Are Prisons Obsolete?
In the book Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis, she argues for the abolition of the present prison system. The book outlined the disturbing history behind the institution of prisons. Davis traced the evolution of the prison system from a slave camp to today’s multimillion industry serving the interests of the chosen few. Instead of solving the crime problem, prison system introduced a social ill that needs to be addressed. The book pushes for a total reformation that includes the eradication of the system and institution of revolutionary ways of dealing with crime and punishment.
The New Slave Trade
The abolition of slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment resulted to shortage in workers and increase in labor costs. The white ruling classes needed to recreate the convenience of the slavery era. Realizing the potential of prisons as source of cheap and legal labor, they orchestrated new legislations that include a variety of behaviors not previously treated as criminal offense. These laws shoot the number of prisoners to the roof.
After reconstruction, prisoners are “leased” to plantation owners. They are worked to death without benefits and legal protection, a fate even worse than slavery.
Today, while the pattern of leasing prisoner labor to the plantation owners had been reduced, the economic side of the prison system continues. Some corporations had found more subtle but nevertheless more profitable means of exploiting the system. The book reported that money is made through prison constructions and supply of consumable products needed by the prisoners, from soap to light bulbs.
While discussions on the economics of the prison system is not that popular, the present proliferation of prison cells and the dialogues about privatization can be an evidence of its enormous earning potential and the desire of some individuals to take advantage of this benefit.
Horrors of the system
Davis also pointed out the discriminatory orientation of the prison system. According to the book, the legislation was instituted by white ruling class who needed a pool of cheap laborers to replace the shortage caused by the abolition of slavery. She noted that prior to the civil war, prison population was mostly white but after the Reconstruction, it was overwhelmingly black.
While discrimination was allegedly buried with the Thirteenth Amendment, it continued to affect the lives of the minorities in subtle ways. We just need to look at the prison population to get a glimpse of its reality. Unfortunately, this discriminatory pattern extended beyond Reconstruction. According to Davis, US prison has opened its doors to the minority population so fast that people from the black, Latino, and Native American communities have a bigger chance of being incarcerated than getting into a decent school. This nature of the system is an evident of an era buried by laws but kept alive by the prejudices of a flawed system.
The US constitution protects the rights of the minority, making US the haven of freedom. Equality had established a level of security for a lot of Americans from the minority groups. We now have a black president, Latino CEOs, African American politicians, Asian business tycoons in our midst, yet our prison cells still show a different picture. While this does not necessarily imply that the US government continues to discriminate, the statistics presents an alarming irregularity that is worth investigating. We need to look deeper at the system and understand the inconsistency of the numbers and what possible actions lead to this fact.
According to Davis, women make up the fastest-growing section of the prison population, most of them are black, Latina and poor. She traced the increase in women prison population from the lack of government support for women’s welfare. The State failed to address the needs of women, forcing women to resort to crimes in order to support the needs of their children.
The book also discussed the inequalities women experience inside the prison. Women prisoners are treated like they have no rights. They are subjected to gender inequalities, assaults and abuse from the guards. Violence in prison cells are the extension of the domestic violence. Women who stand up against their abusive partners end up in prison, where they experience the same abusive relationship under the watch of the State.
Aside from women, the other victims of gender inequality in prisons are the transgendered individuals. She noted that transgendered people are arrested at a far greater rate than anyone else. They are thrown in prisons with their biological sex and had to deal with discrimination and abuses both from the prison officials and their inmates.
Flaws and Failures
The US prison contains 2 million prisoners, or twenty percent of the world’s total 9 million prison population. The US has the biggest percentage of prisoner to population in the whole world. While the figure is daunting in itself, its impact or the lack of it to society is even more disturbing. Imprisonment and longer sentences were instituted to keep communities free of crime; however history shows that this practice of mass incarceration has little or no effect on official crime rates. It seems the only thing America has accomplished is to send more people to prison. Larger prison cells and more prisoners did not lead to the expected lesser crimes or safer communities. Prison population just keeps growing without any direct positive impact to the society.
Davis questions this feature of the system. She asked what the system truly serves. Have the US instituted prisons, jails, youth facilities, and immigrant detention centers to isolate people from the community without any lasting and direct positive impact to the society? According to the book, it has escalated to a point where we need to reevaluate the whole legislation and come up with alternative remedies that could give better results. Sending people to prison and punishing them for their crimes is not working. We have lost touch with the objective of the system as a whole and we have to find new ways of dealing with our crime problems.
Call for Reformation
Davis calls for the abolition of the present system. The present prison system failed to address the problem it was intended to solve. It did not reduce crime rate or produce safer communities. There was no impact of the system beyond the prison cells. According to her, this makes the prisons irrelevant and obsolete. America is spending a lot of money and resources committing people into isolation without getting any benefits and positive results. Proliferation of more prison cells only lead to bigger prison population.
She suggested alternatives to imprisonment. “[D]emilitarization 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” (Davis, 2003, p. 107) are some of her suggestions. She calls for a better justice system that will safeguard the needs of all citizens. Her stance is more proactive. We should move away from the punishment orientation of the present system and focus on reparation. We should move the focus from prison and isolation to integration to the society and transformation to a more productive citizen. We should change our stance from punishing criminals to transforming them into better citizens.
Throughout the book, she also affirms the importance of education. School can be a better alternative to prison. This is consistent with her call for reparation. Instead of spending money in isolating and punishing people who had violated the laws, we should use the funds to train and educate them. Education will provide better skills and more choices. This solution will not only help reintegrate criminals to the society but also give them a healthier start.
Furthermore, this approach can prevent the commission of more crimes. The number one cause of crimes in the country is poverty. If you cure poverty, you eliminate crime, and thus have a safer community. By instituting a school system that could train and empower citizens and criminals, the government will be able to give more people a chance for better employment. According to the book, better education will give more choices for a better job and a better life. With a better life, people will have a choice not to resort to crimes. This will solve the problem from the grassroots.
Davis book presented a very enlightening point of view about the prison system. The US has laws and violation of these laws has accountabilities. For the government, the execution was direct, and our society has focused on this pattern of rules and punishment for a long time.
The book encourages us to look beyond this direct scope and understand the motives behind the legislation. It is not enough to send people to prison; we also need to evaluate the impact of doing it to the society as a whole. It is not enough to punish a person who had committed a crime; we need to find a way to help them reform and reintegrate to the society. It is not enough to build prison complexes; we need to look beyond the facilities and see what else needs to be done. We should stop focusing on the problem and find ways on how to transform those problems into solutions.
The abolition of the prison system is a fight for freedom that goes beyond the prison walls. It is a call to address the society’s needs for cheaper education, more employment, better opportunities and comprehensive government support that could ensure better life to all the citizens.
Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Open Media, 2003.