Center for a Stateless Society
A Left Market Anarchist Think Tank & Media Center
Are Prisons Obsolete?

Review of Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis, Seven Stories Press (2003)

Is it time to do away with the American prison system, and prisons worldwide? Civil rights activist, scholar and icon Angela Davis clearly answers Yes in her 2003 book.

Davis is best known for her involvement with the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s as well as her affiliation with the Black Panther Party and leadership in the Communist Party USA for which she ran as vice president during the 1980’s.

She has had a distinguished academic career as well. She received national attention when California governor Ronald Reagan sought to have her banned from teaching in any California university. She was also put on trial and acquitted after guns registered in her name were used in a 1970 armed courtroom takeover in which four people died.

In more recent decades, she has focused her efforts more on fighting the prison system. She is a co-founder of Critical Resistance, an organization dedicated to the dismantling of the Prison Industrial Complex, a term the group is credited with popularizing. Out of her anti-prison activities comes this short book, which despite clocking in at 130 pages, notes included, is an informative read on this dark subject. The book is of clear interest to libertarians, especially left-leaning ones, as well the full range of anarchists, anti-establishment liberals, drug and sex work reformers and anyone fed up with the current regime of mass incarceration.

Those looking for a critique and history of America’s prison system will be pleased. However, those looking for a book exploring alternatives to the status quo will be a little disappointed,. The topic is scarcely discussed until the final chapter, and it is not treated as thoroughly as the book’s critique of the existing system and its past.

Davis begins with the introduction of imprisonment in the context of the enlightenment era reforms associated with the American Revolution. She points out that prisons were introduced as a more humane and less capricious alternative to corporal punishment (torture) and executions, which were previously the norm.

In contrast to the arbitrariness of corporal punishment, imprisonment created a punishment which was quantifiable in years. She points out that this growth of imprisonment as punishment coincided with the rise of wage labor which also is quantified in terms of time. She notes that the early advocates of imprisonment were often religious; thus, it is not coincidental that the prison resembles the monastery, with their “cells” and emphasis on discipline, labor and reflection.

Davis compares the desire to imprison with the desire of puritanical reformers to discipline the working class. She notes that it has been argued that the term “penitentiary” may have its roots in British plans to house “penitent prostitutes” in such a structure. Davis also points to the work of early protestant reformer John Howard who sought to impose religious self-reflection and self-reform on prisoners. Under such a regime, solitary confinement was seen not as torture but as emancipatory for the soul. Such regimes of confinement and regimentation were justified at the time as means of rehabilitating those convicted.

The same justification was also used for forced labor. Davis’s treatment of this topic brings to mind Kevin Carson’s concept of the “subsidy of history” and is a good example of some of the more subtle ways state intervention shaped the modern world. Specifically, she notes that chain gangs of mostly black prison laborers built the infrastructure that urbanized and industrialized the south’s biggest cities. She provides Atlanta’s main road, Peachtree Street, as a prominent example.

In much of the south, slavery was largely replaced by black prison labor. Racist legal codes were put in place to keep the system well supplied. Black Codes made such actions as “vagrancy, absence from work, breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts” criminal when the person charged was black. Davis notes that the 13th amendment only outlaws forced servitude when it is not the punishment for a crime. This fueled a convict lease industry in which former slave owners could rent out prison labor. These laborers could be worked to death without the expense slave owners incurred when their slaves died. Convict laborers could be purchased in groups and female convicts could be used for sexual purposes.

While the prison system was created with male prisoners in mind, female prisoners often suffered the brunt of its abuses. Davis dedicates a whole chapter to their plight. She notes that women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population, and also notes the larger number of women incarcerated in psychiatric institutions. Deviant men are seen as criminal while deviant women are seen as insane. Thus, they are more likely to be put on drugs while incarcerated.

Additionally, Davis argues that women have historically been given longer sentences than men for similar crimes. Due to sexist and religiously motivated beliefs, “fallen women” were especially sinful and thus not capable of rehabilitation. She ties the state’s past use of corporal punishment to the pervasiveness of domestic violence against women, and also gives considerable attention to the sexual abuse of female prisoners including routine female cavity searches — at best thinly veiled instances of sexual assault.

Davis then turns to the horrors of the prison in more recent decades. She notes that following World War II, medical experiments on prisoners actually expanded and greatly contributed to the growth of the modern pharmaceutical industry. Johnson and Johnson, Ortho Pharmaceutical, and Dow Chemical were among the major exploiters of prison experiments. Davis refers readers to Allen Hornblum’s “Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg,” which documents the career of one such experimenter and his victims.

Davis notes the US prison population’s tenfold increase during the three decades prior to the book’s release. She says that during most of the ten years prior, crime has actually decreased and yet a complicit news media has increased its coverage of crime fourfold. This creates the illusion that society is far more violent than it actually is.

She attributes media complicity to the fact that mass incarceration generates million of dollars for companies in the prison industry, including many advertisers like Archer Daniel Midlands, Nestle Food Service, Ace Hardware, Polaroid, Hewlett-Packard, RJ Reynolds, Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, Ameritech, Famous Amos cookies, Dial Soap and VitaPro Foods.

Davis rejects the idea of a single alternative to prisons, but argues that among other things the demilitarization of schools, and the decriminalization of drugs, sex work and undocumented immigration would greatly reduce the need to imprison anyone. The libertarian implications of those proposals are obvious. The same can be said of her proposal that criminal law should be replaced with tort law; justice should focus on reparation rather than retribution.

Though not all of her proposals are explicitly libertarian, most can be interpreted as such. There are definite anti-authoritarian undertones. She sees the anti-prison movement as “antiracist, anti-capitalist, antisexist and antihomophobic.” However, she neglects to declare it anti-government. Indeed, this book’s biggest shortcoming is its failure to explore the alternatives to prison in greater detail. Otherwise the book is an excellent read and Angela Davis remains an intriguing figure.

Translations for this article:

Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist