Sunday, October 11, 2020

Review: Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis

 Rating: 4/5 stars

While others squabble about racial sensitivity training for cops and corrections officers, or body cams, or what the appropriate amount of educational/vocational programs for felons is, in Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Davis zooms out and questions the role prisons play in society entirely.

Why were people so quick to assume that locking away an increasingly large proportion of the U.S. population would help those who live in the free world feel safer and more secure? This question can be formulated in more general terms. Why do prisons tend to make people think that their own rights and liberties are more secure than they would be if prisons did not exist?

(...) First of all, we think of the current system, with its exaggerated dependence on imprisonment, as an unconditional standard and thus have great difficulty envisioning any other way of dealing with the more than two million people who are currently being held in the country’s jails, prisons, youth facilities, and immigration detention centers.

She points out the strange assumption at the heart of most criminal justice reform movements - that some form of locking people away must always exist. As in Race, Women & Class, Davis does a fantastic job at cutting to the heart of the issue, and showing the intersectionality of race, sex, and capital versus the working class. 

Slavery, lynching, and segregation are certainly compelling examples of social institutions that, like the prison, were once considered to be as everlasting as the sun.

She then traces the origins of the current American prison industrial complex, from the "Enlightenment" philosophy that drove the current structure of the institution through the role of the prison in perpetuating oppression of Black Americans.

It was after these first few phenomenal chapters that I found the book wavered a little for me. While the chapters on reform and on gender weren't uninteresting or bad, I felt like it could have been a little more data driven. However, she did a good job at humanizing the men and women who have been disproportionately abused by the system - and perhaps if it had been exhaustively founded in numbers and statistics my critique would have been that she left out the human element. She also makes an excellent point that to use statistics - which come primarily from the very prison industrial complex itself - one must in some ways adopt the same injustices, such as lumping together in one number those who have been imprisoned for possession of minor amount of drugs with those who have raped and murdered and ignored those who have committed state-sanctioned crimes.

The chapter on the prison industrial complex is excellent. Angela Davis carefully demonstrates how closely tied the prison system is with the rest of the economy, and convincingly makes the case that those that wish to reform or abolish the prison system must expand the scope of their activism to target corporations and the capital class more broadly.

Extensive corporate investment in prisons has significantly raised the stakes for antiprison work. It means that serious antiprison activists must be willing to look much further in their analyses and organizing strategies than the actual institution of the prison.

The final chapter, on what abolition of prisons would look like, is also fantastic. The solutions she proposes include expansion of mental health services and addiction services free of charge, decriminalization of sex work and drug use, and changes to how punishment and force are used in educational systems. Many of these same solutions tie in with the current (Summer 2020) calls to abolish the police. Interestingly, she doesn't discuss abolition of the police or reform of the court system - but I suppose she left those similarly weighty topics for another book.

She ends on the following quote, by Peter Biehl, the father of a murdered woman.

“We tried to explain that sometimes it pays to shut up and listen to what other people have to say, to ask: ‘Why do these terrible things happen? ’ instead of simply reacting.”

What would it mean to have a plan to make things better, rather than just reacting to things that go wrong? That same question could be applied to medicine, to economics, to psychology, to politics, to software engineering at most companies. It makes me wonder what exactly it is about humans or society that makes us so ill-equipped to tackle this question.

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