In the book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis the title alone sounds nothing short of utopian future. Here in the United, as Davis sees it, prisons are fundamental to everyday life. Television and pop culture reminds us that prisons are part of society. However, for those actively seeking out ways of creating and organizing a society that doesn’t rely on institutional oppression, there is some utopian imagination is. However, Davis’ boom isn’t quite that; Rather, she provides historical context for what is now an atrocious industry, yet it is one that she knows is a relatively recent occurence and one which we should be working our way to go in depth with trying to solve.
Davis argues for the abolition of the current prison system, to which the book outlines the disturbing history behind the institution of prisons. She traces the evolution of the United States prison system from a slave camp to today’s multimillion industry serving the interests of the few chosen. Davis claims that instead of solving the “crime problem”, prison systems introduce a social disposition that needs to be addressed. Angela Davis’ maine argument is to challenge us to confront the violation of human rights, such as racism and sexism in our prisons, and how the contemporary U.S.
practice of super-incarceration is closer to new age slavery than it is to any familiar system of criminal justice.Throughout the book, Davis concocted a rather brilliant parallel between the expansion of prisons to capitalism and slavery. While the appearance of correctional facilities initially appeared often as a continuous refinement or “progressive reform”, previous forms of capital punishment inherited from the English, the reformers, disregarded many of the racist and authoritarian elements new prisons inherited and maintained. “Quakers, for their part, were bound to be drawn to the idea of imprisonment as a purgatory, as a forced withdrawal from the distractions of the senses into silent and solitary confrontation with the self”(Davis 53). To individual observing the English Quakers arrival, the penitentiary seemed to resemble the idea of slavery. Davis clearly lays this out by discussing the creation of the Black Codes — laws that had the intent and effect of restricting African Americans’ freedom, and resulted in compelling them to work in a labor economy based on low wages or debt.
These laws were imposed after slavery was abolished in order to replace the former Slave Codes. “The new Black Codes proscribed a range of actions- such as vagrancy, absence from work, breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts – that were criminalized only when the person was black.” ( Davis 28). The Black Codes, fused with the clause in the Thirteenth Amendment — which abolished slavery “except as punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,”(Davis 28) created a legal condition where newly freed slaves could be returned to a new substitute of slavery for anything ranging from an broadly defined “vagrancy” to an insult. Davis continues with how the abolition of slavery through the thirteenth amendment resulted in the shortage of workers and an increase in labor costs. Davis points out the ideology behind the white ruling classes, which needed to recreated for the “convenience” of the slavery era. Recognizing the probability of prisons acting as source of cheap and legal labor, the white ruling classes orchestrated new legislations that include a variety of behaviors not previously treated as criminal offense. “In order to escape organized labor in this country-and thus higher wages, benefits, and so on-corporations roam the world in search of nations providing cheap labor pools.
This corporate migration thus leaves entire communities in shambles”(Davis 16). What Davis points out that still happens today, where a large portion of people, in result, lose jobs and prospects for future employment. Due to the fact the the economic foundation of these communities are obliterated, education and other social services that aid in survival are drastically affected. Thus, this procedure turns the lives of those harboring in these damaged communities into potential candidates for prison. It was because these past laws shot the number of prisoners through the roof due to the refurbishment that revolved around prisoners who were “leased” to plantation owners. “Convicts, on the other hand, were leased not as individuals, but as a group, and they could be worked literally to death without affecting the profitability of a convict crew” (Davis 32).
These convicts were worked to death without benefits and legal protection, a fate even worse than slavery. Davis continues to remind the reader that before emancipation, 99 percent of prisoners were, in fact, white. However, a short time after emancipation and as a result of the Black Codes, southern prisons started to rapidly filled up with black prisoners. The supporting public opinion held that because so many freed slaves were subsequently imprisoned “that African Americans were inherently criminal and particularly prone to larceny” (Davis 29). To this, Davis creates the parallel to today’s criminalization and fear of black youth.
