With her characteristic brilliance, grace and radical audacity, Angela Y. Davis has put the case for the latest abolition movement in American life: the abolition of the prison. As she quite correctly notes, American life is replete with abolition movements, and when they were engaged in these struggles, their chances of success seemed almost unthinkable. For generations of Americans, the abolition of slavery was sheerest illusion. Similarly,the entrenched system of racial segregation seemed to last forever, and generations lived in the midst of the practice, with few predicting its passage from custom. The brutal, exploitative (dare one say lucrative?) convict-lease system that succeeded formal slavery reaped millions to southern jurisdictions (and untold miseries for tens of thousands of men, and women). Few predicted its passing from the American penal landscape. Davis expertly argues how social movements transformed these social, political and cultural institutions, and made such practices untenable. In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Professor Davis seeks to illustrate that the time for the prison is approaching an end. She argues forthrightly for "decarceration", and argues for the transformation of the society as a whole.
In a nutshell: Scholar Angela Y. Davis provides, through six dense chapters, an overview of the problem with prison as the default response to crime, and urges us to consider alternatives.
Line that sticks with me: “A description of supermaxes in a 1997 Human Rights Watch report sounds chillingly like Dicken’s description of Eastern State Penitentiary. What is different, however, is that all references to individual rehabilitation have disappeared.”
Why I chose it: I’m still trying to learn more about prison abolition.
Review: This is a relatively short book at 115 pages, but Dr. Davis packs so much information into it. She provides a good background of how we got to this point in the U.S., where we have 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the worlds prisoners. She addresses the evolution from slavery to chain gangs (a concept that will be familiar to those of you who’ve watched “13th”), and looks at the way prison impacts people of color more than white people.
The book also delves into the prison-industrial complex, and how so much of our economy is tied up in the idea of incarceration. From private prisons that rely on keeping people incarcerated to make money, to the government-run institutions that make large purchases from multi-national corporations, prisons make bank on the backs of those most without power.
The final chapter brings into focus the theme that runs throughout: that we need to think about prison in a different way. Why do we assume that prison is necessary? Because we’ve grown up with it. It’s ingrained in our culture. But it isn’t helping the people in our society, so we need to radically change how we think about it. As in other books on prison, this section still leaves me with questions, but I’m getting there.
Overall, I would recommend this book to everybody. In fact, I'm lending it to my grandma right now. Oh and if anybody has any recommendations for next reads in prison abolition, hit me up.