Domestic Affairs

20 Years Later: Angela Y. Davis and the Call for Prison Abolition

What if we lived in a world without prisons? Such a world may only exist in our imaginations, but some champions of criminal justice find the need for prison abolition now. 

Angela Davis is one of the most prominent activists of her generation. A leading voice in racial justice, women’s liberation, and queer advocacy, Davis spent much of the 1970s and ‘80s with the Black Panther Party and the American Communist Party. She continues her advocacy today. In 2022, she released the book Abolition. Feminism. Now., “a celebration of freedom work, a movement genealogy, a call to action, and a challenge to those who think of abolition and feminism as separate — even incompatible — political projects.”

However, one of her most influential books is a precursor to her 2022 work. Are Prisons Obsolete? has stood the test of time, continuing to influence budding criminal justice activists, prison reformers, and abolitionists. In August, it will have been 20 years since its original publication — 20 long years for the 2 million incarcerated Americans today, almost 400,000 of which are being held on drug-related charges. Prisons in the modern sense are a product of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), defined as “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” This complex is nothing short of detrimental for all Americans, incarcerated or not; prisons cost United States taxpayers $80 billion annually. The United States incarcerates roughly 716 people per 100,000 residents, an astonishing number that puts us at number one in the world for incarceration per capita. 

Prison abolition is a proposed solution calling for “deep, structural reforms to how we handle crime in our country.” According to The Nation, Angela Davis is a “de facto figurehead” of the movement. The Marshall Project, an abolitionist organization based out of New York, suggests abolition is “a practical program of change rooted in how people sustain and improve their lives, cobbling together insights and strategies from disparate, connected struggles.” Is abolition a satisfactory answer to the PIC? 

While Davis’ work came out 20 years ago, the PIC has only grown. But what is the best solution —  reform or abolition? The prison system in America is broken, and we can put the sentiments of 2003 in conversation with the activists of 2023 to find a solution. Through analysis and discussion, we can hopefully come closer to answering the question:

Are Prisons Obsolete?

Davis’ book has proven to be timeless, and her work is still an apt analysis of our contemporary situation, as seen through the following quotes taken from the introduction of her 2003 book. 

“It is true that slavery, lynching, and segregation acquired such a stalwart ideological quality that many, if not most, could not foresee their decline and collapse. Slavery, lynching, and segregation are certainly compelling examples of social institutions that, like the prison, were once considered to be as everlasting as the sun.”

Modern policing is a direct result of post-Civil War southern “Slave Patrols.” Simply put, these patrols were “created in the Carolinas in the early 1700s with one mission: to establish a system of terror and squash slave uprisings with the capacity to pursue, apprehend, and return runaway slaves to their owners.” We look at this history now with a critical lens: slavery is not acceptable, and we collectively condemn the atrocities of that era. Davis implies that the same fate will one day fall on prisons in America. Moreover, Latinx and Black folks are incarcerated at far higher rates than white Americans. Mass incarceration came after the end of Jim Crow, which in turn spawned after the abolition of slavery. Now we know that racism is unacceptable, yet we still experience the repercussions of institutional discrimination.

“The prison has become a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited. Mass imprisonment generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison.” 

Bail bonds. Payroll. Telephone services. Court fines. These are all, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, just some of the expenses of the PIC. It costs roughly $81 billion a year just to run public prisons — not including the cost of policing. And yet, the costs of the PIC are nothing compared to the profits made off the backs of the incarcerated. From the same Prison Policy Initiative report, private phone companies hired by the government to provide telephone services to prisons “win monopoly contracts and charge families up to $24.95 for a 15-minute phone call.” Moreover, private bail bond companies make profits of up to $1.4 billion, collecting from defendants and families even before incarceration. If we are innocent until proven guilty, why are private companies punishing us before we have our trial? 

All of these upsetting statistics come just from the private companies contracted by public prisons; private, for-profit prisons offer an even more dire report. From the ACLU, “in 2010, the two largest private prison companies alone received nearly $3 billion dollars in revenue, and their top executives, according to one source, each received annual compensation packages worth well over $3 million.” Prisons have become an industry dependent on incarcerating as many people as possible. They have veered so far from potentially acting as havens for rehabilitation that one of their main purposes is now to fill the wallets of executives. 

“The demand for more prisons was represented to the public in simplistic terms. More prisons were needed because there was more crime. Yet many scholars have demonstrated that by the time the prison construction boom began, official crime statistics were already falling.”

Some lawmakers have platformed themselves as tough on crime, especially in recent elections, even going as far as to blame the other side of the aisle for rising crime rates. But studies show that crime may not actually be as pressing as we are led to believe. Davis implies that these narratives are used to expand the PIC, and, in essence, drive the profits of prison executives. While crime hasn’t totally been eradicated, it makes little sense that the industry grows when crime declines. Moreover, similar studies show that incarceration and crime don’t necessarily represent a causal relationship as crimes are consistently underreported or unresolved

“The most difficult and urgent challenge today is that of creatively exploring new terrains of justice, where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.”

