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Are Prisons Obsolete?

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With her characteristic brilliance, grace and radical audacity, Angela Y. Davis has put the case for the latest abolition movement in American life: the abolition of the prison. As she quite correctly notes, American life is replete with abolition movements, and when they were engaged in these struggles, their chances of success seemed almost unthinkable. For generations of Americans, the abolition of slavery was sheerest illusion. Similarly,the entrenched system of racial segregation seemed to last forever, and generations lived in the midst of the practice, with few predicting its passage from custom. The brutal, exploitative (dare one say lucrative?) convict-lease system that succeeded formal slavery reaped millions to southern jurisdictions (and untold miseries for tens of thousands of men, and women). Few predicted its passing from the American penal landscape. Davis expertly argues how social movements transformed these social, political and cultural institutions, and made such practices untenable.

In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Professor Davis seeks to illustrate that the time for the prison is approaching an end. She argues forthrightly for "decarceration", and argues for the transformation of the society as a whole.

128 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2003

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About the author

Angela Y. Davis

108 books5,488 followers
Angela Yvonne Davis is an American political activist, scholar, and author. She emerged as a nationally prominent activist and radical in the 1960s, as a leader of the Communist Party USA, and had close relations with the Black Panther Party through her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement despite never being an official member of the party. Prisoner rights have been among her continuing interests; she is the founder of Critical Resistance, an organization working to abolish the prison-industrial complex. She is a retired professor with the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is the former director of the university's Feminist Studies department.

Her research interests are in feminism, African American studies, critical theory, Marxism, popular music, social consciousness, and the philosophy and history of punishment and prisons. Her membership in the Communist Party led to Ronald Reagan's request in 1969 to have her barred from teaching at any university in the State of California. She was tried and acquitted of suspected involvement in the Soledad brothers' August 1970 abduction and murder of Judge Harold Haley in Marin County, California. She was twice a candidate for Vice President on the Communist Party USA ticket during the 1980s.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,264 reviews
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,462 reviews8,571 followers
February 9, 2019
Another amazing book from Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? asks us to imagine a world without prisons, a world more focused on healing and rehabilitation than punishment. Davis delineates the history of prisons as well as how prisons perpetuate racism and sexism. Similar to Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow , Davis highlights how we in the United States grow up ingesting media narratives about the role of prisons and prisoners without questioning these problematic narratives. Through this book, she illuminates how prisons serve more as a conduit for capitalism and making money and subjugating black and Latinx individuals, rather than for any compassionate or just purpose. I agreed with and felt impressed by the articulation of Davis's points, though a few times I wanted a little more concrete planning for how to create a world without prisons. However, I feel like since this book's publication other activists have also taken up this charge and have helped guide the way to decarceration, with Davis's book acting as the launching pad for revolution.

Highly recommended to fans of The New Jim Crow or Matthew Desmond's Evicted , as well as to those who have not questioned the role of prisons in society. Excited to read more of Davis's work and to discuss this one with my book club.
Profile Image for leynes.
1,103 reviews2,954 followers
March 27, 2021
If you aren’t in the position to financially support authors right now and/ or lend books out from your local library, you can read this essential text online here: https://www.feministes-radicales.org/...

However, I would implore anyone who has the means to support Angela Davis financially to do so because she has been a force for so many decades and her work and activism is so important, and I truly think our world would be a worse place were she not in it.


Before I jumped into this text, I hadn't given much thought to the prison system and therefore, neither to prison abolishment. But my gut feeling told me that prisons are essential. Right? RIGHT??? Criminals need to be punished. Criminals are a safety hazard for our society. So we better lock them up. And what do I have to do with prisons? I'm not a criminal, so what's incarceration to me? These were some of the thoughts and feelings that I went into the book with.
Why do prisons tend to make people think that their own rights and liberties are more secure than they would be if prisons did not exist?

The prison is one of the most important features of our image environment. This has caused us to take the existence of prisons for granted. The prison has become a key ingredient of our common sense. It is there, all around us. We do not question whether it should exist. It has become so much a part of our lives that it requires a great feat of the imagination to envision life beyond the prison.
Needless to say, Angela's arguments knocked the wind right out of me. Within the first chapter, she already had me convinced that the prison system is fucked up in and out of itself (granted, the book focuses on the prison system in the United States of America, but a lot of the arguments can be transferred to most prisons in the world, and surely to the ones in my home country Germany) and that prison abolition is the only way to go.

I think Angela went on really smart about how she approached this subject matter because in the first chapter ("Prison Reform or Prison Abolition?"), she basically addressed all the fears, apprehensions and prejudices I had, and therefore, she took the wind right out of my sails. She writes that "Few peo­ple find life without the death penalty difficult to imagine. On the other hand, the prison is considered an inevitable and permanent feature of our social lives." and "he prison is considered so "natural" that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it." And that's so true. Normally, I would consider myself progressive and I still can't believe that the death penalty is in place in some countries (the U.S. being one of them). However, a society without prisons seemed so ... weird / utopian / unattainable to me before reading this text.

She also touches upon the fact that we think "about imprisonment as a fate reserved for others, a fate reserved for the "evildoers," to use a term recently popularized by George W. Bush." However, by reading Angela's text, it becomes crystal clear that imprisonment and incarceration is a societal issue that affects us all.

In the first chapter, she also touches upon many facts (some of which are particular to the U.S.) that truly make you question how and why some people end up in prison ... or not, e.g. when young people are pushed to join the mili­tary service in order to avoid the inevitability of a stint in prison. She also touches upon the history of how the mass incarceration in the U.S. came about (to put that into perspective: it had taken more than a hundred years to build the first nine California prisons. In less than a single decade, the number of California prisons doubled) and how the Reagan presidency's agenda of the 1980s (the so-called "war on crime") led to mass incarceration while literally having no effect on official crime rates at all.

In 2003 (when this book was written), 2 million people were incarcerated in the U.S.; "he gravity of these numbers becomes even more apparent when we consider that the U.S. population in general 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." Thereby, the racial composition of the prison population is revealing: Latinos, who were then in the majority, accounted for 35.2 %; African-Americans 30 %; and white prisoners 29.2 %. So, she asks the valid question if we as a society "are we willing to rel­egate ever larger numbers of people from racially oppressed communities to an isolated existence marked by authoritari­an regimes, violence, disease, and technologies of seclusion that produce severe mental instability?" I think the fuck not.

