Review: Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis
Title: Are Prisons Obsolete?
Author: Davis, Angela Y.
Length: 128 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Sociology, Policy
Publisher / Year: Seven Stories Press / 2003
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)
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.