Ep 05: What If Someone Steals My Stuff?

How will we handle it when someone breaks the rules of our new societies in space? Who decides whether they’re guilty? Do we need to build space prisons? Or are there alternative forms of justice we should consider that would better suit our new civilization?

Space lawyer Christopher Newman talks to us about the potential problems with simply bringing along our old criminal justice systems from Earth. Sociologist and criminologist Michelle Brown and writer and prison abolitionist Walidah Imarisha discuss the transformative justice movement and provide examples of non-prison justice systems being used and suggested today.

For more reading on the intersection between science fiction and transformative justice, Walidah Imarisha pointed me to the Transformative Justice Science Fiction Strategic Reader.

The transcript for this episode is below.

Imagine this: Your new life in space is going great. You have a cozy subterranean home, an exciting and challenging job, and every few days you hop into your pressure suit and head out the airlock for a stroll under the stars. But then one day, you come back to find that someone has broken into your home and stolen your favorite pair of space boots. You’re pretty sure you know who did it — your neighbor has been talking about how great those boots are, and how much they wish they could get a pair. So what do you do?

Welcome to Making New Worlds, a podcast about the ethical issues involved with settling space. I’m Erika Nesvold. Today I want to talk about crime in space. The scenario we just imagined covers just a tiny corner of this issue. I wanted to start off with property crime because it’s the first thing a lot of people think of when they are asked to consider crime, but you can probably imagine all kinds of other harm that could be inflicted between members of a small community on the edge of civilization. There’s interpersonal violence, sexual violence, abuse and neglect of children. There are acts that one person could inflict on the whole community: shirking their responsibilities, sabotaging or failing to maintain vital equipment, contaminating the air or water or food supply with hazardous waste. Then there are all the ways that the community could harm you: maybe labor abuses, like we talked about last week, or institutional discrimination, or human rights violations. What can we do to prevent and address all of these forms of violence?

One important first step is that the community has to decide what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, to come up with a set of rules so everyone is on the same page. In other words, we need to think about space law, so I called in a space lawyer.

Christopher Newman: “I’m Dr. Christopher Newman. I am a Reader in space law and policy. I’m at the University of Sunderland, which is a university in the northeast of England.”

I talked to Chris because I wanted to know what the differences were between space law and regular old Earth law. I mean, we already have legal systems down here. Why can’t we just copy the laws from home and apply them to our new space civilization?

Christopher Newman: “Space is– tends to be a multinational enterprise. So, the first question, if we were gonna do a cut-and-paste, whose laws would we cut and paste? Now, there’s broad similarities, you know. We don’t allow murder, we don’t allow stealing, we don’t allow violation of the human body. You know, there’s various– there’s similarities. But also there’s actually a substantial amount of differences, as well. So you’d first have to get agreement as to whose laws were going to be the operative ones.”

Chris also pointed out that the harsh environment of space will change the kinds of laws we need and the relative severity of those laws.

Christopher Newman: “So for example, if I were to come to your place of work and take a bottle of water off your desk, okay, and I’m going to drink it, ‘cause I’m thirsty. You might– at first, you might not realize a crime’s been committed but, you know, I say to you, “Yes, I’m sorry, Erika, I’ve taken that water.” And you didn’t give me permission. The range of responses to you are gonna be fairly limited. You know, you phone up the local police department and say, “He’s– He took a bottle of water off my desk.” The chances are, it won’t get past the phone call, you know. They’ll say, “Well look, you know, we’re really sorry about this, but we’ve got bigger fish to fry.” But let’s assume you get into the criminal justice system. At the very first available cutoff point, I’m gonna be out the system. And yet, think of what water is in space. It’s a precious resource. It has– It’s vital to crew survival. It might be that me taking that water is a real serious crime against a future colony or against a mission, you know? Now, given the technology that spacecraft have, water’s probably a bad example. Let’s say it’s a drug that’s needed to keep us alive, a radiation drug or something like that. Water’s probably a bad example, but you can see the problems. The environment of space creates its own rules and regula–”

Chris’ audio was cut off at the end there, but he says that space creates its own rules and regulations. But let’s say we’ve gotten past that hurdle, and our new society has a set of laws that say you can’t steal other people’s stuff. But now your space boots are gone, and you think your neighbor took them, but your neighbor denies it. What do you do now? Who’s going to enforce that law? Who can act as a neutral third party to settle this dispute between you and your neighbor?

