ASK Musings

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May 2017



Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for: Those looking for a quick introduction to prison abolition.

In a nutshell: Scholar Angela Y. Davis provides, through six dense chapters, an overview of the problem with prison as the default response to crime, and urges us to consider alternatives.

Line that sticks with me: “A description of supermaxes in a 1997 Human Rights Watch report sounds chillingly like Dicken’s description of Eastern State Penitentiary. What is different, however, is that all references to individual rehabilitation have disappeared.”

Why I chose it: I’m still trying to learn more about prison abolition.

Review: This is a relatively short book at 115 pages, but Dr. Davis packs so much information into it. She provides a good background of how we got to this point in the U.S., where we have 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the worlds prisoners. She addresses the evolution from slavery to chain gangs (a concept that will be familiar to those of you who’ve watched “13th”), and looks at the way prison impacts people of color more than white people.

The book also delves into the prison-industrial complex, and how so much of our economy is tied up in the idea of incarceration. From private prisons that rely on keeping people incarcerated to make money, to the government-run institutions that make large purchases from multi-national corporations, prisons make bank on the backs of those most without power.

The final chapter brings into focus the theme that runs throughout: that we need to think about prison in a different way. Why do we assume that prison is necessary? Because we’ve grown up with it. It’s ingrained in our culture. But it isn’t helping the people in our society, so we need to radically change how we think about it. As in other books on prison, this section still leaves me with questions, but I’m getting there.

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