Caging Race & Gender

— Kristian Williams

Are Prisons Obsolete?
by Angela Y. Davis
New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003, 128 pp., $8.95 paperback

IN HER LATEST book, Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Davis lays out the facts about incarceration, citing the current numbers, outlining the history of the prison system, and identifying the race, class and gender dynamics underpinning the prison boom. She explains the economics of the punishment industry and deconstructs the ideology supporting it.

More importantly, she forces us to consider radical change, and clears the ground for an agenda based not on reforms of the current system, but on a vision of a society where no one is caged.

Race and gender are in the fore of the analysis, and Davis runs the argument in both directions. By describing prison as a site where these systems of inequality intersect, she casts light on the nature and function of the prison system; but by describing the prison in these terms she also shows us something about the society that relies so heavily on incarceration. The discussion is thus shifted away from questions about crime and punishment and toward concerns for social justice and human rights.

The racial aspects of the analysis will largely be familiar to anyone who has thought seriously about prisons before — the over-representation of people of color, the historical similarities between prison and plantation, and so on. But some startling insights appear in the chapter How Gender Structures the Prison System.

Davis situates women’s prisons on a continuum of other disciplining mechanisms, including mental institutions and domestic violence.

Unfortunately, this analysis is largely asymmetrical: We see how gender norms inform the treatment of female prisoners and their experience of incarceration, but there is no account of the implications of gender for male prisoners, though Davis seems to promise one. (“The title of this chapter is not Women and the Prison System, but rather How Gender Structures the Prison System.”)

She shows us how gender-specific standards influence the women’s prison system, but doesn’t explain how similar standards influence men’s prisons. The result is one-half of what could be a very illuminating comparison.

In terms of the history, Davis’ Marxist tendencies lie close to the surface. It is the prison’s relationship to capitalism that really drives the narrative. At every opportunity, the book highlights parallels between the prison’s development and that of the capitalist economy.

Davis reminds us, for example, that time became the measure of punishment during the same period as it became the measure of labor. And the purpose of punishment was, theoretically, individual reform and discipline — a direct application of the Protestant ethic, well suited to the demands of an industrialized economy. She writes:

“If we combine [Protestant reformer John] Howard’s emphasis on disciplined self-regulation with [utilitarian philosopher Jeremy] Bentham’s ideas regarding the technology of internalization designed to make surveillance and discipline the purview of the individual prisoner, we can begin to see how such a conception of the prison had far-reaching implications. The conditions of possibility for this new form of punishment were strongly anchored in a historical era during which the working class needed to be constituted as an army of self-disciplined individuals capable of performing the requisite labor for a developing capitalist system.”

Davis then brings the economic analysis up to date, explaining how profits are sucked out of the prison system, as private companies take over the management of prisons, exploit prison labor, and sell their wares in prison markets:

“Thus, the prison industrial complex is much more than the sum of all the jails and prisons in this country. It is a set of symbiotic relationships among correctional communities, transnational corporations, media conglomerates, guards’ unions, and legislative and court agendas.”

The Life Cycle of Prisons

Broadly speaking, we could say that Davis’ book outlines the prison system’s life cycle. It recounts the prison’s birth during the early capitalist period, describes its growth into a mature prison industrial complex, and forecasts its death in the course of further social change.

Davis stresses the real possibility of change — she insists on it — and she urges the readers to work out for themselves what, precisely, a better world would look like: “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.” Rather than simply delineating alternatives to incarceration, she explains how to think creatively about such alternatives.

This is by far the stronger approach, for it does not wrongly suggest easy solutions but instead pushes readers outside the accepted ideological framework and forces them to confront the real questions surrounding the demands of justice. In one way, the book itself is a liberating force, unlocking our critical thinking, our moral sense, and — perhaps most importantly — our imaginations.

ATC 114, January–February 2005