Christopher Newman: “Who is gonna find them guilty? You know? Are we going to send missions with, you know, judge advocate generals on board and with legal officers on board so that they can prosecute crimes? It might be that we need to start thinking about that, actually. Because, you know, traditionally, the classic model of discipline on board a ship, the classic maritime model and the classic air model, is the commander of the ship, the commander has that power to deal with, you know, deal with criminality. But the commander is wearing a number of different hats. She might– She’s in charge of the mission, she’s not interested in our rights. She’s not interested in my right to a fair trial. She just wants the problem to be solved. So, actually, the question we need to ask, one of the fundamental questions, is the mission commander, is she the ideal person to administer that? You know? It may be that I’ve committed a heinous crime, but I’m vital to the survival and the success of the mission. You know? If I’m in charge of life support maintenance, you’re gonna want me on side, irrespective of what I’ve done. So the commander isn’t necessarily the ideal person to choose here. But that begs the question, well, who is? So, that’s one of the key issues: the administration of justice is the first question. Now, if we’re dealing in Earth orbit, if we’re dealing lunar, you know, referral back to Earth isn’t necessarily much of a problem. But if we’re going further afield, then we run into difficulties of administration of justice, with a communications delay, with a, you know real-time decisions aren’t possible, so how does that work, how’s that gonna work in the interest of a fair trial? So there are issues in respect of the actual administration of justice.”

This is where any inequalities in your society become really obvious. What if the person who stole your boots is the mission commander’s kid? What if the jerk who got drunk and sucker-punched you is the settlement’s only doctor? On the other hand, so far I’ve only asked you to picture yourself of the victim– What if you’re the one accused of breaking one of the settlement’s laws? What kind of system do you want in place to make sure you’re treated fairly?

So now let’s say we’ve gotten to the end of this episode of Law and Order: In Space. Someone has been accused of a crime, and the legal system in place has decided that they’re guilty. What do you do with them now?

Christopher Newman: “Let’s assume that I’ve committed a crime. And let’s assume that I am the expert in charge of fixing life support malfunctions. What are you going to do to punish me? Are you going to lock me up? Well, that’s a colossal waste of resources. I’m gonna be sitting there, in a room, not cooperating because I’m not gonna be very happy that I’ve been found guilty. So I’m not gonna be cooperating. My role as mission specialist gets put to one side, and I then become a drain on resources. I become a machine designed to consume food and water.”

Keeping people locked up in livable conditions is enormously expensive, even in a place like Earth where the air is free. It’ll be even worse in space. But a lot of the alternatives aren’t much better. Do you require them to perform labor as punishment? Well, like Chris said, that can be hard to enforce, and besides, at that point you’ve reinvented slavery for the millionth time in human history. Do you send them back to Earth? That’s also going to be ridiculously expensive. But kicking them out of the settlement without sending them to Earth is essentially the death penalty, and even if you support the death penalty now, you probably don’t think it should be applied for every crime.

So maybe you’re thinking that prison sounds like the best of a bunch of bad options. And if you’re an American like me, you probably feel like prison is the obvious response to crime, anyway, even if it is expensive for a society. But history tells us otherwise.

Michelle Brown: “The prison itself, as a mode of punishment, it’s relatively new in terms of our own history. It’s something in the United States that we see as completely naturalized. But it’s not been a primary factor across history and across various parts of ancient history.”

That’s Michelle Brown, a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Tennessee. Michelle is a carceral scholar who studies the role and influence of prisons in our society.

Michelle Brown: “My research comes out of about fifteen years of fieldwork in prisons across the United States at every security level and including death row. So I’ve worked closely with the imprisoned and formerly incarcerated. In the process, I’ve also worked very closely with their families and gotten to know them, as well as prison workers. And by connection to all of that, as well, community organizers and activists around issues related to policing and mass incarceration.”

Michelle pointed out that even without considering the challenges of imprisoning people in space, there are a ton of problems with using prisons for behavior control here on Earth.

Michelle Brown: “The problems with prison are pretty foundational. So, I think we, you know, we can think about it a couple of ways. One, from the beginning of the sociology of the prison and research that’s dedicated to understanding life inside prisons, we’ve seen it’s a dysfunctional environment. So, it’s foundationally problematic. It severs social ties, it reduces opportunities for autonomy, various forms of decision-making. So it’s foundationally a space that’s problematic. And there’s parallels to policing in that sense, too, because policing as a structure does what it says, it polices people, so it creates certain kinds of fundamental divisions. Now, the other aspect of that is the history of this, of course, is that certain groups are differentially targeted by both systems. And in the United States, the system of mass incarceration– which is the term that’s been used in sociology and criminology for a while but now we’re moving towards terms like mass criminalization– speaks to the fact that it’s very specific groups that have been highly targeted. So the disproportionalities that we face with regard to race, with regard to non-gender-conforming, trans communities, with regard to various axes of inequality, again. So you tend to reproduce social divisions in these spaces in ways that are heightened. And so, they’re always linked to these larger systems.”

