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Angela Davis, Are prisons Obsolete?

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Rather than asking “are prisons obsolete” what it seems Angela Davis is asking is “are prisons really necessary?” Davis is quotes that more than “two million people out of a world total of 9 million now inhabit U.S. prisons, jails, youth facilities and immigrant detention centers. And also brings up the issue of the racism and sexism prevalent in America’s prison systems. She exploits the prejudices of the justice system and highlights the “coincidence” of the extremely high percentage of colored inmates. And I have to admit, she makes a lot of good points through this well illustrated piece of literature. Something should be done about the injustices of prison life. However, there’s a difference from moving from one extreme to another extremity and improving the situation. And seriously, setting murders, rapists, child molesters, and corrupt business men loose on the public isn’t exactly what I consider a great idea.

Here are some of the things that I agreed with in Davis book. I do believe that there is a racist element involved when it comes to the judicial system. Her statistics were shocking and disturbingly plausible. Isn’t it a bad thing when someone tells you that 13 percent of African Americans, who make up 23 percent of the population, are behind bars and you can believe it? Yes I can. I really don’t believe that the justice system is entirely fair when it comes to people of color. However, this err does not mean that prisons are useless and “obsolete”as Davis puts it. In her book, Davis bluntly remarks, “If we are already persuaded that racism should not be allowed to define the planet’s future and if we can successfully argue that prisons are racist institutions, this may lead us to take seriously the prospect of declaring prisons obsolete.” In response to that statement, I say no, the prospect of declaring prisons obsolete is entirely ridiculous and in my personal opinion, counter productive.

Reforms should be made. Actually, let me restate that. Reforms must be made in prisons that deny prisoners their basic human rights. Yes, some of them have committed terrible crimes against humanity, but they are still human beings and deserve to be treated as such. The horrific incidents that Ms. Davis mentions in her book are appalling. Women prisoners should not be demeaned sexually by guards. This just shows that the prison administrations really need to get their heads out of their asses and actually do what our millions of tax dollars are paying them to do. This whole talk about large corporations using the vast population of prisoners for cheap work labor makes me want to puke. We should not be taking advantage of those who have made mistakes for our personal gain. Instead, these super prisons, or super-maximum security facilities, should be taking more means to better their inmates, preparing them to adjust to the outside world. Inmates should be allow to interact and learn social skills instead of having them isolated. Davis points out the use of “state-of-the-art technology for monitoring and controlling prisoner conduct and movement, utilizing, for examples, video monitors and remote-controlled electronic doors.” There must be discipline and control in prisons, or else entire system will be entirely useless, but this level of “control” seems to me to be some what too repressive.

I think the thing that bothered me most about Ms. Angela Davis’s book was that despite her attempts to cajole her audience into siding with her, she never lays out good alternatives to the prison systems. The ones she does suggest are vague and unconvincing. She mentions things like “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.” These things are all well and good, for the future. We should invoke good education, health care, and make sure the justice system is truly fair, but these suggestions don’t say anything about the people already in prison.
What are we supposed to do with them? Let them all go and hope that the betterment of society, which I predict will take countless years, if it even happens at all, what will keep them from falling into the same mistakes? Maybe or maybe not. Rehabilitation is only the yah or nah.
Abolishment
To further develop strategies of decarceration, or ways to keep our people out of the system’s way: drug use should be decriminalized to counteract systemic racism in prisons. Free drug programs need to be available as a first resort to anyone. Decriminalizing all immigrants, another strategy for decarceration. Same goes for imprisoning women who fight back or escape from sexual violence. Developing strategies to minimize violence women face from both intimate relationships and relationships with the state. Decriminalizing entire classes targeted by the Prison Industrial Complex, another strategy to decarcerate.

Gender and Prisons
A chapter of the book is devoted to the gendered elements of prisons. While only accounting for about 5% of all prisoners, women are the fastest growing population in prisons and are, unlike most men, subject to intensely sexualized treatment and conditions. The roots of which Davis traces through the history of reform movements: Reformers like Quaker Elizabeth Fry pushed for a “female approach to punishment”. Reforms introduced an all female staff to lessen sexual temptation considered to be the root of all female criminality and “cottages” where women prisoners could learn domestic duties such as cooking, sewing and cleaning. Most of these changes again had less to do with human rights so much as they had the effect of systemically maintaining women’s roles and reform women who deviated from sexual norms to accept a submissive social position.
Not every woman’s place in society was considered worth saving. Black and Native American women were disproportionately sentenced to men’s prisons and black women in prison after the Civil War were put on chain gangs with men. Racism for women prisoners was further compounded by the influence of the eugenics movement (then a popular scientific theory) “which sought to have genetically inferior women removed from social circulation for as many of their child bearing years as possible.”

Starting with forced strip searches and vaginal/anal searches upon entering prison as recounted by Assata Shakur, Davis goes on to show how sexual assault continues systemically during incarceration. Guards make regular use of their “duties” to grope women’s breasts during pat downs, room and strip searches. Quoting a report on Sexual Abuse of Women in US Prisons: “We found that all male correctional employees have vaginally, anally and orally raped female prisoners and sexually assaulted and abused them. We found that in the course of committing such gross misconduct, male officers have not only used actual or threatened physical force, but have also used their near total authority to provide or deny goods or privileges to female prisoners to compel them to have sex.

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