How to Build a World Free of Crime – Alex J. Frost

It’s one of the classic question of politics, how do we stop people from hurting each-other? Most people would say it’s impossible to stop from doing it. But I’d like to offer an alternative perspective. I sincerely believe it’s possible to live in a society without violence and crime. The old dream of world peace and safe streets can come to be ours.

It takes just three simple steps.

Firstly, we need to begin practicing ‘Harm-Free Prevention’. This means trying to eliminate the causes of crime as much as possible to stop crime before it even happens, it means looking at crime as a preventable health issue rather than an inevitable problem or individual moral failing. According to anti-violence researcher and former prison psychologist Dr. James Gilligan, violent crime at an individual level has only five real causes:

  1. Feelings of shame
  2. Feelings of isolation
  3. Inability to meet one’s physical needs (poverty)
  4. Gender inequality
  5. Past exposure to violence, especially being abused as a child[1]

(It’s worth mentioning that I only think violent crime or crimes with a high risk of harm should be viewed as crimes. I really don’t care if people steal from supermarkets to feed themselves or smoke weed. Let them do as they please. But we need to stop people hurting each-other.)

It is obvious to us that this requires the creation of a more egalitarian society that allows for voluntary connections with others, that ensures that all have access to the means of life (food, water, clean air, shelter and medical care.)

Income inequality summed up in a single photo.

Income Inequality is a great factor to look at to help prove the point that egalitarianism works. Physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal countries, whether rich or poor.[2]

While this only demonstrates the ability to reduce crime, a few societies seem to have come close to curing crime.

The Encyclopedia of Peaceful Societies documents 25 of these societies, in alphabetical order, they are the Amish (USA), Batek (Malaysia), Birhor (India), Buid (Philippines), Chewong (Malaysia), Fipa (Tanzania), G/wi (Botswana), Hutterites (USA and Canada), Ifaluk (Micronesia), Inuit (Canada), !Kung (Namibia, Botswana and Angola), Kadar (India), Ladahki (India), Malapandaram (India), Mbuti (Congo), Nubians (Egypt), Paliyans (India), Piaroa (Venezuela), Bang Chan (Thailand), Semai (Malaysia), Tahitians (French Polynesia), Tristan Islanders (Saint Helena), Yanadi (India) and Zapotec (Mexico).[3]

All of these societies provide a sense of community and economic resources to all their people, they do not hit their children and most have some kind of gender equality. Most have extremely little to no documented cases of violence, and have never started wars or carried out political repression or genocides. However, given their often religious, patriarchal and authoritarian nature, it is obvious that we want something better.

Barricades set up during the Paris Commune, near the Place de la Concorde. Credit to Wikipedia.

For two months in 1871, Paris declared itself to be an independent city from France and turned itself into the Paris Commune, a small republic espousing socialism and democracy. Although highly flawed, it was noted that the ability to introduce harm-free prevention led to a communard noting “We hear no longer of assassination, theft and personal assault”.[4]

Children in Cherán playing a game during a street festival. Credit to TVCherán.

Another town-sized rebellion, this time 140 years ago in Cherán, Mexico has led virtually every journalist and researcher in the town to conclude it’s now the safest in the country (it has the lowest murder rate), despite lacking police and prisons, it instead focuses on harm-free prevention and restorative justice.[5] One 18-year old girl living there said: “In Cherán, I feel safe because I can walk the streets at night, and I don’t fear that something’s going to happen”.[6]

It’s worth mentioning that the town has reforested 20,000 hectares of forest with a population of just 16,000 in 7 years. Making it probably the largest and fastest reforestation program per capita in the world. Oh, and they have a YouTube channel.

An aerial view of a Kibbutz, credit to Giving Compass.

If you don’t like violent rebellions, look at the peacefully established Kibbutzim in Israel, they are excellent examples of harm-free prevention. According to Wikipedia: “the crime rate [in the Kibbutz] is lower than the national average by a significant margin.” In 1940, a British airman stationed in Palestine wrote that in the kibbutzim, “The problem of violence has simply not arisen.’’ In 1986, a study on Kibbutz Vatik noted that the kibbutz had never experienced any serious crime.[7]

Secondly, we need to massively reform the police. The main reform we need is to let communities fire their police officers at any point. Police should have to earn the trust and respect of the communities they serve, rather than the other way around. This would massively reduce police corruption and police brutality, currently at insanely high levels. While we lack studies on this method, we have a few similar historical examples to draw information from.

Workers across Seattle took over the city for five days and kicked out the government. Credit to Libcom.

In 1919, Seattle was taken over by IWW-affiliated strikers and run by workers’ councils. They organised food distribution, rubbish collection, the fire department and created a “Labor War Veteran’s Guard”, a neighbourhood watch comprised of unarmed military veterans from World War I walked the streets to keep watch and respond to calls for help, though they were authorized to use warnings and persuasion only.

Combined with the harm-free prevention of solidarity, free food, and empowerment of the common person played a role in drying up crime at its source. Major General John F. Morrison, stationed in Seattle, claimed that he had never seen “a city so quiet and so orderly.” The strike was ultimately shut down by the invasion of thousands of troops and police deputies, coupled with pressure from the union leadership. Afterwards, crime rates began to climb up as the workers’ councils disbanded.[8]

Strikers build barricades across Oaxaca City in 2006. Credit to Wikipedia.

