Four ideas from Angela Davis

Why should we get rid of prisons? Nobody said it better than Angela Y. Davis in her amazing little book Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press, 2005). In a mere 115 pages Davis can take you from completely uninformed to possessing a pretty sophisticated degree of understanding. She is so cool.

But if you don’t feel like reading 115 pages today, or if you’re confined to your home due to mobility issues, or if your library doesn’t have a copy, or if for any other reason you are not currently able to read her absolutely brilliant text, I’ve compiled a little “greatest hits” list: four of my favorite quotes from the book, in order of appearance.

1. Prison abolitionists are dismissed as utopians and idealists whose ideas are at best unrealistic and impracticable, and, at worst, mystifying and foolish. This is a measure of how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and families. The prison is considered so “natural” that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it. (pages 9-10)

Why this is excellent: We can’t do anything about prisons until we are willing to at least momentarily suspend the assumption that we absolutely need to have them. There’s a lot of other crap that goes along with prison abolition, but none of it matters unless we’re willing to say “OK, so what if we could get rid of prisons?” Thank you, that’s a start.

2. The prison … 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 … It relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism. (page 16)

Why this is important: Like any good twelve step program, we can’t get anywhere until we admit we have a problem. The prison system is a problem, but that is conveniently overlooked most of the time. Instead, we like to pretend it’s a solution. Thus not only does the system trick us into ignoring how much of a problem prisons are, it also helps us forget about how much we should be doing about other issues, like poverty and racism. Got a social problem? Call it a legal problem, lock some folks up, and you don’t have to think about it anymore. Remember how the Jim Crow laws of the postbellum South eased the social and economic transition away from slavery for white folks who wanted to hold onto white supremacy and an incredibly affordable labor pool? How about that time that the “War on Poverty” was replaced with the “War on Drugs”? 

3. Positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we [should] 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. (page 107)

Why I’m into this: We can’t think about how to deal with the prison system unless we recognize that what we’re dealing with is way bigger than that. This is not a prison problem, this is an everything problem. Pick a social issue, any social issue. Prisons are probably partially responsible for it, in some way a product of it, and are probably helping to keep that problem around. Heterosexism, sexism, racism, classism, American exceptionalism: I could go on all day. In the same way that you can’t go about addressing sexism without addressing racism, there is (fortunately or unfortunately, I’m not sure) no way to fix prisons without fixing a bunch of other shit, too.

4. The alternatives toward which I have gestured … which can also include job and living wage programs, alternatives to the disestablished welfare program, community-based recreation, and many more … are associated both directly and indirectly with the existing system of criminal justice. But, however mediated their relation might be to the current system of jails and prisons, these alternatives are attempting to reverse the impact of the prison industrial complex on our world. (page 111)

Why this one, too: OK, so this may sound a little bit like number three, and God knows there’s enough of value in that book so that I probably could have picked a more diverse selection, but there’s something special about this one. The crucial point here is that everything that we do, from a reduction in sentencing to the establishment of a great transitional housing facility to family sentencing circles for youth, must be focused on “[reversing] the impact of the prison industrial complex on our world.” It’s not good enough to do something better than what already exists because reforms function – intentionally or not – to entrench the prison system in our world. It sounds a little like I’m saying let people rot in horrible conditions, because the worse prisons are now the more likely it is that we’ll get rid of them in the future. That’s not completely true, but it’s not completely false either. Food for thought, and more on this (and all the other points in this post) soon.

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