With all of the problems presented by Davis, there is no need to continue a system that does serious harm. Perhaps we should not look to prisons as solutions and instead pursue reform that benefits the incarcerated and, in turn, all of society.

Student Collective for Abolitionist Learning

From Davis’ work, we can gather that the PIC has deeply hurt incarcerated folks, but what does the fight for abolition look like today? The Students for Collective Abolitionist Learning (SCAL) at UT has been working to “challenge the carceral state through learning and doing.” I sat down with Cole Meyer, Director of Learning and Student Engagement at SCAL, to discuss. 

Note: our conversation was edited for clarity.

What does SCAL do?

CM: We have about 60 members, mainly at the LBJ School, Texas Law, and the social work school. The goal behind this organization is to question and to learn. Our main goal is to challenge the carceral state and ties to the prison industrial complex, including what that looks like on our campus and beyond, through education and learning events.

Why is it important for you and SCAL to promote abolitionist learning?

CM: I think we all have a general consensus of why we’re on this journey together, and it’s because we see, whether across the globe or in our own communities, how people are adversely affected by carceral systems, including immigration detention. Many of our members live in the Valley or on the border. Often members have personal experiences with the immigration system. It’s important to see the issues with jail, pretrial detention, and solitary confinement and their psychological effects, recognizing the shortcomings and counterproductive nature of systems that we’re taught are supposed to keep us safe, and questioning if they are safe for everybody. They’re not protective of everybody. We acknowledge that and we’re actively learning and advocating against those sectors of our society.

What would be the first step in prison abolition today?

CM: To me, most conversations are around non-punitive responses to harm, taking accountability, and making sure everybody’s needs are met. It comes down to community building. Abolition is hard to do on an individual level, but prioritizing people and relationships over profits is important. The first step is figuring out your place in your community and what you can do to establish a strong relationship within that community and with those around you. Another step would be to get involved in current campaigns or coalitions that are doing work now. Abolitionists have been doing this work for some time, but there’s always room for more people. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the “Finish the 5” campaign, a campaign started by youth activists to eliminate the five juvenile detention facilities left in Texas by 2030. They’re doing on-the-ground work that would have drastic impacts on our state’s ties to the carceral system, especially interrupting criminalization for children. I think that’s a really big thing. The biggest step for me is getting to know your community and finding a place with and building solidarity within that network. 

What Now?

Youth activists and the Texas Center for Justice and Equity launched the Finish the 5 campaign to shut down the remaining juvenile prisons in Texas and divert the funds to different social welfare programs. The Texas Tribune reported on “severe understaffing in [juvenile] prisons that routinely left children inside cells alone for up to 23 hours a day, forcing them to use water bottles and food trays as toilets. Almost half of the nearly 600 kids in the prisons had been on suicide watch.” As mentioned by Meyer, this campaign is already in motion and offers a concrete solution to a certain sect of the PIC. The Finish the 5 movement is one practical first step towards abolition in Texas.

What if we kept prisons, but changed how they looked? Reflecting inward on local movements benefits our understanding of prison reform, but we could also look outward at the international stage, specifically Norway. From First Step Alliance: “One of the biggest differences between the incarceration systems of Norway and the USA is that Norway does not have large, centralized jails. Instead, Norway utilizes a system of small, community-based correctional facilities that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society.” Seems great, right? Except Norwegian prisons cost taxpayers 300% more than US prisons — and American prisons are already too expensive!

Regardless of how perfect Norway’s system may seem on the surface level, it would take a lot to even consider a similar system in the U.S. Our prisons are too focused on privatization and are far too removed from rehabilitation to be sustainable. The current state of prisons in America is in dire need of change, and this article stands as a call to consider abolition as a mode of reform, starting with the elimination of juvenile prisons. From the words of a prominent 20th-century activist to the sentiments of modern abolitionists, abolition may be the correct avenue for social development. 

It is in no way a perfect solution. It might exist only in a utopian dream, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start somewhere. We need to steer our criminal system away from one that depends on prisons. Abolition doesn’t necessarily mean completely eliminating prisons, but it does mean cultivating a culture that minimizes our reliance on them. We could turn to an emphasis on transformative justice methods, which “1) do not rely on the state…  2) do not reinforce or perpetuate violence such as oppressive norms or vigilantism; and most importantly, 3) actively cultivate the things we know prevent violence such as healing, accountability, resilience, and safety for all involved.” Treating the causes of crime, whether social inequality, the drug crisis or anything of the like, should take priority over policing. For instance, the Brookings Institution released a report in 2018 that links healthcare access to lower crime rates. When Americans have access to affordable (or free) healthcare, mental health and substance abuse issues can be addressed head-on. New U.S. policy can harbor an environment with less crime, less policing, and fewer prisons. 

Abolition would address the prison industrial complex. Combined with better social welfare, the U.S. could focus on curbing the causes and effects of mass incarceration, ultimately leading to a better environment for everyone involved. 

The full text of Are Prisons Obsolete? is available through Catalyst Project.

More on SCAL can be found on their Instagram

Categories: Domestic Affairs

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