Are Prisons Obsolete?

Are Prisons Obsolete?

Angela Y. Davis

The gravity of these numbers becomes even more apparent when we consider that the U.S. population in general is less than five percent of the world’s total, whereas more than twenty percent of the world’s combined prison population can be claimed by the United States.

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California’s new prisons are sited on devalued rural land, most, in fact on formerly irrigated agricultural acres . . . The State bought land sold by big landowners. And the State assured the small, depressed towns now shadowed by prisons that the new, recession-proof, non-polluting industry would jump-start local redevelopment. 10 But, as Gilmore points out, neither the jobs nor the more general economic revitalization promised by prisons has occurred. At the same time, this promise of progress helps us to understand why the legislature and California’s voters decided to approve the construction of all these new prisons. People wanted to believe that prisons would not only reduce crime, they would also provide jobs and stimulate economic development in out-of-the-way places.

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Because of the persistent power of racism, “criminals” and “evildoers” are, in the collective imagination, fantasized as people of color. The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs—it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.

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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. Huge numbers of people lose jobs and prospects for future jobs. Because the economic base of these communities is destroyed, education and other surviving social services are profoundly affected. This process turns the men, women, and children who live in these damaged communities into perfect candidates for prison.

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the demand for more prisons was represented to the public in simplistic terms. More prisons were needed because there was more crime. Yet many scholars have demonstrated that by the time the prison construction boom began, official crime statistics were already falling.

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anyone who would dare to call for the reintroduction of slavery, the organization of lynch mobs, or the reestablishment of legal segregation would be summarily dismissed. But it should be remembered that the ancestors of many of today’s most ardent liberals could not have imagined life without slavery, life without lynching, or life without segregation.

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Historian Adam Jay Hirsch has pointed out: 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. 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.

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[ T] he renowned Peachtree Street and the rest of Atlanta’s well-paved roads and modern transportation infrastructure, which helped cement its place as the commercial hub of the modern South, were originally laid by convicts.”

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Those of us who have had the opportunity to visit nineteenth-century mansions that were originally constructed on slave plantations are rarely content with an aesthetic appraisal of these structures, no matter how beautiful they may be. Sufficient visual imagery of toiling black slaves circulate enough in our environment for us to imagine the brutality that hides just beneath the surface of these wondrous mansions. We have learned how to recognize the role of slave labor, as well as the racism it embodied. But black convict labor remains a hidden dimension of our history. It is extremely unsettling to think of modern, industrialized urban areas as having been originally produced under the racist labor conditions of penal servitude that are often described by historians as even worse than slavery.

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In the state of California, public colleges and universities are provided with furniture produced by prisoners, the vast majority of whom are Latino and black.

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racism surreptitiously defines social and economic structures in ways that are difficult to identify and thus are much more damaging. In some states, for example, more than one-third of black men have been labeled felons. In Alabama and Florida, once a felon, always a felon, which entails the loss of status as a rights-bearing citizen. One of the grave consequences of the powerful reach of the prison was the 2000 (s) election of George W. Bush as president. If only the black men and women denied the right to vote because of an actual or presumed felony record had been allowed to cast their ballots, Bush would not be in the White House today. And perhaps we would not be dealing with the awful costs of the War on Terrorism declared during the first year of his administration. If not for his election, the people of Iraq might not have suffered death, destruction, and environmental poisoning by U.S. military forces.

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When children attend schools that place a greater value on discipline and security than on knowledge and intellectual development, they are attending prep schools for prison.

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It is thus important to grasp the fact that the prison as we know it today did not make its appearance on the historical stage as the superior form of punishment for all times. It was simply—though we should not underestimate the complexity of this process—what made most sense at a particular moment in history. We should therefore question whether a system that was intimately related to a particular set of historical circumstances that prevailed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can lay absolute claim on the twenty-first century.

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I have highlighted the similarities between the early U.S. penitentiary—with its aspirations toward individual rehabilitation—and the repressive supermaxes of our era as a reminder of the mutability of history. What was once regarded as progressive and even revolutionary represents today the marriage of technological superiority and political backwardness. No one—not even the most ardent defenders of the supermax—would try to argue today that absolute segregation, including sensory deprivation, is restorative and healing. The prevailing justification for the supermax is that the horrors it creates are the perfect complement for the horrifying personalities deemed the worst of the worst by the prison system.

