Tell Me More: Talking Prison Reform and Alternative Forms of Justice With Saumya Dadoo


Feb 20, 2021


Image Credit: Saumya Dadoo

In The Swaddle’s interview series Tell Me More, we discuss crucial cultural topics with people whose work pushes societal boundaries.

Saumya Dadoo is the founding editor of Detention Solidarity Network and an incoming doctoral student at MESAAS, Columbia University. Her work focuses on prisons, colonial history, and gender & sexuality. She has worked at research and advocacy organizations in India, including the Centre for Law and Policy Research and Majlis Legal Centre. The Swaddle’s Aditi Murti spoke with Saumya about prison reform, abolition and what constitutes a carceral state within India.

The Swaddle: Does India have a unique relationship with punishment, or do ideas around it originate with colonial laws?

Saumya Dadoo: At the core of it, systems of punishment, rest on existing dynamics of power and work in favor of maintaining social inequality. What is specific to the Indian context regarding the harm committed in our communities is that our society is based on Brahminical patriarchy. If we think of punishment as a form of harm, and if we then think of it as a form of harm that’s legally “justified” or “not justified” For example, harm committed by the state is justified — it’s Brahminical patriarchy that’s allowed cisgender upperclassmen to commit harm, get away with it, And, justify the harm that they’ve committed with this righteous moral stance. It’s difficult to extricate or differentiate between some form of native “Indian” ideas of punishment from colonial history.  Colonialism brought in new dynamics of power and had new objectives shaped by racialized capitalism that converged with Brahminical patriarchy and shaped the modern state, law, and governance.  During the colonial period, the British were experimenting with new ideas of punishment in England and in their colonies.

Even though prisons are taken for granted now, prisons, or even the idea to deal with harm by not physically punishing someone (eg. cutting off their arms) but by constructing a space meant for disciplining, towards rehabilitation, was new. In the prison context, very little has changed from when they were set up in the colonial period. In the context of punishment, we can see the impact of colonial laws in modern times. Colonial laws in whole, like sedition, or vestiges of these laws, like we see in anti-terror laws or in the Habitual Offenders Act that was once the Criminal Tribes Act, are present and are actively being used in India today.

TS: If prisons started out as a rehabilitative idea, how did that idea degrade into a more punitive rendering in modern times?

SD: Firstly, there may have been a rehabilitative ideal at the core of prisons, but that doesn’t mean that the system itself ever allowed for this ideal to be achieved. Secondly, it can be argued that this idea of rehabilitation is itself paternalistic and doesn’t seek to understand or address harm holistically. Our current system of punishment individualizes harm, by keeping to clean categories of “victim” and “offender,” measures the impact of the harm-based less on what someone who has been harmed needs but what is pre-decided, and then metes out punishment. The story ends there. Besides just fixing this system or making it work, we need to question the ends of punishment – does it really help to remove a person out of their context, isolate them from society, confine them, remove their agency, and believe that this will help them rethink the harm they have done, repent, and that is what we need for rehabilitation? 

So I think the rehabilitative ideal at its core is a flawed concept and lends itself and creates punitive culture. We might think that things that happen within prisons, like torture and violence, are an aberration to prisons but they are endemic to the way tthe system functions. And this is all on top of the fact that certain identities are targeted at evvery stage.

TS: What about isolation from communities, in particular, is counterproductive to rehabilitation?

SD: I’ll say a little more about isolation and then return to its impact on those in prisons. Crime and punishment itself is individualized and this list of harms often leaves out social harms that groups of people are suffering because of.  We live in an extremely unequal society. This means there are already several forms of harm that people are struggling with because of their class and caste position, because of their gender or disability. There is a level of social neglect and state neglect that allows these harms to continue unaddressed.  So when someone commits a “crime” they are already likely to themselves be dealing with certain harms.  Now, when you isolate someone, you ignore the harm they have lived with completely. You don’t address the social situation that may have shaped their decisions and that still very much needs to be addressed. To me, that is the most egregious part of isolating someone from their communities – that it allows the state and society to absolve their responsibility from addressing the social situation that they have created and perpetuated.

 As I said earlier, the concept of “rehabilitation” that is tied to prisons is itself flawed. Very often, what one needs from someone who has committed a “crime” is some level of acknowledgement and accountability for the harm they have caused. We know in the context of sexual violence for instance that survivors often have several needs and very few of them involve their harm-doer sitting in a jail and repenting. That is not what  “justice” looks like for a lot of people. So what we might need instead of “rehabilitation” is something far more active and engaged from a harm-doer. 

