abolition / ICOPA

ICOPA History – Excerpt from “The Moving Targets of Penal Abolitionism: ICOPA, Past, Present, and Future”

By Justin Piché and Mike Larsen (Co-managing Editors, Journal of Prisoners on Prisons)

The following is an excerpt from the article “The Moving Targets of Penal Abolitionism: ICOPA, Past, Present, and Future”, accepted for publication and forthcoming from the journal Contemporary Justice Review.


ICOPA: the emergence of an international prison abolitionist movement

Since their very inception, prisons have been the subject of significant and sustained criticism, including calls for their abolition. As noted by Morris (2000a), in the eighteenth century critiques of imprisonment emerged from prominent individuals such as Thomas Buxton (1786-1845), a British Member of Parliament, and writer Victor Hugo (1802-1885), whose works including Le dernier jour d’un condamné (1829) and Les misérables (1862) contained commentaries on the brutalities of confinement in France. In the Canadian context, a number of Royal Commissions and task forces (eg. Brown, 1849; Archambault, 1938; Fauteux, 1956; Ouimet, 1969; MacGuigan, 1977; Arbour, 1996) have assessed and condemned the operations of prisons. Over time, there has been no persuasive evidence that the existence of prisons deter individuals from committing ‘crime’ or that authorities can accurately select individuals to incapacitate in order to prevent future harms (Mathiesen, 1990). The idea that imprisonment can provide justice to those impacted by ‘crime’ has also been strongly rejected by some, who argue that incarceration exacerbates existing harms and creates new ones, as the cold hand of retribution is ill-equipped to meet the needs of those in conflict (Hulsman & Bernat de Celis, 1982; Hulsman, 1986). It has also been established that imprisonment is largely incapable of rehabilitating prisoners and is in fact counterproductive to this end (Mathiesen, 1990). While the prison has been recognized as ‘a fiasco in terms of its own [stated] purposes’ (ibid, p. 137), historically, authorities have responded to criticism by adopting an endless cycle of ‘reforms’, geared towards transforming the prison within, so that it could then in turn transform so-called criminals into law-abiding and productive citizens.

By the 1960s and 1970s, the abolition of prisons came to be seen as a tangible and practical response to efforts which perpetually failed to reform these institutions. It was during this time that prison abolitionist movements emerged around the world. For instance, groups such as the KROM – a Norwegian interest organization composed of prisoners, ex-prisoners, academics, lawyers and practitioners from the penal system founded in 1968 – successfully abolished the use of borstals for youth and the policy of treating vagrancy as a ‘crime’ in Norway (Mathiesen, 1974). In France, the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons (GIP) was founded in 1971 by Jean-Marie Domenach, Michel Foucault and Pierre Vidal-Naquet to provide prisoners with a vehicle ‘to speak for themselves’ inside and outside prisons to advance their own interests (De Folter, 1986, p. 53).

As prisons were being used to silence and dismantle political groups such as the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army (see Saleh-Hanna & Omowali Alston, 2006) in the United States, political prisoners such as George Jackson (1970) and Angela Davis (1974) raised awareness and galvanized support for the abolition of imprisonment. Alongside others, such as members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), they argued that imprisonment was an instrument of oppression that targeted the poor, people of color and other disenfranchised groups, continuing the American legacy of slavery and colonization (see Davis, 2003). During this period, there was also sustained criticism of youth imprisonment (Mathiesen, 1990). It is in this context that officials in Massachusetts abolished youth reform schools in 1972 (Miller, 1991). This development serves as an important example for the abolitionist case, proving that such a drastic change is possible and also desirable given the negligible impact that the measure had on the Massachusetts crime rate (ibid). Quakers in the United States such as Fay Honey Knopp (1976) also came to see prisons as unjust and violent, and promoted their eradication.

Having been introduced to the ideas of the American Quakers, the Quaker Committee on Jails and Justice in Canada began education campaigns promoting the abolition of prisons (Morris, 2000a). This resulted in the following official declaration from Canadian Quakers in 1981:

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 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 (Morris, 2000a, p. 70, original emphasis).

As movements across the globe gathered steam, the committee determined that an international forum to discuss the politics and practices of prison abolition was needed. In 1982, planning for the inaugural International Conference on Prison Abolition began.

