-19 simply because they’re locked up.

In the context of Singapore, Malays and Indians are disproportionately overrepresented in prisons, where they are less likely to achieve reintegration as compared to their Chinese counterparts.  Any stabilising factors that they might have salvaged, and the factors that caused their crimes – unemployment, poverty, homelessness, addiction, and other external influencing factors – are made worse by prison, not better. An issue that gets heavily slept on is how formerly incarcerated people are being released from prisons into failing and unstable support systems. 

We’ve witnessed how policing and carceral ideas so deeply infect our bodies, minds and actions to the extent we even have a community policing strategy. Carcerality, or carceral logics entail punitive orientations, and the ways our ideas and thinking are influenced by practices of imprisonment and policing. Playing god on who deserves mercy from the inhumane prison system necessitates the idea that some people deserve to remain caged—this animates a carceral logic that is far removed from what Islam has taught us concerning justice. When you treat people’s freedom as a subject matter to be debated, you not only accept the legitimacy of a heavily violent and flawed system, but you also justify the dehumanisation inherent within it. Abolition is not simply an eradication of violence the carceral state wields on, nor is it also just an absence of the carceral systems, but the presence of systems that aid people to not even resort to crime in the first place. 

By now, I’m sure the sceptics would ask, “But WHERE do the murderers and rapists go?!”. One thing for sure, they won’t go where they currently go: into the police, the military, FBI, CIA, etc. Most mass murderers and those who have committed or are still committing extreme violence are not the ones who are locked up right now. There is also this massive assumption that rapists are people in prison, right? Well, no. In the UK, the conviction rate for rape cases is 3.3%. In the US, it’s 18.8%. In Singapore, it isn’t any better either. About 13.3% of rape cases led to conviction here. Rape cases were even reportedly up by approximately 75% since the past few years. And as we know, rape is something that’s massively underreported considering the re-traumatisation survivors have to go through when they report to the police. Not only that, the dynamics within relationships are also a factor as most cases of sexual violence happen between people who know one another.  When we consider the existing system we’re in and the current way it’s been structured, violators who occupy positions of power are more likely to get away with it. We’ve seen that happening with Trump, the current president Joe Biden, and many other politicians, police officers, celebrities, and many more.

Reconstruction is vital to prison abolition, and where basic needs and justice are concerned, the needs of the individual have to be balanced with longer systemic change. Reconstruction calls for transformative changes, and it’s not just about changing one thing, but everything. This could include creating strong communities through investments in resources such as mental health facilities, schools, after school programs, career centres, amongst many others. It seeks to replace ideas of disposability of people to build a world that prioritises care, mercy, compassion, deep community relationships – which are fundamentally Islamic principles.

Mercy and humanity are so central to Islam that so many times in prayers and when we recite the Qur’an, we’d mention that Allah is الرحيم (Al-Rahim – the Most Merciful). Aside from that, the Qur’an even tells us to pay zakat in order to free people – it profoundly focuses on restorative justice rather than punitive. This concept of mercy is an act that Jews, Muslims, Christians, and believers in other traditions can deeply resonate with. The concept of accountability or muḥāsabah (محاسبة  – retrospection, accounting, reckoning) is one of the core and important issues in Islam. Furthermore, in Surah Ar-Ra’ad 13:11, we are told that “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves”. Apart from having to deeply reckon with our own behaviour and be accountable for the harm we may have enacted upon others where we have been careless in our actions, words and agreements, we are also responsible for other human beings and creations, and not only that – we are accountable for them too where we have acted unjustly towards them.

From neglectful policy and action, to deprivation of basic necessities which include proper medical treatment and medication for incarcerated people, to literal violence and torture enacted by prison guards, the purpose of the prison system is social discipline and punitive retribution. To put simply, punitive punishment does not reap any tangible benefit to society at all. In fact, subjecting people to torture and violence violates a socio-religious sensibility in Islam.  

Prison abolition is about a societal shift in what justice looks like for us, especially for the harmed and victims – it’s about abolishing the environmental conditions that made that harm even possible in the first place. Through this, it seeks to create a new world where there will be less victims because you’re tackling and addressing the root of the harm. It’s about community healing, accountability, redressing of trauma and harm, where approaches are victim-centred and trauma-sensitive, and not responding to violence with state-sanctioned violence. To quote Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Abolition is about abolishing the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems, rather than abolishing the buildings we call prisons”. The only way this culture of how we talk about transformative justice shifts, is if we all shift. And that takes recognising that punitive punishment under a current paradigm of capitalist individualism, isn’t actually working.

In Surah Al-Ma’idah 5:8, the Qur’an states, “Be just, for that is closest to piety, and beware of God”. Hence, we also need to ask ourselves: Are we just in our homes? Are we just in our politics? Are we just in our economics? We shouldn’t be reliant on racist, supremacist and capitalist notions of justice as presented by violent structures of the colonial state. It is also quite impossible for anyone to maintain a carceral system that doesn’t also produce death by design. We so desperately need to nurture transformative justice within our Muslim communities and beyond, rather than retributive or punitive measures of justice in prisons. 


Ryaihanny Sahrom is a legal professional and a freelance writer with a passion in human rights for marginalised genders.

Illustration by Elisa Tanaka