With slavery, white supremacists abused African Americans and used them as targets to there advantage and personal gain. “White men sometimes sought to escape punishment by disguising themselves as black” (Davis 30). With this knowledge, the Whites took advantage over the fact that being White was a property for privileges that Blacks didn’t have. One account of this was through Frederick Douglass who recalls, “one such incident that took place in Granger County, Tennessee, in which a man who appeared to be black was shot while committing a robbery” (Davis 30). This is evident that there is inequality and that African Americans had to face constant oppression in their lifetime; same issue is going on with prisons.
“One may perceive in the penitentiary many reflections of chattel slavery as it was practiced in the South. Both institutions subordinated their subjects to the will of others. Like Southern slaves, prison inmates followed a daily routine specified by their superiors” (Davis 27). When you are a prisoner you have no rights and they take advantage of this fact, “In other words, there is no pretense that rights are respected, there is no concern for the individual” (Davis 50). These prisoners are skilled labors, and the ideology is to keep these prisoners as long as possible in order to maintain free labor. “Both institutions reduced their subjects to dependence on others for the supply of basic human services such as food and shelter. Both isolated their subjects from the general population by confining them to a fixed habitat. And both frequently coerced their subjects to work, often for longer hours and for less compensation than free laborers” (Davis 27).
Although it has gotten to the point that they have so many free laborers,they don’t know what to do with them anymore. Some more similarities that Davis mentions is working conditions between prison labor and slave labor and how that shows a strong progression from times of slavery through the 13th amendment, into industrial capitalism that is our present day corporate world. Through the method of convict leasing, prisons “rented out” convicts for alternative cheap labor. “Many ex-prisoners became miners because Alabama used prison labor extensively in its coalmines… Alabama’s able male prisoners were leased to two major mining companies… For a charge of up to $18.50 per month per man, these corporations “leased,” or rented prison laborers” (Davis 35-36). The profit behind convict leasing was gigantic and unlike slaves, whose life held economic value for slaveholders, prisoners who are on lease could be worked to death and often times were. One account claimed by contemporaries, leased convicts imprisoned under the Black Codes often coped worse than they had as slaves.
“The records of a Mississippi plantation in the Yazoo Delta… indicate that the prisoners ate and slept on bare ground without blankets or mattresses, and often without clothes. They were punished for “slow hoeing” (ten lashes), “sorry planting” (five lashes), and “being light with cotton” (five lashes)” (Davis 32). Davis furthermore points out the increased involvement of corporations in prison construction, health care delivery, security, commodity production and food programs which use prison labor as the main source of the growth of the prison-industrial complex. “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… Sodexho Marrott, provided catering services” (Davis 97). Davis also notes that some activists mistakenly argue that the prison industrial complex is moving into the space abandoned by the military industrial complex. However, the “War on Terrorism” initiated by the Bush administration during the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center has made it evident that the connection between the government, military and corporations are growing stronger.
“Both systems generate huge profits from processes of social destruction. Precisely that which is advantageous to those corporations, elected officials, and government agents” (Davis 88). As prisons became a new source of profits, it became clear to prison corporations that more facilities and prisoners were needed to maintain and increase income. “Corporations associated with the punishment industry reap profits from the system that manages prisoners and acquire a clear stake in the continued growth of prison populations” (16). It is evident that increased crime is not the cause of the prison boom. Davis writes “that many corporations with global markets now rely on prisons as an important source of profits helps us to understand the rapidity with which prisons began to proliferate precisely at a time when official studies indicated that the crime rate was falling.
” The surprise is the fundamental motivation behind increasing prison population in the last 40 years is not only racism or sexism but also greed. However, it is not just racism that promotes industries to maintain profit, but sexism plays a major role as well.Davis also focuses on what she regards as how “gender structures the prison system” This is not simply a way of discussing women in the system or to add women to the conversation, it involves women due to fact that sexism plays a role in the prison system.
Davis views it as a way to show how the ruling class uses ideas about the stereotypes of men and women and how they are supposed to behave and what they are supposed to do in order to preserve the current practice of incarceration. Additionally, “women remain today the fastest-growing sector of the US prison population” (Davis 65). Women who have been labeled criminals face difficulties that make their incarceration a different experience compared to men.