The second chapter ("Slavery, Civil Rights, and Abolitionist Perspectives Toward Prison") focuses on the history of the prison system, so basically what it evolved out of and what it evolved into. Angela takes us back to the abolishment of slavery and how, afterwards, practices such as lynching and convict leasing were widely accepted and even approved. She makes the excellent point that "the ancestors of many of today's most ardent liberals could not have imagined life without slavery, life without lynching, or life without segregation", therefore, it isn't surprising that most of us can't imagine life without prisons (for now), but that doesn't mean the prison system is a right or just institution.
If we are already persuaded that racism should not be allowed to define the planet's future and if we can successfully argue that prisons are racist institutions, this may lead us to take seriously the prospect of declaring prisons obsolete.
In this chapter, Angela presents how racist the prison system was, is and will continue to be. Back in the day, prison regulations were, in fact, very similar to the Slave Codes (the laws that deprived enslaved human beings of virtually all rights). With the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, slavery and involuntary servitude were putatively abolished. However, there was a significant exception. In the wording of the amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished "except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."

And Angela makes it very clear that the tendency to "impute crime to color" did not just magically disappear over the centuries, it is still prevalent today, e.g. through racial profiling. While the convict lease system was legally abolished, its structures of exploitation have reemerged in the patterns of privatization, and, more gener­ally, in the wide-ranging corporatization of punishment that has produced a prison industrial complex.

One example that I found very shocking is that in Alabama and Florida, "once a felon, always a felon, which entails the loss of status as a rights-bearing citizen. One of the grave consequences of the powerful reach of the prison was the 2000 election of George W. Bush as president. If only the black men and women denied the right to vote because of an actual or presumed felony record had been allowed to cast their ballots, Bush would not be in the White House today." I mean, how crazy is that? It's sickening enough that most prisoners (all over the world) aren't allowed to vote while they are incarcerated, but to lose that right forever??? Are you fucking kidding me?? What kind of democracy is that? (I was very pleased to learn btw that Germany changed a law last year, so that now all incarcerated people are allowed to vote whilst in prison.)

The third chapter ("Imprisonment and Reform") backs up all the points she made in the previous ones. Angela implores us to remember that "he prison as we know it today did not make its appearance on the historical stage as the superior form of punishment for all times. It was simply-though we should not underesti­mate the complexity of this process-what made most sense at a particular moment in history."

One of my favorite parts of that chapter was a quote from Mumia Abu-Jamal's book Live from Death Row: "What societal interest is served by prisoners who remain illiterate? What social benefit is there in ignorance? How are people corrected while impris­oned if their education is outlawed? Who profits (other than the prison establishment itself) from stupid prisoners?"

The fourth chapter ("How Gender Structures the Prison System") was one of the most interesting to me because I hadn't read much about the situation of women in prisons. It was shocking to learn about the particular atrocities that many female prisoners are forced to undergo. Angela begins the chapter by quoting from Assata Shakur's memoirs:[TW: sexual assault]
The "internal search" was as humiliating and dis­ gusting as it sounded. You sit on the edge of this table and the nurse holds your legs open and sticks a finger in your vagina and moves it around. She has a plastic glove on. Some of them try to put one fin­ger in your and another one up your rectum at the same time.
It is crazy to think that certain everyday routines that are taken for granted in women's prisons are literal sexual assault. Angela also points out that the criminalization of Black and Latina women includes persisting images of hypersexuality that serve to justify sex­ual assaults against them bath in and outside of prison. She also quotes an excerpt from an official report:
If that's not enough for you to reconsider your stance on the prison system, I don't know what will. But maybe a closer look at chapter five ("The Prison Industrial Complex") will finally push you over the edge. Angela defines it in the following way: "The exploitation of prison labor by private corporations is one aspect among an array of relationships linking corporations, government, correctional communities, and media. These relationships constitute what we now call a prison industrial complex. The term "prison industrial complex" was introduced by activists and scholars to contest prevail­ ing beliefs that increased levels of crime were the root cause of mounting prison populations."

It comes as no surprise that prisons began to proliferate precisely at a time when official studies indicated that the crime rate was falling when many corporations with global markets now rely on prisons as an important source of profit. Punishment no longer constitutes a marginal area of the larger economy. Corporations producing all kinds of goods­ from buildings to electronic devices and hygiene products­ and providing all kinds of services—from meals to therapy and healthcare—are now directly involved in the punishment business.

Moreover, the prison privatization trends—both the increas­ing presence of corporations in the prison economy and the establishment of private prisons—are reminiscent of the his­torical efforts to create a profitable punishment industry based on the new supply of "free" black male laborers in the aftermath of the Civil War. Angela gives yet another haunting example: "In the state of Texas, there are 34 government-owned, privately run jails in which approximately 5,500 out­ of-state prisoners are incarcerated. These facilities generate about eighty million dollars annually for Texas." I mean, excuse me?? How is that legal???

Another point which I found very interesting and highly revealing is that "according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, crime coverage was the number-one topic on the nightly news over the past decade. From 1990 to 1998, homicide rates dropped by half nationwide, but homicide stories on the three major networks rose almost fourfold." Our sense of security and safety is clearly manipulated by media coverage. It is always important to look at the raw data!

In the last chapter ("Abolitionist Alternatives"), Angela hammers down the point that prisons cannot easily be substituted by ONE other organisation. We need MULTIPLE different things to replace the need for prisons: "Rather, positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alterna­tives to imprisonment—demilitarization of schools, revital­ization of education at all levels, a health system that pro­vides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice sys­tem based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retri­bution and vengeance."

She also takes on the topic of the school-to-prison pipeline by, yet again, spitting straight facts: "Schools can therefore be seen as the most powerful alternative to jails and prisons. Unless the current structures of violence are eliminated from schools in impoverished communities of color—including the presence of armed security guards and police—and unless schools become places that encourage the joy of learning, these schools will remain the major conduits to prisons. The alternative would be to transform schools into vehicles for decarceration." Same goes for the horrid health care system in the U.S., as "there are currently more people with mental and emotional disorders in jails and prisons than in mental institutions." She also touches upon the need to decriminalize drugs, legalize sex work and strengthen immigrants' rights.