Finally, the isolation of prisons is actually itself harmful. There is a reason prisons are dreaded. We know there is horrendous mistreatment within the system. We know the impact of power dynamics between prison guards and prisoners, between prisoners themselves affects peoples everyday llives. We know that there is immense psychological trauma from being isolated in society. So you’re essentially sending those who commit violence to a violent place. This should not be a justifiable form of harm.

TS: The term ‘carceral state’ is often used in relation to talking about prison reform. What exactly comes under the ambit of a carceral state?

SD: The word ‘carceral,’ we know comes from its relationship to prison. But the “carceral state” expands that to help us think beyond the criminal justice system or institutions of confinement to other practices and structures of the state that are shaped by a similar punitive culture. So one thing that the carceral state allows us to do is look at other institutions of confinement or detention, like immigration detention camps, psychiatric institutions, or even shelter homes but the value of the term comes from how it helps us think about things that we earlier may have thought are not related, like poverty, gender, ethnic difference, the construction of borders, our everyday culture and thinking around punishment that resemble state forms of policing and surveillance. So the “carceral state” is a useful analytical framework to understand and think critically about all of these different kinds of relationships that are related to confinement.

TS: And how does detention work in systems that don’t involve punishment — like say, a psychiatric asylum or a shelter? Common understanding is that these spaces are created by the state as means of aid, right?

SD: Formal institutions for protection are worth thinking about together not because they are completely identical to prisons in the form of harm they are causing but because there are other similarities that really shouldn’t be there at all in the way we care for people. Some similarities of these are that these institutions have dismal facilities, being “institutionalized” often results in intense stigma, and the social identities of the people who tend to be institutionalized in shelter homes or psychiatric institutions are often similar to that of prison. Finally, these spaces of confinement in society and, as a result, the people in these spaces, are at the margins of society so there is little oversight or accountability for the harms that may be committed in these spaces. So I’m not saying that prisons and these institutions are identical and need to be treated exactly the same way but we need to question the construction and practices at these institutions within the larger framework of the carceral state.

TS: One thing that’s common across all forms of such institutions is the frequent violation of human rights. How does that end up happening? How much the confined individual’s identity depends on the abuse they suffer?

SD: There’s no clear way to answer this actually, but these spaces have a lot of impunity and a lack of accountability built into them. For one, being a space of confinement, we don’t know what is happening within these spaces a lot of the time. And because of the stigma associated with these spaces, people are also not paying attention to this. Secondly, the power dynamic between those who hold people in confinement and the confined is a breeding ground for human rights violations.

With respect to prisons, we have this idea that people in jail are ‘bad people’ and there’s no reason to treat bad people well. The use of various methods of torture is also because it seems like a straightforward form of getting what you want – you want to hold someone responsible, you know that the process of investigation is tedious and messy, and you know that you will not face any consequences at all for such actions then why not use this method to get the job done?  Thirdly, it’s important to note that prisons are also patriarchal institutions  — this is not to say that it is only men who abuse their power — it means that prison spaces embody aggressive masculinity which leads to violent behavior.

It can also be difficult to distinguish between abuse that happens due to the system itself and the abuse that happens due to the confined individual’s identity.  Like I said, the criminal justice system targeted towards certain communities – namely poor people, people who are Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi, and like all of society, is also disproportionately violent towards women, gender minorities, and people with disabilities. In other words, prisons reproduce many of the forms of oppression and dehumanization of certain groups that we see in society that would be understood as human rights violations and because of the lack of impunity endemic to such spaces, these violations are part of the culture of these spaces.

TS: Over the past year,we’ve seen a lot of discourse around abolitiondue to the Black Lives Matter movement and the custodial deaths of Jayaraj and Bennix. What made you optimistic, and what nuances did you feel were lost in these conversations?