Held in Toronto, Canada in 1983, ICOPA I focused on creating ‘international unity among those already adhering to the prison abolitionist approach’ (Finateri & Saleh-Hanna, 2000, p. 261). This involved building the organizational capacities of the conference-movement. An interim committee was established which would have the ‘policy responsibility to keep the abolition goal and plan sites and general broad themes for each conference, and that once a site was decided, local committees would arrange all the immediate details’ (ibid). The committee was also responsible for the management and production of an international newsletter which is not presently in circulation. It was decided that these conferences would take place every two years (ibid) and would be guided by the following goals: 1) ‘motivate the abolitionist community while increasing solidarity’, 2) ‘provide a forum for the flow and exchange of ideas advancing abolitionist goals’, 3) ‘public sensitization and education on these issues’, and 4) ‘addressing questions of viable alternatives’ (Finateri & Saleh-Hanna, 2000, p. 262). At ICOPA I, an event which ‘attracted 400 people from fifteen countries in North America, Europe, and Australia’ (Morris, 2000a, p. 71), the origins of prisons, abolitionist strategies and a number of ‘alternatives’ to incarceration were central to the discussions. Since that time, ICOPA meetings have been held in North and Central America, Africa, Europe, Oceania.

ICOPA Meetings

ICOPA I (1983) – Toronto, Canada

How to Include All the Most Difficult Groups in the Community

ICOPA II (1985) – Amsterdam, Netherlands

Theoretical Directions in Abolitionism

ICOPA III (1987) – Montreal, Canada

From Prison Abolition to Penal Abolition

ICOPA IV (1989) – Kazimierz, Poland

Abolitionism in Eastern Europe

ICOPA V (1991) – Bloomington, Indiana, United States

Aboriginal Roots and Radical Empowerment

ICOPA VI (1993) – San Jose, Costa Rica

Challenging Third World Governments to Adopt Abolitionist Steps

ICOPA VII (1995) – Barcelona, Spain

Penal Abolition, A Real Utopia

ICOPA VIII (1997) – Auckland, New Zealand / Aotearoa

Pathways to Penal Abolition

ICOPA IX (2000) – Toronto, Canada

Transformative Justice: New Questions, New Answers

ICOPA X (2002) – Lagos, Nigeria

Tasmania, Australia

ICOPA XI (2006) – Tasmania, Australia

ICOPA XII (2008) – London, England

Creating a Scandal: Prison Abolition and the Policy Agenda

ICOPA XIII (2010) – Belfast, Northern Ireland

Abolition, Reform and the Politics of Global Incarceration

* adapted and updated from Morris (2000a).

The themes discussed at the initial ICOPA initial meeting mirrored in many ways ‘crime talk’ that was taking place within many penal systems across the world, where community-based ‘alternatives’ that sought to take justice out of the hands of the state, its’ ‘experts’ and institutions were being pursued (Cohen, 1985). Following the premise that imprisonment was a practical, fiscal and ethical failure, proponents of the decarceration movement that became known as ‘community corrections’ sought to replace carceral institutions with non-segregative arrangements in the community. The goal of ‘community corrections’ was not punishment, nor rehabilitation, but rather to reintegrate those who deviated from the ‘norm’ back into society. This philosophy was rooted in evidence that institutional care is often a harmful and stigmatizing experience, and thus, must be a measure of last resort. This view was also supported by the idea that the root causes of ‘crime’ and ‘delinquency’ originate in community settings such as the family and in schools, and thus, ‘deviancy’ must be dealt with in those very same locations. The policy of decarceration also gained credence due to rising popularity of a neoliberal governing ethos whereby the goal of any government policy ‘should be less harm rather than more good’ (ibid, p. 34).

In the mid to late 1970s and early 1980s ‘something was happening’ (ibid, p. 36). It was thought that at best, prisons were being closed, or at the very least, new institutions were not being built as illustrated by the proliferation of community-based ‘alternatives’ such as parole, half-way houses, diversion programs and the like (Chan and Ericson, 1981). However, as with past penal ‘reform’ efforts, decarceration did not produce the results intended by its proponents.

Around this time, governments began a systematic dismantling of the welfare state, driven by discourses of fiscal conservatism, individualism and market fundamentalism (Giroux, 2009). The resulting loss of services, including mental health facilities and community-based alternatives to incarceration, left many that needed help to fend for themselves (Scull, 1984). Under-funded and under-resourced, community-based interventions were anything but ‘humane’, and as was observed later would create a larger pipeline for the mentally-ill and poor to prison (Collins, 2008). For Cohen (1985) and others (see Matthews, 1979; Chan and Ericson, 1981), the decarceration project also did little to address the fiscal concerns of welfare capitalist states, but instead was a rather costly endeavor.

