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Review: Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis

June 21, 2011

Title: Are Prisons Obsolete?
Author: Davis, Angela Y.
Length: 128 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Sociology, Policy
Publisher / Year: Seven Stories Press / 2003
Rating: 4/5
Why I Read It: I picked it up because it sounded really interesting.
Date Read: 03/05/11

Many of us can agree that the current state of crime and punishment isn’t so great. It can be easy though to miss the scale of the issue. I knew that US prisons held a much higher percentage of people than anywhere else in the world and had an idea of many of the issues in the US prison system from reading Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman. Despite this base knowledge I was still completely blown away by what I learned in this slim volume by Angela Davis.

consider that the U.S. population is less than five percent of the world’s total, whereas more than twenty percent of the world’s combined prison population can be claimed by the United States. (page 11)

It is hard not to be shocked by those figures. This review will contain innumerable quotes because I just can’t help but share. The book was fascinating and I want to know more about the Canadian prison system now. My limited knowledge tells me that we are doing better than the US, but how much I’m not sure. If anyone knows of a book on the Canadian prison system please let me know!

Davis also talks about the history of prisons around the world and in the US and how they rose as an alternative to punitive punishment. As the concept of personal liberty rose, so did the thought of taking away personal liberty as a form of punishment. This also led to some really interesting discussions about the difference between the punishment (especially historically) of blacks and women. Because they weren’t considered to have the same liberties, locking them up and taking away liberties was hardly a form of punishment.

It is not fortuitous that domestic corporal punishment for women survived long after these modes of punishment had become obsolete for (white) men. The persistence of domestic violence painfully attests to these historical modes of gendered punishment. (page 45)

And also:

deviant men have been constructed as criminal, while deviant women have been constructed as insane. Regimes that reflect this assumption continue to inform women’s prisons. Psychiatric drugs continue to be distributed far more extensively to imprisoned women than to their male counterparts. (page 66)

The rise of penitentiary punishment as opposed to corporal punishment, however, had its roots in the fact that people believed that solitary confinement and the loss of liberties would help men to be rehabilitated back to regular society. The reason for the penitentiary system was to assist in the rehabilitation and convert criminals to constructive members of society. As Davis explains, this opinion has clearly changed and can be seen in the cancelling of educational opportunities for prisoners.

In terms of race, Davis has a lot to say about the prison system as well.

This is the ideological work that the prison performs – it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism. (page 16)

She talks a lot about the criminalization of groups and communities and how that has been done, and how it has directly contributed to the rise in prison inmates.

The most shocking thing for me was the discussions of the current state of prisons in the US and how capitalist they have become. The fact that corporations rely on prisons for profits is a scary one, to me. Davis points out how prison populations and expansion was booming while crime rates were falling, but at the same time corporations were getting more of a stake in the prison system. She talks about the convict lease system and chain-gangs and how prisoners are forced to work for almost nothing in a way that is very related to slavery.

In arrangements reminiscent of the convict lease system, federal, state, and county governments pay private companies a fee for each inmate, which means that private companies have a stake in retaining prisoners as long as possible, and in keeping their facilities filled. (page 95)

Davis ends with many solutions and alternatives to prisons. In the way they are run now they directly contribute to the problems in our society rather than alleviating them and she successfully convinced me of their uselessness. Although I still have questions and concerns, I can’t help but agree with her that they are obsolete and we need alternatives. In close, I will share from her closing thoughts because she says it so well:

Thus, if we are willing to take seriously the consequences of a racist and class-biased justice system, we will reach the conclusion that enormous numbers of people are in prison simply because they are, for example, black, Chicano, Vietnamese, Native American or poor, regardless of their ethnic background. They are sent to prison, not so much because of the crimes they may have indeed committed, but largely because their communities have been criminalized. Thus, programs for decriminalization will not only have to address specific activities that have been criminalized – such as drug use and sex work – but also criminalized populations and communities. (page 113)

Update: Semi-related article came up in my feed reader the other day and I thought I’d add in a link. Feministing did a great article on Brave New Foundation’s campaign on how private prisons and anti-immigration bills go hand in hand. I’d recommend giving it a read and watching the video.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. June 21, 2011 9:18 am

    This is an interesting sounding book. Quite relevant too as I am about to start jury duty in a few weeks. What amazes me the most about prisons is how they have become so privatized — it really seems to defeat the purpose when there is a profit involved.

    • June 22, 2011 10:04 am

      Oh wow, that is kind of relevant timing Dragonflyy419 🙂 Good luck! And yes, profits involved REALLY changes things!!

  2. June 21, 2011 9:41 am

    This does sound like a fascinating book, and a scary one too. The information about women inmates also kind of irritates me as well. Why are women criminals more likely to be thought of as insane? That’s just nuts. I also didn’t know that corporations had such a stake in prisons nowadays, but can certainly see why that would be so. This was a great review, Amy, and I love that you filled it with so many quotes. I am going to have to check this book out.

    • June 22, 2011 10:13 am

      Isn’t it odd zibilee? Frustrating too. I was really shocked by a lot of the information in the book and I definitely recommend it!

  3. June 21, 2011 10:16 am

    Oooh, I really want to read this. I already agree that prisons are obsolete, but have no idea what to do with that information. I am really curious as to her proposed alternatives!

