Are Prisons Obsolete?
This tightly argued, thought-provoking little (only 114 pages) book grows out of a 1998 Berkeley conference, “Critical Resistance: Beyond The Prison Industrial Complex” and anticipates by more than a decade the current public discussion about prison reform.
Angela Davis makes clear from the opening words of Are Prisons Obsolete? that she refuses to be limited to discussing “prison reform”. Instead she wants us to begin imagining a world without prisons:
In most circles prison abolition is simply unthinkable and implausible. Prison abolitionists are dismissed as utopians and idealists whose ideas are at best unrealistic and impracticable, and, at worst, mystifying and foolish. This is a measure of how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and families. The prison is considered so ‘natural’ that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it. (pp. 9-10)
Are Prisons Obsolete? was first published in 2003, at or near the peak of the prison-constructing mania that possessed American society in the late 20th century. Davis uses her home state of California—in this instance as in so many, a trendsetter for the rest of the nation—as an example.
The first state prison in California was San Quentin, which opened in 1852. Folsom, another well-known institution, opened in 1880. Between 1880 and 1933, when a facility for women was opened in Tehachapi, there was not a single new prison constructed…. In all, between 1852 and 1955, nine prisons were constructed in California…. Not a single prison opened during the second half of the sixties, nor during the entire decade of the 1970s.
However, a massive project of prison construction was initiated during the 1980s…. Nine prisons, including the Northern California Facility for Women, were opened between 1984and 1989…. In less than a single decade, the number of California prisons doubled. And during the 1990s, twelve new prisons were opened, including two more for women….
There are now thirty-three prisons, thirty-eight camps, sixteen community correctional facilities, and five tiny prisoner mother facilities in California. (pp. 12-13)
The United States imprisons its citizens at an unequaled rate: “…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.” (p. 11)
There’s no way to talk intelligibly about the US criminal justice system in general, and the prison system in particular, without talking about racism. Davis uses that history to illuminate the possibilities for radical reform.
“The prison is not the only institution that has posed complex challenges to the people who have lived with it and have become so inured to its presence that they could not conceive of society without it. Within the history of the United States the system of slavery immediately comes to mind…. The belief in the permanence of slavery was so widespread that even white abolitionists found it difficult to imagine black people as equals.” (pp. 22-23)
After the Civil War, lynching and segregation were two of the institutions created to perpetuate white supremacy in the wake of slavery’s abolition. Like slavery before them, and like prisons today, they were “once considered to be as everlasting as the sun“. (p. 24)
Across the South, penitentiaries largely filled with whites before the Civil War increasingly were filled with blacks, and the convict leasing system (“in many important respects…worse than slavery”, p. 32) became a central factor in the construction of post-war Southern infrastructure—from railroads and mines, to “the most famous street in Atlanta—Peachtree Street” (p. 34).
Are Prisons Obsolete? is jam-packed with references to the work of a plethora of scholars, and it crackles with Davis’ finely tuned ear for memorably damning sentences. (E.g., “When children attend schools that place a greater value on discipline and security than on knowledge and intellectual development, they are attending prep schools for prison.” p. 39)
Davis argues that an abolitionist approach “would not be looking for prisonlike substitutes for the prison, such as house arrest safeguarded by electronic surveillance bracelets”. Instead she urges us to imagine “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” (p. 107).
Her “agenda of decarceration” includes the decriminalization of sex work and drug use (analogized to the decriminalization of alcohol use), access to effective, voluntary drug treatment programs, and the decriminalization of undocumented immigrants. Davis also points toward the “growing body of literature…(and) experiential evidence of the advantages” (p. 114) of reparative justice, which aims at rebuilding and restoring relationships between those who have been harmed and those who inflicted harm upon them.
Are prisons obsolete? On the evidence of Davis’ learned and provocative writing, I think the answer is “not yet”. But Are Prisons Obsolete? points us in the direction of imagining a world in which the answer to that question is “yes”.