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What societal interest is served by prisoners who remain illiterate? What social benefit is there in ignorance? How are people corrected while imprisoned if their education is outlawed? Who profits (other than the prison establishment itself) from stupid prisoners?

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After the Attica Rebellion, more than five hundred prisoners were transferred to Greenhaven, including some of the leaders who continued to press for educational programs. As a direct result of their demands, Marist College, a New York state college near Greenhaven, began to offer college-level courses in 1973 and eventually established the infrastructure for an on-site four-year college program. The program thrived for twenty-two years. Some of the many prisoners who earned their degrees at Greenhaven pursued postgraduate studies after their release. As the documentary powerfully demonstrates, the program produced dedicated men who left prison and offered their newly acquired knowledge and skills to their communities on the outside. In 1994, consistent with the general pattern of creating more prisons and more repression within all prisons, Congress took up the question of withdrawing college funding for inmates. The congressional debate concluded with a decision to add an amendment to the 1994 crime bill that eliminated all Pell Grants for prisoners, thus effectively defunding all higher educational programs. After twenty-two years, Marist College was compelled to terminate its program at Greenhaven Prison.

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“prisons, as employed by the Euro-American system, operate to keep Native Americans in a colonial situation.” 87 She points out that Native people are vastly overrepresented in the country’s federal and state prisons. In Montana, where she did her research, they constitute 6 percent of the general population, but 17.3 percent of the imprisoned population. Native women are even more disproportionately present in Montana’s prison system. They constitute 25 percent of all women imprisoned by the state.

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“For private business prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. New leviathan prisons are being built on thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, and make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret, all at a fraction of the cost of ‘free labor.’”—Linda Evans and Eve Goldberg100

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In the context of an economy that was driven by an unprecedented pursuit of profit, no matter what the human cost, and the concomitant dismantling of the welfare state, poor people’s abilities to survive became increasingly constrained by the looming presence of the prison. The massive prison-building project that began in the 1980s created the means of concentrating and managing what the capitalist system had implicitly declared to be a human surplus. In the meantime, elected officials and the dominant media justified the new draconian sentencing practices, sending more and more people to prison in the frenzied drive to build more and more prisons by arguing that this was the only way to make our communities safe from murderers, rapists, and robbers. The media, especially television . . . have a vested interest in perpetuating the notion that crime is out of control. With new competition from cable networks and 24-hour news channels, TV news and programs about crime . . . have proliferated madly. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, crime coverage was the number-one topic on the nightly news over the past decade. From 1990 to 1998, homicide rates dropped by half nationwide, but homicide stories on the three major networks rose almost fourfold.

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[C] ompanies that service the criminal justice system need sufficient quantities of raw materials to guarantee long-term growth . . . In the criminal justice field, 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. 112 In the post-Civil War era, emancipated black men and women comprised an enormous reservoir of labor at a time when planters—and industrialists—could no longer rely on slavery, as they had done in the past. This labor became increasingly available for use by private agents precisely through the convict lease system, discussed earlier, and related systems such as debt peonage. Recall that in the aftermath of slavery, the penal population drastically shifted, so that in the South it rapidly became disproportionately black. This transition set the historical stage for the easy acceptance of disproportionately black prison populations today.

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The first step, then, would be to let go of the desire to discover one single alternative system of punishment that would occupy the same footprint as the prison system.

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the prison industrial complex is much more than the sum of all the jails and prisons in this country. It is a set of symbiotic relationships among correctional communities, transnational corporations, media conglomerates, guards’ unions, and legislative and court agendas. If it is true that the contemporary meaning of punishment is fashioned through these relationships, then the most effective abolitionist strategies will contest these relationships and propose alternatives that pull them apart. 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?

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An abolitionist approach that seeks to answer questions such as these would require us to imagine a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions, with the ultimate aim of removing the prison from the social and ideological landscapes of our society. In other words, we would not be looking for prisonlike substitutes for the prison, such as house arrest safeguarded by electronic surveillance bracelets. Rather, positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision 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 to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.

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The creation of new institutions that lay claim to the space now occupied by the prison can eventually start to crowd out the prison so that it would inhabit increasingly smaller areas of our social and psychic landscape.

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Alternatives that fail to address racism, male dominance, homophobia, class bias, and other structures of domination will not, in the final analysis, lead to decarceration and will not advance the goal of abolition.

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Radical criminologists have long pointed out that the category “lawbreakers” is far greater than the category of individuals who are deemed criminals since, many point out, almost all of us have broken the law at one time or another.

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