Kwabena’s Crappy Reviews: “Are Prisons Obsolete” by Angela Y. Davis


One of the principles every tertiary level debater becomes adept at mastering over the course of time is the Social Contract argument. It is very easy to reduce almost every debate to a semi thesis on the powers invested in government by the electorate who agree to cede some of their rights to elected officials. The other oft repeated lines of argumentation are those of the Criminal Justice System.

Retribution, Deterrence and Rehabilitation are said to be the desired ends of the institution humans evolved over time to ensure law and order become a staple wherever we occupied. From ostracizing to whipping and down a bloody path guillotines and fiery direction of burning at stakes, we eventually discovered the need for spaces to isolate from society, people we deemed undesirable.

Prisons became substitutes for previously corporal means of punishments. As time ticked away, the concept of penitentiaries became acceptable. From the word penitence, penitentiaries were intended to be places where people guilty of contravening social norms redeemed themselves. But as is with anything that comes into contact with man’s greed and unending desire to dominate and conquer, these institutions lost their meaning.

Angela Davis explores how prisons in the USA mutated from the end of slavery, through the 13th Amendment which ironically banned slavery but allowed for “…involuntary servitude…as a punishment of a crime”. What this then precipitated into was a steady flow of colored bodies (Blacks, Latinos and Natives) into prisons in America who used this virtually cheap labor to build Corporate America. Proportionally and in real figures also, men of color outnumber while males in American prisons. With about 13% of America’s population being African-American, it is shocking to note that 35% of current prison population is of the aforementioned persuasion.

Colorization and commercialization of prisons have resulted in its obsoleteness in the view of Angela Davis. With the rate of recidivism on the high and corporate America increasingly reaping from cheap labor, Angela contends that it is about time we rethought the usefulness of prisons. In her view, our continued belief in the inability to imagine a world without prisons is no different from antebellum era proponents of slavery refusing to imagine the USA without free black labor.

Angela nuances her arguments against prisons by taking the reader through a train that starts from the days of leased convicts and chain gangs, through the commercialization of prisons by the involvement of private actors in management and multinational companies using prison labor. She tails it off with the gendering practices of prisons, talking about disproportionate sentencing and handling of female prisoners including acts that borders the limits of sexual assaults. The deliberate defunding of educational programs in prisons is deliberated upon as further proof of the current Criminal Justice System having lost its bearing. She constantly reminds her reader on the need to view the possibility of prisons ceasing to exist in our humane society.

The biggest question that hovers in the mind of the reader is “what then happens once we close down all prisons?” What do we do with the murders, rapists, terrorists and armed robbers? Angela’s answer, no matter how unsatisfactory it might be, again pricks your mind to rethink punishment. In her model, revolutionizing all institutions from schools, which have a class to prison pipeline in inner cities, to health institutions which fail to cater for mental health problems need makeovers. Society should take further steps such as decriminalizing non harmful contraventions of social norms like drug use etc.

Her answer to the “what happens to murderers?” question was to retell an anecdote involving some young South African males who killed an American student in Cape Town. The family of the victim were able to forgive the perpetrators and eventually took them in as their own. It is hard to imagine how the rehabilitative process undergone by the characters in this story would be acceptable to everyone else. But then that only reinforces the point of Angela! It is about time we rethought how we view these institutions.

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