One of the things Michelle studies is the transformative justice movement, which seeks to move society beyond our current criminal justice system.

Michelle Brown: “I think transformative justice, as a concept, has been around for quite a while, historically, in struggles for liberation and emancipatory projects, particularly in the U.S. So I think we’re pulling from part of a longer history that’s largely been about the work of women of color. So, black feminists in particular, who have resisted both domestic and intimate violence as well as state violence. So it’s part of a history of abolition, including the history of abolition of chattel slavery. So it’s a project that, in its current form, is like abolition around slavery, built around attempts to dismantle and disrupt current systems of power, but also to bring about what someone like sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois would call abolition democracy. So bringing something new into being and new ways of being.”

I also talked about transformative justice with Walidah Imarisha, an educator and writer.

Walidah Imarisha: “So, I’m a prison abolitionist. I believe that prisons make us less safe, all of us. I think that there are many different ways that we can address harm that’s done in our communities. And that we can heal communities and individuals when harm is done that do not rely on carceral or punishment mentalities like the prison system.”

Walidah and Michelle both pointed out that not only were people finding ways to address harm in their communities long before our current police and prison system was in place, but plenty of people today still have to figure out how to live with violence despite our modern legal system. Walidah brought up the example of the #MeToo hashtag and the flood of recent news about sexual harassment and assault.

Walidah Imarisha: “But, you know, that hashtag represents the fact that so many folks have experienced sexual assault. The vast majority of those people are never arrested, let alone convicted and end up going to prison. That’s not what happens with sexual assault. So, oftentimes when I say I believe in abolishing prisons, folks say, “Well, what about the murderers and rapists?” And I’m like, “Those people are out here.” Right? So, we actually are already living with the realities that folks who are doing harm are in the same communities we are. And so I think that’s an important framing, because it really breaks apart that connection that people make, that prisons are about our safety, which they are not.”

Walidah also pointed out that not everyone has the same access to the criminal justice system in the U.S.

Walidah Imarisha: “I think the other piece that’s really important is that for communities of color and personally, as a black woman, I know that it has only been incredibly recently that the black community– for the black community it was even an option to call the police. Right? And it’s still very much not an option for the vast majority of folks to call the police, because often that makes the situation much worse. But, you know, in the 1950s and the 1960s, you did not call the police, because the police and the Klan were literally the same entity. And you were just inviting brutal violence into your family, into your home, into your community. So, I think it’s important because there is so much knowledge and wisdom, you know, historically, but especially in the context of this society, of folks creating systems to hold one another accountable, that exist outside of the prison system.”

It’s these alternative systems of justice that are really interesting to me, because they suggest new solutions to our problem of how to deal with violence and crime in space. The subtitle I wrote for this episode is “Crime and punishment,” but what if we stopped thinking about it in terms of how to punish criminals, and refocused on how to prevent harm in our new communities? Here’s Michelle Brown again, on the transformative justice groups she studies.

Michelle Brown: “So their ideas are that we will be engaging in a liberatory approach to violence, one that seeks safety and accountability– real safety and accountability, I would argue, for victim/survivors; these are largely victim/survivor groups– without relying on punishment, without relying on state or systemic violence and trying to find alternative ways of being in that process.”

Walidah Imarisha agrees that transformative justice isn’t just about pointing out the problems with the current criminal justice system, it’s about imagining a better system.

Walidah Imarisha: “But I think a lot of times, when I talk about prison abolition, folks say, “Well, then, you want to tear down all the prisons?” And I think that the concept of abolition has to be complicated. It’s not just about tearing down, but it’s actually about building. And so, there’s a great quote by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who’s a brilliant black feminist visionary… who writes, “What if abolition isn’t a shattering thing, not a crashing thing, not a wrecking ball event? What if abolition is something that sprouts out of the wet places in our eyes, the broken places in our skin? What if abolition is something that grows?” And I think that that framing of growing abolition is a really powerful one, and is a really useful one to implement. And I think it allows us to then say, “What systems of justice do we want?” rather than just saying, “What systems don’t we want?””

So let’s think about it. What do you want out of your justice system? Michelle Brown says the research indicates that people just want to live happy, safe lives.

