Book Notes: Are Prisons Obsolete?

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
Read Aug 11, 2020 - Aug 14, 2020

In this book, Angela Davis presents a history of prisons in the US, and offers a path beyond our current racist mass incarceration system and the prison industrial complex. As often with Davis’ work, the analysis is thorough and complete, yet concise.

Davis weaves together the history of slavery, protestant ideas of penitence and redemption, gender issues, capitalist pressures and the consequences of de-industrialization in the late 20th century. Her proposed way forward is a complete abolishment of incarceration, and replacement of the punishment system with structures for supporting human flourishing: education, health care, and a “justice system based on reparation and reconciliation”. She writes: “The first step, then, would be to let go of the desire to discover one single alternative system of punishment that would occupy the same footprint as the prison system.”

Compared with Vitale’s The End of Policing, there is less of a focus on recent data to support the idea that policing doesn’t work, and more of a forward-looking and comprehensive orientation. Davis’ book is a better resource to understand why and how prisons are beyond reform, while Vitale’s book is a good source of facts to win over those who still think that contemporary policing is “helping”.

Book highlights

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.

We should therefore question whether a system that was intimately related to a particular set of historical circumstances that prevailed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can lay absolute claim on the twenty-first century.

The computability of state punishment in terms of time—days, months, years—resonates with the role of labor-time as the basis for computing the value of capitalist commodities.

Since women were largely denied public status as rights-bearing individuals, they could not be easily punished by the deprivation of such rights through imprisonment.

It is not fortuitous that domestic corporal punishment for women survived long after these modes of punishment had become obsolete for (white) men. The persistence of domestic violence painfully attests to these historical modes of gendered punishment.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, absolute solitude and strict regimentation of the prisoner’s every action were viewed as strategies for transforming habits and ethics.

To assume that men’s institutions constitute the norm and women’s institutions are marginal is, in a sense, to participate in the very normalization of prisons that an abolitionist approach seeks to contest.

Forward-looking research and organizing strategies should recognize that the deeply gendered character of punishment both reflects and further entrenches the gendered structure of the larger society.

I have quoted this passage so extensively because it exposes an everyday routine in women’s prisons that verges on sexual assault as much as it is taken for granted.

That is, deviant men have been constructed as criminal, while deviant women have been constructed as insane.

What is not generally recognized is the connection between state-inflicted corporal punishment and the physical assaults on women in domestic spaces.

According to dominant views, women convicts were irrevocably fallen women, with no possibility of salvation. If male criminals were considered to be public individuals who had simply violated the social contract, female criminals were seen as having transgressed fundamental moral principles of womanhood.

This is not only a consequence of deploying liberal—that is, formalistic— notions of equality, but of, more dangerous, allowing male prisons to function as the punishment norm.

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.

Studies on female prisons throughout the world indicate that sexual abuse is an abiding, though unacknowledged, form of punishment to which women, who have the misfortune of being sent to prison, are subjected.

Because the call to abolish the prison as the dominant form of punishment cannot ignore the extent to which the institution of the prison has stockpiled ideas and practices that are hopefully approaching obsolescence in the larger society, but that retain all their ghastly vitality behind prison walls.

The notion of a prison industrial complex insists on understandings of the punishment process that take into account economic and political structures and ideologies, rather than focusing myopically on individual criminal conduct and efforts to “curb crime.”

[…] companies that one would assume are far removed from the work of state punishment have developed major stakes in the perpetuation of a prison system whose historical obsolescence is therefore that much more difficult to recognize.

It is precisely the abstraction of numbers that plays such a central role in criminalizing those who experience the misfortune of imprisonment.

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.

Private prisons are direct sources of profit for the companies that run them, but public prisons have become so thoroughly saturated with the profit-producing products and services of private corporations that the distinction is not as meaningful as one might suspect.

In other words, a more complicated framework may yield more options than if we simply attempt to discover a single substitute for the prison system. The first step, then, would be to let go of the desire to discover one single alternative system of punishment that would occupy the same footprint as the prison system.

It is a set of symbiotic relationships among correctional communities, transnational corporations, media conglomerates, guards’ unions, and legislative and court agendas.

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.

If we insist that abolitionist alternatives trouble these relationships, that they strive to disarticulate crime and punishment, race and punishment, class and punishment, and gender and punishment, then our focus must not rest only on the prison system as an isolated institution but must also be directed at all the social relations that support the permanence of the prison.

[…] programs for decriminalization will not only have to address specific activities that have been criminalized—such as drug use and sex work—but also criminalized populations and communities.

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