Prisoners, Abattoirs and Vegetarianism
Two news stories came to my attention this month. The first was the decision to use prisoners to work in an abattoir in the Northern Territories (comment available here). The second was PETA’s letter requesting mandatory vegetarianism in prisons in Australia (story here). To my mind both of these ideas are highly problematic and for connected reasons. Leaving aside the problems faced in abattoirs related to workers’ health and psychological well being, requiring anyone to kill animals needs to be recognised as deeply problematic. We know that empathy and attitudes to animals are linked in that those who demonstrate more positive attitudes to animals have higher levels of human directed empathy. In turn, we also know that violence to animals often decreases empathy for humans and that cruel and callous acts towards other species are often a hallmark of socio or psychopathic behaviours. While the killing that takes place in abattoirs is culturally normalised it involves great acts of violence that undermine humans’ capacity for empathy. This alone makes it deeply problematic to require prisoners to work in an abattoir. Add this to the fact that research shows that abattoirs are linked with increased violence crimes in local communities, as well as a generalised increase in deviant behaviour in the wider community and a pattern starts to emerge: violence begets violence.
The supposed corollary of this, of course, is that compassion begets compassion and it is this, presumably, which is behind the other story – the attempt by PETA to make vegetarianism mandatory in prisons. While this might superficially seem a good idea, and personally I can see the appeal of anything that leads to fewer animals being killed, it is still deeply flawed. We might presume that if kindness to animals leads to better treatment of our fellow humans (and many great minds have argued that it does) then offering a cruelty free diet to prisoners will somehow improve their levels of compassion. While I think the logic of this is debateable (there are, for instance health motivated vegetarians who are not overly concerned with animal well being) the problem here lies in the fact that vegetarianism is presented as a punishment; something (in this case, meat) denied to prisoners as part of their sentence. Without any discussion of the idea that a vegetarian-diet might increase compassion, vegetarianism remains cast in a deficit framework and is seen or experienced as punishment. Ironically the likely effect is to further normalise meat eating while marginalising vegetarianism, rather than stimulating questions about the way animals are used and consumed in modern societies. And it is the latter that is needed if we are to see any changes in attitude toward, and treatment of, nonhuman animals.
As a result, both of these ideas come from the same place: one which normalises the killing and consuming of other animals for human “benefit”.
A better way forward, should those behind such ideas really want to help prisoners and animals, would perhaps be to follow the guide of the partnership between the RSPCA in Queensland and the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre where special needs animals are housed with prisoners in order to give both species a second chance. Programs like this are often low cost and bring additional benefits in that participants are engaged in meaningful work and community activities. Further, over-burdened animal rescue organisations also benefit from prison partnerships as unwanted animals that would otherwise be destroyed, can be retrained and rehomed. Based on building empathy and teaching mutual respect through human-animal partnerships, rather than reinforcing hierarchical beliefs about the world and our place in it, this is simply a better model and a better way to help prisoners, animals and the wider community.
Thanks to those at the Animals in Society Working group facebook page who discussed the vegetarian story in depth.
Author: Nik Taylor