The last point she makes is an extremely important one: "Alternatives that fail to address racism, male dominance, homophobia, class bias, and other structures of domination will not, in the final analysis, lead to decarceration and will not advance the goal of abolition."

Amen, sister!
Profile Image for elena ❀.
259 reviews2,879 followers
April 3, 2021
Rather, positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alterna­tives to imprisonment-demilitarization of schools, revital­ization of education at all levels, a health system that pro­ vides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice sys­tem based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retri­bution and vengeance.

In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela's goal is to have us envision a world without prisons, without capital punishment, without relying on jails for the wrongful acts people have 'committed.' It isn't easy to do so, as she constantly states, due to the fact that we are so used to a world full of them that we are unsure how our world could improve if such places were abolished.

Provided with a lot of history, interviews, scholarly articles, research, and personal stories, Angela dives into the world of prisons and how damaging it is, mentally and socially, at all levels. She reminds us how, especially in the U.S., prisons are a damaging place for many, especially Black, Latino, and Native American men, with a growing number of women throughout the years. Adding on to that, Davis adds into how the majority of the population in prisons (which, according to her, two million people inhabit prisons in the United States), are people from low economic status or people of color. Throughout the text, Angela makes sure to not only dive into how the history of prisons came to be but also how prisons serve as a way to help the economy and take advantage of people in order for the U.S. (especially) to profit out of it.

Admittedly, I'm entirely new to the anti-prison/prison abolishment movement, but it's been very interesting to read about how prisons don't serve as a purpose to make the country feel better but rather more guilty. I did not grow up in a political family, meaning I'm entirely new to all of politics, so learning about how not only prisons are economically unjust but also serve no purpose in justification allowed me to get a broader view and understatement of what exactly the U.S. Justice System thinks it is but is not.

With that being said, I have seen and heard that this is a little like The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, so I'm definitely going to try and get my hands on The New Jim Crow as soon as I can to learn even more, with more in-depth information.
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,691 followers
April 10, 2011
Some people ask themselves, "What would Jesus do?" when they're considering an ethical dilemma. Lately, I've been asking myself, "what would Angela do?" when faced with the ugliness of humanity.

Angela Y. Davis is one of my heroes. She challenges us to challenge ourselves, to ask ourselves hard questions and be willing to face up to hard answers. Her most important contribution to my inner landscape, though, is that she's taught me not just to imagine that things can be different, but to imagine the ways in which they can be different. This is an important distinction because the former simply makes us pine and hope, while the latter gives us a goal and calls on us to find new ways of thinking.

Her brilliant essay, Are Prisons Obsolete?, is one of those works that helps me imagine another way. Davis damns the current "prison industrial complex," locating and illuminating the cultural cross currents that embed it in our society. Privatization of prisons, corporate reliance on cheap, non-unionized labour, media images of prison as the only and inevitable form of criminal punishment, racist and sexist laws that target the poorest among us, historical developments that continue to perpetuate unhealthy attitudes, flaws in the current education system and educational environment, all of these and more make it nearly impossible for us to imagine anything other than punishment for crime, and prisons must be that punishment:
We ... think about imprisonment as a fate reserved for others, a fate reserved for the "evildoers," to use a term recently popularized by George W. Bush. ... The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs -- it relieves us of responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism (17).
And when our minds are directed though the tunnel of this ideology, it isn't just that we can't imagine a different way, it is that all imagination is shut down entirely. Indeed, the closest we seem to come to any sort of response to the "prison industrial complex" is to engage in "prison reform," which, by its very nature, conforms to the supposed inevitability of prisons.

Davis is calling for no less than the abolition of prisons, or "penitentiaries," and in her final chapter, Abolitionist Alternatives she imagines a world without them so thoroughly and so convincingly that I can see it sitting there waiting to be embraced by us all. She addresses the question of murderers and rapists (discussing South Africa's quite amazing Truth and Reconciliation hearings), she suggests massive decriminalization of countless felonies, specifically prostitution and drug related crimes (all of which I agree with), and ways to change the way we think about everything related to keeping the "prison industrial complex" working.

Are Prisons Obsolete? blew my mind, and if you're out there reading this Angela Y. Davis ... I love you.

(I am feeling a lot of love today, aren't I?)
Profile Image for Prerna.
222 reviews1,319 followers
June 6, 2021
I've discovered that I've developed an obsession with Angela Davis over the past few months. I've been watching/listening to her interviews, downloading cool looking pictures of her and essentially scouring through articles/speeches by and about her with the sole aim of stalking her intellectual development. Who could blame me? She is marvelous and this book along with the others, stands as testimony to that fact.

I believe with the recent calls to defund the police in the United States, this book has become more important than ever. The necessity of a prison system is mostly unquestioned and its existence is considered inevitable. Angela Davis is not asking for improved prison conditions or reforms, she is advocating a complete abolition. She points out that mass incarceration hasn't really caused a significant fall in crime rates in the United States as we've been led to believe. Large prison populations have only proliferated and corporate involvement in the construction, maintenance of prisons and in the exploitation of prisoners' labour has created what Davis calls "the prison industrial complex."

There is an incongruent dichotomy in the existence of prisons in our social lives. While we take them for granted, we are also reluctant to seriously consider the prison system's underlying realities. As Angela Davis explains, this simultaneous presence and absence of prisons in our lives is a good indicator of the role played by ideology in shaping our interactions with our social surroundings. Ideologically, prisons prevent us from actually engaging with the problems of our society because it functions as an abstract space reserved for "evildoers" who have predominantly been people of color. The process of imprisonment fuelled by racism and global capitalism is mostly cyclical - mass imprisonment generates profit and reproduces the conditions that were originally the cause of crime and incarceration.

The current justice system is punitive and not restorative. Increasing instances of racial profiling have shown the racist ideology behind the prison industrial complex. For all its claims of reform, the prison system has proven to be vastly disadvantageous and severely lacking in terms of opportunities for development of skills and rehabilitative education for prisoners.