In 2006, Oaxaca City, Mexico declared independence for seven months during a teacher’s strike. The “people’s police” that helped keep things peaceful in especially violent and divisive circumstances. For their part, the police and paramilitaries killed over twenty-seven people — this was the only bloodbath. If someone was being robbed or assaulted, the neighbours would raise the alarm and the neighborhood people’s police would come; if the assailant was on drugs he would be tied up in the central plaza for the night, and the next day made to pick up garbage or perform another type of community service.[9]

The Symphony Way settlement. Credit to Mail & Guardian.

In 2009, 127 families in Cape Town, South Africa set up a road-side squatter community to avoid being housed in the “Transit Relocation Areas”, tent camps surrounded by armed guards and razor wire built to help eradicate slums. Described by one resident as “a lost place in hell” with high crime and frequent rape of children.

The squatters managed to set up shelter, food and water supplies, medical care, sports ground and childcare. They also set up a night-watch to discourage antisocial crime and put out unattended fires. The residents told a visiting Russian professor that they felt much safer in their community than they would in one of the camps offered by the government, where crime is rampant, because at Symphony Way the community worked together to protect itself.[10]

The town of Amûdê, Rojava. Credit to An Aimless Hitchhiker.

In Rojava, a system called the Asayish has been developed since 2012. The Asayish have to take a six-week training in nonviolent conflict resolution and feminism training before they are allowed to touch a gun. The ultimate aim is to give police training to everyone so that they can eliminate professional police. Parallel to the Asayish, an all-women’s security force called the Asayish-J, “is alone responsible for crimes involving women, children, domestic abuse, and hate crimes” in addition to sharing the peacekeeping functions of the co-ed Asayish.[11]

Finally, we must develop a more effective way of dealing with criminals. This approach must try to reduce reoffending rates as much as possible, but also give victims a space to heal from the trauma of being a victim of violent crime.

What restorative justice looks like in practice. Credit to the Fairfield Center.

We need to build a system of restorative justice. An approach to justice in which the response to a crime is to organise a meeting between the victim and the offender, sometimes with representatives of the wider community. The goal is for them to share their experience of what happened, to discuss who was harmed by the crime and how, and to create a consensus for what the offender can do to repair the harm from the offense.

Research from Canada about using this tactic to meet sex offenders with their victims alongside 5–7 trained volunteer circle members can reduce repeat offenses by sexual predators by nearly 80%.[12] In the aftermath of years of horrific racism against Albanians in Kosovo, the largest restorative justice campaign in history took place in the course of the 1990 reconciliation campaign that ended the blood feuds among ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, which was attended by 500,000 participants. By 1992 the reconciliation campaign ended at least 1,200 deadly blood feuds, and in 1993, not a single homicide occurred in Kosovo.

A 2007 meta-study of all research projects concerning restorative justice conferencing published in English between 1986 and 2005 found positive results, specifically for victims. Who had a greater ability to return to work, to resume normal daily activities, and to return to healthy sleep patterns. Victims also had a reduced fear of the offender, fear of being hurt again, less anxiety and anger to the offender. They also had an increased ‘sense of security’, greater levels of sympathy to the offender, greater feelings of trust in others and greater feelings of self-confidence. The study concludes that it has the highest rate of victim satisfaction and offender accountability of any method of justice.[13]

But while restorative justice is highly effective, it doesn’t work in all situations. And thus therefore a prison system (even if tiny) is necessary. However, a new kind of prison hints to its own existence, hidden from us at present, waiting to burst out and offer us a kinder world.

Making prisons more humane has a strong record for reducing repeat offenses. Two prison psychologists, Bandy Lee and James Gilligan managed to reduce all internal violence in a prison in San Francisco to zero for an entire year and reduced the frequency of violent reoffending after leaving the jail by 83%. He calls for the creation of ‘anti-prisons’, communities devoted to providing every form of therapy its residents needed (substance abuse treatment, psychotherapy, medical and dental care) and every form of education for which the residents were motivated and capable (from elementary school to college and graduate school).[14]

For two months in 1973, prisoners took over Walpole Prison in Massachusetts after prison guards went on strike, leaving only one to guard the entrance. Walpole had been one of the most violent prisons in the country, but while the prisoners were in control, recidivism dropped dramatically and murders and rapes fell to zero. According to a civilian observer: “The atmosphere was so relaxed — not at all what I expected. I find that my own thinking has been so conditioned by society and the media. These men are not animals, they are not dangerous maniacs. I found my own fears were really groundless.”[15]

No prisons exemplifies this ideal more than Halden Prison and Bastøy Prison, both in Norway and both most liberal prisons in Europe, and possibly the world. Halden hosts dangerous as well as highly dangerous criminals, such as rapists, murderers, and child molesters. There are no conventional security devices, such as barbed tape, electric fences, towers, or snipers. However, there is safety glass, and a concrete and steel wall around the facility.

