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What Will It Take to Heal? Prison Abolition and Permaculture

by Nicole Vosper, WildHeartPermaculture

I write this on the train from seeing a close friend of mine, imprisoned in HMP Holloway. A beautiful lifer who I gardened with for the entire 21 months of my own imprisonment in 2009/10. After 5.5 years into her sentence, she is at her lowest point. She has not eaten for 15 days. With the means of suicide taken from her, she says this is the only way she can die. Even with the knowing that she’ll get taken to hospital and administered a drip, she is determined to weaken her body to the point that she will no longer be part of this world. I do not try to talk her out of it, I simply sit in the hall and listen. The minute I tell her what to do, like every other screw in the place, she will close off and the only lifeline of compassion and support she has will be severed. Having listened to suicidal women most of my adult life, including those in prison during my time as a Listener with the Samaritans, I respect self-determination and honour the space to have these conversations about life and death, grief and hope.

Understanding that right doesn’t take away the fact that every piece of my heart feels like it’s breaking. Every cell in my body is filled with the rage at the injustice of her case. But most of what I feel is powerlessness in the face of the prison system. A system that has dominated and caused harm in my life since I was 16 years old. In most other ways I feel a woman of power; a community organiser, grower, permaculture practitioner. I know my sphere of influence and know how to stretch it strategically. There is not much I fear and not much I feel I can’t do if I put my mind to it. But the prison system dwarfs me and it’s time for that to change.

This article isn’t about my friend’s case. That would take a whole book or more and rests waiting for the appeal court. This article is about the prison system and its harm, in a UK context but with stories that echo in the hearts of people everywhere. This article is about re-designing our society where there will be no cages. Finally, this article is about the politics and practices of healing as I sink into a heap of tears in the prison visits hall and ask, “What will it take to heal?”

The prison system today

In the UK there are currently 85,690 people in prison, not including people detained under the Mental Health Act, in Secure Children’s homes or in Immigration detention. (1)

A whirlwind introduction to the prison system in the UK shows that 27% of the adult prison population has been in care and almost 40% of prisoners under 21 were in care as children (2). 72% of male and 70% of female sentenced prisoners suffer from two or more mental health disorders. In the last decade the women’s prison population has gone up by 33%, with two thirds being in prison for non-violent offences. Over half have suffered domestic violence and one in three has experienced sexual abuse. 66% of women in prison have dependent children under 18 and it is estimated that 17,700 children are separated from their mother by imprisonment. Over a quarter of the UK prison population is also from a minority ethnic group. (3)

Detailed in the Safer Custody Reports from January – March 2012, in the past year there have been over 211 deaths in custody, 5611 self harm incidents and 3,725 assault incidents (4). The rates of self harmers being women is approximately 11 times higher than for males. Surely the Government’s preference is to reduce the prison population? In their projections however they expect it to rise, attributing this to general rises in determinate sentencing and a rise in ‘non-criminal population’ in relationship to their imprisonment of immigrants.

A growing prison population is not the only worrying trend. Patterns of privatisation are ultimately the final reducers of social justice.

Patterns of privatisation

The UK already has the most privatised prison system in Europe, with 11.6% of the total prisoner population (nearly 10,000 people) held in private prisons. Research has shown that overall the cost of private prisons per place are higher and they have been criticised for high staff turnover, cutting corners and weakening security (3).

Privatisation means that multinational companies profit from the prison system in nearly all ways, from electronic tagging to running prisons themselves. Profit is priority above harm reduction and when a company is paid for how full their prison is, the investment in rehabilitation is clearly running opposite to business goals. Thousands of prisoners are also employed producing goods for private sector companies through mainly menial labour such as packing headphones and boxes. Read more about that here.

Immigration is also a major player in the privatisation of the prison system. In the private jail that I was in, our catchment was Heathrow airport and so we would get a stream of women imprisoned due to immigration control. For a company paid for how full their cells are, this could not have been more beneficial. Since the 1990s there has been a major increase in ‘detention centres’ or ‘immigration removal centres’, with no time limit on immigration detention (5). Women from foreign countries are one of the fastest growing groups in the female prison population and represent one in seven of all the women held in custody in England and Wales (3).

The prison industrial complex

The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems (6).

In the US there are over 2 million caged people and one of the most ‘advanced’ prison industrial complexes on the planet. It is a sprawling system based on racism and repression. I reference to it a lot through this article.

Beyond the social aspects, there is also the ecological harm of prisons. I doubt anyone could really know the ecological impacts of prison. Having been served up my ‘vegan pack’ in a polystyrene box twice a day for 630 days I dread to think which part of the ocean that plastic is floating in, or which land base it’s slowly poisoning. Prisons perpetuate waste, use massive amounts of energy and through their network of profiting private companies, create major income streams for industrial food suppliers, toxic cleaning products and more.