Davis also talks about how some everyday routines in womens' prisons verge on sexual assault and yet, are taken for granted. She emphasizes the importance of gender studies in understanding the sexist methods of state punishment. She suggests that a more productive version of feminism must seriously consider prison abolition.

The violent sexualization of prison life within women’s institutions raises a number of issues that may help us develop further our critique of the prison system. Ideologies of sexuality—and particularly the intersection of race and sexuality—have had a profound effect on the representations of and treatment received by women of color both within and outside prison. Of course, black and Latino men experience a perilous continuity in the way they are treated in school, where they are disciplined as potential criminals; in the streets, where they are subjected to racial profiling by the police; and in prison, where they are warehoused and deprived of virtually all of their rights. For women, the continuity of treatment from the free world to the universe of the prison is even more complicated, since they also confront forms of violence in prison that they have confronted in their homes and intimate relationships.

Angela Davis does not want us to replace prison systems with other prison-like substitutes. Rather, she suggests establishing a 'continuum of alternatives.' De-militarization of schools, revitalization of education and a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all are key considerations.
Profile Image for Natasha.
4 reviews8 followers
June 8, 2011
This is one of the most comprehensive, and accessible, books I have read on the history and development/evolution of the prison-industrial complex in the United States. Davis' language is not heavy with academic jargon and her research is impeccable. She almost seamlessly provides the social, economic, and political theories behind the system that now holds 2.3 million people, and counting, in the United States. And she does all this within a pretty small book, which is important to introduce these ideas to people who are increasingly used to receiving information in short, powerful doses. The one criticism that I have of this book, and it really isn't a harsh criticism, is that the final chapter on alternatives to incarceration is not as developed as I had hoped. However, she gets major props from me for being so thorough in other parts of the book, and the book is very much worth reading.
Profile Image for Berengaria.
361 reviews64 followers
August 8, 2022
4.5 stars

Personal opinion first: I am VERY happy I read this. It is eye-opening in a number of ways and I learned important bits of history that I knew nothing about.
Since I tend to socially iconoclastic ideas just in general, I found the argumentation largely convincing and enjoyed Davis' restrained, mild academic style. It's an excellent piece to add to the puzzle of systemic change.

Anyone interested in real systemic change will probably want this short overview of prison history and abolition in paper copy, despite the relatively high price for such a low page count (120 pages) and bad quality printing.

For the rest of us who know nothing about the history, development and state of the prison system currently-- and that is most of us! -- there is a free PDF of the book available here:

Let's make things clear from the start, prison abolition is *not* about getting rid of all prisons, but the abolition of prison as the DOMINANT form of punishment for crime.

Davis advocates community-based solutions of communication, restorative and reparative justice as opposed to the current idea of revenge and punishment of "evildoers". Indeed, she asks us to consider disconnecting the word "crime" with "punishment" and reconnecting it with "repairation". That is "the lawbreaker is not an evildoer, but a debtor...whose human duty it is to take responsibility for their acts and assume the duty of repair."

Davis argues that prison sentences demonstratively do not lower crime rates, but exacerbate already existing problems of poor and minority communities.

In other words: through their methods, prisons create more crime than there would be if we didn't have them at all.

Another factor the prison abolition movement addresses is the marriage of the prison system to corporate interests which has created a "prison industrial complex" that bears a striking resemblance to the old Southern plantation system of racist exploitation of labor for total profit and is linked to the military industrial complex (= that makes war into a profit-based industry) and the emerging "health industrial complex" (= which makes illness and disease into a profit-based industry).

In the prison industrial complex, companies can contract government-owned facilities to have their products made for next to nothing (slave labor) and private prisons are run entirely for profit which they make off the taxpayer, as the gov pays them per inmate. ( Essentially: shovelling public funds into private pockets)

Therefore, in order to continue generating profit, it only behooves the state and private enterprise to have as many prisoners as possible.

This leads to the building of more prisons, the sharpening of punishments for misdemeanors, the lengthening of prison sentences, racial profiling, removal of rights, the creation of "supermax prisons" and other methods of recapture while at the same time closing prison libraries, not allowing prisoners to get a GED or a college degree and other restrictions to self-improvement. This almosts guarantees that once a person has been incarcerated, they will be again in the future.

If that wasn't bad enough, other topics addressed in the book are:

1. The history of the penitentiary in the US and theories of imprisonment from 1700 to the present.

2. The post-bellum "black codes" that criminalised black communities and are the basis of racial profiling today.

3. The special case of women's prisons and the systematic sexual abuse of women convicts.

4. Why prison reform doesn't help as it only aims to improve an abusive system. New and varied systems are needed.

5. How the US is exporting this new plantation system to other countries and spreading the problems of racial and class injustice.

6. The incarceration and treatment (or lack thereof) of the mentally ill in prisons, which are often used as holding tanks.
(There are more mentally ill people in prisons in the US than in all mental health care facilities nationwide.)

Davis covers a lot of ground in this slim volume, spending most of the time on history and describing the current situation (as of 2002 when it was published). She offers no concrete alternatives to prison as that seems to be outside the scope of the work, but points towards numerous groups which are directly addressing the problem.

The removal of half a star is because I found the introduction repetitive and not nearly as well done as the rest of the essay.

