Revisiting Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Davis’s Enduring Influence

COUNTERPUNCH, March 21, 2023 Luke Dunne  

Twenty years after the publication of Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis’ case for prison abolitionism continues to provide the movement with its intellectual underpinnings.

Twenty years after the publication of Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis’ case for prison abolitionism continues to provide the movement with its intellectual underpinnings.

It was once seen as inevitable that prisons would be abolished in America. During the 1950s and 60s, that was the prevailing view among many lawyers, judges and politicians. Then came the War on Drugs, being ‘Tough on Crime’ became a political necessity, and by 2008 2.3 million people were incarcerated in the United States – almost five times as many as in 1970. It seemed that the moment when prisons might have been gotten rid of had passed, and passed for good. Yet since the 2000s, prison populations have gradually declined. Just as prison abolition went from a mainstream view to the fringest of fringe positions, now it finds itself (slowly) becoming more widely accepted again. Whilst it remains politically toxic for most elected politicians to adopt an abolitionist stance outright, some of those same politicians have appropriated the arguments of abolitionist intellectuals and activists to call for an end to mass incarceration. There is no better advertisement for prison abolitionism than Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis’ definitive statement of the case for prison abolition, which turns twenty this year. Far from becoming obsolete itself, Davis’ work seems to become more and more timely with every passing year. In an American political climate that seems exceptionally hostile to left-wing ideas, it is worth paying close attention to a theory which, despite its most prominent advocate (that is, Davis herself) being a self-described Communist, now suddenly finds itself being given a fairer hearing. What is appealing about abolitionism? What are its weaknesses?

Are Prisons Obsolete? has a host of obvious charms. It drips with Davis’ erudition, hard-won from a lifetime of advocacy and intellectual immersion in the politics of incarceration. It’s hard to pin down which genre, exactly, Are Prisons Obsolete? falls into. Davis seems to be working in a kind of intellectual mixed-medium, and the range of disciplines from which she marshals evidence in support of her arguments is astounding. She is as liable to turn to literary history as penal history for a well-chosen example. This overt intellectualism especially striking in a book intended for a mass audience. She offers a systematic challenge to the widely accepted view that the driving force behind the creation of the prison system, and especially behind the period of mass incarceration, was the desire to control crime. Her measured yet insistent analysis of how various groups have stood to gain, politically and financially, from the construction of ever more prisons and the incarceration of ever more prisoners, reads not as a fringe, hard-line stance but as simple common sense. The absurdity and the hypocrisy of the status quo is never far from the surface in Are Prisons Obsolete?, but Davis allows them to emerge only as the inescapable conclusion of a rigorous, well-supported argument. This is very impressive, even when the arguments themselves have become extremely well-trodden in left-wing circles.

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Moreover, it is difficult not to be struck both by the thorough rightness of the moral core of this book, as well as Davis’ ability to convey in it a way that seems pragmatic rather than abstract. After all, it is curious that the abolitionist movement is so often accused of wishful thinking, navel-gazing, and utopianism given that it shares its name and its ethos with one of the most successful social and political movements of the 19th century – the campaign to free enslaved people in Europe and the Americas. In the United States, 1.2 million people are currently incarcerated. That’s an unfathomable number of people, but still less than a third of the 4 million people who were enslaved immediately before the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, the objections so often raised to prison abolition often bear a striking resemblance to those raised to emancipation (But don’t the prisoners have to be educated, reformed, altered in some way before they can be allowed to govern their own lives? But wouldn’t prisoners pose a threat to the social order if they are released? But aren’t the prisoners morally defective, and therefore incapable of living without strict rules?) Davis is first among those prison abolitionists who rightly hold that, for the vast majority of prisoners, the logic of emancipation is sufficient to justify their release.

Are Prisons Obsolete? focuses primarily on the ills of the present system, but turns to alternatives in its last chapter. If prison abolitionism is to provide the intellectual energy required to redesign the justice system, then this is undoubtedly the most important part. Unfortunately, it is probably the least comprehensive and least persuasive part of this book.  She begins the chapter entitled ‘Abolitionist Alternatives’ with the tantalizing prospect of replacing the prison system with an ‘array of alternatives’, which will consist not just of new institutions but of strengthening other, existing institutions – namely schools, hospitals and systems of social support.. Davis advocates a Leninist model of political change called ‘dual power’, in which one institution outcompetes another, leaving the latter institution functionally obsolete. Yet here Davis leaves us with a host of unanswered questions. Davis herself acknowledges the massive structural problems in schools, in the healthcare system, and in pretty much every other public institution. Do we really have to reform those before we can touch the justice system? That sounds pretty strange to say, but seems a logical consequence if our theory of abolishing prisons relies on radically altering the education and healthcare system first. There are other difficult questions that go unanswered. Here’s one: even if we do manage to demilitarize the schools, to make healthcare free and affordable, to expand access to mental healthcare and even eradicate bigotry at large,  does that guarantee an end to serious, violent crime?

Davis does spend some time discussing the possibilities of forgiveness for reforming our carceral institutions and concludes the book by elaborating a specific example of what she means by that. Davis tells the story of a white woman, Amy Biehl, who was murdered by a group of black men in South Africa, just at the time when Apartheid was coming to an end. These men thoroughly repented of their crime and came to not only be forgiven by her parents, but several of them ended up working for the foundation which was established in their daughter’s name. The closing words of the book are given to Peter Biehl, Amy Biehl’s father, when describing how he addressed a synagogue a few days of the September 11 attacks: According to Peter Biehl, “We tried to explain that sometimes it pays to shut up and listen to what other peo­ple have to say, to ask: ‘Why do these terrible things hap­pen?’ instead of simply reacting.” Davis’ need to discuss serious, violent crime at the very end of the book seems to express her awareness that many are not persuaded by the idea that different, better social conditions will eliminate all interpersonal violence. Yet at the same time, the example she chooses is exceptionally convenient, not just because Amy Biehl’s parents were exceptionally open to forgiving the men who murdered their daughter (surely no alternative can rely on that as the rule?), but because the murder is clearly an effect of its particular historical context. Can we reliably say the same of every serious, violent crime?  If we can’t, then what alternative to prison should we prefer in these cases? Moreover, the men who killed Amy Biehl presumably didn’t feel immediate remorse and were imprisoned for some period of time before expressing it. If we wish to abolish prisons, what do we do with someone who has just committed a terrible crime? These are some of the most difficult problems facing abolitionism.

Some on the left criticize prison abolitionism for its insufficient pragmatism, and certainly, some of Davis’ suggested alternatives to the present system seem to rely on an exceptionally thorough reworking not only of our political and social institutions but of our instinctive response towards those who wrong us and those close to us. But the problem with Are Prisons Obsolete? is not so much that it’s too ambitious, but that it’s not ambitious enough. It might require more than the improvement to other institutions leaving the justice system obsolete, but a willingness to tear it down and begin again. It might require the creation of total practices of justice, retribution and forgiveness. None of this undermines Davis’ achievement of Are Prisons Obsolete?, but rather suggests that it is time to reevaluate some of the conceptual resources here and elsewhere in Davis’ work in order to develop a more robust set of abolitionist alternatives that can answer some of the difficult questions posed above (and many others facing the abolitionist movement). Abolitionism is no longer on the defensive. It is time to move beyond critique, and toward constructing more plausible alternatives.

Luke Dunne is a journalist, poet and filmmaker based in Leipzig, Germany.