What has prison got to do with permaculture?

Addressing our community’s basic needs is the foundations of permaculture, whether this is food, shelter, fuel or social relationships (people care). Yet we continuously ignore why the basic needs of many in our community are not met. For example homelessness is a key input and output of the prison system yet its causes get ignored.

But with a permaculture approach, at a systems scale level of analysis we can see the patterns that perpetuate prison and it’s pretty clear that intervention is beyond the individual level (e.g. moving around elements). As Donella Meadows writes in her book ‘Thinking in Systems’, the best way to change the behaviour of a system is to change its function (7).

What is the function of our current prison system? Government documents would likely declare that their functions are to punish, act as a deterrent and ‘safeguard’ — keeping dangerous people locked up. But what is the reality when analysed with the lens of understanding of power structures and injustice? The function of the prison system is ultimately social control of groups of people in society (and society at large through fear), maintaining a surplus of the unemployed and now of course, making a profit. But how could the system change if the function was to reduce harm?


In surveying resistance to the prison system, there are of course diverse approaches, including those that focus on harm intervention, e.g. support for individuals such as training, counselling and so forth, as well as those organising for abolition.

Critical Resistance, based in the US, takes this abolitionist approach. They seek to build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC).

We do this by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe. We believe that basic necessities such as food, shelter and freedom are what really make our communities secure. As such, our work is part of global struggles against inequality and powerlessness. The success of the movement requires that it reflect communities most affected by the PIC. Because we seek to abolish the PIC, we cannot support any work that extends its life or scope.

As a set of political beliefs, prison industrial complex abolition is based in a feeling of what is possible. So, instead of thinking about what we want to destroy, it may be more helpful to think about what we must build to abolish the PIC. Our vision needs to include everyone affected by the PIC, not only the first time drug offender or the wrongly convicted, but everyone.

We need to be able to create environments for ourselves that provide the basic necessities we need to live, such a safe and steady housing; sufficient food; access to medical care; access to information and tools with which to process that information; resources to participate in an economy; a way to express opinions, interests or concerns; freedom from physical and psychological harm (both from individuals and the state). We need to start building those kinds of environments for ourselves as we work to abolish anything. We need healthy environments that don’t depend on punishment and harm to protect the interests of the state and the rich or powerful. — Critical Resistance

How do we create these environments? For me, at least the most useful tool in the toolbox I feel is permaculture, a design system for creating sustainable human habitats. It’s not just about how we interact with the land – it’s about how we interact with each other. Permaculturalists have amazing skills and knowledge to meet community needs in a way that supports those communities to become stable and self-determining. For too long we are led to believe that only state control can create ‘safety’. Together, I feel we can design prisons out of our societies. Through recognising harm, we can intervene to change the systems that perpetuate it and create safe communities.

Designing for safe communities

Working for a society where prisons are made redundant is without a doubt a long term goal, but what can be we do now to create safer communities and reduce harm? It is clear that design plays a role in creating permanent cultures with the premises of:

  • Commitment to meeting basic needs of our community, beyond institutions based on power and control, such as the NHS, state schools and so forth. The intersections between the ‘welfare’ system and the prison system cannot be ignored. The state does not meet community needs and we cannot wait for them to do so, it is up to us to organise to meet needs as a community, through design, to make the state redundant, otherwise those in the welfare system will continuously be channeled towards the prison system.
  • Safety for queer communities, who are also disproportionately encaged in our society. This means solidarity with LGBTQ projects and embracing diversity in all aspects of our work.
  • Access to healthcare – prisons get in the way of supporting health, perpetuating health inequalities. To design safe communities we need a truly nourishing, holistic, community based model of healthcare and above all healthy environments.
  • Mental health support – the proportions of those in prison experiencing mental health challenges is massive. If we are to reduce the interfaces with the prison system, community-based approaches to mental health need to be supported. It is clear that this culture that we live in is insane, embracing cultures of healing may be the only way we can defeat the prison system.
  • School systems – discipline policies push people out of school. Intersections of poverty and a culture of violence do not appear when accounting for ‘anti-social’ or ‘disruptive behaviour’. Pushed to the margins of society, prison is a step away. Many people organise in the alternative education movements, alternatives to the increasingly prison-like school system, and they need support and to be valued in creating safe communities.
  • Military alternatives – and this is where abolition links to industrial civilisation. Abolitionists can challenge the idea that using military ideas and equipment builds safe communities. The amount of ex-serviceman in prison is testament to this fact and it is clear that the military industrial complex is partner and perpetuator of the prison industrial complex. With nation states the default model of society, there will always be war. Only with the collapse of industrial civilisation and the rebirth of community based horticultural societies can we hope to reduce the harm these industries inflict.
  • Alternatives to policing – now I know this is an emotive topic. A lot of readers will have had an experience where a copper has helped them rescue a kitten/support them after a car crash/visit them after a burglary and so on and so on, but really as a model of community safety, does policing work? It is clear that police inflict harm and remove people from their communities to deal with social problems. Police use force – arrest or threat of arrest and physical harm – to make people act in certain ways and be in certain places. I don’t know about anyone else, but coercion from police play no role in my vision of a permanent culture.

