Mutual aid in challenging punishment

By Emily Brenner, June 2022

Mutual aid is collective support that aids citizens where the state fails to; where instead of relying on authoritative bodies, community members come together on their own to offer support instead.  Mutual aid in Scotland is often associated with community assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. Community-based groups throughout the country arose with the explicit purpose of bridging gaps between people at risk of the pandemic and the resources they needed.

In the United States, mutual aid has been particularly beneficial as a tactic in helping people who have been arrested to afford their bail and get released. Though far from a new practice, the protests and demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd increased attention on mutual aid to afford cash bail set for those arrested at protests. Widespread mutual aid highlighted the classist barriers which allowed the individuals who could afford bail to leave jail after their arrest– whereas those who couldn’t were awaiting trial in a cell. Now, states like New Jersey, New York, and California are reforming the practice, while Illinois has abolished cash bail entirely. Cash bail has put people in the US who were arrested and awaiting trial in a difficult position, having to choose between sacrificing a significant amount of money, at a high cost to them and their families, and freedom as they fight any charges.

While living in the US myself, mutual aid was one of the most accessible forms of participating in protests and collective action during the Summer of 2020. In the beginning, leaving the house was difficult due to severely immunocompromised household members—but even though I couldn’t physically take part in protests, I was able to engage in other meaningful ways before I was able to join marches later that summer. Mutual aid for cash bailouts was my first stop, contributing to communal funds to ensure finances did not stand in the way of someone’s freedom. Sharing the resources and information to do so with other community members went hand-in-hand with this, being as simple as sharing links on social media or through word-of-mouth. As I was based near Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Bail Fund was my first point for engaging in mutual aid. As I worked with community members through my undergraduate university, a Mutual Aid and Anarchist network emerged to aid those affected by the pandemic and the protests. Alongside this were similar locally funded networks gathering supplies for houseless people in Philadelphia, and resources—such as milk, water, and food—for those taking part in protests throughout the city. The wave of community organizers and members coming together over shared interests for the wellbeing of one another in the city was immense and inspiring.

Cash bail is not a barrier between the individual and their freedom in Scotland. In 1980, an amendment to bail in Scotland was passed, declaring it unlawful “to grant bail or release for a pledge or deposit of money”. Instead bail is a status of the accused as they are released from the court which binds the individual to attend court as directed, not commit further offences, not obstruct the course of justice, and make themself available for the investigation.  But as the evolution of bail in the United States unfolds, with Scotland already several steps ahead, there is more to learn about the possible evolution of penal fixtures—especially where mutual aid is concerned. 

By showing solidarity with those living through or affected by the Scottish penal system, radical change can become more accessible. There are many ways in which financial support can be beneficial to people affected by punishment in Scotland. For those in prison, such support could be helpful in obtaining necessities from the canteen, such as toiletries, snacks or other goods. The transition out of prison can be costly if the individual does not have access to shelter, transportation, clothes or a supportive family. Financial mutual aid can help with these issues, as well as with any additional fees encountered throughout this process. It is important that the funds from mutual aid should never be expected to go solely towards what communities deem “necessary” resources, as telling an individual what they can do with money meant to support them can be an extension of the loss of autonomy, reflecting their time in prison. Above all, mutual aid can highlight the lack of resources given to Scottish prisoners, and the barriers punishments often play in their lives. Having spent convictions or a prison sentence on their record already imposes problems as they navigate life after their sentence; financial support as well as general community support can help to alleviate these difficulties.

It is important that the funds from mutual aid should never be expected to go solely towards what communities deem “necessary” resources

Beyond financially supporting those affected by the penal system, mutual aid is a show of solidarity. Although supporting those in need through tangible means is an aspect of mutual aid, providing additional resources is another way to help those navigating the penal system, including making information and resources accessible, organizing community action, and helping those navigating the penal system access what they need.

Mutual aid does not rely on reciprocity: there is no expectation of people receiving support giving back—nor is it an act of charity. Mutual aid works to strengthen community ties and relationships, highlighting how as a society it can be incredibly difficult to be entirely independent of one another and still thrive. It is recognition that as humans we work best when interdependent, which is often ignored in the assumptions that consequences are only meant for the individual to bear. This support is not burdened by bureaucracy: beyond navigating the process of getting anything tangible into the hands of those who need the resource[s], there are no wait times, paperwork, or runarounds.  

Mutual aid works to strengthen community ties, highlighting how as a society it can be incredibly difficult to be entirely independent of one another and still thrive

In terms of radical change to the Scottish penal system, mutual aid can serve to highlight the pitfalls of the current system in place. In the US, financial support was incredibly helpful in giving people their freedom as they awaited trial—but it also served to highlight issues in the penal system and the importance of community support. The Howard League notes the harms of being in prison often outweigh the hoped-for outcomes. Prisons and the conditions people are released  into make future offending more likely, not less.

Reductionism, rather than reform, encourages us to move away from the idea that putting people in prison is the best option for rehabilitating the individual and contributing to a safer society. Where reform seeks to modify, reductionism and abolition instead call for reducing the need for prison sentences as a crutch in reducing crime rates. In this instance, mutual aid can serve to highlight how serving a sentence and being reintegrated into society is not something that should be done alone or without support, as the isolation experienced can play a role in negatively impacting the experience of the individual and contribute towards further criminalisation.

While government, criminal justice officials and local councils should not be completely relieved of the responsibility of supporting those affected by the penal system—as it is their job to improve the lives of all of their constituents– mutual aid highlights the benefits of social solidarity. Mutual aid, when it picks up momentum and attention, can contribute to the destigmatization of those affected by punishment through the express act of giving and showing support. Abolitionist Mariame Kaba makes note of the necessity of mutual aid in activism surrounding punishment. Kaba states that mutual aid “reject[s] saviorism” and “hierarchy and authoritarianism”, the latter of which act as barriers to abolition. Mutual aid, which stands as their opposite, demonstrates a worthwhile and more humane alternative that no longer recycles harms, but also reduces the cyclical pattern for those stuck in the penal system.  

Mutual aid, when it picks up momentum and attention, can contribute to the destigmatization of those affected by punishment

In 2021, Kaba formulated a comprehensive list on how to stand in solidarity with those currently incarcerated, highlighting the many ways to not only show solidarity but how solidarity can give way to tackling stigmatization and demanding change from politicians. Learning about criminalization and incarceration was listed as the first of Kaba’s “Solidarity Commitments to/with Incarcerated People”. Moving away from one’s own pre-conceived notions, gaining a better background understanding, or learning how to challenge current conditions of punishment is a great starting place. Different skills are listed as well, which further highlights how mutual aid extends beyond tangible means to support others. This includes providing legal counsel pro bono and free remote mental health care for those no longer in prison. These acts of community support can directly uplift and aid those affected by the penal system. It can also highlight the gaps in support to those in power as well as the wider public.

Going forward, as shown, it is worth looking at the role mutual aid can play in Scotland’s penal system. Specifically, how can mutual aid spur radical change in punishment, the way it did for cash bail in some US states? Forcing long-standing issues in punishment into the public’s attention makes ignoring the issues of these systems more difficult. By doing so, radical change and accountability of systems that claim to rehabilitate moves within reach. In identifying the benefits of community support rather than isolating those living through their sentences, we can work toward reducing the reliance of bureaucratic and authoritative bodies in aiding this population, as well as push for radical change in the Scottish penal system.  


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