Are Prisons Obsolete?

ImageIn Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Y. Davis makes a compelling case for prison abolition. Davis begins by defending the necessity to ask the eponymous question citing that in the US prison populations increased tenfold in the three decades following 1960, without major debate about the efficacy of imprisonment. Yet, bringing into question the effectiveness of incarceration is a first, and necessary, step towards further critical analysis of the racism, sexism and moral bankruptcy of the prison system.

Davis argues that it is a lack of imagination that allows for mass incarceration to go unquestioned as ‘on the whole people take prisons for granted.’ This leads to an unwillingness to talk about the alternatives to imprisonment – decriminalisation of of drug use, decriminalisation of the trade in sexual services and restorative rather punitive justice.

If prisons are obsolete, then their permanence is ideological. Davis draws attention to the ideological work that prisons do as a dumping ground for ‘evil-doers’ asserting that

Put simply, this is the era of the prison industrial complex. 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.

Whilst the theorisation of prison industrial complex comes out of an analysis of the US context, it is a global phenomenon that has particular relevance to the UK where we have the highest proportion of private prisons in Europe. As of April 2012 privately-run prisons account for 14 out of 139 prisons in England and Wales. For your information –

If you want an example of prison industrial complex in action, take a look at the G4S ‘Working Prisons: Working People’ page complete with youtube video* inviting local businesses into partnership. The film concludes ‘the key message to local businesses is – we can help you grow your business, we can help you develop your business, so please come and talk to us.’ Or in other words, prisoners are exempt from minimum wage law and we can offer you an ‘opportunity’ to exploit this ‘resource.’

One of the most important points Davis has to make is regarding the difference between prison reform and prison abolition. Prison reform can only ever amount to a better life for prisoners. If the prison as a structure of state control is racist, sexist and unethical then reforming that structure contributes to its permanence and sidelines discussion of prison obsolescence.**Davis observes that

As important as some reforms may be – the elimination of sexual abuse and medical neglect in women’s prison, for example – frameworks that rely exclusively on reforms help to produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond the prison. Debate about strategies of decarceration, which should be the focal point of our conversations on the prison crisis, tend to be marginalized when reform takes the center stage.

Having spent a day last December at CLINKS conference ‘Breaking the Cycle of Women’s Offending: Where next?’ which focused on community sentencing as an alternative to custody, I have some experience of the frustrations of prison reformism.  I went home regretting that I hadn’t had the confidence to speak up about prison abolition and propose that the inequalities faced by women in the criminal justice system might have something to do with the way in which (to quote Lisa Simpson) ‘the whole damn system is wrong.’

The Gossip’s Bridle or Branks

Historically, women were not imprisoned as they had no rights in the public sphere anyway. As such, reform focused on turning ‘fallen women’ into good wives and mothers. In the seventeenth century the Gossip’s Bridle of Branks – a headpiece with an iron bit was which was forced into a woman’s mouth – was used to punish women in the domestic sphere,  to silence and subdue ‘quarrelsome’ wives. Whilst sometimes bridled women were paraded through the streets (as in the picture to the left) they were also used to tie women to a wall of the home until the husband released her. The economic argument for community sentences for women rather than costly prison sentences brings us back to gendered rights and gendered public and private spheres. Women are already enslaved in unpaid domestic labour so it is more cost effective to imprison them in their own homes where they can take care of their own children. Research from the new economics foundation report ‘Unlocking Value: How we all benefit from investing in alternatives to prison for women offenders’ finds that ‘for every pound invested in support–focused alternatives to prison, £14 worth of social value is generated to women and their children, victims and society generally over ten years.’ Yet supporting women to be good wives and mothers so they can generate ‘social value’ (happy families) is hardly prison reform – its is a return to the way in which women were always already punished in the domestic sphere.

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* G4S have their own youtube channel. Look it up if you want to give yourself nightmares.

** Obsolesence is a word I hadn’t come across before reading Davis. I like the way it sounds like a glowing kind of decay.