Elizabeth's Reviews > Are Prisons Obsolete?

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis
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's review
Mar 03, 2009

really liked it
Read in January, 2007

What if there were no prisons? What kind of people might we be if we lived in a world where: addiction is treated instead of ignored; schools are regarded as genuine places of learning instead of holding facilities complete with armed guards; lawbreakers encounter conflict resolution strategies as “punishment” for their crime instead of solitary incarceration? Angela Y. Davis, the revolutionary activist, author and scholar, seeks to answer these questions and the subsequent “why and how’s” that surface, in her book, Are Prisons Obsolete? Davis, a Professor of History of Consciousness at University of California Santa Cruz, has been an anti-prison activist since her own brushes with the law in the early 1970’s. In this book, Davis argues for the abolition of the prison system entirely. She grounds her argument in the racist, sexist and corporate roots of the corrections system of America.

In her introduction, Davis looks at the historical circumstances that led to the creation of the modern day prison. She cites dizzying statistics: “200,000 people in prison” in the late 1960’s to “more than 2 million people now inhabit US prisons, jails, youth facilities and detention centers.” Davis asks the ultimate question necessary in considering this phenomenon: why do we take prisons for granted? The reasons that Davis cites in explanation are hardly a surprise (their continual place in our society; our need for a place to keep the “bad people” away, etc.) But since this question is such an essential one for her argument, Davis might strengthen her position if she were to express less surprise at the role that media images of prison play in the public’s understanding of prisons and explore more thoroughly the enormous scope of influence that media has on all aspects of American life. She seems amazed that the general knowledge of prison life comes to Americans, for the most part, from media. I would ask, where else would the average American get their understanding of prison life?

One of the underlying themes of the book which surfaces in various discussions of the “prison industrial complex”, as Davis calls it, is the impact of capitalist influence in the prison system today. Davis examines the similarities between slavery and the modern prison early in the book and returns to this theme later as she looks at the privatization of the prison system with corporations’ profits literally depending on the number of inmates, “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.” It is exactly these naked truths that show Davis at her best. Her words are sharp, concise and gun-metal gray, deliberately chosen to not distract the reader from her message. The reader gets it and a moment of shared sickness lingers as if Davis were speaking out loud only to her.

Equally disturbing is the chasm between the originally constructed idea of what a prison was (who it was intended for, the role that the rehabilitation of the lawbreaker played) and what it has become today. For inmates in those first prisons, for example, there was a time for penitence, hence the word “penitentiary”. The atmosphere was reflective as the inmate spent time with his bible and the occasional visit from a minister. Today, there is plenty of time for reflection and little else as inmates are often kept alone for as many as 23 hours a day, There is no rehabilitation: little counseling; non-existent healthcare; a lack of books or other educational services. According to Davis, what exists today is an environment so heavily controlled that inmates are relegated to a status lower than animal. Even animals in a zoo generally receive regular healthcare, adequate food and water, sunlight and interaction with, if not with other animals, then their caregivers.

Any well-constructed book about the prison system in the United States today must involve a consideration of gender. Davis is no exception. Perhaps due to her own personal time spent in prison (Davis was held briefly at the Women’s Detention Center in New York City in 1972), Davis’ chapter on gender structures within prison is especially tightly researched. She details the widespread sexual abuse that is continually perpetrated against incarcerated women while also noting that women are the fastest growing sector of the prison population. She contends that systems that seek to provide equality between both men and women’s prisons only heighten, ironically, the repressive conditions of the existing systems. This can be counter-intuitive to the reader who assumes that equal opportunity is a good thing, and it is in the free world, but Davis is relentless, challenging social assumptions as she details exactly what is at stake for a woman in prison today, especially if under an equal opportunity umbrella.

The weakness of the text lies in the final chapter on abolition. It is in this chapter that Davis’ language becomes a little more technical and less clear as to her meaning and intention. These final pages can be frustrating. Perhaps, however, the lack of immediate comprehension of the reader reflects the true battle of abolition? In that the abolition of the prison structure is such a foreign concept that even the language to describe how this possibility might be accomplished can be confusing. And, while Davis’ ideas for prison abolition are laudable (“de-militarization” of school systems, accessible healthcare for all Americans including free drug and alcohol treatment facilities, etc.) the “how”--as in how do social systemic changes of this nature inversely correlate to the need for prisons--is less easily explained, especially to the desperate woman whose daughter has just been raped and murdered by the convicted sex offender who lives in their neighborhood.

Contemporary writings on incarceration in America today focus almost exclusively on reform, the “crisis” behind the sheer numbers of people in prison or “behind the scenes” type narratives. Prison abolition is a bold goal but there are few better able to step up to the conundrum of the American prison system than Angela Davis. Certainly there are other prison abolitionists in the field, indeed, Davis cites many of those in her acknowledgments, but perhaps it is only she--no stranger to controversy--who could take on this incredible controversial issue. Readers of Are Prisons Obsolete? benefit from the fact that is not a traditional academic book. Davis’ language is generally clear and thorough, not bogged down in indecipherable jargon. Her book is accessible to any reader, offering a substantial resource section in the back. Are Prisons Obsolete? is appropriate for readers of any age or background.
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