What will it take to heal?

When taking the first steps to re-learn ‘crime’ as harm, its context changes. Harm is not only caused by ‘criminals’ but by the state, the prison industrial complex, industrial agriculture and more. Recognising this changes everything.

“Greatly reducing rates of particular kinds of harm depends upon our ability to change the social and economic conditions in which they take place,” says Critical Resistance. For me the power of changing these conditions comes with design.

“Harm intervention at its heart is renewal,” says Steve Peace. “A capacity of commitment to restoring what can be restored, mourning what has been lost, engaging what is at stake… all in spite of harm.”(8) Permaculturalists all work in spite of harm, whether it’s personal harm to themselves or the witnessing of harm to others and the land. How we cope with this harm, ultimately how we heal, can no longer be thought of as an individual pursuit.

“Harm is not just violence or consequence of oppression, but it’s also a political act, and healing therefore is political resistance”, says Steve Peace. “We intervene so that we can live.”

For me, healing means the abolition of the prison system, a goal I ache for as much as I ache for a world without pesticides poisoning our soils. And so I ask others: How can we design to reduce harm? How can you design for safety and self-determination in your community? What will it take to heal?


  7. Donella H Meadows (2009), Thinking in Systems: A Primer, London, Earthscan.
  8. Stevie Peace (2010), ‘The Desire to Heal: Harm intervention in a landscape of restorative justice and critical resistance’ in Team Colours Collective, Uses of a whirlwind. Movement, movements and contemporary radical currents in the United States, Oakland, AK Press


  1. There is a prison in San Antonio that started a inner peace program based on the teachings of Prem Rawatt. This has made a huge and dramatic impact on the prisoners there as well as the guards and such that work there. If you go to you might be able to get some info about that program and maybe youll find something incredible for yourself there also.

  2. There were no prisons, military or police before humanities slide into agriculture and ‘civil’isation. That speaks volumes. Food surplus created a need for a policing of that surplus. Corrupt from the word go with the fear of God invoked to keep people in control, I feel that an awakening and understanding of the beauty of ecological gardening can change everything and the best way to do that is to keep building examples of how it works.

  3. Personal responsibility is the only thing that can heal society – hate will surely beget hate. I deplore the idea of prisons but I would not like to live in a community where individuals believe that violence, threats and intimidation are valid means to get what one wants – sadly these elements are there, be they a part of the state apparatus or not.

    It is easy to see how most societies create an atmosphere that is not conducive to respectful treatment of each other but the problem also exists in all our minds and hearts. We all suffer from greed, we all are seduced with how our vision is ‘right’ and do violence to others in how we deny them, we all denigrate others from time to time. None of us are above reproach.

    So I believe that the primary battle is always in our minds. If we wish to see a society without violence we must exemplify it, if we wish to see a society without intimidation we must exemplify it, if we wish to see a society that is kind and compassionate we must exemplify it. Otherwise our behaviour will create the kind of society we are supposed to be opposing and we will become hypocrites. That is why it is the hardest path.

  4. No one can imagine what to say in these situation…I’m convinced you have to wing it everytime, trust your gut on the right words, practice empathy and in their shoes thinking, but above all be yourself and be there! Good job.

  5. Prisons serve a useful purpose in the military industrial system. While they keep the truly dangerous out of the society that created them (if only temporarily), they also help to maintain the crime cycle, provide useful scapegoats for politicians to sway the will of the uncritical masses, and recently have become a good source of profit for massive corporations. The 1988 movie, Ghosts of the Civil Dead gives some insight into this.

  6. LJ- What a great comment! I feel this way also however would not have been able to articulate it the way you have…

  7. Glad to see a piece like this posted here. Also happy to see an organization like Critical Resistance get a nod. I have good friends who were very involved with them (still involved, I should say) back in the SF Bay Area several years ago.

  8. In Australia our Government locks up innocent refugee children, families, men and women in detention centres. It is very clear that prison conditions are an appaling environment for anyone let alone children who are already coping with trauma and displacement.

    If you have met people coming out of these detention centres after years locked up in barbwire prisons, after escaping the horrors of war and persecution… it’s truly awful to think what our government inflicts on refugees – some of the most desperate and helpless people in the world.

    Similarly most, if not all, of the “criminals” who are locked in our prisons have been forced to the edge of society by a community which has not supported them through their broken childhoods.

    We have to continue to demand human rights for everyone in order to have a sustainable and harmonious world.

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