They are more likely to be placed in mental institutions, receive psychiatric drugs and experience sexual assault. While only accounting for a small percentage of all prisoners, women are the fastest growing population in prisons and are subjects of intensely sexualized treatment and conditions. The origin of which Davis traces is found in reformers like Quaker Elizabeth Fry pushed “to institute separate prisons for women. Given the practice of incarcerating criminalized women in men’s prisons, the demand for separate women’s prisons was viewed as quite radical during this period” (Davis 69). Reforms introduced an all female staff, in order to minimize sexual temptation and “cottages” where women prisoners could learn domestic abilities like cooking, sewing and cleaning. Though most of these changes had less to do with human rights so much as they had the effect of maintaining stereotypical women’s roles and reform women to accept a submissive social position.
Davis notes that not every woman’s place in society was considered worth saving; Black and Native American women were incommensurably sentenced to men’s prisons. Racism for women prisoners was further blended by the influence of the eugenics movement, “which sought to have genetically inferior women removed from social circulation for as many of their childbearing years as possible” (Davis 72). Starting with forced strip searches and vaginal/anal searches upon entering prison as recounted by Assata Shakur. Davis continues to show how sexual assault continues methodically during imprisonment.
Guards who often make regular use of their “duties” to grope women’s breasts during pat downs and carrying out strip searches. “We found that all male correctional employees have vaginally, anally and orally raped female prisoners and sexually assaulted and abused them. We found that in the course of committing such gross misconduct, male officers have not only used actual or threatened physical force, but have also used their near total authority to provide or deny goods or privileges to female prisoners to compel them to have sex…
” (Davis 78-79). The violent sexualization of prison life within correctional facilities raised countless issues that may help us further develop our exposition of the prison system. Ideologies of sexuality and the cross section of race and sexuality has an intense effect on the representations and treatment received by women of color both within and outside prison.Davis ends the book by conveying the idea of getting the public to think of alternatives to the prison system. At this point she captures the reader’s attention and opens their eyes to the idea of life without prisons. What I have to say is, in my opinion putting prisoners to work should be there choice and if they are being put to work, they should at least be getting paid close to minimum wage.
Angela Davis gave great examples, got her point across and the book overall served it purpose. However, for me personally even though it made me question if prisons should be abolished, I have to disagree with Davis’ views. Although it is very cruel what role corporations play, and the fact that racism and sexism are present, it is a method of containing the “bad people” and I know that the system is rigged, but overall, it serves the purpose it was giver. The only thing we can do is to improve the system, rather than abolish it.
Hypothetically if I were to say yes then I would have to be ensured that the new system would be the best method of secluding the criminals from society. Regardless I believe that this book would be better served for a scholar rather than a student. It would sure be great to get rid of prisons, but what’s to say that the new system will be better.
Though Davis fights to abolish slavery, there is no better alternative. It is one thing to point out the flaws of prison and create a different approach to seeing prison as a whole, it’s another thing to propose a new system, one without flaws. Another thing is that I find that people don’t like drastic change, and this abolition of prisons is a drastic change to society, As mentioned before, it is better to find ways of improving the already functioning system, because it does function well, to an extent.Overall, Davis’ book presented a very enlightening point of view about the prison system. The United States has laws for a reason, and the violation of these said laws has accountabilities and someone is always responsible. Our society has focused on this pattern of rules and punishment for a long time.
Davis encourages us to look far past this direct purview and to understand the motives behind the legislation. It is not enough to send people to prison; we also need to evaluate the impact of sending someone to prison to society as a whole. It is not enough to punish a person who had committed a crime; there is a need to find a method to help them reform to reestablish their role as a fully functioning individual who can be submerged back into society. It is also not enough to build prison complexes, there is a need to see what else needs to be done to improve the corrupt system. Society should find ways on how to transpose those problems into efficient solutions, that do not involve drastic change. The abolition of the prison system is a fight for freedom that goes beyond the prison walls, it is a call to bring society’s attention to the needs for , more employment, better opportunities, cheaper education and comprehensive government support that could ensure a better life to all citizens.