In addition to the growth of community ‘alternatives’, penal institutions remained operational, retributive bureaucratic structures had not disappeared and the so-called justice system certainly did not reflect the diversionary rhetoric of informalism, as people were diverted into the system rather than away from it. The politics of decarceration did not reduce our reliance on the punitive structures in our society, but rather served as a rhetorical shield legitimating the expansion of the carceral into community spaces, ‘subjecting more and newer groups of deviants to the power of the state and increasing the intensity of control directed at former deviants’ (Cohen, 1985, pp. 37-38). In keeping with the history of ‘reform’, the ‘alternatives’ and their objectives were absorbed and transformed to meet the expansionary and punitive demands of carceral institutions (Mathiesen, 1990). While many of the apparatuses of the welfare state were destroyed or severely weakened, institutions of confinement including penal systems expanded. For Cohen (1985), the fact nations who experimented with decarceration were left with ‘wider, stronger and different nets’ was not an accident (p. 38), but rather ‘business as usual’, revealing the existence of an enduring ‘master pattern’ of social control (p. 39).

From prison to penal abolitionism

The pitfalls of decarceration did not go unnoticed by proponents of prison abolition. As discussed at ICOPA II in Amsterdam (1985), the eradication of prisons depended not on the creation of alternative forms of punishment, but on a shift away from handling conflicts through all retributively oriented institutions (Bianchi & van Swaaningen, 1986) – the logic being that a ‘court and policing system based on revenge would need something just like prisons or even worse, if we got rid of prisons’ (Morris, 2000a, p. 71). While the academic agenda at the conference was vital to increasing ‘awareness of the role a punitive and retributive criminal justice system plays in erecting and maintaining prisons’ (Finateri & Saleh-Hanna, 2000, p. 262), the scholarly orientation and composition of participants at the meeting prompted some to critique the conference-movement for moving away from activist engagement.

At ICOPA III, the International Conference on Prison Abolition officially became the International Conference on Penal Abolition. This shift in name and the resulting expanded focus of analysis, politics and practice led the movement to consider alternative forms of justice outside the penal system to address interpersonal conflicts, contributing to the modest growth of approaches such as restorative justice (Zehr, 1990), peacemaking criminology (Pepinsky & Quinney, 1991), and transformative justice (Morris, 2000b).

To address the under-representation of marginalized voices at the previous meeting, the organizers of ICOPA III made efforts to include ‘grassroots organizations such as the Anarchist Black Cross groups and the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee’, along with Canadian aboriginal groups such as the Native Women’s Association (Gaucher, 2002, p. 8). The organizers also sent out a call for papers written by prisoners to be presented in person or by designated delegates at the conference. These papers would form the basis of the first volume of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (JPP) in 1988, a publication which aims ‘to bring the knowledge and experience of the incarcerated to bear upon … academic arguments and concerns, and to inform public discourse about the current state of our carceral institutions’ (Gaucher, 1988, p. 54).

With renewed momentum, ICOPA meetings were held in countries where the use of confinement was prevalent, such as post-communist Poland (1989) and in Indiana (1991) ‘when the USA had become the imprisoning capital of the world’ (Morris, 2000a, p. 72). Since that time, the focus of many penal abolitionists has been directed towards mounting resistance against the exportation of Americanized mass imprisonment approaches, which has been felt to a greater or lesser extent across the globe. For example, Wacquant (2009, p. 1) describes the selective importation of policies grounded in a ‘new punitive common sense’ in a number of European countries, which he attributes to the rise of neoliberalism and the ‘wedding [of the] “invisible hand” of the deregulated labor market to the “iron fist” of an intrusive and omnipresent punitive apparatus”.


We first became involved in ICOPA in the lead-up to ICOPA XII, which took place in London, England, in 2008. That conference, entitled Creating a Scandal – Prison Abolition and the Policy Agenda, was organized by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The final report of ICOPA XII can be found here.

As part of the conference, we – along with colleagues from the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons – organized the Colloquium on the Universal Carceral. With this conference stream, we wanted to explore the ways in which the nature of carceral practices – and therefore the targets of penal abolitionist organizing – are currently changing. In keeping with ICOPA traditions, abolitionist principles, and the mandate of the JPP, efforts were made to place the voices, perspectives, and stories of prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families at the centre of the colloquium program. Five of the thirteen papers presented were authored or co-authored by current or former prisoners, or family members of prisoners.

