Blog from ICOPA XIII Belfast Conference

International Conference On Penal Abolition ICOPA 13
Abolition, Reform and The Politics of Global Incarceration
23 – 25 June 2010
Queen’s University, Belfast
Deaglan Coyle <d.p.coyle@qub.ac.uk>

Day 1 at the International Conference on Penal Abolition
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Justin Piché  jpiche@connect.carleton.ca

Throughout its history (1983 to present), the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) has sought to shape debates on penal system policy internationally, as well as locally where the conference has been held, including Toronto and Montreal (Canada), Amsterdam (Netherlands), Kazimierz (Poland), Bloomington (USA), San Jose (Costa Rica), Barcelona (Spain), Auckland (New Zealand / Aotearos), Lagos (Nigeria), Tasmania (Australia) and London (England). At a critical period in the history of Ireland as justice and policing powers are devolved from the UK Parliament to the North Ireland Assembly, ICOPA is being held in Belfast (June 23-25).

As activists, advocates, academics, journalists, ex-prisoners and other fellow travellers gathered for Day 1 of the conference, a number of issues were brought to the table.

Highlights include:

– The opening plenary on the state of prisons in Ireland featured the launch of ActionPrisons, the first abolitionist prison group founded in the North and South.

– Parallel sessions included a panel on women’s imprisonment issues and abolition, and a session which focussed on the activities of groups such as the Coordinadora of Spanish Prisoners in Struggle (COPEL), Critical Resistance in the United States, and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

– The afternoon plenary featured a roundtable where international delegates discussed their views of what is to be abolished, the strategies used to achieve their aims, and alternatives that have been put into place to address complex harms and conflicts in our respective communities that are commonly called ‘crime’.

– The day closed with a panel featuring the work of Inside-Out – a program where prisoners and students take university-level courses together inside prisons, and the work of The Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC) staff members and volunteers including ex-prisoner Sam Henry.

– The evening featured the second public screening of the outstanding adaptation of Macbeth in a contemporary prison produced by ESC (view trailer). It was filmed entirely in Maghaberry High Security Prison, N. Ireland with long-term prisoners who also built the sets. The screening was followed by a documentary on the making of the film, as well as a Q&A session with the Director, Tom Magill, himself a former prisoner, and with Sam Maclean, now released after nearly 30 years inside, who plays Duncan in the film.

With a great day behind us, those of us in attendance are very much looking forward to what the days ahead of us in Belfast will bring. To connect those not present – but who are here in spirit to ICOPA – international delegates on the ground have been filming as many of the presentations and discussions as possible and will be making the videos available on YouTube in the days ahead. Links to these videos will be posted on Tracking the Politics of ‘Crime’ and Punishment in Canada, as well as other websites.

Day 2 at the International Conference on Penal Abolition
Thursday, June 24, 2010

Continuing the discussion on inside-outside collaborations, Day 2 of the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) began with a short presentation on the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. This was followed by presentations of works authored or co-authored by prisoners and ex-prisoners. One panel held during the second morning session featured presentations on rights inside prisons and in societies more broadly such as England, the Netherlands as well as Trinidad and Tobago. A second panel focussed on the role of abolition in the academy, women’s imprisonment and abolition, and the shocking levels of overcrowding and associated issues in South African prisons. Discussion in the afternoon session centered on criminalisation, prisons and communities in Ireland.

The proceedings were followed by a community visit in Belfast where conference delegates participated on a tour of Loyalist and Republican neighbourhoods divided by a two story ‘peace’ wall led by former political prisoners. The day ended with a viewing of H3 – an award winning film made in 2001 shot in the H Blocks, written by former Hunger Striker Laurence McKeown and ex-prisoner Brian Campbell – which traces the context, circumstances and consequences of the policy of criminalisation of political prisoners, the refusal of the Thatcher Government to negotiate and the 1981 Hunger Strikes. The day ended with a Q&A with Hunger Striker Pat Sheehan held over dinner at An Cultúrlann, culture and arts centre.

Day 3 at the International Conference on Penal Abolition
Friday, June 25, 2010

Day 3 of the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) picked-up where Day 1 and Day 2 left off with a plenary on the work of the Australian Prison Project. Presentations in the second session addressed the role of language amongst Republican political prisoners during the Troubles, penal abolitionism and prisoner movements in Western Europe during the 1960s and 1970s, and the increasing use of philanthropic discourses used by the NGO and voluntary sectors to promote the extension of carceral controls outside prison. The afternoon session was dedicated to the life and work of Louk Hulsman, with presentations from Phil Scraton and Jehanne Hulsman.

As the conference winded-down, the discussion turned towards the future of ICOPA. After a few hours of dialogue it was decided that the conference-movement would work towards the launch of a website that would create a space to provide information on penal abolitionism, as well as facilitate exchanges amongst those engaged in abolitionist work and those involved in related struggles. It was also resolved that the next conference would tentatively be held in Trinidad and Tobago, subject to a six month review, and that Ottawa would serve as the event site should it become evident that its abolitionist agenda would be compromised by state interference.

The conference ended with the launch of Justice Action’s OUR PICK Report which provides an analysis of the corrupt health industry in Australia, and proposes a pathway for mental health patients and prisoners going forward.

A first series of videos featuring presentations from ICOPA 13 is now posted online (view here). Check back in the days and weeks ahead for new videos from the conference as they are edited and uploaded on the site.

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