The Guardian • Issue #2068


Angela Y. Davis – ‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’ revisited

In 1969 Dr Angela Y. Davis was fired from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for being a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). She was later accused of involvement in the shootings during the armed takeover of a courtroom in Marin County, California. In 1970, the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, listed Davis on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List. After her arrest, Davis was held for more than a year in the Women’s Detention Center, New York.

She described the prison as “infested with roaches and mice.” The doctors were racists and insensitive to women’s needs. Most of the day was spent in “5 x 9 cells with filth and concrete floors.” She was not allowed to see the legal material from her attorneys until the prison staff had read them. The Black People in Defense of Angela Davis organised to free her, with John Lennon and Yoko Ono contributing to the campaign with the song “Angela.” She was acquitted of all charges in 1972. Davis received the Soviet Union’s Lenin Peace Prize and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Renowned as a political activist and intellectual, Davis co-founded Critical Resistance in 1997 to have the prison–industrial-complex abolished. Her Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003) has become a classic study of the US prison system. At the Kennedy School of Government, Davis asked the audience why it is that in America prisons are “considered so natural and so normal that it is extremely hard to imagine life without them.” To explain why the image of American prisons is so common, one must understand why the prison-industrial-complex was developed and why it is failing to stop crime.

Marxist theorists of state institutional punishment have noted that imprisonment as the primary mode of state-inflicted punishment is directly related to the rise of Capitalism. Originally prisons were not institutions of mass incarceration in which a large portion of a population is imprisoned as punishment by the state. Michel Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish (1975) that as the bourgeoisie became the politically dominant class they established “an explicit, coded and formally egalitarian juridical framework” through parliamentary legislation. This juridical system although “egalitarian in principle” was supported by systems of non-egalitarian and asymmetrical powers. Institutions of the state – judicial, prison and policing – were set up to punish and control.

Mass incarceration as punishment does not stop crime. 77 per cent of prisoners in the US are rearrested within five years. In Norway prisoners who are taught valuable skills and have a job during and after their time of incarceration are 24 per cent less likely to commit crimes when released. Making prisoners feel worthwhile in society stops them reoffending. Instead of punishment, the goal must be rehabilitation. According to the Harvard Political Review each year 600,000 people are released from state and federal prisons and another nine million are released from local jails. Within three years of their release, two out of three former prisoners are rearrested and more than 50 per cent are re-incarcerated.

Today’s super-maximum security facilities, argues Davis, give “no pretense that rights are respected, there is no concern for the individual, there is no sense that men and women incarcerated in super-maxes deserve anything approaching respect and comfort.” Prisons are designed to solve the social problems created by the deindustrialised economy and to increase corporate profits.

President Johnson’s 1960s War on Crime was followed by President Nixon’s 1970s War on Drugs. In the 1980s President Reagan deregulated the market, and the airline and trucking industries, closed psychiatric wards, and established the prison-industrial-complex to house the growing number of young offenders. The rate of crime was not escalating. People who were not hardened criminals, were being convicted of victimless crimes like possession of marijuana or cocaine, or of petty crimes such as shoplifting. In the 1990s, President Clinton introduced the “three strikes” policy which meant those who committed minor crimes ended with life imprisonment. Today there are thirty-three prisons in California, where Reagan was once governor.

New prisons benefit the corporations which build them, on cheap land near small towns, and supply everything needed for their day-to-day running. Under policies of neoliberalism and privatisation, by 2018, 8.4 per cent of prisoners were housed in private prisons. The largest corporate prison provider is CoreCivic Inc. (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), which owns 74 prisons and jails, is paid US$89.86 per prisoner per day, amounting to US$1.9 billion per annum. Private prisons earn a total of US$10.3 billion per annum.

On any given day, two million people are locked in US prisons, jails, youth facilities, and immigration detention centres. Prisons are an expensive form of punishment. In 2019 the average daily cost for a federal inmate was $107.85, amounting to billions of dollars annually. Elliott Currie writes in Crime and Punishment in America (1998), that: “Short of major wars, mass incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented government social program of our time.” Policies of getting tough on petty crime have not led to a safer society, only more prisons.

There are more women in prison today in California than there were in the entire USA in the 1970s. The Central California Women’s Facility has capacity for 3,918 women, the second largest women’s prison in the world. According to the organisation Prison Policy Initiative there are 172,700 women and girls incarcerated in the US, of which sixty per cent have not been convicted of a crime, but are awaiting trial, too poor to pay the bail. Historically women were not subjected to corporal punishment, such as whippings or beatings, they were given domestic chores.

Institutions see women as having more emotional problems than men and are therefore more likely to end up in mental facilities. For Davis “deviant men have been constructed as criminal, while deviant women have been constructed as insane.” Psychiatric drugs are commonly used in women’s prisons as a means of control. The sociologist Luana Ross in Inventing the Savage (1998), describes how female prisoners, “feel dead, paralysed … [they] put you on drugs so they can control you.”

Davis went through the prison system and can support Assata Shakur’s testimony from her own experience. Shakur was wrongly convicted in 1977 of killing a state trooper. She escaped in 1979 and received political asylum in Cuba. In her autobiography she says that she was confined in a men’s prison, under twenty-four-hour surveillance of her most intimate functions, without intellectual sustenance, adequate medical attention, and exercise, and without the company of other women for all the years she was in custody. Shakur describes the humiliation of strip and internal searches, known by inmates as “getting the finger.”

The 1996 Human Rights Watch report found that for women prisoners: “If you are sexually abused, you cannot escape from your abuser.” The abusers are rarely held to account. Male officers have near total authority to provide or deny privileges and to coerce prisoners to have sex. Women complained of being forced by doctors to take totally unnecessary pelvic examinations, even for a cold.

Davis is often asked about how offenders should be treated, if not by imprisonment. A large percentage of prisoners are there awaiting trial, too poor to pay the bail. Many are arrested for minor drug offences, petty theft. A lot have psychiatric problems. These people should not be in prison, but placed in supportive institutions. Those who commit violent crimes have severe psychiatric problems and should be placed in suitable institutions. Mass incarceration, using inhumane punishment, does not solve the crime rate, but it does enrich corporations.

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