REVIEW: Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis

5/5 stars — argues concisely for prison abolition; great for those new to the movement

I liked this book because Angela Davis, despite her expertise on the matter of the prison industrial complex, made her points in ways simple enough for a newcomer to the abolition movement to understand. I read this because I was having a hard time moving past the idea of prison reform to complete abolition; it’s still something I’m grappling with, but now I have a lot more information, including a history of the movement and an idea of how the path toward abolition would look. Part of this book’s effectiveness lies in the way Davis frames her argument. It’s not “should prisons continue to exist?” but “are prisons obsolete?” The text is divided into five sections, two of which describe how the current system of incarceration was developed as an alternative to bodily punishment (often the death penalty) and how rapidly the number of prison facilities has grown in the last 30 years, especially (but not only) in the United States. Davis argues that prisons no longer serve their original purpose because the nature of society has changed since the carceral system was invented. Our treatment of people who commit crimes, she explains, needs to be overhauled—and she provides steps for making those changes. In overviewing the history of the U.S. prison system, Davis also necessarily delves into the issue of race: how the nature and purpose of incarceration changed following emancipation up through the current disproportionate representation of BIPOC populations in prisons. She places particular emphasis on the historical progression from slavery to the convict leasing system to the current bloated prison industrial complex. This baked-in racism is one of the strongest arguments for the wholesale demolition of imprisonment as punishment. I’m quoting here some of the passages I found most useful, but all hundred-odd pages of the book are packed with material worthy of highlighting and saving for later. - on other historically radical and ultimately successful movements: “Slavery, lynching, and segregation are certainly compelling examples of social institutions that, like the prison system, were once considered to be as everlasting as the sun. Yet, in the case of all three examples, we can point to movements that assumed the radical stance of announcing the obsolescence of these institutions.” - on (not) using plantations as pretty backdrops: “Those of us who have had the opportunity to visit nineteenth-century mansions that were originally constructed on slave plantations are rarely content with an aesthetic appraisal of these structures, no matter how beautiful they may be.” - on the gendered nature of imprisonment: “Studies indicating that women have been even more likely to end up in mental facilities than men suggest that while jails and prisons have been dominant institutions for the control of men, mental institutions have served a similar purpose for women. That is, deviant men have been constructed as criminals, while deviant women have been constructed as insane. Regimes that reflect this assumption continue to inform the women’s prison.” - on the use of military weapons/tech by police and prison guards and the entanglement of the two systems: “A more cogent way to define the relationship between the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex would be to call it symbiotic. These two complexes mutually support and promote each other, and in fact, often share technologies.” - on the exploitation of prison labor and its weight on society: “The transformation of imprisoned bodies—and they are in their majority bodies of poor—into sources of profit who consume and also often produce all kinds of commodities, devours public funds, which might otherwise be available for social programs such as education, housing, childcare, recreation, and drug programs.” - on the specific exploitation of Black people: “…it is clear that black bodies are considered dispensable within the ‘free world’ but as a major source of profit in the prison world.” - on the dangerous interplay between government and private prisons: “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.” - on the sweeping societal ramifications of widespread imprisonment: “The uncontested detention of increasing numbers of undocumented immigrants from the global South has been aided considerably by the structures and ideologies associated with the prison industrial complex. We can hardy move in the direction of justice and equality in the twenty-first century if we are unwilling to recognize the enormous roles played by this system in extending the power of racism and xenophobia.” I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to expand beyond working for police/prison reform to striving instead for total abolition. It’s a relatively fast and easy-to-understand read, and the author’s arguments are memorable and often actionable. In short, this is excellent reading for anyone involved in the modern anti-racist movement.

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