Highly recommended reading!
Profile Image for jade.
489 reviews291 followers
June 5, 2020
“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.”

prisons. for many people an undeniable, unquestionable pillar of society. it’s where you put the Bad People after they’ve been convicted so they won’t harm the Good People anymore. easy, because you won’t have to think about them anymore and they’re out of society. win-win.

but is it, though? and is it really as simple as that?

in this short, accessible read, davis asks you to consider a society without prisons. why abolishment is also a legitimate choice next to reform. and in order to consider it as such, she walks you through the history of ‘crime and punishment’ in the USA, providing a level of nuance and discussion that had my head spinning.

what i love about davis’ work is that she is always crystal clear in her arguments (sources included), and takes you along in a way that allows you to form your own opinion on the subject. and it’s impossible to understand the full breadth of this subject unless you grasp the influence of abolishing slavery, religion, the development of inalienable rights for the individual, and capitalism on how we as a society deal with punishing our (imprisoned) citizens.

treatment of prisoners is also covered in detail, with everything from education getting defunded by the government to twenty-three hour isolation supermax prisons (and how they came to be). intersectionality is given a lot of careful thought here, exposing the way gender influences prisoner treatment in often horrifying ways. and davis addresses the elephant in the room too, of course: the disproportionate number of Black people and other people of color behind bars.

one thing she could have focused on here a little bit more is lgbtq+ issues. most notably, the terrible ordeal that trans people are put through when put into a prison based on the gender they were assigned at birth.

the final chapters discuss what would need to change in order to combat the prison industrial complex. as always, it doesn’t surprise me to see some mentions of the netherlands’ (partial) legalization of marihuana use and sex work -- but the netherlands still has prisons. legalizing certain practices doesn’t have to be an immediate road to prison abolishment.

and davis doesn’t really go that final mile; she doesn’t go into how society would have to deal with crime without any type of prison system. which was a bit of a bummer at the end, because i’d fully expected it at this point and was geared up for an interesting discussion on the topic.

regardless of that, though, this is a great introduction to the concept of prison abolishment and a very clear overview on how the current prison industrial complex in the USA was created.

4.0 stars.
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,181 followers
June 30, 2020
Despite the important gains of antiracist social movements over the last half century, racism hides from view within institutional structures, and its most reliable refuge is the prison system.

If you know anything about Angela Davis—anti-racist activist, Marxist-feminist scholar—you know that her answer to the question posed in the title is “Yes.” This is a short primer on the prison abolition movement, written at a time (2003) when criminal justice reform was not an especially popular topic in mainstream politics. Though mass incarceration was already well underway by the time Angela Davis published this book, it would take the public over a decade to come to grips with this disturbing transformation of the American criminal justice system.

Angela Davis spent some time in prison herself. Indeed, she was the third woman to make it onto the FBI’s 10 most-wanted list, when guns registered under her name were used in a deadly courtroom attack. (After a nationwide campaign, a court ruled that mere possession of the arms used in a crime was not enough evidence to entail guilt, and she was released.) Davis already considered herself an anti-prison activist in the late 1960s, when the national prison population was about 200,000. By the time she published this book, that number had gone up by 1,000%.

Davis provides some valuable background into the rise of prisons. Though nowadays the prison—like public schools and office jobs—seems like an inevitable part of life, it is worth remembering that, like so much we take for granted, it arose under particular historical circumstances in the not-too-distant past. In the case of prisons, it arose in the context of the Enlightenment, specifically when ideas of the social contract and individual rights became more widespread. After all, it does not make much sense to punish somebody by depriving them of their rights if they did not have any to begin with. (This is also why prison was not used as a punishment for slaves or, for many years, women.)

Another historical root of the prison is Christianity. The name ‘penitentiary’ indicates what early prison advocates hoped it would accomplish: by giving criminals time to reflect upon their evil ways, they would repent, reform themselves, and be able to return to society as a productive member. It does not take much imagination to see the continuity between the monastery and the jail, where the inhabitants occupy cells, follow strict routines, and endure much time alone.

Thus, prison originally arose as a far more humane alternative to the sorts of corporal and capital punishments common in America and Europe—lashings, removal of limbs, burning, hanging, and so on. And of course, however brutal prisons may be, I think we must acknowledge that they are certainly more humane than what came before. Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge that much of the rhetoric of reform and repentance has fallen away. Considering the brutal conditions inside prisons, and the high rates of recidivism upon release, talk of personal transformation nowadays would sound insincere at best.

Davis then goes on to offer a series of other critiques of the prison system. The anti-racist perspective—that the criminal justice system disproportionately targets people of color—will be familiar to most Americans nowadays. Davis also has much to say on the subject of female prisons, the most disturbing of which is the widespread sexual assault that occurs in these institutions. Last, Davis talks about the perverse economic incentives of prison: cheap labor, captive markets, and a way of dealing with otherwise ‘unproductive’ members of society. In short, the criminal justice system, as it stands today, exacerbates and reinforces existing inequalities.

The last chapter is on potential alternatives, and this is where I thought the book was most lacking. Davis is fairly vague on the possible alternatives to prison. She does, however, make the important point that there is not one, single replacement, but a variety of options for different sorts of problems. Some of these are obvious: expanding mental health resources, legalizing and regulating sex work, drug rehabilitation programs, and other usual suspects. But the great stumbling block to prison abolition is not the many non-violent acts that are currently criminal, but violence. What shall we do with rapists, armed robbers, and murderers (which, it is important to note, commit a minority of crimes)?

Davis does not directly answer this question, but instead ends with the story of Amy Biehl, a young white American woman who was killed in South Africa during the unrest of Apartheid. The four men convicted of her murder were pardoned as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; two of them eventually met Biehl’s parents, and were hired to work in the NGO established in Amy’s name.

Davis offers this story as an example of “restorative,” rather than “retributive,” justice. However, I think that reliance on such stories does sidestep the essential issue at hand, and that is the issue of deterrence.

In my view, the strongest justification for prison is as a deterrent to socially destructive behaviors, and its continued existence should depend on how effective it is as a deterrent. Admittedly, this is not how most of us think about prison. The natural human tendency—so strong as to be almost irresistible—is to think of punishments as vengeance. The idea that somebody could commit a horrid act and get away with it can be deeply disturbing. It is as if the whole universe has been set wrong, and harsh punishment is required to set it right.

This compulsion is so strong that even many people arguing for police defunding or decarceration ask for vengeance. After all, one common demand is that offending police officers be themselves arrested and imprisoned. It is remarkably upsetting to consider that, say, police officers could bust into Breonna Taylor’s house and kill her in her sleep, and not even lose their jobs. And yet letting go of this sense of vengeance is exactly what activists such as Davis are asking us to do.

In cooler moments, we may consider that no amount of punitive action for those officers will bring Taylor back. And, of course, the same is true of most crimes: the punishment may seem to correct the cosmic scales, but it rarely undoes the crime (unless, say, a thief returns stolen goods). The truth, however, is that punishment is not really about the criminal; it is a negative consequence imposed to deter further criminal acts by others. In other words, the punishment is really for all would-be criminals. Thus, punishment is justified if, say, imprisoning the police responsible for Taylor’s death would make other atrocities less likely.