Michelle Brown: “You know, when you participate in these trainings and workshops, the first thing you’re gonna be asked is, you know, what does safety mean to you? And what we see uniformly, again, and nationally, most people don’t say more police or more prisons. They talk about all sorts of things, all kinds of things and it looks a lot like the basic infrastructure of a flourishing life… What we know victim/survivors uniformly want is not so much an arrest or even putting someone in jail. They want the violence to end and they will opt for the option that promises that over a more punitive option in almost all the surveys and emergent research that we have.”

I pressed both Michelle and Walidah for some specific examples of alternative forms of justice that people are using or imagining today. Michelle talked about some of the groups who are doing this kind of work in the U.S now.

Michelle Brown: “So you can look to, just to give you a handful of examples, the Audre Lorde Project, the Safe Neighborhood Campaign, which has a history of empowering community members to be very proactive in preventing violence against queer communities, trans, and LGBT folks. So how do you build stronger relationships within communities that are over-policed already? The Harm Free Zone Project, which is part of the SpiritHouse in Durham, North Carolina, they’ve spent a lot of time working through this, as well as holding trainings and workshops about how to develop those short-term and long-term commitments. The– again, Generation Five, which I mentioned earlier, a survivor-based activist organization that seeks to end, to literally end child sexual abuse… Other groups: Project NIA, Mariame Kaba’s projects out of Chicago, which seeks to end the detention and incarceration of youth. And they’ve been very important in shaping that national conversation, as well, around this. Another group I look to quite often, Common Justice in the Bronx. This group is the first alternative to incarceration and a victim service program in the U.S. that focuses on violent felonies. They work closely with the prosecutor and the court system through partnerships and advocacy and move people into other kinds of options, other kinds of programming, all in an effort to break cycles of violence.”

Beyond the amazing work that is being done by transformative justice activists now, there are even more possibilities that we can imagine for the future of criminal justice. Walidah Imarisha co-edited an anthology of science fiction called Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.

Walidah Imarisha: “A lot of my work has been about helping movements for social change create imaginative spaces where we can claim the future and really think about, what is the world we want to live in? Rather than being constrained by what we’re told is realistic or possible.”

This is a great example of how science fiction can act not only as a cautionary tale of everything that might go wrong in the future, but also as a laboratory for coming up with better ways for us all to live together.

Walidah Imarisha: “There are a number of pieces in Octavia’s Brood that focus on just thinking about different societies and how we can address harm when it happens, like Kalamu ya Salaam’s short story, “Manhunters,” where it’s a Afrocentric society that has a– one of the warriors has had to kill another member of the community. But there is an entire ceremony where the whole community comes together and basically deals with that fact, where even if it was justified, there has to be space for the person who is lost to be remembered and not erased, for their family to have space to have an emotional reaction to this and be held by the community, and a place for the warrior to be able to express the horror of taking a life, even when you feel like you have no other opportunity.”

No matter what kind of system we come up with, Walidah said, one of the most important things is that it’s flexible and adaptable.

Walidah Imarisha: “I think that people often feel disappointed that there’s not a simple, easy, answer when it comes to transformative justice. There is no formula that can be given: Do this, do that, and do this, and that’s how you run an accountability process. The beauty, and I think the challenge, of transformative justice, is it recognized every individual– every human being as an individual. Every situation is unique, and should be addressed that way… So you can’t, kind of, create a blanket this-is-what-we-do. When you create blanket responses, you end up with something like the current legal system that we have.”

So what can we do now, to help make our future space settlements a better place to live? I ask all of my guests some form of this question, and the answer in every episode so far has followed the same theme: Let’s talk about these things now, rather than waiting until it’s too late to make good decisions.

Walidah Imarisha: “I also think that, you know, having these conversations collectively is incredibly important. I think that oftentimes we wait until there’s a crisis to have conversations. When folks are at their most vulnerable, when folks are at their most scared, at their most defensive, that’s a terrible time to have a conversation about what justice looks like in your community. So, these conversations have to start now. And they– this is a long-term project. So, we don’t want to get, you know, to Mars or, you know, to wherever we’re going and then, when we’re in this completely alien terrain and something happens, that’s when we begin to say, “Well, how are we gonna deal with this?” It is much more important that we have the space to give ourselves to have really difficult conversations and collectively be coming to different agreements, as well.”

Space lawyer Christopher Newman agreed.