    • June 22, 2011 10:14 am

      I hope you can give it a read Emily, would love to hear more opinions on the book. It was really really interesting.

  4. tammies permalink
    June 21, 2011 10:45 am

    I should pick this one up. The state of prisons in Canada is an issue that I have serious issues with these days, particularly since the Harper Government introduced more manditory sentences and truth in sentencing. The effects are already being felt on PEI with an overcrowded (by almost double) Sleepy Hallow. My gut says the costs will be so astronimcal that we will adopt a prison-for-profit system as well.

    • June 22, 2011 10:23 am

      Yes, I am scared by the direction our prison system is heading Tammie, especially after reading this book. It is absolutely ridiculous, we should be able to see how clearly it is failing in the US and avoid doing the same locally! I am hopeful that it doesn’t get too bad but… :S

  5. June 21, 2011 12:14 pm

    Very interesting Amy. I really enjoy your non-fiction reviews, as I don’t read much non-fiction myself. The twenty percent figure is amazing! Though I do have a thought. I think that obviously America over institutionalizes, and doesnt examine other possible punitive routes nearly enough. However, where I live in Kenya, it seems virtually anyone can stay out of jail by paying a bribe. So sometimes, empty prisons are not a sign that the justice system is working; but then neither are full prisons.

    • June 22, 2011 10:24 am

      Yes, there are definitely different ways to have a broken system Sarah! Clearly the situation in Kenya isn’t a good example of a working justice system without a heavy reliance on over population of prisons. Both countries could use some alternate solutions I think 🙂

  6. June 21, 2011 3:52 pm

    You know, I really should just write down the titles of all the non-fiction you read in a year and make it my personal reading list 😛 This sounds absolutely fascinating (as most things you read!).

    • June 22, 2011 10:25 am

      LOL! I should do the same with almost everything that you read Ana!! If only we lived closer to be able to easily share books 🙂

  7. June 21, 2011 4:58 pm

    Wow, reading your review and watching that video you linked to made me realize I am totally ignorant on this subject. I didn’t even realize that corporations were profiting from private prisons, much less that it’s tied to anti-immigration bills. I definitely need to read more about this. Thanks, Amy, this was really eye opening.

    • June 22, 2011 10:26 am

      Yes, I was very ignorant before reading this as well Kristen. I had known some about the stakes corporations had because some of the client sites I’ve worked on in the US have been cleaned by prison labor (in fact I once lent books to a prisoner in Georgia at one of these place, heh). Very eye opening (and shocking) for sure to learn more through this book.

  8. June 21, 2011 5:15 pm

    I was dimly aware of some of these issues, but this pulled it together so well. Thanks!

    • June 22, 2011 10:27 am

      Yes I was the same Joy, kind of hazily knew a few things but the book really made it clearer and made it all understandable to me.

  9. June 21, 2011 7:04 pm

    Interesting! I’d heard that some people were opposed to prisons but always just thought it was some bleeding-heart thing. But your review alone has gotten me thinking.

    • June 22, 2011 10:28 am

      Yep, I would have (mostly) agreed with you EL Fay! I thought the prison labor thing was odd and figured institutionalized / systemic racism would be at play, but getting rid of prisons for the most part? Yeah right. I have to admit that this book did rather sway my opinion! At least away from the current type of prisons.

  10. June 21, 2011 9:27 pm

    I’ve been reading a lot about prisons and how terrible the system is. It’s awful to read about, particularly the racial disparities in the justice system. 😦

    • June 22, 2011 10:29 am

      Oohhh any other recommendations for me Jenny? It is awful to read about but definitely important I think so would love to learn and share more.

  11. June 22, 2011 1:55 pm

    Wonderful review, Amy! I personally am like a ‘cat-on-a-wall’ on this issue – I don’t think that the prison system solves problems, but on the other hand I also don’t think that dismantling the prison system is going to solve the problem. I am also not able to say that prisons are a necessary evil. It seems to be a complex issue. Thanks for this wonderful review 🙂

    • June 25, 2011 4:44 pm

      Yes, I really didn’t have clear opinions before reading the book but Davis really does have some great suggestions. Complex but she helps make it less so Vishy!

  12. June 23, 2011 6:35 am

    I read one of her books on race, class and women years ago. She is an activist and has remained consistently so throughout her life. Hardly compromised and has been outspoken all these years. And she has not lessened her tone at all. I really admire her for that. I saw an interview she gave about the US prisons system and she was amazing. It seems no one wants to talk about incarceration policies the world over. Brave of her, really. I also like her style of writing; an academic whose books are very accessible to the general public. Like the works of bell hooks. Thanks for the review.

    • June 25, 2011 4:44 pm

      I can’t wait to read more by her Kinna and have heard good things about her other works. It is definitely brave of her to write about these things – and to do it so well.

  13. June 23, 2011 9:04 am

    This is worth the read and getting to know more on the state of the u.s prison systems would broaden my horizon that I already know of my country. Impressive book, I think.

    • June 25, 2011 4:44 pm

      Yes, definitely an interesting read and you will learn lots Geosi.

  14. July 4, 2011 10:05 am

    Yaaay Angela Davis!

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