(Of course, in some cases there is also a public safety element to imprisonment. If a person is potential danger to their community, then it is justifiable to remove them. Thankfully, the number of serially violent criminals is fairly low.)

To revisit the case of Amy Biehl, if every murderer was pardoned and then offered a job, I think it is fair to say that this would create a perverse incentive structure. This is the challenge of radical criminal justice reform. And this leads us many empirical questions: How effective are prisons at crime deterrence? Does the crime rate depend on the incarceration rate? Does the crime rate depend on the severity of the sentencing? Is there another sort of deterrence that would be more humane? While considering all these points, the guiding ethical principle must be to inflict the least suffering consistent with a safe community.

Judging for myself, it seems implausible that the incarceration rate and the stringency of sentencing have a decisive effect on the crime rate. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and yet the country is hardly a paradise of lawful behavior. On the contrary, by many metrics the US experiences far more violent crime than comparable nations. Clearly other factors—widespread poverty, a poor social safety net, the availability of guns—are playing a big role. Furthermore, the continued use of the death penalty in the US, and the use of long sentences and brutal ‘supermax’ prisons, does not seem to have had an appreciable effect on the crime rate.

There is also the question of how our prison system is even contributing to the crime rate. After all, if we incarcerate huge numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, subject them to dehumanizing conditions, and then release them saddled with criminal records—effectively barring them from many jobs and forms of housing—then it stands to reason that criminal behavior will often result. And it does: recidivism rates are persistently high. Ideally, any justice system would not only deter crimes, but would help to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes. After all, the whole community gains when a former inmate becomes a productive citizen. Our current system, by contrast, traps former inmates into second-class citizenship.

If we want to examine a justice system built along different lines, we may take a look at Norway. There, prison sentences are much shorter (the average is around 8 months), and prisons themselves can look very different from what we imagine. In many prisons there are no security cameras and no barred windows, and the security guards are unarmed. (Also keep in mind that Norway’s incarceration rate is nearly ten times lower than America’s!) The consequence of this light treatment has not been an explosion of crime. On the contrary, Norway is one of the safest countries in the world. The recidivism rate is also low, meaning that most former inmates find work and lead productive lives.

Now, one may argue that the Norwegian way could not work in the United States, since it is a country with much less poverty and a stronger social safety net. But this is precisely the point of anti-prison activism: By discouraging us from seeing the prison as a dumping ground for undesirable members of society—a kind of human trash bin—it helps to focus our attention on improving our communities in other, less punitive, ways. A thriving society will simply not need as many prisons as one that is struggling. Imagining a decarcerated world thus requires that we imagine a world where government support comes in the form of jobs programs, affordable housing, drug addiction support, mental health resources, functioning schools—and not simply in the form of a baton and handcuffs.
Profile Image for jericho.
260 reviews14 followers
January 3, 2019
Incredibly informative and a pretty easy read. I agree with a lot of what Davis touches upon in this and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about anti-prison movement.

What I'm having trouble with, as I'm sure a lot of people also do, is that while I agree that the prison industrial complex must be abolished, I am not comfortable with the idea of violent criminals not receiving some sort of punishment for their crimes. Davis doesn't exactly give us an answer on what to do with these criminals but instead offers up a story about a couple who forgave and later offered jobs to 2 of the 4 men who murdered their daughter.

I don't possess that level of mercy.
Profile Image for Giorgia.
46 reviews
February 24, 2016
I tried very hard to give this book at least another star, but really couldn't.
Even though it was packed with interesting, thought-provoking and well-researched data, it managed to frustrate me quite a bit at times.
I found most of the arguments that the author brought up to be weak and not fully developed. When she finally reached what in my opinion should have been the core of this little book (how do we abolish prisons and how do we replace them?), she just quickly listed some (quite problematic) alternatives and went on and on about how to look at the problem in order to find solutions. The thing is, it doesn't look to me like she found any!
Throughout this book I felt what Davis really wanted to abolish was crime itself, not only prison. While I myself (and I hope many other people) have the same desire, it made me take "Are Prisons Obsolete?" less seriously than I could have done otherwise.
Profile Image for K Agbebiyi .
195 reviews716 followers
February 26, 2018
4.5 stars. A very short, accessible, and informative read about prisons and abolishing them. This would be a good introductory read for someone who is just starting to think deeply about mass incarceration. The book really did answer, if prisons were obsolete (yes). However, I was expecting more information on how to organize around abolition, and more detailed thoughts form Angela on what a world without prisons would look like. I guess this isn't the book for that!
Profile Image for Paul Ataua.
1,352 reviews127 followers
February 5, 2021
‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’ does a lot. It examines the historical, economic, and political reasons that led to prisons. It also goes into how racist and sexist prisons are. It gives you lots of insight into what women in prison have to go through. That part is particularly shocking. It then reaffirms that prisons are racist and misogynistic. All these things need to be stated again and again, so there is no complaint so far. And yet, right up to the last chapter I found myself wondering whether a better title might have been ‘The Justice System Needs Reforming’ or maybe ‘ Prisons Need to be Reformed’, and how on earth did someone give it the title ‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’. I was waiting for a link in the argument that never came. Finally, in the last chapter, the abolitionist statement arrives from nowhere as if just tacked on. It throws out a few suggestions, like better schooling, job training, better health care and recreation programs, but never gets into how these might work or how they fit into the argument, an argument that hasn’t been made. My beef is not with the author. I appreciate everything she has done, and I did learn lots from this, but my two stars reflect my belief that it was presented/published as something it was not, an argument regarding the abolition of prisons.
Profile Image for Abeer Abdullah.
Author 1 book286 followers
July 5, 2016
Extremely eye opening book. It attempts to deconstruct the idea of prisons, it proposes that punishment never was and never will be an effective antidote to crime, and that under capitalistic, racist, sexist, and classist societies, prisons are bound to be exploitive, oppressive and discriminatory institutions. Its written very well, it doesn't oversimplify anything, yet at the same time Davis' style is very approachable and affective. (mostly US centered)
Profile Image for MJ Beauchamp.
53 reviews36 followers
March 17, 2019
Eye opening in term of historical facts, evolution, and social and economic state of affairs - and a rather difficult read personally, for the reflexions and emotions it awakens. Are Prisons Obsolete? presents an account of the racial and gender discrimination and practices currently in effect inside (mainly US) prisons. Though these issues are not necessarily unknown, the fact that they so widespread still and mostly ignored is extremely troubling. As Angela Davis brilliantly argues, supported by well documented examples and references, prisons are an accepted part of our society - we take them for granted, and unless we have the misfortune of coming into contact with the system, they have become omnipresent and thus invisible. Yet, as they represent an important source of labour and consumerism (Montreal's VitaFoods is mentioned as contracted in the 1990s to supply inmates in the state of Texas with its soy-based meat substitute, a contact worth $34 million a year.), they have been fast growing in recent decades and taken advantage of for their corporate profit value - or another form of slavery.

