The Weekly Abolitionist: A Prison Abolitionist Reading List

Recently in the Los Angeles Times, Carolina A. Miranda published a list of “8 eye-opening prison books.” Out of the books listed, I’ve only read Angela Davis’s excellent treatise on the prison-industrial complex, Are Prisons Obsolete.  I’ll be adding the rest to my reading list, however. This got me thinking about what I would recommend people read to understand the prison system. So here are a few recommendations:

Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, by Victoria Law.  If you’re interested in how women fare in the prison system, this book is a must read. Victoria Law documents a litany of problems including sexual assault, abysmal healthcare, shackling of women during childbirth, separation of mothers from their children, and slave labor conditions. She also explores the ways top down reforms, even hard fought reforms by prisoners’ rights activists, often wind up exacerbating conditions for prisoners. Yet while Law documents a litany of serious problems, she also consistently discusses the ways prisoners organize among themselves to resist and mitigate these problems.

Prisons Will Not Protect You. The Against Equality collective, a radical queer and trans organization, assembled this book to oppose the mainstream LGBT movement’s push for hate crimes laws. The book documents the ways prisons brutalize rather than protect queer and trans individuals, the way some queer and trans people have been criminalized for defending themselves from hate crimes, and the way hate crimes laws exacerbate the problem of mass incarceration. The introduction by Dean Spade is particularly brilliant.

It’s About Time: America’s Imprisonment Binge, by James Austin and John Irwin. This book  provides a detailed discussion of mass incarceration. I particularly appreciate the discussion of how parole policies make it harder for former inmates to find employment, and thus increase risk of recidivism. The authors also compare crime rates among the 50 states. They find little correlation between crime rates and incarceration but do find correlations between crime rates and other indicators of poverty and social problems.

Undoing Border Imperialism, by Harsha Walia. This book connects prison abolition, immigrants’ rights, anti-colonialism, and anti-militarism. Harsha Walia is a founding member of No One Is Illegal – Vancouver, a migrant justice group “that challenges the ideology of immigration controls”  and opposes “racial profiling, detention and deportation, the national security apparatus, law enforcement brutality, and exploitative working conditions of migrants.” Walia begins the book by laying out a theoretical framework for understanding what she calls “border imperialism.” She makes a compelling case that immigration controls, prisons and detention centers, and criminalization are part of a broader system of imperialism, where states have stolen indigenous land and broken up communities along the lines of borders drawn through conquest. She then discusses the concrete actions groups like No One Is Illegal are taking to counter this system of border imperialism and achieve regularization for all immigrants.

The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State, by Bruce Benson. One question prison abolitionists are invariably asked is “What’s the alternative?” Economist Bruce Benson provides one of the best answers to that question. He begins by explaining the functioning of historical systems of customary law, stateless legal systems built around restitution. He then explains how the state took over the provision of law and justice, and how this served as a mechanism to transfer resources to political leaders and their cronies. Benson examines the perverse incentives that govern state provided law and examines examples of private sector security provision.

Alternatives to Police, by Rose City Copwatch.  Other answers to the question of “What’s the alternative?” are explored in this online booklet from Rose City Copwatch. This booklet simply explains a variety of organizations and institutions that provide alternative ways to deal with crime without relying on the criminal justice system. It’s short on detail, but provides a useful antidote to the status quo bias that leads too many to see prisons and policing as the only way to deal with crime.

The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo is famous for conducting the Stanford prison experiment, which had to be called off because the students appointed to guard positions became so abusive. Zimbardo uses social psychology to explain how good people can be led toward evil behaviors because of authoritarian social environments. In particular, he applies these insights to explain the causes of prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib.

The Social Order of the Underworld, by David Skarbek.  This new book from economist David Skarbek applies economics to understand the rise of prison gangs. Skarbek argues that prison gangs are formed to provide governance, particularly in areas that cannot be governed by guards, such as disputes within black markets in prisons (drug markets, cell phone markets, etc.). As prison populations become larger, inmates cannot rely on knowledge of one another to provide reputation and assurance for transactions, and thus begin to need governance by gangs. The structure of incarceration enables these gangs to even extract taxes from street gangs within the region surrounding the prison. I have not yet read Skarbek’s book, but I’ve seen him present on this topic and I’ve read multiple papers he’s written on the subject. His work is consistently fascinating, and I am quite excited to read it.

One more recommendation. 

Read up on public choice theory. It’s important to understand that criminal justice policies are made and enforced by self-interested individuals, not by benevolent despots. Given the way reforms can often entrench the power of the prison state rather than erode it, those of us who are concerned about carceral power need to understand “politics without romance.” Daniel D’Amico, who has done excellent work applying economics to understand imprisonment, has a great blog post that recommends literature on public choice theory.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory