Are prisons obsolete

November 30, 2011

The title of Angela Davis’ book Are Prisons Obsolete (2003) sounds nothing short of utopian. Here in the US, as Davis points out, prisons are integral to everyday life. In poor communities and communities of color, nearly everyone has family or friends who are among the 2.5 million plus doing time in this country. Television and pop culture in general (where pop culture = cop culture) reminds the rest of us that prisons are part of society. But for those of us actively seeking out ways of being and organizing society that don’t rely on coercion or institutional violence, some utopian imagination is necessary (can we create it, if we can’t even imagine it?). But APO isn’t exactly that. Davis delivers a short book of historical context for what is now a monstrous soul devouring industry, but one which she shows is a relatively recent development and one which we should be working our way beyond. Besides, the book is an excellent primer on prisons. APO uses some powerful statistics from Davis’ home state, California, to show how prisons have surged in the last decades. When she first became an anti-prison activist in the sixties she relates how she was “astounded to learn there were then close to two hundred thousand people in prison.” By the time this book was published in 2003 that number had grown to around 2.2 million.

Throughout the book, Davis shows the connections between the expansion of prisons to capitalism and slavery. While the emergence of penitentiaries near the beginning of the American Revolution initially appeared often as a progressive reform to previous forms of corporal and capital punishment inherited from the English, the reformers, mostly Quakers, disregarded many of the racist and authoritarian elements the new prisons inherited and reproduced. To many observing their emergence, the penitentiary looked a lot like slavery. Davis lays this out clearly, starting with the creation of the Black Codes, a set of laws which were imposed after the abolition of slavery 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.” The Black Codes, combined with the clause in the Thirteenth Amendment which abolishes slavery “except as punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” created a legal situation where a newly freed slave could be returned to a new alternate slavery for anything ranging from an insult to broadly defined “vagrancy.”

Before emancipation, ninety-nine percent of prisoners were white. Within a short time after emancipation and as a result of the Black Codes, southern prisons quickly filled up with black prisoners. The accompanying public opinion held that because so many freed slaves were subsequently imprisoned “that African Americans were inherently criminal and particularly prone to larceny.” It sounds eerily familiar to todays criminalization and fear mongering of black youth.

The similarity in working conditions between prison labor and slave labor also show strong continuity from times of slavery through the 13th amendment transition , industrial capitalism to our present day corporatized world. Through convict leasing, prisons rented out convicts for alternative cheap labor. In Alabama coal mines, for instance, prisoners carried out dirty and dangerous work as miners, leased from prisons for as little as $18.50 per month. The profit in convict leasing was enormous and unlike slaves whose life had economic value for slaveholders, prisoners on lease could be worked to death and often were. According to contemporaries, leased convicts imprisoned under the Black Codes often fared worse than they had as slaves:

“The records of a Mississippi plantation in the Yazoo Delta during the late 1880s 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). Some who attempted to escape were whipped “till the blood ran down their legs”; others had a metal spur riveted to their feet. Convicts dropped from exhaustion, pneumonia, malaria, frostbite, consumption, sunstroke, dysentery, gunshot wounds, and “shackle poisoning” (the constant rubbing of chains and leg irons against the bare flesh).”

The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions

The emergence of penitentiaries, Davis explains, comes always in the context of social developments of the time. The French and American revolutions with the emergence of the bourgeoisie as an influential class, were introducing radical new ideas on the individual rights and sovereignty (at the time more or less only applicable to white men), rights which could then of course once realized be taken away. It was also at this time that labor began to be quantified and compensated with money.

“...the computability of state punishment in terms of time - days, months, years - resonates with the role of labor time as the basis of computing the value of capitalist commodities. Marxist theorists of punishment have noted that precisely the historical period during which the commodity form arose is the era during which penitentiary sentences emerged as the primary form of punishment.”

The Penitentiary was originally a Quaker vision of reforming some of the cruelest products of European and colonial imaginations. Punishment for crimes included drawing and quartering, burning at the stake, and confinement in jails which were disease ridden and filthy. The Quaker concept of the penitentiary characterized prisons as a place where instead of the filthy, immoral, alcohol and prostitute ridden British jails, the criminal would be confined to a room alone, maybe containing a bible, and atone for their crimes through a process of self-reflection and self-reform. A technological innovation introduced with the penitentiary was the panopticon, a form of prison architecture where guards can see all prisoners but no prisoner can see if the guard is watching them. Though reformist, these ideas were motivated by not so much the desire to help or improve the lives of prisoners, but because conditions inside the prison offended their sensibilities both aesthetic and religious. In fact some pre-penitentiary jails had some relatively high degrees of freedom. Alcohol passed freely among prisoners and prostitutes came and left as they wanted. In some cases prisoners would leave the jail for stretches of time.

Penitentiaries did have critics from day one, including Charles Dickens who was horrified by a visit to Eastern Penitentiary in 1842: “I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony that this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years , inflicts upon the sufferers...”

Dickens was talking about the isolation which prisoners today still experience today when confined to Administrative Segregation units (Ad Seg). Supermax prisons, invented as a one up on Maximum Security prisons put the entire prison population in lock own, resulting in entire prisons where many inmates have been so psychologically and emotionally damaged, often with explicit intentions to do so that any release or return to “normal” life will have them quickly returning to prison. Unlike the days when penitentiaries were considered a “reform”, todays Supermax and Ad Seg units make no pretense of rehabilitation.