The abolitionist movement defended by Davis calls for the abolition of the prison as the dominant mode of punishment, while at the same time standing in solidarity with the millions behind bars. So what is the alternative? More humane conditions by way of radical changes in many different areas of society: education, health, justice, etc.

As I read on I couldn't help but wonder if the fight for the abolition of the prison, though a valid one for prisons are indeed obsolete, is perhaps a little utopian? Then I thought of Canada in comparison... The death penalty was abolished here long ago, we are typically much more lenient than the US with regards to sentencing, we benefit from free health care, affordable and accessible education, and the list goes on. Consequentially, is our culture more one of pardon and acceptance? And most importantly does it really make a difference? I don't know, but here are the latest numbers; Canada's estimated prison population is 41,145 out of a total population of 36.71 million, the US estimated prison population is 2,298,300 out of a total population of 323.1 million - that amounts to 7.4% of the US population currently sitting in prison, as opposed to 1.5% of Canada's population...
Profile Image for Raul.
283 reviews203 followers
March 27, 2019
Very informative and educating. Ms. Davis traces the history of the prison as a tool for punishment and the horrors of abuse and torture in these institutions and the exploitation of prisoners for profit through the prison industrial complex.

This was a challenging read in that it made me take a hard look on the views I had of prison and also because Ms. Davis calls for the complete abolition of prison in the justice system. It was difficult to imagine a society without prison, I'm still not quite sure about it now but this was a remarkably compelling read.

Profile Image for Elizabeth.
53 reviews10 followers
March 3, 2009
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.
Profile Image for Emma Cathryne.
474 reviews79 followers
February 18, 2021
A deeply revelatory read that made me revisit a lot of assumptions I had made about the origins and purpose of prisons and the criminal justice system generally. Davis makes a powerful case for choosing abolition over reform, and opened my eyes to the deeply racist structures inherent in the prison system. A quick but heavy read, I would highly recommend this to anyone looking to get a nuanced description of the case for prison abolition.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
789 reviews1,187 followers
March 26, 2021
A compelling look at why prisons should be abolished. Though the statistics outdate it (it's even worse now), the reasons why we should no longer have prisons are just as critical as when Angela Davis wrote this.

Profile Image for Sierra Collins.
137 reviews7 followers
February 5, 2021
An excellent read, but of course, it’s Angela Davis so I expected as much. I would have given it 5 stars since I strongly agree with the overall message of de-criminalization and the de-privatization of prisons, however, the end of the last chapter just didn’t seem intellectually or ethically satisfying to me.
Davis brings up the common concern that if there were no prisons or death penalty, then how would society deal with the people who violate the rights and safety of others such as murderers (and child molesters since she didn’t mention that)? The example she brings up of the black men who murdered an innocent white woman because of their anger toward oppression and were later forgiven by her parents simply is NOT a satisfactory example. What about a psychopath like Ted Buddy who was a violent white male with no empathy or sense of remorse? There is simply not a one-size-fits-all solution to all situations of violent crime. With that said, I DO believe there could be better alternatives than prison for people who have grown up immersed in violence and therefore know that as their only avenue of survival and interaction with the world. I just don’t think Davis goes into enough detail about violent crime and the nuances and ethical conundrums associated with it. I wish she had discussed just any coherent proposed alternative approaches to people who have no remorse or who have done unspeakable things to innocent beings.
Other than this last chapter, the argument and research presented in this book is solid and compelling! Understanding the history of the prison system including the radical shift it offered away from capital punishment, to its sad history of perpetuating racism, classism, and slave labor is vital in this day and age!
*sigh* 2020 was rough y’all. So far, 2021 isn’t going easy on us either. I’m only reading 4 and 5 stars this year for my sanity! 😩🤢😷💕
Profile Image for Bookish.
222 reviews27 followers
January 1, 2020
“The prison is a site of state violence and repression”

I am for prison abolition. Engaged and civic minded citizens, and in the case of Angela Davis, who I would even feel comfortable calling an engaged global citizen, saw from the early to mid-1990s that the consequences of an increasingly privatised prison system (and its encroachment on the satellite jail, youth detention centre, immigration detention centre) would fall to bear, with its inhuman weight, almost exclusively on the racialised ‘criminals’ of the US - blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and South Asians post 9-11 - the poor, and women. The steps leading up to privatisation and who it would exploit were already laid out in who ‘society’ deemed expendable and disposable; a pattern observable in other public spheres of life: education, healthcare, housing etc. But its the way these spheres intersect and overlap, and contribute to the issue of mass incarceration that is both unsurprising and to be honest, predictable, once you get an understanding of the system driving it all. And Davis does a truly excellent job of laying out key points and giving you a mental mind-map of what’s at work - an excellent introductory and overview text.

Angela Davis, who has been speaking about prisons since the 1960s, critiques the prison very much as a symptom of a larger societal disease. The way I envision this disease; the a many-tentacled monster of global capitalism showing us that the privatisation of prisons is only one of many bodily systems that the monster has managed to get a stranglehold on. And that in order to function as its supposed to, with its motive of profit-making for some, it will need to chew up and exploit the others ‘society’ deems expendable and disposable. Sounds like a science fiction movie doesn’t it, and to be honest the more you read about the effects of capitalism on society and culture, especially in the US aka the mothership, the more you’ll see the links to those dystopian sf novels you love so much. The process of how, and the history of how old patterns are recycled for different ages is the sweet spot that Davis works in.

