The Next System Project: Toshio Meronek and Erica R. Meiners; November 10, 2017
A key component of the current system is its reliance on imprisonment as a response to behaviors and populations which are understood as sources of actual or potential harm. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, this carceral response seems to multiply and perpetuate harm rather than reducing it. As we envision a path towards a next system in which communities are able to flourish instead of being torn apart, it is imperative to tackle the question of harm, and dismantle the instincts that lead us too often to reinforce its logic through the very measures we take to respond to it. In this essay for The Next System Project, Erica Meiners and Toshio Meronek rise to this demand by challenging the way our current system, behind the walls of “civil commitment” facilities, perpetuates the carceral logic of harm in its response to the sexual abuse of children, and ask us to imagine what principles would truly underly a system in which “there are no more victims.” As they write, “While perhaps not intuitive, asking the hardest questions first—like what to do with society’s so-called ‘worst of the worst’—might be the best place to start building structures that achieve real justice rather than continue to inflict administrative violence.”
—The Next System Project
Safer sex after The Prison?
Today, while upheld in Supreme Court decisions in 1997 and 2002, civil commitment for an SVP is being challenged in several states.
In 2015 alone: A Minnesota a state judge declared the program unconstitutional, describing it as ‘draconian,’ after activists, lawyers and journalists organized to highlight that no one designated as a sexually violent person has been released from the state’s treatment facilities. In Missouri, a state judge found the program constitutional, but not its application, as the state has not implemented release procedures for people held in its treatment facilities. In Washington, disability activists are raising the visibility of the over-representation of people with cognitive and behavioral disabilities in the state’s civil commitment facilities, where, due to funding cuts, dwindling services are offered and therefore few people are released. These challenges, however, seem to operate on the logic that the idea of civil commitment is sound, just not how it is implemented. And few of these challenges have called for any sort of substantial system overhaul or delved deeply into the treatment provided to SVPs.
One-size-fits-all risk assessments with questionable efficacy; high staff turnover; treatment that many experts conclude includes outdated and illegitimate practices and tools; the over-representation of certain populations (in particular, gay and bisexual men of color); treatment programs from which only a miniscule number graduate; the lucrative state contracts that incentivize keeping facilities open; multiple reasons point to a system so broken it can’t be fixed.
At the same time, we still live in a world where sexual violence persists and is normalized. For many, a variation on Margaret Thatcher’s “TINA” mantra emerges: No alternative exists except endless imprisonment.
But not all people that perpetrate sexual violence face accountability via traditional, state-supported methods like criminalization and civil commitment. Not only have some people purposefully restricted contact with these state-endorsed methods of addressing sexual violence—undocumented or kink/BDSM communities, for example, are less likely to engage police—but a growing global network recognizes that criminalization is not the pathway to reduce or end sexual violence. More resources for state institutions like prisons disappears or masks the original harm, and does not address sexual violence.
Often with a radical DIY ethic, many ad hoc and formal groups are building innovative responses to reduce, and end, sexual violence that do not involve augmenting the carceral state.
QUARREL describes itself as a group of Bay Area-based, anti-colonial, queer feminists that supports “the self-determination of survivors” using “harm reduction-inspired techniques in survivor-led actions” to transform our communities into safer spaces.
“Outside of the misogyny, racism and classism of the police state,” the group described one QUARREL action that dealt with man who had harmed several women: After multiple attempts to confront the man under more private circumstances went ignored, about 50 people showed up to the man’s workplace, presenting him with a statement saying he’d be isolated from some of the places and social circles he frequented:
We will be speaking with communities on campuses, in radical spaces, in collectives, and queer safe spaces, to let people know that you are not to participate in solidarity with women’s causes until we can reevaluate your pattern of abuse… If you refuse to abide by these guidelines or emotionally torment survivors of your abuse, we are prepared to take more serious, public action.
While QUARREL’s survivor-led direct action raises the visibility of sexual violence and engages bystanders in transforming cultures that naturalize oppression, other networks try different tools. Groups such as Creative Interventions (CR) offer examples of real people who have developed strategies to respond to harm and conflict, including sexual violence, without calling the police. Affiliated with CR, the StoryTelling and Organizing Project (STOP) offers audio, video and transcribed narratives of people who respond to violence in their communities without calling the police. With messy and imperfect examples, these detailed narratives offer a toolkit—the “how, why, where, when, and what” surrounding a conflict from a range of stakeholders—to enable varied audiences to build capacity to imagine and practice. If I don’t call the cops what can I do to help my pal who is getting beaten by her boyfriend?
In the US networks are forming. Just Beginnings, a new funding collaborative, articulates a theory of change that does not center (or even name) criminalization as a pathway to their goal: ending child sexual violence. While Just Beginnings does not expressly offer a critique of criminalization, the organizations and fellows they fund all model innovative responses to ending sexual violence that operate outside of our carceral state: storytelling, healing, public education, accessible and queer-affirming sexual health information, and more. QUARREL and STOP are both grassroots initiatives produced in communities, without state endorsement or resources, while the start of Just Beginnings, funded through high-profile philanthropic dollars, signals that a wider spectrum of political actors recognizes that safety, particularly child sexual safety, lies outside of the carceral state.
Beyond US borders, communities and governments support innovative approaches to reducing child sexual violence, before it happens, and without policing (or mandated reporting laws). In Germany the Prevention Project Dunkenfeld posts advertisements in public places that state “Do you like children in ways you shouldn’t?” Dunkenfeld provides free and confidential services in cities across Germany. Established in 2011, Dunkenfeld publicly encourages people to seek assistance if they feel they might harm children and sees open dialogue about desire and sexuality as part of a successful harm reduction strategy. Dunkenfeld is preventative, and argues that shame and stigma drive people away from the very support services and resources people need to reduce child sexual violence.
QUARREL, Prevention Project Dunkenfeld, Creative Interventions, the StoryTelling and Organizing Project and the projects funded by Just Beginnings are by no means the only examples of grassroots approaches to accountability or state-sponsored preventative strategies. Are these responses perfect? No. But they engage root causes of sexual violence, without enhancing resource-monopolizing responses, like policing and incarceration, that are largely unable to address sexual violence. The politic of prison abolition offers the challenge to visualize and invent alternatives. And if those alternatives happen to be messy and flawed, remember that so is the system they are intended to replace.
Reacting to harm with something other than more harm will require the obliteration of society’s deepest-held beliefs about what constitutes justice. For many, moving from retribution to transformation will require a revolutionary shift that breaks paradigms. Why not start with the hardest places: those framed as the “worst of the worst”? Perhaps working with those broken shards builds other networks of accountability that shape a world where, as Frank Juarez hopes, “there are no more victims”?