Here’s an excerpt from the Colloquium website that explains the idea of the Universal Carceral:

In the last chapter of Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault (1977) discusses ‘the carceral’. He describes a network of power relations and technologies that “formed first the immediate surroundings of the prison, then spread farther and farther outwards” (1977: 297). He suggests that “in penal justice, the prison transformed the punitive procedure into a penitentiary technique; the carceral archipelago transported this technique from the penal institution to the entire social body” (1977: 298).

He later argues that;

“If there is an overall political issue around the prison, it is not therefore whether it is to be corrective or not; whether the judges, the psychiatrists or the sociologists are to exercise more power in it than the administrators or supervisors; it is not even whether we should have prison or something other than prison. At present, the problem lies rather in the steep rise in the use of these mechanisms of normalization and the wide-ranging powers which, through the proliferation of new disciplines, they bring with them” (1977: 306).

In many ways, our use of the term ‘universal carceral’ is intended to invoke Foucault’s observations regarding the emergence and expansion of a ‘carceral archipelago’ or ever-widening network of penitentiary techniques. However, we suggest that contemporary trends in confinement require that we broaden our conceptual language beyond a disciplinary and penological framework. For example, contemporary processes of confinement are often associated with what Garland (2001) describes as ‘criminologies of the other’ – efforts to exclude and manage individuals perceived to be threatening, rather than disciplinary objectives of normalization and correction. We suggest that confinement has effectively ‘escaped’ the prison and become something of a universal instrument for dealing with social, political and economic problems.

Some trends that are illustrative of the universal carceral:

•     Criminalization through other means: By this, we highlight the manner in which situations perceived as problematic can be treated as crime without technically being designated as such, by laying the foundations for the authorization of detention in other legal domains. These processes involve deeming individuals to be threatening and / or disposable through legally-codified mechanisms that structure-out evidentiary thresholds, procedural guidelines and accountability mechanisms contained within criminal law.

•     Normalization of confinement: Once a mechanism of last resort in the sphere of criminal justice, the carceral is now entrenched in additional spheres of governance guided by precautionary logics. As a result, detention is becoming a more common experience amongst a growing number of individuals in a world in which confinement is presented as a normal response to a myriad of social and political issues.

•     An increasingly multi-carceral society: Incarceration, confinement, detention, and, generally speaking, the deprivation of liberty, are not associated exclusively with the prison, criminal justice system, or disciplinary exercises of power. In the name of security, pre-emptive or precautionary forms of detention – aimed not a disciplining an individual, but at isolating and managing their potential threat – have become features of post-September 11 social control apparatuses. Additionally, the emergence and growth of public health agencies, coupled with the threats posed by communicable diseases or potential pandemics, have resulted in the development of new procedures for the involuntary confinement of individuals or groups considered to be infectious, recalcitrant in relation to treatment regimes, or otherwise risky. Confinement has also become a central tool for the management of immigration and the transnational flow of refugees and displaced persons. In this case, incarceration is related to the exercise of sovereign power and the policing of territory. As societies become increasingly open to flows of capital and increasingly closed to flows of people, the immigration detention centre has emerged as an important new institution of social control.

•     Globalization of the carceral: In the contemporary context dominated by securitization, governing authorities share information with other nations in a stated effort to address shared security threats. This is resulting in a dual process in which previously-forbidden practices of detention – for example, extraordinary rendition and disappearances – become acknowledged as outsourced components of Western security apparatuses, while Western carceral practices are exported to developing nations through the training of criminal justice personnel, operating as a form of neo-colonialism.

•     Continued expansion of carceral techniques into everyday life: Systems of surveillance that Foucault associates with disciplinary power and the carceral are becoming pervasive. As more and more aspects of our public and private lives become subjected to panoptic and synoptic techniques of observation, the boundaries between the prison and the social continue to blur. Schools are transforming into carceral spaces for the observation and management of youth; CCTV cameras and private security guards are becoming ubiquitous features of public and mass-private spaces; and the proliferation of intelligence-based systems of government – including a growing number of biometric databases – has facilitated the risk management of individuals and populations.

ICOPA 13 will see the international conference-movement meeting in Belfast. We will pick up where we left off in London, and anchor our discussions around the theme “Abolition, Reform and the Politics of Global Incarceration”. We look forward to it. See below for information on how you can get involved.

Please feel free to contact us to learn more about the “The Moving Targets of Penal Abolitionism: ICOPA, Past, Present, and Future” article.

All the best,

Mike and Justin


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