An average prison cell in Halden Prison, credit to the BBC.

Each prison cell is 10 square metres and has a flat-screen television, desk, mini-fridge, toilet with shower, and unbarred vertical window that lets in more light. Every 10–12 cells share a common area with a kitchen and a living room; the kitchen has stainless steel silverware, porcelain plates, and a dining table, and the living room has a modular couch and a video game system. Prisoners are encouraged to cook and clean in their own space, and unarmed guards often eat with prisoners. Is it any surprise that the prison has criminals that are twice as likely to not return to prison after leaving? They actually stop violent criminals from becoming stuck in the criminal underworld and offer a way out.

From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m, there are practices on jogging trails and a football field, while wood working, cooking, and music classes are also offered. At the mixing studio, the inmates may record music and a monthly program broadcast by the local radio station. A library with books, magazines, CDs and DVDs; a gym with a rock-climbing wall; and a chapel are also available. Prisoners even receive questionnaires asking how their prison experience can be improved.

Bastøy Prison, as seen from the air. Credit to Wikipedia.

Bastøy is a minimum security prison island, an hour commute from the capital of Oslo and only accessible by ferry. The facility is trying to become “the first ecological prison in the world”. Reoffending rates have been reported at 16%, compared to a European average of around 70%. Inmates are housed in wooden cottages and work the prison farm. During their free time, inmates have access to horseback riding, fishing, tennis, and cross-country skiing.

It’s also worth mentioning that Norway’s murder rate is 0.86 per 100,000 (or about 50 a year in a country of more than 5 million) compared to the US’ murder rate of 6.26 per 100,000, and Russia’s rate of 20.20 per 100,000. Norway proves that with a low wealth gap, policies of gender equality, low reliance on police and courts (89% of crimes are settled in mediation) and liberal prisons, you can live in one of the most peaceful societies on earth.[16]

A group of Zapatistas sitting together, Credit to El Sol de México.

However, no society embodies these ideals more than the Zapatista Communities in Southern Mexico. Described by a government advisor as “the safest place in Mexico and perhaps one of the safest in the world.” Land is communally owned and no one goes hungry, so there is little to be gained from theft. With a significant degree of control over their work, education, culture and communities, the Zapatistas experience a comparably low level of alienation. “There are only two men in jail in the whole of the Zapatista area today, and these two guys are in jail because they committed the worst possible crime. They were cultivating marijuana. The problem in that case is not just the use of marijuana. The problem is they can give the government a pretext to attack the Zapatistas and to attack the communities.”[17]

If these three facts are true and we can structure society like this. Not only can we liberate prisoners and re-unite tens of thousands of people with their families, we can also massively reduce cases of murder, assault, theft and sexual violence, and the trauma associated with these events. Prisons and police stations can be turned into apartments, hospitals, schools, parks or museums, saving resources and space for ecological reasons. We can build a world worth living in.

This finally leaves us with the other classic question of politics, what is to be done? Honestly, I don’t really know. The future is unwritten! I’d encourage the dear reader to start researching the concepts and examples I’ve listed in this article rather than just taking my word for it. We all have our own roles and strengths to play in the world, and if you agree with the ideas I’ve laid out, then you can find your own small way to help change the world for the better.

Please let me know if you disagree and why or if I made any errors in this article.

[1] ~ Dr. James Gilligan (1997) Violence — Reflections on a National Epidemic

[2] ~ Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

[3] ~ University of Birmingham-Alabama College of Arts and Sciences: Department of Anthropology: Encyclopedia of Peaceful Societies

[4] ~ Karl Marx (1871) The Civil War in France

[5] ~ The Guardian (2018) The Mexican indigenous community that ran politicians out of town

[6] ~ BBC News (2016) Cheran: The town that threw out police, politicians and gangsters

[7] ~ James Horrox (2009) A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement, page 76

[8] ~ Howard Zinn (1992) A People’s History of the United States, page 368–369

[9] ~ Diana Denham (2008) — Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca, interview with Cuatli.

[10] ~ Daria Zelenova, “Anti-Eviction Struggle of the Squatters Communities in Contemporary South Africa,” paper presented at the conference “Hierarchy and Power in the History of Civilizations,” at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, June 2009.

[11] ~ strangers in a tangled wilderness (2015) A Small Key Can Open a Large Door, page 33

[12] ~ Robin J. Wilson, Franca Cortoni and Andrew J. McWhinnie (2007) Circles of Support & Accountability: A Canadian National Replication of Outcome Findings

[13] ~ Lawrence W Sherman & Heather Strang (2007). “Restorative Justice: The Evidence”. University of Pennsylvania.

[14] ~ James Gilligan and Bandy Lee (2005) The Resolve to Stop the Violence Project: reducing violence in the community through a jail-based initiative

[15] ~ Jamie Bissonette (2008) When the Prisoners Ran Walpole: a true story in the movement for prison abolition

[16] ~ Graham Kemp and Douglas P. Fry (2004) Keeping the Peace: Conflict Resolution and Peaceful Societies around the World, pages 149–163

[17] ~ Gustavo Esteva (2013) — Liberty According to the Zapatistas

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