“Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis (Noname’s Book Club July Selection)

Title: Are Prisons Obsolete?
Author: Angela Y. Davis
Published: 2003
Genre: Non-fiction, Politics & Sociology


So not long ago I read an essay by civil rights attorney Derecka Purnell titled “How I Became a Police Abolitionist.” In it, Purnell detailed the rough neighborhood she grew up in, the police’s inability to solve the real issues in her community, and her introduction to abolitionist ideas that fuel her work today.

I felt it was right to read a longer body of work that went into depth about the ideas Purnell lightly touched upon. Conveniently, one of Noname’s Book Club’s July selections (as well as a book that’s been sitting on my TBR all year) was Are Prisons Obsolete?, a book written by political activist and scholar Angela Davis that is frequently cited during discussions about police and prisons. I figured now was as good a time as any to read this book.

I should first mention that Are Prisons Obsolete? is very well-written and certainly thought-provoking. Davis is incredibly well-informed, and you can tell that literally decades of research and historical analysis — as well as personal experience — have gone into the crafting her thoughts on the issue of incarceration. It’s also not super long at all (only 128 pages).

Are Prisons Obsolete? appears to have two primary goals: the first is to get us, the readers, to “question [our] own assumptions about the prison,” and second is to get us to imagine “new terrains of justice, where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.”

Davis helps to challenge our perception of prisons by taking us back through the history of incarceration in the United States. In the second chapter, Davis talks about the role racism has played in “constructing presumptions of criminality”, and how, after the abolition of slavery, the convict leasing system (which targeted Black people) essentially brought about a second wave of “legal” slavery. In the following chapter, Angela Davis discusses past forms of punishment, and how incarceration was, ironically, a “reform” of the corporal punishment system. In the next couple sections of the book, she discusses how sexism influences and structures the type of experiences and punishment men and women endure in prisons (trigger warning: sexual assault), as well as the “symbiotic” relationship between prisons, corporations, and legislatures, in what is often referred to as the “prison industrial complex.”

But perhaps the most valuable part of the book was the final section, in which Davis talks about how we should conceptualize alternatives to what we have now. I should emphasize the word conceptualize, because Davis doesn’t claim to offer solutions that are definitive and concrete; rather she focuses on how the agendas and strategies we come up with should focus on things like bringing justice to Black people, minimizing violence against women, protecting immigrants, etc.

Her earlier discussion about the prison industrial complex comes in handy, as Davis infers that coming up with strategies is easier if we focus on the entire system, not just individual prison institutions. Basically, instead of trying to replace prison with a singular alternative, we should think of an array of alternatives.

What, then, would it mean to imagine a system in which punishment is not allowed to become the source of corporate profit? How can we imagine a society in which race and class are not primary determinants of pun­ishment? Or one in which punishment itself is no longer the central concern in the making of justice?

A few of the ideas she comes up with, many of which I’ve heard before and some of which Purnell mentioned in her article, are alternatives that focus on demilitarizing/investing in schools, decriminalizing drug use and sex work, and providing healthcare to those with mental health issues. Davis argues that coming up with alternatives like these forces us to actively engage with society’s problems (specifically the problems caused by racism and capitalism), instead of the current lazy approach of just dumping all the “undesirable” people in prison.

As I mentioned, because Davis focuses on how we imagine alternatives, she doesn’t always give concrete answers, and therefore may not answer to people’s satisfaction. The primary question that I know a lot of people, including myself, struggle answering is: what will a decarcerated society do with violent criminals, like murderers? Davis’s anecdote at the very end of the book seems to imply that we’ll collectively be more forgiving, but, admittedly, I am hesitant to believe I’d be as merciful as the family in the anecdote. I actually prefer to imagine that maybe violent crime wouldn’t even exist in a world of equality and equity — but maybe that’s a naive thought too. I suppose we won’t really know because society hasn’t gotten close to that point yet. Until then — as this book encourages the readers to do — it’s a good exercise to at least begin imagining what a better future could look like for ourselves and for everyone.

Rating: ★★★★☆


Did you read this book? If so, did you enjoy it? What parts of the book resonated with you the most?

Published by Bryan O.

Nigerian-American | Dallas, TX | twitter.com/Br0kani

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