Animal Rights and Prison Abolition: Why I Don’t Support Prosecuting Animal Abusers

22 year-old Andre Robinson is currently on trial for kicking a stray cat, an act which he recorded and posted on his Facebook page. I did not have any desire to watch something so awful, but it sounds like the video is quite violent—the cat has been said to have flown about 20 feet after impact. The fact that Robinson is on trial and has not received a plea bargain is a result of a new direction in the criminal punishment system that has been bolstered by an influx of bills that treat animal abuse as a serious, prison-worthy offense. But as appalling as Robinson’s actions were, I do not support the criminalization of animal abuse.

Animal rights activists have been at the forefront of using the legal system to hold animal abusers accountable for their egregious actions. PETA ensured that a man in Virginia receive a year in prison for starving a pit bull. The Animal Legal Defense Fund in California offered a $1,000 to ensure the arrest and prosecution of a man who set a cat on fire. And at Robinson’s trial, animal rights activists fill the court room demanding “justice.”

Understand first and foremost that I am deeply sickened by animal abuse. (Especially when it comes to cats! I mean, I am basically this person!). The acts committed by the people who have been prosecuted are completely unacceptable.

But the solution is not to strengthen the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). For those of you who don’t spend your days around people who use terms like “the Prison Industrial Complex,” let me give you a basic rundown. Basically the PIC is the name used to describe the “overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems” [1]. In short, prison has become a business that literally profits from caging human beings. The more people getting put in jail, the more money the privatized prisons make (and even the State-run prisons). That alone should be enough to make anyone skeptical of the system, but it only gets worse.

First, it’s important to note who gets locked away and who doesn’t. In the US, Black men are incarcerated at rates far greater than any other population. You can read more about this phenomenon in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which, as the title suggests explains how prisons are stepping up to act as a new method of racist disenfranchisement. We also know that other non-white people, poor people, and LGBTQ people are locked away at higher rates than their white counterparts [2, 3].

The key thing to remember here is that this is not because people of color, poor people, and/or LGBTQ people (and those at the intersection of all of those) are any more likely to commit crimes, but rather that these communities are targeted by the police far more than their white, wealthy counterparts. A very easy and common example that helps illustrate this is to think about the number of white and/or middle/upper-class college students who smoke pot. A shit ton, right? How many of them go to jail for it: not many. How many Black men go to prison for being caught with pot? A lot more. Despite having roughly the same use rate, this is what arrests look like:

marijuana_arrest_rates_by_race_year

I could keep going with graphs and stats that illustrate the way the system is racist, sexist, homophobic, and cissexist, but the main thing to remember is that it targets those populations, not that those populations “deserve” prison more than other people.

But none of that is getting at my actual point. My point is that prison doesn’t fix or change anything. In fact, prisons are more likely to perpetuate the very things that get people incarcerated in the first place. That is to say, they exacerbate violence, racism, sexism, etc. because they are inhumane institutions.

This brings me directly to the story about Robinson and all the other attempts made by animal advocacy organizations to prosecute animal abusers. If animal liberation is about practicing more compassion toward living creatures, we cannot rely on the PIC to fix humans who have not practiced compassion. The chances of people experiencing and being enabled to practice more compassion in prison is slim to none. Rather than looking at the root of the problem in any criminal case—in this one, a society that enables a human to be so violent and cruel to an animal—we lock people up as a distraction. As Angela Davis notes, the PIC “relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.” Capitalism and white supremacy are systems that rely on alienation and dehumanization, so is it any wonder that animal abusers exist within this kind of economic system and culture?  The PIC is an extension of this system, and thus is not an institution that has any interest in actually addressing the root of the problem.

When animal rights activists support “tough on crime” approaches to animal abuse, they are strengthening the PIC. The PIC is not a friend to animal rights. The PIC is not an institution that will teach lessons about being better to living creatures.

So, what’s the alternative? Prison abolitionists have been theorizing and practicing alternatives to the carceral state for decades. It will not be an easy road, but there is evidence that transformative justice, rather than punitive “justice,” is possible. Groups like INCITE! and Critical Resistance have discussed moving towards community accountability and committing to addressing the political and economic systems that create violence in the first place. I highly recommend visiting these sites for more reading:

Imagine what it might look like if the energy animal rights activists put into trying to send abusers to prison was spent instead on challenging our culture of violence and working on programs to heal the abuser.

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4 thoughts on “Animal Rights and Prison Abolition: Why I Don’t Support Prosecuting Animal Abusers

  1. eleventhbeatnik says:

    A very thought provoking piece. As an animal activist, I know all too well the frustration and emotionality that naturally arises when cases of animal abuse and cruelty come to light. People want justice. But what does justice actually look like in the bigger picture? I completely agree that prison does nothing in terms of healing or changing violent behavour. How could it? Wherever healing and reform is possible, it is certainly worth pursuing. Compassion is as compassion (hopefully) does. Thanks for sharing these ideas.

    • raechel says:

      Thanks for the response! I know it’s hard to think that everyone is capable of healing and reform, but we won’t know until we start seriously investing energy and resources into that kind of work.

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