Visual by Shreya Sharma
Angela. Y. Davis’s experience as a prisoner in the 1970s informed her political dispositions. It was through this experience that she recognised that fundamental conditions of the prison system led incarceration to be conveniently treated as a remedy to social injustice.
In her book, “Are Prisons Obsolete” Davis propounds the idea that race has historically influenced notions of criminality in the USA and that “racism surreptitiously defines social and economic structures” with the penal institutions being one of them. This jeopardizes the claim that incarceration of individuals is an effective countermeasure to societal troubles since penal institutions are not merely biased but are also products of the very social evils they must strive to eradicate. Due to their racist underpinnings, they do little to solve a problem which they are wired to reproduce.
Revealing that American penal institutions are biased to value some lives more than others, Davis traces the origin of imprisonment to the emergence of capitalism and its allied ideological standpoints. Capitalism sprouted, in the 18th century, in part from the notion of an individual's inalienable rights and liberties. These ideals were popularly enshrined in the French Revolution's ‘Liberté , Egalité, Fraternité ’ and later in the American Revolution’s shibboleth that “ hold these truths to be self- evident: All men are created equal..”
They decree an individual to be more than mere flesh and blood and, rightly so, a bearer, a carrier and a conveyer of these dominant inalienable ideals. This virtue demanded universal compliance rather than particular application The moral force and sanctity bestowed upon individual rights was therefore instrumental for the acceptance of imprisonment as a justified punishment for the violation of these rights.
Another factor limiting the scope of the Penal Institutions, apart from race, is the Prison Industrial Complex. Davis coined this terminology because prison apparatuses were being increasingly used by both private and public entities to contract prison labour for their profit motive. The network of institutions that Davis identified as being complicit in this apparatus were:-
: According to Davis, the illusion of prisons as a means to curb crime often hid the profit motive that actually drove their expansion
The irony of penal institutions being guardians of law and order while warehousing racial minorities with the sole aim of amassing financial capital is not lost on Davis, as she calls for an abolition of the prisons towards the end of the book.
“Abolitionism should not now be considered an unrealizable utopian dream but rather the only possible way to halt the further transnational development of prison industries.”
- Angela.Y.Davis , The Challenge Of Prison Abolition: A Conversation
The Abolitionist approach critiques the U.S. jurisprudence and imprisonment .The Black Lives Matter Movement following the death of George Floyd in May 2020 brought to the forefront the crisis within the Prison system which many abolitionists have been trying to address since years. Drawing upon the role played by race in the constructions of criminality, Davis in Are Prisons Obsolete argues that the “white identity” was always possessed as a property thereby giving it an exclusionist tendency and this very tendency became the underlying structure of the U.S. Prison System.
Championing the cause of Black prisoners in the 1960s and 70s Davis through the affirmative action of her ideas aspires for the construction of a political and a theoretical discourse that disarticulates crime from punishment.
1. Davis.A, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Seven Stories Press New York: 2003.
2. Rodriguez. D, Davis. A, 2000 ‘The Challenge of Prison Abolition: A Conversation’