Book Review - Are Prisons Obsolete?, by Angela Y. Davis


While the US prison population has surpassed 2 million people, this figure is more than 20 percent of the entire global imprisoned population combined. Angela Y. Davis shows, in her most recent book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, that this alarming situation isn’t as old as one might think.

Just a little over 30 years ago the entire prison population stood at 200,000 in the US; that is a tenfold jump in just one generation. In California alone, 3 prisons were built between 1852 and 1952; from 1984 to the present, over 80 facilities were constructed that now house almost 160,000 people. While being jailed or imprisoned has become “an ordinary dimension of community life,” according to Davis, for men in working-class Black, Latino, Native American and some Asian American communities, it is also increasingly an issue women of these communities have come to face.

Davis points to the increased involvement of corporations in prison construction, security, health care delivery, food programs and commodity production using prison labor as the main source of the growth of the prison-industrial complex. As prisons became a new source of profits, it became clear to prison corporations that more facilities and prisoners were needed to increase income. It is evident that increased crime is not the cause of the prison boom. Davis writes “that many corporations with global markets now rely on prisons as an important source of profits helps us to understand the rapidity with which prisons began to proliferate precisely at a time when official studies indicated that the crime rate was falling.”

Corporations such as Westinghouse, Minnesota Mining and Manufacture, General Dynamics and Alliant Techsystems push their “crime fighting” equipment for consumption by state and local governments. Board members at Hospital Corporation of America helped to found Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), now the largest private prison corporation in the country. By 2000 there were 26 for-profit prison corporations that operated 150 prisons across the country. Additionally, billions in profits come from using prisons as exclusive markets for selling such products as Dial soap, AT&T calling cards and many other items. Some corporations have come to rely on contracted prison labor, a modern version of slave labor.

Institutionalized racism and racial scapegoating for economic decline since the 1970s have fueled much of the justification for the prison boom. Davis points out that “criminals and evildoers” (using language made vogue by Bush) “are fantasized as people of color,” and their subsequent incarceration seems natural. Incarceration is used to steal civil rights (such as voting rights) and to ensure continued social marginalization for millions of people of color.

Davis also focuses on what she describes as how “gender structures the prison system.” This is not simply a way of discussing women in the system or to add women to the conversation. It is a way, in Davis’ view, to show how the ruling class uses ideas about what men and women are supposed to be like and what they are supposed to do to perpetuate current incarceration practices.

Additionally, “women remain today the fastest-growing sector of the US prison population.” Davis directly links this development to the rise of the prison industrial complex in the last two decades and the rapidly changing economic context that saw the end of good jobs, dismantling of the welfare safety net and globalization. Women who have been labeled criminals face difficulties that make their incarceration experience different from men. They are more likely to be placed in mental institutions, receive psychiatric drugs and experience sexual assault. Indeed, views of gender suggest that criminalized men still operate within the confines of “normal” male behavior, while “the fallen woman” is beyond moral recuperation and can be treated accordingly.

Davis’ central point is worth studying and bringing to the foreground in the prison reform movement. She argues that prisons do not solve crime. Within the last two decades the prison boom simply has intensified the criminalization of certain types of behavior, rather than having brought official crime rates down. So prison reformers have to think about whether or not prisons are obsolete. Davis believes they are. This book is well worth reading for understanding this radically important new perspective.

Are Prisons Obsolete? By Angela Y. Davis New York, Seven Stories Press, 2003.