SD:  I think my worry always is about things like abolition becoming a buzzword. I’m not even against buzzwords– if it helps makes people genuinely curious about what it signifies it can be quite valuable. I think “feminism” becoming a buzzword, thanks to genuine global advocacy, is part of the reason I’m a feminist. So I’m very excited that this conversation has gained some traction in India. But the difficulty with buzzwords is not only that there may not actually be this genuine curiosity about what it means and it may only help people gain “woke points” but also because many people think “we should do this here too” like there isn’t a long history of essential anti-caste, anti-capitalist, feminist grassroots activism that has been ongoing. Just because something has become a buzz now doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who have been talking about the oppression they have faced or thinking about it radically, or working on mitigating it. We should have already been listening and learning from this. I think that is at the core of what we want people newly interested in abolition to see with the work that we do at Detention Solidarity Network.   So I really hope that Indian people engaging with abolition are thinking about the specific context and seeing “abolition work” in India within our context.

There’s quite a bit of abolition discourse that’s US-specific. This is absolutely essential work but we do need to be attentive to how the Indian justice system is different from the US.  For example, the prison industrial complex in America is quite different from how prison industries function in India. There are also quite a few parallels drawn between the racialized nature of the American justice system, and caste in India — these are important because there are similar hierarchies and dehumanization but we need to pay attention to how exactly they are happening and what they are rooted in.  Many abolitionists in the U.S. like Angela Davis, Ruthie Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba talk about the contemporary criminal justice system’s direct links to a history of slavery— the criminal justice system in India is also shaped by a history of racial capitalism but one that has its roots in British colonialism.  Another nuance to think about is that we are not exactly the type of capitalist state the U.S. is — we have had a welfare orientation built into our Constitution and evident in laws like the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act). Lastly, there are severely militarized zones in our country, like Chhattisgarh and Kashmir, where state violence has occurred with impunity for decades. These are all factors we need to think critically about when we talk about the abolition of the carceral state in the Indian context.

What we can learn from the US Abolitionists who have done the significant work of articulating this stance is that abolition is not a one-time act. We’re not razing all the prisons to the ground tomorrow. We have to think about the alternative forms of justice that we’re putting in place so that these systems that we’re relying on now become obsolete. We have to think about how, systems of oppression are interconnected and replicated in prisons— so we cannot have a conversation about abolition without talking about annihilating caste or ending the patriarchy. Abolition may seem like a new framework, but it’s quite old in a lot of ways.

TS: A very common counter-criticism I see online regarding abolition discourse is what is the point of defunding an already underfunded policing system. Does this argument have legs, or is it flawed?

SD:  I definitely think that it’s quite flawed because the critical thing that this way of thinking misses is asking — you want the police to be more “effective”, but effective towards what end? If the ends are the same, that the policing will continue to perpetuate systemic oppression and dehumanization — then empowering the police force is going to help them continue to work like they work right now. That’s more torture, extra-judicial killings, and police brutality. work right now, that’s more extra-judicial killings and police brutality.

Another thing this line of thinking leaves out is, what if this money was to go elsewhere? How are we measuring “underfunding”? If this money was to actually go into addressing unemployment, establishing a minimum wage, providing more robust health care – so the needs that communities have -, it could actually be preventive in controlling the kinds of harms we talk about when we talk about “crime”. That is not something we are able to consider alongside at the moment. 

TS: I believe everyone skeptical of prison abolition always asks this — is abolition actually possible or more of an idealistic framework?

SD: So we know that the prison system as it exists has not been able to achieve what it set out to achieve — rehabilitation. We know that prisons frequently target the marginalized and perpetuate systemic oppression.  So perhaps we need to think about how idealistic or utopian “prison reform” as an ideal has been considering we seem to have never been able to achieve it. Our criminal justice system has been broken and is broken but we are still holding on to some utopian ideal in our current efforts of reforming it.

So in many ways, the idea of prison reform is far more idealistic than abolition. Prison abolition urges us to create strong systems of caring for each other as communities, addressing systemic harm perpetuated by the state, creating alternative forms of responding to harm which eventually can make prisons something we don’t really need. It makes us think about what might be possible if we were to seriously redistribute the amount of effort and resources that are going into holding up a farce of “justice” to a more meaningful form of care.  The second thing that I would say is that this does not mean that we don’t engage with the criminal justice system. We very much need to change the material conditions for prisoners and address the harm that people are facing in confinement. And we need to do that by questioning our assumption that all people in detention are “bad”, destigmatizing confinement, and genuinely thinking of people in confinement as key stakeholders who know best what they are facing and what they need.


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is the senior culture writer at The Swaddle.  Write to her using aditi@theswaddle.com, or find her on social media @aditimurti.


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