Anokh Palakurthi's Reviews > Are Prisons Obsolete?

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis
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it was ok

"Are Prisons Obsolete?" is a quick and extremely disappointing read. I went into this book with an open mind, expecting my hesitancy toward prison abolition to turn into outright advocacy. Instead, I left with a queasy, unsatisfied and guilty feeling.

I'm quite familiar with Angela Davis' lectures and consider her one of the sharpest people on the left. In her lectures and other work, she is passionate, incisive, and well-backed in her analysis. In "Are Prisons Obsolete?" Davis offers a historical breakdown of how prisons came to be, their original purpose, and how they were deployed by a capitalist state to exploit labor and perpetuate violence for the material benefit of the ruling class. As a black lesbian Marxist, she also highlights the necessary factors of race, gender, and sexual orientation alongside her class analysis. No one could read this book and come away thinking that the current prison system in the United States, let alone the one in 2003, when the book came out, is morally justifiable.

However, to call the conclusion of this book "unsatisfying" would be an understatement. It's a huge let down. For her proposed solutions and steps to taking down the carceral state, she lists necessary socialist or social democratic policy suggestions such as decriminalizing undocumented border crossings and ending the War on Drugs - both strong steps in interconnected topics, but she dodges the most obvious and direct question any prison abolition skeptic could ask: "what about the rapists and murderers?"

When she does openly confront this question at the very end of the book, rather than painting a picture of what temporary alternative institution would be in place of prisons, she gives an anecdote about how two murderers found salvation through building a restorative relationship with their victim's family. I'm saying this as someone who agrees with Davis' conclusion that our current justice system fetishizes and propagandizes punitive justice over restorative justice to exploit people - this is not a good ending at all. How can you write this book and not offer what an alternative temporary institution to prison looks like? Even assuming that a prisonless future is an ideal we should strive for, rather than something concrete we can expect to happen in our lifetime, we need some kind of institution to hold rule-breakers accountable. If you want to call it "shmison" instead of "prison," sure, but you have to, at the very least, proactively engage with real concerns that people may genuinely believe in about punitive justice vs. restorative justice rather than just mind-read them as inherently reactionary or point to how other bad people use those beliefs to justify atrocities.

Part of my disappointment with the book comes from discussions I've had with other leftists about the future of prisons in America. I read this book because rather than explain their views to me, many of them scoffed and either accused me of asking in bad faith or told me to read Angela Davis. What now?
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Reading Progress

August 12, 2020 – Shelved as: to-read
August 12, 2020 – Shelved
August 25, 2020 – Started Reading
August 28, 2020 –
August 28, 2020 –
August 29, 2020 – Finished Reading

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