Review of “Are Prisons Obsolete?”

In our “democratic” society, we have been taught that, while everyone is entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” there are those who do not deserve the same “rights” to which we are all supposedly entitled. The exception is, of course, grounded within a moral perspective. “Bad people” those who break laws, who are caught up in the criminal justice system for various trespasses, need to have such “freedoms” taken away.

Thus, we have been taught to accept the continued existence of the prison system, where “bad people” are sent away to be isolated from society, to perform labor, to be punished and to be “reformed.” As a result of this teaching, there are few willing to challenge the very foundation of such an institution, to question its legitimacy, to analyze its origins soberly and go as far as to propose its abolition. In her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis does just that.

Angela Davis: Veteran Activist and Former Prisoner

Angela Davis writes from a position of experience when it comes to incarceration, racial chauvinism, gender chauvinism and oppression. As a black communist woman working with the CPUSA and Black Panthers in the 1960’s, 1970’s and the 1980’s, she was subjected to the US Prison system and charged with someone else’s crimes. Throughout the book, she makes occasional references to her own experiences with the US prison system and as an anti-prison activist, while still maintaining the composure of her sociological analysis.

De-constructing the Ideology of Imprisonment

Davis begins her work discussing the rigid ideology of incarceration as the solution to crime that holds the existence of prison systems as inevitable, even among those who are critical of the criminal justice system, and exposes how this ideology is constructed and reinforced by media.

“On the whole, people tend to take prisons for granted. It is difficult to imagine life without them. At the same time, there is a reluctance to face the hidden realities within them, a fear of thinking about what happens inside them. Thus, the prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is absent from our lives. To think about this simultaneous presence and absence is to begin to acknowledge the part played by ideology in shaping the way we interact with our social surroundings. We take prisons for granted but are often afraid to face the realities they produce. After all, no one wants to go to prison. Because it would be too agonizing to cope with the possibility that anyone, including ourselves, could become a prisoner, we tend to think of the prison as disconnected from our own lives. This is even true for some of us, women as well as men, who have already experienced imprisonment” (Davis 15).

This analysis that Davis applies to the prison system can be applied to a great many societal evils as well, from homelessness to prostitution, and is important for understanding how the ideology that such are an inevitable feature of society is socially constructed. Davis laces in with this analysis statistical evidence which has seen prisons and prison populations skyrocket in recent decades during a time when crime was actually on the decline, and explains how any public outcry against the expansion of a massive prison-industrial complex was undermined by the assumptions of this ideology and the role of media in reinforcing the permanence of prison as an institution.

A Much-Needed Historical Insight

Davis does well to tie in the expanding role of the US prison system, from the circumstances of its birth to its looming presence today, with their historical parallels in US chattel slavery and the later apartheid that persisted in the years of Jim Crow, and illustrates how incarceration and chain-gang labor were used as a means of reinforcing the same bonds that tied slaves to their masters. She also highlights how the perceptions of the inevitability of the existence of institutions long gone, such as the supposed “inevitability” of slavery and segregation, mirror the perceptions today that the prison system is inevitable.

She also makes an analysis of how early reformers of the prison system served to reinforce these perceptions in their work, putting forward an argument that, again, can be applied across the board to reformist efforts at social justice. She demonstrates, for instance, how attempts to create and reform the prison system to cater to the needs of women prisoners were steeped in patriarchal notions of the role women ought to play in society.

Capitalism’s Dungeons: Racism and Patriarchy in a Box

In addition to tying in her historical analysis with ongoing racial chauvinism and how the racialization of crime is achieved in prevailing ideology, Davis reveals the ongoing trend of sexual violence in women’s prisons that uniquely illustrates how prison life is gendered, and how patriarchal social conditions manifest themselves in the form of inmate sexual molestation, from mandatory internal searches and other institutionalized methods, which would be considered sexual assault in any other context, to coerced sexual relations between prison guards and female prisoners. Here again she reveals how unwilling society is to confront such an issue, the implications of the systematic prevalence of such crimes for strategies of reform and highlights the need for a broader confrontation of the institution of imprisonment as a whole.

Prison as Industry

Davis’ analysis of the prison extends to an analysis of the industries and interests which have a financial stake in incarceration, as well as the phenomena of private prisons, the exploitation of prison labor in the past and now, the expansion of the “super-max” penitentiary system and the implications of these for anti-prison activism. Her chapter on the prison-industrial complex delves deeply into the complex web of profit and exploitation propped up by industries who either service prisons in some capacities or run them as private enterprises.

“In 2000 there were twenty-six for-profit prison corporations in the United States that operated approximately 150 facilities in 28 states. The largest of these companies, CCA and Wackenhut, control 76.4 percent of the private prison market globally. CCA is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, and until 2001, its largest shareholder was the multinational headquartered in paris, Sodexho Alliance, which, through its U.S. subsidiary, Sodexho Marrott, provides catering services at nine hundred U.S. colleges and universities” (Davis 97).

Conclusion: An Essential “Wake-up Call”

Angela Davis’ work is a noteworthy contribution on the subject of incarceration in the capitalist “justice” system. She is essentially correct in her analysis: the perceived need to bolster a massive prison-industrial complex is a socially constructed ideology which serves power. She is also correct in proposing that a broader social change, rather than isolated efforts of reform that only apply to “humanizing” prisons, is what is necessary to do away with the societal ills that create and result from the prison system.

While her book does not outline the machinations of the US prison system as much as Christian Parenti’s Lockdown America does, her work (in the span of little more than 100 pages) demonstrates an incredible depth of analysis mixing statistical evidence with theoretical understandings of society’s movement. This has resulted in Davis’ work being a particularly powerful look at incarceration; one that begs system wide questions and reveals much about our own perceptions of incarceration and criminal justice. We at the American Party of Labor recommend picking up this compelling text.

Categories: Books, Discrimination, Government, Imperialism, Media & Culture, Prisons, Racism, Racist Oppression, U.S. News, United States History

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