Christopher Newman: “Engage with the other professionals. Engage with psychologists. Engage with lawyers. Engage with policymakers, with, you know, sociologists, with habitat planners. All of the type of softer skills that you would think are, you know, maybe are nice to have. Actually, why not integrate them early on into mission planning so that any difficulties can be dealt with at the planning stage, rather than in the middle of a mission when you’re away from Earth and it’s then having to be dealt with. We could rely on military discipline, we could rely on scientific discipline, we could rely on a certain amount of groupthink to bring people into line in the early years of space exploration. Now, we don’t have that luxury. As human spaceflight develops, with more ambitious goals, with further, you know, further distances to travel, or with a mass transit system where there’s lots and lots of people involved in space exploration, we then have to think the rules of the game are changing and we need to plan that into the mission. That’s just as crucial as any piece of hardware and software.”

Sociologist Michelle Brown says, Let’s learn from the past, and think about the kind of future we want.

Michelle Brown: “We are fortunate because I think we have this amazing moment and an amazing set of archival histories of struggle that we can rely on. I think we should be studying for these sorts of things, and root our work in those histories. So, how do we advance recommendations or policies or commitments that are more closely aligned with those who’ve historically been directly affected by violence, by harm, and by state projects that haven’t benefited a lot of communities? So, avoiding those same mistakes again. Another way in which I think we can think about it, too, is to move away from constructs of crime and punishment. And as a criminologist, you know, that’s basically ending my career. And I’m happy to do that, a lot of us are. But not just thinking about it in terms of, well, how are we going to deal with instances that might look like how we conceptualize crime right now, but moving beyond, kind of, a legal idealism around these sorts of things. And thinking instead about, well, what will flourishing lives look like in restricted contexts? How do we do the most with what we have? How do we live the best? And what are the conditions for that? So, inverting kind of the criminological question that we live with about crime and punishment, what are those conditions, what are the conditions that will best help us flourish in the context we may find ourselves in? And how can we collectively pursue that?”

I’ll wrap up here with my favorite example of non-prison justice systems of all the ones provided by my guests, this one from Walidah Imarisha.

Walidah Imarisha: “I was actually told this really beautiful, kind of, tradition related to– I have a tree tattooed on my back, and someone who was– my friend’s father, who is Eritrean, said, “Oh, that looks like the wanza tree.” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know what that is.” And he was like, “You know, a wanza tree in Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in small villages would be a gathering place where the community comes together underneath the tree. They go to celebrate, they go to mourn.” And he said when someone had done something wrong, they would bring the person under the wanza tree, they would form a circle around that person, and then everyone in that circle would go around and remind that person when they were at their best. They would say, “Remember when I broke my leg, and you helped me bring my crops in?” “Do you remember when our crops failed and you helped us survive the winter?” “Do you remember when…?” And then they’d give the person the choice, “Do you want to be this person that we all know you are, who has been such an asset to our community and has helped us grow and thrive, or do you want to be this person that has done this harm? It is your choice. But we know you can do better.” And for me, I was so honored and moved by that framing and I feel like we often tell people who have done harm that they are nothing except the harm that they have done, but that framing, I think, is so powerful to say, “You choose. You can choose to be better as you have done in the past. Or you can choose to be nothing more that this. And that’s your choice, and we as the community will hold you and help you move through it if you choose that you want to be the person we know you are.” And I hope that that is the kind of ethos that folks can bring to any kind of transformative justice process.”

So what do you think? Should we export our current criminal justice system into space? How will we adapt it to the harsh environment and new challenges? Or is this an opportunity for an overhaul of how we deal with harm in our communities? If you were designing a new justice system for a brand-new civilization, where would you start? Join the conversation on Facebook at facebook.com/makingnewworlds. Or hit us up on Twitter @makingnewworlds. You can also visit our website at makingnewworlds.com. And please don’t forget to rate and review this podcast on iTunes!

Christopher Newman has a new book coming out with astrophysicist Richard Wilman called Frontiers of Risk, about human risk and natural risks that can occur with space activity. You can find him on Twitter @ChrisNewman1972. Michelle Brown also has a book in progress, called Studying for Abolition, about transformative justice and a variety of current alternative justice movements. She’s on Twitter @ProfMBrown and has a website with more information about transformative justice resources at criticalcarceralstudies.wordpress.com. As I mentioned before, Walidah Imarisha co-edited a sci-fi anthology called Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. She is also the author of Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption.

Next week, we’ll talk about who’s in charge of our space settlements. We just spent a whole episode talking about what to do when someone breaks the law, but who writes those laws to begin with? Will we bring our nationalities along from Earth? Institute a local democracy? Is there anything we can do to prevent war and tyranny? Join us next week.

This has been Making New Worlds, a podcast by me, Erika Nesvold. Our intro and outtro music is by Herr Doktor.