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Are Prisons Obsolete?

by Angela Y. Davis

Open Media/Seven Stories Press, 127 pp. $8.95 paperback

Review by Silja Talvi

"On the whole people tend to take prisons for granted," Angela Y. Davis.

But are we, as a society, willing to face the reality of what goes on inside? And are we willing to take any measure of responsibility for how prisoners end up once they are released from years of confinement?

From Davis' perspective, we aren't ready to face any of it as long as it isn't happening to us.

"We thus think about imprisonment as a fate reserved for others, a fate reserved for the `evildoers,'" Davis writes. "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."

Those communities? Low-income neighborhoods, poor rural communities, and inner city areas where people of color are heavily represented. The ranks of the prison population are dominated by the people whose lives have been affected, from birth, by the social and economic circumstances of their lives. And the more disadvantaged your life, the more likely you'll end up in prison.

There are no absolutes in a formula such as this one. To be sure, there are people in prison whose relatively privileged lives served as no protection from their incarceration. But the socioeconomic dimensions of imprisonment in America are not only real, as Davis explains, but a present-day extension of our nation's brutally racist and c1assist history.

In particular, Davis points to the post-slavery "Black Codes" in place throughout southern states. "The new Black Codes proscribed a range of actionssuch as vagrancy, absence from work, breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or actsthat were criminalized only when the person charged was black. Thus, former slaves, who had recently been extricated from a condition of hard labor for life, could be legally sentenced to penal servitude."

Racism in the current day criminal justice system is hardly as blatantly worded as the "Black Codes," but no less severe. Non-violent drug charges can lead to multi-decade or even life sentences, and people of color are disproportionately represented across the board.

And those bodies in prison constitute an ever-growing, profit-generating market for one of the newer sector incarnations of free-market American capitalism. From the use of prison labor by private companies and state/federal-run prison industries to the millions to be made from selling toiletries, food, and phone services to prisoners, prison is profit.

Except, of course, where state budgetsand taxpayersare concerned. While private companies are directly and indirectly benefiting from the surplus pool of incarcerated men and women, resources for education, health and human services are drying up from coast to coast.

What Davis proposes, instead, is a serious look at the abolition of our prison systemand of the notion that incarceration is a necessary component of a functioning democracy. Davis urges readers to begin to see the complex web that represents the prison industrial complex, and to imagine the possibility that this web can be detangled and detached:

"[T]he 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."

But in the space of this short Open Media book, Davis is vague when it comes to proposing those alternatives. Aside from the more obvious suggestion of the decriminalization of drug use and prostitution, and the provision of education and healthcare for all, readers looking for explanations as to the alternative handling of, say, sexual predators, for instance, won't be satisfied with what's presented here.

But if Davis' intent is to start her readers thinking about the ease with which we've accepted a mass incarceration systemand the imperative for us to begin envisioning alternativesshe succeeds. Transformation of the criminal justice system is necessary, Davis argues convincingly, no matter what our eventual differences about how to treat those who have shown that they cannot live amongst us without causing harm.

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