Establishment of monthly online reading group on Abolition and Decarceration

Katharina Swirak, Theresa O'Keefe, and Andy Bray

As Convenors of the SAI Study Group on Sociology of Harm, Violence and Social Control, we, like many others, were faced with the disappointing news that our exchange of ideas and research with likeminded sociologists and other social scientists at our three organised panels for the SAI Annual Conference would not be possible. 

With the passing weeks after the Covid-19 lockdown, it became increasingly apparent that the very questions we were interested to explore through our study group became even more important. How can the sociological study of harms and violence counter individualising and psychologising narratives of violence? How can we stay critical to the dominant narratives of continuous progress in Irish public and social life and critically interrogate how institutions and practices of power at the intersections of gender, race and class shape the definition, control and practices of crime control in the Republic of Ireland and produce their own social harms? 

Despite the void left by the cancellation of the SAI conference, the move to online commmunication has opened up spaces for new conversations and connections with those who might otherwise not meet face-to-face as was the case with the first meeting of our Abolition and Decarcaration Reading Group. Just as the country-wide shutdown was coming into effect our reading group came to life. The reading group was born out of a desire to kickstart a critical conversation about the possibilities of abolition and decarceration in Ireland. For a country with such a long history of incarceration, the Magdalene Laundries and Direct Provision amongst the most egregious examples, surprisingly little discussion has been had in academic quarters about the assumed need for incarceration and policing in Irish society.

The subsequent granting of emergency powers to An Garda Síochána to police Covid-19 restrictions and the flaring up of racist police violence in the United States  has solidified our commitment to establish a common forum in Ireland (and beyond), where we could explore the increasing recognition, at least in some quarters, of the inability of existing institutions (prisons, police forces, adversarial justice) to deal with existing social harms and violence. 

Our first reading group meeting on the 4th of June 2020 was attended by over 20 participants, most based in Ireland but with participants from as far as Norway. It was heartening to see that a diverse range of people - students, academics, activists, practitioners - were attracted to the reading group. After initial introductions, we discussed the first chapter of Angela Davis' book 'Are Prisons Obsolete' in small breakout groups and then exchanged our mutual discussions in the bigger circle. Themes that arose in the groups related to the political economy of prisons, decriminalisation of sex work and drugs, the normalisation of incarceration in Ireland and how these relate to race, class and gender.

We were excited about the great attendance and enthusiastic discussion and will be holding our second reading group meeting on Thursday the 2nd of July from 13:00-14:00 on the very timely topic of Abolishing the Police.  If you would like to join this time or at any later stage- you are very welcome. Please contact us at


College of Arts, Celtic Studies & Social Sciences

Coláiste na nEalaíon, an Léinn Cheiltigh agus na nEolaíochtaí Sóisialta

College Office, Room G31 ,Ground Floor, Block B, O'Rahilly Building, UCC