Gender and Prisons

A chapter of the book is devoted to the gendered elements of prisons. While only accounting for about 5% of all prisoners, women are the fastest growing population in prisons and are, unlike most men, subject to intensely sexualized treatment and conditions. The roots of which Davis traces through the history of reform movements: Reformers like Quaker Elizabeth Fry pushed for a “female approach to punishment”. Reforms introduced an all female staff (to lessen sexual temptation considered to be the root of all female criminality) and “cottages” where women prisoners could learn domestic duties such as cooking, sewing and cleaning. Most of these changes again had less to do with human rights so much as they had the effect of systemically maintaining women’s roles and reform women who deviated from sexual norms to accept a submissive social position.

Not every woman’s place in society was considered worth saving. Black and Native American women were disproportionately sentenced to men’s prisons and black women in prison after the Civil War were put on chain gangs with men. Racism for women prisoners was further compounded by the influence of the eugenics movement (then a popular scientific theory) “which sought to have genetically inferior women removed from social circulation for as many of their child bearing years as possible.”

Starting with forced strip searches and vaginal/anal searches upon entering prison as recounted by Assata Shakur, Davis goes on to show how sexual assault continues systemically during incarceration. Guards make regular use of their “duties” to grope women’s breasts during pat downs, room and strip searches. Quoting a report on Sexual Abuse of Women in US Prisons: “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...” Prison Industrial Complex As capitalist globalization has seen a rise in power of capital over people and human rights in the last decades, the prison industry too has joined the party. With the emergence of private prisons (and the profitability of prisons, prisoners and convictable crimes with long sentences), prisons in general have expanded incredibly. Hand in hand with for profit prisons run by corporations has come new prison labor at prices that rival developing world sweatshops. Davis calls this the “Prison Industrial Complex”. Having to think up post cold war marketing strategies, cold-war profiteers turned their creative energy toward social control, in particular profits which could be reaped off the criminal justice/punishment industry. The profits in the meantime roll in from subjects for medical studies, nearly free prison labor, prisoners and prisons as a market as themselves and from a slightly different vantage point, the avalanche of cop culture that fills the airwaves.

As a Norwegian criminologist is quoted in APO: “Companies that service the criminal justice system need sufficient quantities of raw materials to guarantee long term growth.... in the criminal justice system the raw material is prisoners, and industry will do what is necessary to guarantee a steady supply. For the supply of prisoners to grow, criminal justice policies must ensure a sufficient number of incarcerated Americans regardless of whether crime is rising or the incarceration is necessary.”

And as black prisoners are reaching a percentage of the population similar to that during the times of convict leasing, today’s prison policy is reaching into the future and across the world. Globally governments are taking cues from the US and signing contracts with the giant prison corporations. In Turkey prisoners held a “death fast” in response to the construction of US style prisons. South Africa recently introduced the Supermax, the most repressive form of US prisons, “just after initiating the project of initiating a democratic, non-racist, and non-sexist society”, a big step backward toward that goal.


The final chapter of APO addresses the some of the questions that for prison abolitionists never cease. If not prisons, then what? The first part of the book already makes clear that prisons are a relatively recent thing. Knowing the history helps us to remember other forms of justice that predate our own model. Responses to violence and injustice has varied greatly over history. We also know that prisons have a racist history that so far it has only been able to compound. Even forms of punishment that had been reformed out of the system are now back, such as the death penalty and prison labor. Prisons as we know them as Davis explains are “a set of symbiotic relationships among correctional communities, transnational corporations, media conglomerates, guards unions and legislative and court agendas”.

Davis suggests an entirely different system of justice. She suggests looking beyond prison alternatives like house arrests or surveillance, and instead look towards a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment - demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care for all, and a justice system that is based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution, vengeance and profit.

To further develop strategies of decarceration, or ways to keep our people out of the system’s way: drug use should be decriminalized to counteract systemic racism in prisons. Free drug programs need to be available as a first resort to anyone. Decriminalizing all immigrants, another strategy for decarceration. Same goes for imprisoning women who fight back or escape from sexual violence. Developing strategies to minimize violence women face from both intimate relationships and relationships with the state. Decriminalizing entire classes targeted by the Prison Industrial Complex, another strategy to decarcerate.

But then aside from minimizing contact with the criminal injustice system, comes how to handle those who assault the rights and bodies of others. Here Davis tells the story of a successful case of restorative justice shortly after the fall of Apartheid in South Africa. The story is moving, but disappointing in that the situation took place so far away, and though inspirational and touching lacks some of what I was looking for in APO. Which is much more tactical. For instance, how does one take principled stands when confronting such things as assaults on our bodies and freedoms? Not in APO, there are some examples worth checking out. Projects like Critical Resistance NY's Harm Free Zone and Philly's Pissed work with sexual assaulters, just a couple examples off the top of my head. But that's raw material for a different article...

This piece appeared in an issue of the Philadelphia anticapitalist newspaper the defenestrator.

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by dave onion .... twitter / mastodon