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Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis

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This is a short, concise book that probably could have been titled Intro to Prison Abolition, but it is nevertheless a good book that explains a few different angles of the problems with imprisonment. Angela Davis is a clear writer in general. She is someone who purposefully points to the effects of globalization. Here and in other books, she always reaches around to show how problems in the U.S. are inter-connected with problems elsewhere. Like, in this book, she brings up the ways that American prisons have influenced prisons around the world, particularly in South Africa, and the link between prison and militarization.

Something else she’s careful to do is point to how this isn’t just a white and black problem either. Following 9/11, middle easterners were targeted and the number of latinos who are imprisoned has always been high. Davis explains how all of this started too–beginning with the American Revolution, when prisons were first built in the U.S. Until slavery was abolished, the population inside them was mostly white. But then it shifted to mostly black right after abolition, as crime became more linked tightly to enslavement. Lease systems lead to chain gangs led to more prisons led to women’s prisons led to a massive projects of prison constructions in the 1980’s (thanks a lot, Reagan) and beyond.

But it’s not just the presence of prisons and the 2 million people in prisons today. It’s also how those people are treated and abused and all that gets ignored by the public. People kinda know but don’t really know what goes on there, and for the most part people are okay with that. We wouldn’t want it to be us and we assume it’s bad, but that’s about as far as conscious thought often goes. It’s also common to think prisons are necessary and permanent. So Davis point to how other institutions seemed like they’d never end too (slavery, jim crow, etc.) and prisons are no different. They weren’t always here, they don’t work, crime rates don’t go down (in fact, imprisonment is criminal), prisons are build and filled whether they actually need more space or not, and so on.

Getting people on board is the most important work of prison abolition–make more prison abolitionists. And that’s what this book seeks to do.

Best line: “The prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is absent from our lives. To think about this simultaneous presence and absence is to begin to acknowledge the part played by ideology in shaping the way we interact with our social surroundings.”

-Rachel Wagner