Davis starts by taking up right back to the origin of the prison and the purpose it was meant to serve.
The prison in the Enlightenment Age originated as a mode of doing away with capital and corporal punishment in favour of the reformation of the penitent with solitary prayer and group labour under the watchful eye of the Bentham model. Fast forward to the current system that makes no pretence of reformation and exists instead as pure punishment with the benefit of a throw-away population of forced labour to reap large corporate profits at Victoria’s Secret, AT&T, Sodexo etc etc etc. This is just ONE way in which corporations profit from prison privatisation. There are many, many more and they all come at the expense of the ongoing decimation of communities.

Davis also talks about the gendering of prisons and the way gender structures prisons, a subject I am very interested in, and describes the process of how punishment for women came to be; the overlap of punishment - the private and the public - that women endure by virtue of their gender. Patterns of domestic abuse, violent assault, and rape experienced by women in the private sphere of their homes and the public sphere outside their homes - the most common way of punishing women pre-Enlightenment that continues to this day - are replicated by guards in prisons, jails etc.

Davis also uses the specific history of African Americans and the prison system to point out the way in which the state operates, either by itself or hand in hand with corporations (historically, think chain gangs forced to build railroads or urban centres) to inflict violence and repression on a people, and their communities. The more I read and listen to works about prison abolition, the more I think it could serve not only the prison population and their families and respective communities, but that strategies put in place post-prison abolition could very well serve as a model of how to recover a society at large from the rot of a capitalist mentality.

Reading Angela Davis always makes me wish I had had her as a professor; a teacher or a mentor, preferably both, when I was doing my MA or PhD. Instead I had people who mostly knew how to parrot established theory (and keep their heads down) but didn’t know how to look (and/or weren’t willing to look) at structural processes from a larger lens down to the nitty gritty, who weren’t really interested in questioning contemporary repression and violence of the state and the role Universities play in that process. If you follow the increasing privatisation of tertiary education in the UK then you wouldn’t really be surprised. Its all about the paper at the end, that’s pretty much what you’re paying for.
Profile Image for Liz Janet.
579 reviews381 followers
April 9, 2018
Last semester I had a class in which we discussed the prison system, which hiked my interest in understanding why private prisons exist, and the stupid way in which due to overcrowding, certain criminals are being left to walk free before heir sentence. Some of my questions were answered, but my interest flared when we had the 10-minute discussion on why the system still exists the way it does and the racial and gender disparities within.

“(we) think about imprisonment as a fate reserved for others, a fate reserved for the “evildoers” … The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in disproportionate numbers."

What I believe is her strongest point is laid down in the above quote, she pinpoints that prisons relieve the rest of society from the responsibility that “criminals” are while simultaneously ignoring the steps that must be taken in order to avoid the responsibility to exists in the first place; that is to say, racism, sexism, the drug war, the increasing divide between rich and poor, a crumbling justice system, et al.
It is thorough and short read, but I do believe it will

At the end of the essay, Davis gives us a through and vivid image of the future she sees with the end of the prison complex, as well as the issues that come with its creation, however, I cannot sit and think that I cannot see it as well as she does, and perhaps I am not wholly convinced of her point, more research must follow on my part, but it was a book assiduously savoured.
Profile Image for Ify.
165 reviews178 followers
July 30, 2020
I found this book to be a compact, yet richly informative introduction to the discourse on prison abolition. I appreciated the elucidation of the historical context of the prison industrial complex and its deeply entrenched roots in racism, sexism and capitalism. The prison, as it is, is not for the benefit of society; its existence and expansion is for the benefit of making profit and works within a framework that is racist and sexist. It does not advocate for a future that ensures the restoration and rehabilitation of individuals and communities, which is what we need instead.

This is the perfect launching pad into my exploration of literature and media that exposes the justice system's dark underbelly.
Profile Image for Sara Jesus.
1,155 reviews103 followers
August 8, 2018
Um relato impressionante que nos transporta para as tenebrosas prisões americanas. A escritora conta as injustiças, e os maus tratos sofridos dos prisioneiros. Negros, afro-americanos, asiáticos e principalmente as mulheres são vítimas destas instituições de tortura.

É relatado também alguns exemplos de prisões europeias nos séculos XVIII-XIX. Completa o seu estudo com exemplos de filmes, livros e aborda o caso específico do famoso Alcatraz.

Uma leitura fundamental para quem quer ter consciência da realidade americana, das torturas e das violências sofridas (nem sempre merecidas) , e para compreender como funciona uma cadeia.
Profile Image for nic.
178 reviews5 followers
February 19, 2023
Incarcerated folks are perhaps one of the most marginalized populations: "out of sight, out of mind", used as free labor, racialized, dehumanized, stripped of rights, etc. Like anyone raised in a punitive, prison-obsessed culture like the US, I am doing a lot of unlearning surrounding criminality and imprisonment. This book was another important step in that journey for me.

As with a lot of media covering social justice topics, this book was frighteningly relevant despite being written 20 years ago. I appreciated learning how the concept of imprisonment was birthed and has evolved, particularly in terms of the racial component. There's a lot of nuance in terms of how embedded the idea of imprisonment is in our social consciousness, the gendered nature of imprisonment, how corporations build and maintain links to both private and public prisons....for such a short book, it's remarkably thorough.

I think sometimes people enter into books like these expecting all the answers. Expecting Angela and other prison abolitionists to automatically have straightforward solutions for an institution as complex and insidious as the prison industrial complex. And while Angela definitely addressed potential, systemic based solutions, it was clear that her main goal was to change the ways we view crime and punishment and move to a mindset of decarceration. That mental step of refusing to simply accept our current system as the default is, in my opinion, the hardest part. Solutions can't be considered if there isn't a consensus that a problem exists. So, I actually appreciate the fact that her energy was spent there.

Finally, I will just say that I am grateful that activists like Angela (who experienced imprisonment herself!) are still with us. I can not even begin to imagine how many leaders like her have been taken from us.
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